I knew I was fictional


The root of the word ‘pseudonym’ is ‘pseudos’, which means a lie. Romain Gary (1914-80) acted out his life and published his writing via a welter of pseudonyms. He called himself Shatan Bogat, René Deville, Fosco Sinibaldi (after Count Fosco in The Woman in White, a novel he adored), John Markham Beach and, most famously, Emile Ajar. Why use a pseudonym? Always, or almost always, it means you have something to hide. Many eighteenth-century novels were published anonymously, but to publish as Anon, as Jane Austen did in her lifetime, is not the same thing as adopting another identity or gender different from your own. George Eliot could be a respectable clergyman whereas Marian Evans was a public scandal, and the careful sexual ambiguity of some contemporary writers – J K Rowling, A L Kennedy, A S Byatt – suggests that being read as a woman is still perceived as a disadvantage. Gary’s problem was literary success. Writing as Romain Gary he became a bestselling author in France and the Anglo-Saxon countries, translating his own work and writing both in French and in English, during the Forties, Fifties and Sixties. He won the Prix des Critiques in 1945 for his first novel Education européenne (A European Education ), and the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1956 for Les Racines du ciel (The Roots of Heaven ). Towards the end of his life he reinvented himself as Emile Ajar and sent the manuscript of Gros-Câlin (French publication 1974) to his publishers, arranging for the work to be sent from Brazil.

more from Patricia Duncker at Literary Review here.