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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Hocus Bogus

Émile Ajar
(Romain Gary)

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To purchase Hocus Bogus

Title: Hocus Bogus
Author: Émile Ajar (Romain Gary)
Genre: Novel
Written: 1976 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 199 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Hocus Bogus - US
Hocus Bogus - UK
Hocus Bogus - Canada
Pseudo - Canada
Pseudo - France
  • French title: Pseudo
  • Translated and with an introduction by David Bellos
  • Includes The Life and Death of Émile Ajar, Barbara Wright's 1983 translation of Vie et mort d'Émile Ajar (1981)

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Our Assessment:

B : very creative oddity (the translation, too)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 24/9/2010 Ian Pindar
Wall Street Journal . 12/2/2010 Tess Lewis
The Washington Post A 4/3/2010 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "Hocus Bogus is an unclassifiable work, a faux-memoir and a delirious commentary on the author function (...). It is as much Bellos’s book as Gary’s" - Ian Pindar, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Hocus Bogus is a wild, antic romp: irreverent, bombastic, self-contradictory. Each passage contains several meanings, depending on whether one reads it straight, as Ajar's psychotherapeutic rant or as Gary's truth-bending hoax." - Tess Lewis, Wall Street Journal

  • "Nowadays, we can more fully appreciate the tour de force that Gary brings off: As Bellos observes, the book is simultaneously "entirely fictional and yet contains almost nothing but the strict truth." Moreover, by "writing as someone else pretending to be someone else and also quite mad, Gary was at last free to say what he had to say as himself." To read Hocus Bogus in Bellos's superb translation is to marvel at its dizzyingly distorted syntax ("I don't speak Danish, but not well enough"), constant wit ("reptiles are always first in the firing line when it comes to hate speech") and sheer energy." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

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:

       Pseudo, finally available in English as Hocus Bogus, is one of the oddest works of (semi-)fiction of recent times. A documentary novel (of sorts), it came about because of the circumstances its author Romain Gary got himself into. Translator David Bellos recounts the whole bizarre story in his entertaining introduction to the book: basically, in 1974 Gary -- a leading literary figure of the time -- started writing books under the pseudonym of 'Émile Ajar' -- and found too much success with them. When the first one was shortlisted for the Prix Renaudot he withdrew it, but then the next one was awarded the leading French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt in 1975 -- a prize that is only awarded to an author once (and which Gary had already won). That prize-win drew a great deal of (unwanted) attention to the unknown author Ajar, whose identity Gary had managed to keep secret quite well until then. He got a cousin's son, Paul Pavlowitch, to play the part of Ajar, as it were, but journalists soon figured out the family connection, and there was speculation that Gary was the man behind the pseudonym. But, as he has his narrator say in this novel:

     "I simply have to insist on not being identified," I said. "It would make my life impossible."
       Hocus Bogus was the way Gary dealt with this mess he had gotten himself into, penning -- in just a few weeks -- what Bellos calls: "one of the most alarmingly effective mystifications in all literature". As such, it was completely effective: "No one dared ever again to suggest that Romain Gary was Émile Ajar".
       What Gary did was offer a fictional spin on everything that had happened, a first-person account in which a mentally unhinged Pavlowitch-figure (spending most of his time in a Copenhagen psychiatric institution) describes his creative outpourings (and mental delusions). And the account comes complete with a Gary-like 'Uncle Bogey'-figure -- a successful writer whose "prints are on everyone of man's misfortunes" (but who also pays for the narrator's institutional stay in Denmark), and who some suggest is behind the narrator's books ......
       It's a fascinating novel that is both the wild story of (and by) a mentally unhinged artist, as well as a revealing book where, as Bellos notes: "Almost every sentence of the book is a double take", its other meaning(s) only apparent once the true authorship (and circumstances) are known.
       There's the publisher who implores:
You have to stay in character, Ajar. [...] You've got an aura and you have to keep it up. It's what we call news value. It's the best kind of advertising. You can't buy it, and it really sells books.
       And one can hear Gary's own frustration with the monster he created in Ajar's complaint:
     The less I tried to be the more I was. The more I hid the more I got covered by the media.
       The schizophrenic narrator sounds perfectly convincing ("Since I knew I was fictional, I thought I might have a talent for fiction" he admits, in one of the many more-revealing-than-you-might-think passages), as Gary carefully writes (with very wild abandon) an account that makes the stories around the Ajar-books plausible. The whole scenario made sense, after all, if the author was the kind of person who took to exclaiming:
     I was hugely relieved when on the appearance of my second book highly competent critics declared that Émile Ajar did not exist.
       Hocus Bogus is quite incredible in how well it works as a double-layered text, as practically everything can be read two ways: (semi-)literally, like a 'normal' work of fiction, with Gary's confession (which is what it amounts to) the alternative-reading hidden underneath.
       It's also a linguistic tour de force, as Gary revels in the possibilities his delusional character allows for; it's a challenge to the translator, and Bellos even writes that he first undertook the translation for his own amusement -- "to see if it was even possible to simulate a rhetorical simulation of an imaginary psychological condition". It is, necessarily, a very free translation (as the change in title already suggests), and Bellos acknowledges (and offers no apology for ...):
the many liberties I have taken with the text. I have larded it with my own bad puns. I have infiltrated anachronisms and literary allusions in some quantity, and I have exploited all the opportunities that English offered me to poke fun at police officers, politicians, publishers, psychiatry, surrealism, and good intentions.
       It's a rare case where such liberties in translation are, indeed, welcome, and Bellos pulls the whole thing off with considerable aplomb, making for a weird, wild ride that certainly captures the spirit of the very strange original.
       The Life and Death of Émile Ajar, Gary's posthumously-published account of the truth behind the Ajar-figure, is included in this volume, too -- a helpful postscript closing this odd chapter.
       Not necessarily great literature, Hocus Bogus is a fascinating bit of literary history and a very interesting text (and translation). Good and very strange fun, and well worthwhile.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 February 2010

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Hocus Bogus: 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 (1914-1980) wrote several works under the name of Émile Ajar.

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© 2010-2023 the complete review

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