Romain Gary’s “Hocus Bogus”

Reviewed by Morten Høi Jensen

Image of Romain Gary’s “Hocus Bogus”

In the 1970s the French writer and film director Romain Gary had grown, in his own words, “tired of being nothing but myself.” His status as a kind of célèbre artiste—decorated war hero, prize-winning novelist, ex-husband of Jean Seberg—afflicted the name ‘Romain Gary’ with a weight and expectancy that he considered damaging to his artistic creativity. The solution was the pseudonym Émile Ajar, under which Gary began writing novels that differed considerably from his previous ones. But the enormous success of Émile Ajar’s The Life Before Us nearly compromised Gary’s hoax. In 1976 he published the hastily composed Pseudo (renamed Hocus Bogus in David Bellos’s highly readable translation), a false confession in which Paul Pawlovitch (Gary’s real-life cousin’s son) claimed to be Émile Ajar. This multi-layered deception means that Hocus Bogus, as Bellos observes in his introduction, is “entirely fictional and yet contains almost nothing but the strict truth.”

Hocus Bogusis narrated by Pawlovitch, a patient at a Copenhagen-based psychiatric clinic where he is undergoing treatment for “an authentic personality disorder.” From this vantage point, Pawlovitch weaves a strange web of mental delusions, artistic endeavors, and personal reflection. He speaks frequently, for example, about his relationship to “Uncle Bogey”, the famous writer who may or may not (according to Paul) also be his father, or his “begetter.” This tension between notions of paternity and authorship are cleverly explored when Paul wins the Prix Goncourt for his novel The Life Before Us, and the French press accuses Uncle Bogey of having written it:

The rumor got around, and once again I slipped toward nonexistence, with less and less identity to my name, which made it less easy for Fate to trap me. I was now no more than a mask or a false moustache. Uncle Bogey was rushing around issuing denials and indignant disclaimers and swearing he had nothing to do with it. He was in full spate, as if he was ashamed of what I wrote and what I was: not worthy of his name, and he renounced all and any paternity.

One can certainly appreciate the level of irony in a passage like this. Read in its original context (without knowledge of the true identity of Émile Ajar), we simply get the impression of an oddly disturbed young writer. But realizing that Ajar is actually Romain Gary, the narrator slipping “toward nonexistence” becomes a fictional persona troubled by his own fictionality. Earlier, when Paul is interviewed by Le Monde at the Copenhagen clinic, he is relieved to discover how unlike himself he was. “Such an absence of self was really me,” he says, in one of his many, genuinely funny asides. 

The short length ofHocus Bogus—the delivery of its nonsensical ramblings and meandering confessions in short, measured bursts (each chapter rarely exceeds four pages)—is a structural choice that reflects favorably on Bellos’s claim that “almost every sentence of the book is a double take,” and there is much delight to be found in the many layers of meaning within a single passage. But beyond the transitory pleasures of its ironies Hocus Bogus does not extend. Because every sentence is a double or even treble take, it follows that nothing within the book itself is stable; the book itself willingly enters a realm of irreverence (and possibly even irrelevance), reinforcing the Kierkegaardian claim that once you label it, you negate it. 

This aspect of the narrative playfulness of Hocus Bogus emerges as a serious limitation. Gary’s ironies only go so far, balking suddenly at the prospect of a plunge into meaning. The notions of fictionality and human identity are brilliantly destabilized, but it never  amounts to the serious inquiry or exploration that we encounter in novels such as Christa Wolf’s In Search of Christa T., say, or even the likes of The Interrogation and Nausea, novels to which Hocus Bogus is in some way indebted. The price of its irony-at-all-cost comes at perhaps too high a cost to the book as a whole.