A Similar Case
by Nicole V. Gagné
People looking for precedents to Laura Albert’s use of the JT LeRoy persona all too frequently cite non-artists who had non-artistic agendas. Considering that her work was always labeled and marketed as fiction, the case of French novelist Romain Gary (1914-1980) is far more meaningful and pertinent to JT’s trajectory. Gary is perhaps best known in the States through his work in the movies. He was the writer/director of Jean Seberg’s films Birds in Peru (1968) and Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! (1971) and her husband from 1962 to 1970. His novels Les racines du ciel (1956) and Chien blanc (1970) gained attention here through their adaptations by filmmakers John Huston (The Roots of Heaven, 1958) and Samuel Fuller (White Dog, 1982).
Born Roman Kacew of Jewish parents in Lithuania, Gary went on to win France’s prestigious literary award the Prix Goncourt for Les racines du ciel. He was also the only French writer to win that prize twice -- because the second time, the judges thought they were awarding it to someone else: Émile Ajar, for his hugely successful novel La vie devant soi (1975, which became the 1977 film Madame Rosa). To collect this award -- which could go to an author only once -- Gary enlisted a cousin to declare himself the actual writer behind the Ajar pen name. Together they kept the persona going through the end of the decade, with two more novels. That Gary was Ajar would not become official until the posthumous publication of his essay, “The Life and Death of Émile Ajar,” in which he admitted his authorship.
Gary also wrote novels under the names Fosco Sinibaldi and Shatan Bogat. But writing under a pseudonym is one thing; providing flesh and blood for your persona and having it walk among us, quite another. Yet despite his having broken the rules, Gary was regarded by the public not as a con artist who had deceived decent people just to make a buck, not as a glory hound who was desperate for the media’s attention, not as the culprit behind a hoax. Rather, he was seen for what he was: an artist of hitherto unsuspected range, originality, and importance. Gary made himself more respected by what he had done -- a sign that his compatriots take literature seriously and consider it an art form, rather than just another form of commerce.
Never forget, the French also released Jean Genet from prison simply because he was a great writer. In the States, where virtually everything is regarded as just another form of commerce, we try to put our writers in prison -- or at least sue them into poverty -- if they dare operate outside our box. People howl with rage, rather than applaud talent or express gratitude for having been made to see things in a new way. If you don’t believe me, just ask Laura Albert.
My conclusion? Vive la France!
Nicole V. Gagné is the co-author of Soundpieces: Interviews With American Composers (1982) and author of Sonic Transports: New Frontiers In Our Music (1990), Soundpieces 2 (1994), and Historical Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Music (2011). She has also written on film for Film Journal International, Cineaste, Brutarian, and www.allmovie.com.