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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Gasp

Romain Gary

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To purchase The Gasp

Title: The Gasp
Author: Romain Gary
Genre: Novel
Written: 1973
Length: 253 pages
Availability: The Gasp - US
The Gasp - UK
The Gasp - Canada
Charge d'âme - France
Atemkraftwerk - Deutschland
La exhalación - España

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Our Assessment:

B- : big ideas, but too slapdash

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times A 2/3/1973 Anatole Broyard
Sunday Times . 24/6/1973 Jeremy Brooks
The Times . 28/6/1973 Myrna Blumberg

  From the Reviews:
  • "Any man who mixes satire, sermons, suspense, science fiction, the novel of ideas and the parable has nerve if nothing else. But in The Gasp, Romain Gary does precisely that, and pulls it off. (...) What makes his caricatures so effective is the fact that he retains the essential reasonableness at the core of them. Unlike our American black‐humorists, he never destroys the man to make the joke. (...) Without losing his lighthearted spirit, the author raises some, heavy questions. In this, he, differs from the newer French novelists who tend to founder in philosophy on the most trifling pretext. (...) The Gasp is bittersweet, which is, after all, the truest taste for a novel. It is the kind of book most authors fail at -- and get praised for anyway, as a, tribute to their high intentions. Mr. Gary has not failed." - Anatole Broyard, The New York Times

  • "Now this is heady stuff. Suspend your disbelief and it's a mind-blowing concept, one of those what-is-man ? images that drive one into a moral corner (.....) The trouble is that Romain Gary doesn't have the equipment to focus his image. He has reduced all the figures in the hook to ciphers, but even with that doubtful economy he's quite unable to get his lines to intersect at the point of true meaning. He allows the thing to decay into a conventional SF thriller, which is a sorry thing to do with an image as strong as this; made no better by his publisher's lazy indifference to Gary's uncomfortable gallic grammar" - Jeremy Brooks, Sunday Times

  • "The Gasp is ingenious. (...) (I)ts fervour is transfixing." - Myrna Blumberg, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Gasp centers around a world-changing discovery -- "a particle of fantastic power", an energy source which scientists have now been able to harness and which is compact, easy to handle, and available in near-infinite supply: 'gsp energy'.
       At the beginning of the novel, there are still some issues to be dealt with:

