Officially, one cannot win France’s literary Prix Goncourt twice. Romain Gary did. After reading his “La vie devant soi” with the English reader group, “Education européenne” was suggested by a French member. We never got round to it, so the novel remained unread in the bookcase. However, after the recent Paris attacks, I craved something by an author with a European, or even cosmopolitan pen.
Romain Gary was born in Lithuania in 1914. He spoke several languages, including Russian, Polish and German. To these were later added French and English, in which he wrote over thirty novels and other works.
His mother took him with her when she migrated to France in 1928. He fled to England when Nazi Germany invaded France and served as a pilot during the Second World War. He wrote his first novel, “Education européenne”, in between missions in 1943. The book is dedicated to Gary’s comrade Robert Colcanap, who was killed in a crash in 1943. The novel appeared in 1945.
Events take place around Wilno, in Lithuania. The novel’s first of thirty-four chapters opens with a description of a hiding-place being finished in a forest. It is early September, and local doctor Twardowski instructs his son Janek how to use the shelter.
The fourteen-year old boy has his favourite book with him, written by a German author. He pretends to be Old Shatterhand and hiding is a game. His father mentions the battle of Stalingrad; Janek is his only remaining son.
The next few chapters describe what happens to Janek’s father and mother. The story then focuses on Janek, who leaves his shelter and joins a group of partisans. He will remain with them till the end of the war.
The group is occasionally visited by a young girl. In exchange for food, she works as a prostitute at a German brothel. It also enables her to spy on the Germans and pass information to the partisans. Zosia and Janek become friends, then partners.
During the three years as a partisan, Janek grows from young boy into adulthood. The epilogue describes him visiting his former hiding place as an army lieutenant. Zosia has remained behind with their baby. Janek will soon start his music studies at the Warsaw conservatory.
For through the horrors of the war – betrayals, murders, collaboration, exploitation, starvation, exposure and worse – Janek remains able to appreciate art, literature, music. Various people play music for him. The wife of a partisan plays him a Chopin polonaise. Later he befriends a piano-playing German. He liberates a small Jewish boy who plays the violin. Zosia manages to bring a gramophone to their shelter. The German Janek befriends, hands them miniature dolls he crafts and one of the partisans writes poems and stories.
A European Education
Janek and Zosia grow up surrounded by the brutalities of war, yet appreciate culture and beauty. At the end of the novel, Janek takes the small volume written by his partisan friend from his pocket. It is called “”Education européenne”. It contains war stories, but will what it describes prevent future losses of lives, wars, destruction?
“Education européenne” is the book written by the partisan Dobranski, who handed it to Janek when he lay dying. Months earlier, Dobranski explained the title and content to Janek:
… “Ca s’appelle Education européenne. … Il lui donnait évidemment un sens ironique… éducation européenne, pour lui, ce sont les bombes, les massacres, les otages fusillés, les hommes obligés de vivre dan les trous, comme des bêtes … Mais moi, je relève le défi. On peut me dire tant qu’on voudra que la liberté, la dignité, l’honneur d’être un homme, tout ca, enfin, c’est seulement un conte de nourrice, un conte de fées pour lequel on se fait tuer. La vérité, c’est qu’il y a des moments dans l’histoire, des moments comme celui que nous vivions, où tout ce qui empêche l’homme de désespérer, tout ce qui lui permet de croire et de continuer à vivre, a besoin d’une cachette, d’un refuge. Ce refuge, parfois, c’est seulement une chanson, un poème, une musique, un livre. Je voudrais que mon livre soit un de ces refuges, qu’en l’ouvrant, après la guerre, quand tout sera fini, les hommes retrouvent leur bien intact, qu’ils sachent qu’on n’a pas pu nous forcer à désespérer. Il n’y a pas d’art désespère – le désespoir, c’est seulement un manque de talent. … (pp 76 – 77)
A European education is a mix of war atrocities and ideals, ideas, culture, art, music, literature. This paragraph sums up Gary’s ideas and ideals. He admired people who served noble, honourable, right causes – winnable or not and to him, humanity remained a work in progress, as described in the last few paragraphs of his “Education européenne“.
The paragraph also seems an apt response to the 13th of November Paris attacks. Desperation is a mere lack of talent. Resisting it, refusing to give in, showing defiance is the only answer to the madness of atrocities, terrorism, terrorist attacks.
Romain Gary’s first novel was an enormous success. Sartre and others lauded it. But this success did not last. Subsequent French works and the author himself were disapproved of by the establishment.
Gary became a diplomat and switched to writing in English. He later moved to the US, where he worked for the film industry. In the end, he did give in to despair or simply was worn out with growing old and killed himself in 1980. Only after his death, did the world learn that two winners of the Prix Goncourt were actually one and the same Romain Gary.
“Education européenne” (A European Education), Romain Gary, first published 1945, Gallimard Ed. Folio, 282 pp, 2014