On Translating Hocus Bogus
Hocus Bogus is the first translation into English—or any other language, as far as I know—of Pseudo, by Émile Ajar. It appeared in French in 1976. It sold a modest number of copies and was not reprinted until 2004. But Pseudo was not what it seemed to be. And that was precisely its point.
By dint of historical circumstance, talent, and energy, Romain Gary, born Roman Kacew in 1914 in Vilna (then part of the Russian Empire), learned Russian, Polish, Yiddish, German, French, English, and Bulgarian. After completing a degree in law, he became an airman (1938–1945), a war hero (1943–1944), a French diplomat (1946–1960), a famous novelist, a filmmaker, and an international celebrity. He won the Prix des Critiques in 1945 for Éducation européenne (A European Education) and France’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in 1956 for Les Racines du ciel (The Roots of Heaven). He then turned to writing fiction in English (Lady L, 1958; The Talent Scout, 1961; and The Ski Bum, 1964) while continuing to publish reportage, memoir, and fiction in French. By the early 1970s, although he was rich and famous, he felt bored with being ‘‘Romain Gary’’ and despaired of acquiring the cultural legitimacy he felt had always been refused him.
In 1972 he began drafting a new novel vaguely indebted to Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman about a lonely statistician living with a pet python in a Paris apartment. As the language of this first-person narration reflected the unbalanced and tortured mind that was its fictional source, it occurred to Gary to allow himself even greater liberties as a writer by adopting another name. After all, ‘‘Romain Gary’’ wasn’t his real name anyway. The manuscript, La Solitude du python à Paris, was eventually handed to a Paris publisher under the false name Émile Ajar, in an envelope that made it seem it had come from Brazil. Against all odds, publishers’ readers immediately identified it as a work of great merit, and in 1974 the book came out under the title Gros-Câlin—hereafterCuddles, although no English translation has ever appeared.
Romain Gary’s son, Diego, his ex-wife, Jean Seberg, his typist, his lawyers in Geneva and New York, and Robert Gallimard (an old friend, related to the owners of the publishing house of that name) knew the true identity of Émile Ajar. They kept it secret. Cuddles was short-listed for the Renaudot prize, traditionally awarded to a first novel by a new writer. Gary panicked: he didn’t want to deprive someone at the start of a career of the important boost that the Renaudot would give, and so Émile Ajar, in ways necessarily contorted owing to his nonexistence, withdrew Cuddlesfrom consideration for any prize.
The book sold widely nonetheless; journalists and editors wanted to meet the mystery author. Gary contracted his cousin’s son, Paul Pavlowitch, to act the part, with strict constraints on what he should and should not say. He also got down to using his new identity to write what would become his most successful novel by far.
La Vie devant soi (Life Before Us) appeared in September 1975, and there was nothing Gary seemed able to do to stop it from winning the Prix Goncourt. (It subsequently became the highest selling French novel of the last century.) However, the rules of the Goncourt prize do not allow it to be won twice by the same author. Gary had scored a number of points over the French literary establishment, but he had also put himself on the wrong side of his own sense of honor. And in a tricky position.
The winner of a Goncourt cannot just pretend to exist. In France, a literary prize, and especially this literary prize, is a news story, and it is covered by reporters as well as by literary critics. In November 1975, a nationwide hunt was on for the real Émile Ajar. By catastrophic coincidence, a journalist, Jacques Bouzerand, recognized the half-face photograph of ‘‘Émile Ajar’’ that Pavlowitch had allowed to appear in the press. With the help of relatives who had been classmates of Paul Pavlowitch during his student days in Toulouse (where he went by the nickname of ‘‘Alex’’), Bouzerand tracked the supposed author down to the farmhouse where he lived at Caniac-du-Causse, near Cahors, in southwest France. Within days, the family relationship between Pavlowitch and Romain Gary was revealed in the press. Gary was besieged by journalists demanding to know whether he had in fact written these works of genius that his younger relative had signed under a false name. One fib leads to another … and Gary lied outright, in speech and in writing, on radio and on television. He had cornered himself, and felt that he had to find a way of maintaining the deception forever or else suffer ignominy and dishonor.
