14 August 2007

The Life Before Us

Fictional character, real-life heroine:
Simone Signoret as Madame Rosa

In college, I learned that I could get through precisely three paragraphs of Marcel Proust in French before, irresistibly, I fell asleep. Since the opening passages of A la recherche describe the narrator’s own habit of nodding off over a book, I didn’t chastise myself too severely. Now that my French is more fluent, and most of my reading is in that language, I have improved my score a bit: I can get through three pages before sleep overwhelms me.

This is due in part to the fact that I read at bedtime, in part to the influence of wine at dinner, and in large part to the reading I select: I have been wrestling with most of the lions of nineteenth-century literature, especially the Rougon-Macquart cycle of Emile Zola. That’s a twenty-volume “natural history of a family under the Second Empire,” and it encompasses such bestsellers as Nana and Germinal. I faltered over the latter, because the vocabulary of coal-mining was too taxing; similarly, Flaubert’s vast vocabulary has challenged me, and I had to resort to an English translation to get through Bouvard et Pécuchet. But most of Zola is great fun, full of sex and socialism, and I’ve likewise developed a great admiration for Balzac and Maupassant. At some point, I mean to tackle Victor Hugo, whose Les misérables waits patiently on my bedside table, and Stendhal, whose Le rouge et le noir I read in high school (only to discover that it was a drastically abridged and expurgated edition that little resembles the real thing). Once I get through with those boys, I will be well-rounded, and doubtless rather smug about it.

But I recognize that immersion in nineteenth-century French literature may be as harmful to me, artistically, as immersion in nineteenth-century American literature: my first novel tanked not least because I’d been reading too much Henry James, and that’s not what my contemporary readers or editors are seeking. So every now and then I try something more modern, even in French, with pleasing results: Amélie Nothomb’s little books are like salty popcorn, and Raymond Quéneau’s Zazie dans le Métro had me laughing aloud.

Lately I have been reading La vie devant soi (The Life Before Us), written by Romain Gary under the pseudonym Emile Ajar. The use of that pseudonym was canny: Gary was a well-known, well-off writer, and he needed a little street cred to peddle this first-person account of the sexually, religiously and ethnically mixed communities of Belleville, still one of Paris’ most impoverished neighborhoods. “Ajar” sounds like an Arab name, and that suits the narrator of La vie: Momo, the abandoned child of Arab immigrants, the mother a prostitute, the father a pimp.

The plot of La vie is pretty slight, but Gary holds our interest through his careful observation of setting and his wonderfully humane perspective: in Momo’s eyes, it’s character that counts, not race, religion or country of origin, and one of the more admirable characters in the book is Madame Lola, a transvestite Senegalese prostitute, a paragon of outcasts. Gary uses a narrative voice that recalls Huckleberry Finn’s: a snappy vernacular charged with jaded wisdom and hopeful innocence. (That said, I never forgot for a single sentence that the writer was a middle-aged bourgeois intellectual.)

Momo is reared by Madame Rosa, herself a former prostitute who takes in the children of other prostitutes — for a fee, of course. As a very young boy, Momo rebels against Madame Rosa: he wants his mother. But as the novel continues, the bonds between the characters are strengthened, and his devotion to the old woman in her final days is memorable. “She’s all I have in this world,” he says again and again.

And she’s a magnificent creation, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz who stubbornly insists on raising Momo (short for Mohammed) as a Muslim. Although she was once beautiful, she’s “monstrous” by the time Momo meets her, weighing “99 kilos” with “39 hairs on her head” and “an ass like it’s not possible.” Nevertheless, Momo insists that you can’t judge ugly people the way you judge beautiful people; an ugly woman is like a hippopotamus, he says, and she has to be judged on her own terms. And people who are poor, old and ugly need love most of all: people who are better off will manage on their own.

The novel enjoyed a successful reception when it first appeared, in 1975: at the time, the immigrant communities in France got paid scant attention, and doubtless a great deal of what Gary wrote came as a shock to his earliest readers. The novel was awarded the Prix Goncourt, which Gary had already won under his own name, some 20 years before; he was the first author to receive the award twice, though few people knew it. That Gary and Ajar were one person was not revealed publicly until his death, in 1980.

A film adaptation followed, and I found it impossible to read of Madame Rosa without thinking of the actress who portrayed her, Simone Signoret. Though she’d lost her own youthful beauty, she was hardly the monster that Gary described, and her eyes were blue, not brown like a dog’s. Nevertheless, Signoret’s performance is one of the least glamorous imaginable, and I don’t think Gary would object to a bit of blurring of the lines between page and screen.

I saw the movie — called Madame Rosa in English, and awarded with the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1977 — at the old Edison Theater in Dallas. I was alone that night, and somehow I made it back to my car before I burst out in tears. I cried there in the parking lot for half an hour. And I’ve been a fan of Signoret ever since: that’s what led me to read Gary’s novel, thirty years later.

Signoret died in 1985, but her memory is as much a public institution in this country as she was in her lifetime. More than a beauty and a daring, gifted actress, she was a fearless champion of left-wing and charitable causes, to such an extent that, when Catherine Deneuve played a politically committed actress in the film Est-Ouest, everybody knew she was supposed to be Signoret. Her funeral drew thousands of Parisians onto the streets, and by luck Dan Rather was in town that day: the CBS Evening News concluded its broadcast with coverage of the procession. People still talk about her, sell postcards of her face, and attend screenings of her old movies. There is nobody comparable in American culture.

To read Gary’s novel is to spend a little time with her, to remember the inflection of her voice, to see her ravaged face again. It’s no small thing that audiences loved Signoret almost as profoundly as Momo loved Madame Rosa, and the novel gains something in stature as a result of her association.

The best lesson to be drawn from reading contemporary literature is not, perhaps, that I should hope for good casting when my novels are adapted for the movies. But since I’ve seen only one actress who could make Henry James’ prose come alive (Olivia de Havilland, in The Heiress), it may be a useful lesson, nevertheless, and a reminder to write for my own time, not for the nineteenth century, no matter what I am reading.