The most widely known of these three novelists is Romain Gary, who committed suicide in 1980 at the age of 66, perhaps as a result of his disastrous marriage to the American actress and radical, Jean Seaberg, who had taken her own life a year earlier. A Lithuanian emigrant to France, where he played a heroic role in the French air force and the RAF during Wodd War II, Gary published several dozen books between 1944 and 1980. Several of them—A European Education (1945), The Roots of Heaven (1956), Lady L. (1959), and White Dog (1970)—placed him among the more popular writers in Europe, although critics were never sure whether to label him a romantic, a cynic, a sentimentalist, or a satirist. In White Dog, for example, he could paint a rather bitter picture of American life while at the same time savagely satirizing the Hollywood radicalism through which art pimps for political propaganda.
King Solomon is Gary’s final book and the last of the four he began publishing in the late 1970’s under the pseudonym of Emile Ajar in one of the great literary hoaxes of a century when writers seem to have lost their sense of fun. The most delightful irony of the whole affair was the ignorance and arrogance of the critics who pompously announced that the Ajar novels were too good to have been written by Romain Gary.
The title figure is Solomon Rubenstein, an old man of 84 who has made a large fortune as the “King of the Readymade” trousers and who now uses his riches to help the unfortunate through his S.O.S. Volunteers (a telephone help-line) and various kinds of anonymous gifts and services distributed through the narrator, a cabdriver named Jean. Jean, however, lives by his wits and takes whatever time and opportunity east his way, including the parched and love-starved body of a frail, pitiful, former dance-hall singer. Guided by neither conscience nor values, Jean is a materialistic self-seeker. Just once he senses something better:
Hope is the thing that matters most when you’re young, and when you’re old, too, to be able to think back on it. You can lose everything, both arms, both legs, your sight, your speech, but so long as you still have hope, nothing’s lost, you can carry on.
But King Solomon isn’t very satisfying; the plot is thin, the characters anemic, and the theme unfocused. The book is the work of an aging and dispirited man whose triumphs are behind him and whose despair has skewed his artistic vision.
Max Frisch is another writer who explores the fashionable worldweariness. Now in his 70’s, he continues to write about the problems of personal identity and how people are influenced by each other and events as reflected in racial prejudice (particularly anti-Semitism), tyranny, and injustice.
The protagonist of Bluebeard is a physician named Felix Schaad, who has been on trial for murdering his sixth wife, a call girl. Although he has been acquitted, his life has fallen apart. Deserted by his former patients, he plays billiards, feeds the swans, walks endlessly, looks at old photographs, and travels to the Far East, but nothing gives him relief from the nagging voices that come back to him from the prosecution and defense counsel, his first five wives, his friends, and his dead parents.
In his morose broodings on good and evil, Schaad seems to be intended as the representative modern man, caught in a universe he hasn’t made, cannot understand, and cannot control. The only way out is to attempt suicide, as Schaad does.
Endo’s novel, Wonderful Fool, was written in the late 1950’s and first translated into English in 1974; this edition is a reprint. Considered by many to be Japan’s best modern writer, Endo is a Catholic novelist who has repeatedly explored the religious dimensions of human experience. The Wonderful Fool of the title is a homely, awkward, naive young Frenchman named Gaston (nicknamed Gas) Bonaparte, a descendant of Napoleon, who comes to Japan to visit but is quickly drawn to the downtrodden ignored by his hosts and their circle; he befriends a stray mongrel, a prostitute, a fortune-teller, and finally, a dying criminal. At the end he disappears, apparently dead, but as the narrator tells us, “One day he’ll come lumbering down again from that far-off azure country to take upon his back once more the sorrow of people like these.”
Gaston’s love is in strong contrast to the world which, early in the book, reeks of death: “It was not just the smell of the dog, but a smell more universal —a smell that in the present-day world surrounded men everywhere.” His death, however, brings the promise of some kind of renewal as his friends watch a bird on the wing: “A lonely egret was flying across the rice fields and gracefully climbing into the blue sky.”
The most appealing aspect of Wonderful Fool is Endo’s strong affirmation of the goodness of life and the worth of spirituality and endurance in a world (in this case, Japan) which has sold itself out to a stark, blatant, and indifferent materialism. Gaston trusts everyone he meets, but for his outreaching love he receives only harassment, threats, ridicule, and death. But his death works a change in one of his Japanese friends, who begins to shed his irresponsibility.
The story is obviously a parable in which Gaston is a Christ-figure. Patently religious novels such as Wonderful Fool often receive little attention from critics. Yet a religious perspective offers incalculable advantages to the serious writer. As Flannery O’Connor observed: “The greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul. Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama.” These three novels illustrate O’Connor’s point. Endo sees a touch of eternity in every human act, but Gary and Frisch see much less. As one of Gary’s characters puts it, “mortality is a kind of cul-de-sac,” a dead end from which there is no escape except death or sadness.
[Wonderful Fool, by Shusaku Endo, Translated by Francis Mathy; Harper & Row; New York]
[Bluebeard: A Tale, by Max Frisch, Translated by Geoffrey Skelton; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; San Diego]
[King Solomon, by Romain Gary, Translated by Barbara Wright; Harper & Row; New York]