He fled to Geneva, where he had a small apartment, to escape the hullabaloo, and also to plot his way out of the mess. He decided to write a genuine confession that would put everyone off the scent for good. Pseudo, announcing deception in its very title, is a first-person narrative that purports to reveal ‘‘Émile Ajar’’ as the pseudonym of the real Paul Pavlowitch. This strange premise for a literary work means that Hocus Bogus is entirely fictional and yet contains almost nothing but the strict truth. The fictional Pavlowitch who is the book’s narrator is a psychiatric case with a weird obsession about an ‘‘Uncle Bogey.’’ With his signature homburg, his cigars, and a heroic war record, ‘‘Uncle Bogey’’ is a transparent caricature of … Romain Gary. The narrator’s constant harping on the likely fact that his Uncle Bogey was really his father—his ‘‘onlie begetter,’’ as it seems necessary to say in this context—is not so much an oedipal twist as a calculated provocation as to the identity of the book’s true author.
Written at high speed and completed in January 1976, Hocus Bogus is one of the most alarmingly effective mystifications in all literature. It simulates schizophrenia so as to delude its reader into believing he or she has really understood what the novels of Émile Ajar are about. It must have been quite funny when read in its original context, that is, without knowing that it was written by Romain Gary, but also quite sad, for it bares the suffering soul of a man in great mental and moral distress. Yet it is absolutely hilarious when read with knowledge of its true authorship and intention. Almost every sentence of the book is a double take. Even the sketchy facts given in the preceding paragraphs allow the reader to see that Hocus Bogus is almost 100 percent true, despite its being entirely fictional, as Gary tells us, partly with the intention to mislead, in the posthumously published Life and Death of Émile Ajar. Writing as someone else pretending to be someone else and also quite mad, Gary was at last free to say what he had to say as himself, and as a result, there is as much reliable autobiographical information in this hoax of a book as in Gary’s three published memoirs. Under double, even treble cover, he felt able to talk almost directly about aspects of his feelings that he could address no other way. He also gives a pretty accurate account of how the mystification was conducted in the fall of 1975.
Hocus Bogus was completely effective. No one dared ever again to suggest that Romain Gary was Émile Ajar, for it was perfectly obvious now that Émile Ajar was Paul Pavlowitch and that Pavlowitch was mad. The whole episode was put to one side by the literary world. Gary had now put himself into outer space. His hour as Romain Gary had passed, since the new voice of Ajar had quite displaced his old-fashioned, traditional, and humanist fiction. But his hour as Émile Ajar had been indefinitely postponed. This left him both miserable and free, unbelievably lonely and as happy as a lark. The last novels that he published, under both names, between 1977 and 1979, and that were barely reviewed, are the finest of his long career.
In 1979 Romain Gary wrote his own account of the life and death of Émile Ajar and entrusted it to friends, leaving them to decide when it should be published.
Romain Gary committed suicide on December 2, 1980. Not long after, Paul Pavlowitch revealed to the press that he was not the author of the works of Émile Ajar, and so Gary’s Life and Death of Émile Ajar was brought out to substantiate this amazing claim. Gary’s short text, included here in a translation by Barbara Wright, made instant fools of the entire literary establishment, and most especially of those critics who, like Michel Tournier, had spun elaborate fantasies about the documentary value of Life Before Us. Some of those who had been manipulated by Gary’s devious hoax actually refused to believe the truth and went on claiming for many years that they had actually met the real Émile Ajar.
I undertook this translation in the first place for my own amusement, to see if it was even possible to simulate a rhetorical simulation of an imaginary psychological condition. I must admit to having been surprised when a highly reputable publisher agreed that it might amuse and entertain a wider readership. But I feel I ought to point out that the particular difficulties of translating this multilevel, madcap diversion are not what they might seem. First, there can be no question, in Hocus Bogus, of respecting all of the author’s original intentions, since they included the intention to deceive, to mislead, and to distract attention. Since Gary blew his own cover, his sly provocations can only be read and translated as wonderful jokes, not as effective deceptions. His posthumous confession of authorship also makes the literary context of 1976 completely unrecoverable in translation; and any attempt to produce on the reader an effect equivalent to the one it had for its initial audience would be self-defeating, since that would mean not telling anyone what this book is about. Hocus Bogus, for all its baroque linguistic complexities, actually liberates the translator from the traditional shackles of authorial intention, historical context, and equivalent effect.
I therefore offer no apology for the many liberties I have taken with the text. I have larded it with my own bad puns, I have infiltrated anachronisms and literary allusions in some quantity, and I have exploited all the opportunities that English offered me to poke fun at police officers, politicians, publishers, psychiatry, surrealism, and good intentions. I like to think that Gary would have approved of such wholesale retargeting, especially since his own work as a translator (of himself) is even freer.
I hope Hocus Bogus does make some readers laugh and also cry, but I would like to insist that my translation seeks only to renew and reassert a triumph that belongs entirely to Romain Gary—a victory of literature over criticism, of wit over taste, and of moral outrage over social convention.