They still had no end of trouble with control. There had to be a way of fragmenting the gasp, of deescalating it, so to speak, so that each individual yield could be subdivided and the quantity of energy drawn adjusted to a specific need. Unfortunately, there seemed to be some sort of indivisibility about the blasted thing, a fundamental core; the moment you tried to draw, say, one-tenth or one-hundredth of gs, you hit at once upon irreducibility. They were still working on it.
       (In this scene Marc Mathieu, the brilliant mind behind this discovery, tries using the energy source to make his morning toast, "hopefully" putting the bread into his new toaster even though he must know what will happen ("the bread turned instantly to ashes under his eyes"). It's unclear why they're so concerned with putting the energy in smaller household appliances -- there's a cigarette lighter powered by the energy, too ("It will burn forever") -- rather than just putting it into the already available power grid.)
       This technical issue is a major problem for them, but there's another problematic aspect to this energy: the source. It is harvested, so to speak, from the dead -- escaping, as it does, with a person's death (and so, for example: "the whole of Paris could be kept permanently lit by the yield of a good weekend of road accidents"). This raises some concerns, as well as philosophical questions -- especially, for example, at the Vatican, where one cardinal notes: "The only word they employed was 'energy' ... No one dared face the real issue". (The novel opens with someone desperately tring to deliver a gasping-sample to Pope John XXIII, though the issue soon, after John XXIII's own death, becomes Paul VI's problem.).
       The problem of where the energy comes from and how it is obtained might not be such a huge one if that -- energy -- were all there was to it. But it's not. As they discover: "The thing inside manages to communicate ..." as ...: "They leak."
       The leakage isn't personal, or terrible -- it's mostly in the form of art, such as music: people hear Bach around the gasps, for example; they also: "experienced artistic delusions". But this leakage suggests that they're dealing not just with energy but with something more -- souls, possibly ?
       Marc's devout girlfriend May is, for one, concerned about this -- which also leads her to volunteer to act as a spy on Marc for the Americans. Marc, meanwhile is dismissive: as he explains to another American spy:
Colonel, if the word 'soul' is on your mind, let me reassure you. It's nothing of the sort. If it were, there would be a hellish problem to crack: that of a stinking air pollution . . . This thing is nothing but canned goodies.
       (The novel is divided into two parts, the first of which is titled 'Canned Goodies'; Gary wrote this novel -- as he did several others -- in English, and that makes for the occasional questionable phrasing choice .....)
       The great powers are all pursuing research in this area, but it is Marc and his colleagues who are leading the way. Everyone is also keeping close tabs on Marc -- while devoted girlfriend May both wants to save him while she is also selling him out, as it were, to the great powers. Unsurprisingly, this great energy-source looks like it can also we weaponized, which raises many more concerns.
       Marc flees -- to isolationist Albania, where the second part of the novel ('The Pig) is set -- and it comes to showdown of sorts as the great powers work together to see that he isn't successful in his efforts there. But, again, the gsp energy and technology turns out to be not quite like the usual forms of these, as the extended final showdown takes several big turns.
       The Gasp is a message-novel, with a prominent place both for religion and the geopolitical situation of the day (the action takes place during the 1960s) -- with Marc, for example, summing up, late on:
The bomb had been triggered off a long time ago, the disintegration process had started and had been completed. We've become dehumanized, and the fundamental characteristic of this fact is that we no longer possess what it takes to make us aware of that
       The role of science is prominently treated, as the threat of nuclear war and annihilation clearly was on Gary's mind, with the building of the atomic bomb and what that unleashed repeatedly a point of comparison. As one character notes: "If I may be permitted at this point to make a nonmilitary remark, if ever the world is destroyed, it will be by a creator".
       Reflecting common attitudes in the 1960s (that have again come to the fore in our internet-age), many are presented certain that science is the (entire) way of the future, with little room for anything else (an attitude that Gary of course tries to puncture, not least with his soul-full energy particle).
       So, for example, Marc is convinced:
Science is a totally rational endeavor, void of sentimentalism. It was a totally logical enterprise, pure of any stain of rotten idealism. It was historically befitting and a proud indication of things to come that the most damaging condemnation under the pen of every American or Chinese critic was the accusation of sentimentalism. In every American magazine Mathieu had ever read, exactly as in the Peking Daily, the word "sentimentalism" was used as the final condemnation and dismissal of a writer and any Western or Eastern intellectual would rather drop dead than use the word "soul." This was the age of scientific cool and rationalism and that meant eating shit if it had vitamins.
       The scientists themselves certainly are awfully sure of themselves -- made clear, most obviously, in a late scene where:
     "Nothing can go wrong," Little told him peevishly. "It's scientific."
       Would that it were that simple .....
       Among the more interesting issues Gary raises is the one of the role and responsibility of the scientist in contemporary society -- one again very much being discussed (and worried about), thanks to the rise and potential of Artificial Intelligence and the huge power wielded by various enormous 'tech'-firms. As a colleague tells Marc:
You know, Mathieu, we are reaching the end of politics. There is simply no control that could be exercised over a great scientist by a government or by the people. Who could control you, Mathieu ? No one. We are clearly reaching the moment when the world will become a scientist's responsibility ...
       To Marc, it is obvious:
     He picked up the chalk and went back to the board. Then he showed them.
     He showed them that science was now reaching such peaks that it took genius to control genius. This was the end of democracy.
       So, thematically, The Gasp is certainly intriguing, and the premise has some promise. Gary's treatment of the philosophical questions has a French feel to it -- but that's fine -- and odds and ends like the real-figure cameos -- from de Gaulle to Mao Zedong -- are an entertaining bonus. The presentation is, however, ultimately too slapdash, and, aiming at also being a thriller, Gary can't quite manage that, so it all falls a bit flat, all the more obviously so because he aims so high (even, or especially, in the novel's (melo)dramatic final scenes).
       This had some potential, but too little of that is adequately realized.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 September 2023

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The Gasp: Reviews: Romain Gary: Other books by Romain Gary under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Romain Gary lived 1914 to 1980.

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© 2023 the complete review

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