This week I decided to play catch up with culture and chose the 1975 Prix Goncourt La Vie Devant Soi, translated into English as The Life Before Us which Romain Gary wrote using the pseudo Emile Ajar which amongst other things allowed him to win a second Goncourt which the awards committee avoids. The hoax was taken further as Gary asked his second cousin, Paul Pavlowitch to impersonate Emile, this was only revealed after Gary’s death in 1980. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the style is a breath of fresh air today still, and at the time would have been remarkable. I will do my best to give a brief resumé. The story is set in a time just before the pill was in common usage, and is about a retired Jewish prostitute Rosa who had survived the camps of WW2 and lived by bringing up illegitimate children from working prostitutes, we learn she is one of many retired prostitutes who survive this way living from the postal orders sent monthly (sometimes). Her aversion to official papers of any sort since her wartime experience makes her ideal for this clandestine work. The story is told by Mo-Mo one of the children aged 10, she has in care and covers their life, the many children she takes care of and whom she manages to place in families using her network to produce false papers. Mo-Mo’s voice is tainted with received knowledge about Jews from Madame Rosa, about Muslims from Arabs in the neighbourhood and about the French who don’t live in this part of Paris from everyone. The essential of the story is about the slow slide of Madame Rosa into dementia and the effects of the insecurity this brings about for Mo-Mo as well as the obvious care he takes of her. This was a huge story and has been released as The Life Before Us in English, warmly recommended.
La Vie Dvant Soi: First published in French by Mercure de France under the pseudo of Émile Ajar in 1975
Translated into English by Ralph Manheim and published as Momo by Sylvester & Orphanos in 1978
Then Republished as The Life Before Us by New Directions in 1986