2020 has been a year in which we have all had to learn to live without something, or without the possibility of being with someone. As a result, we have grown accustomed to looking for consolations in our memory for those things and people missing in the present. Literature, rooted as it often is in the exploration of memory, has played a correspondingly large part in many people’s lives as social horizons have narrowed. In the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, readers around the world turned initially to Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947) as a way of better understanding life under lockdown. The narrative of a town cut off from the outside world took on new resonance not as a metaphor for France’s wartime occupation, or as a study in Existential philosophy, but as a human-centred tale of loss and the hope of reclamation. In the late-spring months sales of the novel rose in step with the speed and severity with which people felt their lives changing.
Those who acquired copies of The Plague earlier this year, or pulled them from their existing place on their bookshelves, have had ample time to read the novel by now, so are there any other ‘pandemic novels’ to fill the weeks and months of a second wave and the reality of an autumn and winter of continuing restrictions? Here, another French author, Camus’ countryman Romain Gary, might prove useful. Like Camus, whose memories of an Algerian childhood remained a touchstone throughout his writing life, the Russian émigré Gary was a writer with a highly complex sense of memory. Active, like Camus, in the wartime Resistance, but without the explicit philosophical strand to his writing that made Camus so celebrated, Gary’s work – much of which still awaits an English language translation – conjures from a sense of loss and deprivation a belief in the power of individual and collective memory to function as a bulwark against the losses of life.
In his final novel The Kites (1980) Gary frames within the tale of a young man’s love affair a wider study of France’s pre- and post-World War Two fate, with the Occupation serving, as it did for Camus, as a time of national and personal deprivation. Like The Plague, Gary’s novel is a study in the nature of memory, and the endurance of emotions and experiences when they are left inaccessible by the tide of historical events. As the lockdowns have been partially eased around the world only to be phased in again, and when a return to pre-pandemic ‘normality’ remains remote, The Kites remains a powerful testament to the longevity of the imagination. It is, arguably, a novel for the ongoing pandemic rather than the immediate crisis of last March: a complement to Camus’ vision, and worth revisiting as a lasting reminder of the value of what we remember when we think of what has been lost.
Unlike Camus’ third-person narrative, which circles around its protagonist, the town doctor Rieux, before revealing only at its close that the ‘chronicle’ we have read is indeed the doctor’s own account, Gary’s novel makes full use of the first-person perspective. His hero, Ludo (Ludovic) Fleury, has lost both his parents and lives with an eccentric uncle, Ambrose, in a small Normandy village. Ambrose, a former postmaster, is famous for the range of kites he makes and flies, much to the delight of the local children. These kites, fantastic in their design and artifice, are representations of the great men of French history and thought. Their flight or, as under the German occupation, their being grounded, reflects the fortunes of the country over which they are seen
Like many in his family, though, it seems that Ludo is afflicted with ‘an excess of memory’: initially a tendency to recall facts, names, and numbers with startling success, but later a trait that proves both a source of pain and solace as he draws closer to himself people and places he has seen and lost. In the first instance this takes a form that readers of Proust will swiftly recognise: a meeting with a mysterious girl whose beauty and sense of distance will function as lodestones in the young hero’s life. “Even now,” the older, narrative Ludo recalls when thinking of his first meeting with the enigmatic Lila in a field of strawberries, “I don’t know whether I succeeded in life because I didn’t take off running, or whether I came to ruin because I stayed.” If that initial motif has a pedigree in French fiction, though, Gary’s narrative frame is a very different thing. Ludo is not Marcel, and this novel is a long way from Combray. Lila is aristocratic, but her family comes from a Polish background, and she is first met when holidaying in France with parents whose emotional and financial states fluctuate wildly. There are larger historical forces at work than those of Proustian nostalgia, too. In the late-1930s Lila’s return to Poland is tinged for Ludo not only with emotional loss, but the very real fear that like her family her homeland itself is on the verge of being swept away.
After a few years of awkward courtship, the outbreak of war severs the bonds between the two young lovers, as we also see the conflict dividing their respective nations. As ‘the Polish debacle’ is repeated in the late-spring of 1940, a similar gulf opens up between Ludo’s memories of France and the painful reality of the overrun nation that capitulates to German force and limps on only as the servile Vichy regime. As in The Plague, realisation of what has happened comes only when it is too late to do anything else. Ludo will serve in the Resistance, hoping for an eventual return to normal life, and sustaining himself all along by the thought that Lila is indeed still ‘with’ him through the operation of his memory. Her voice bursts into his first-person narration at times, creating surreal ‘conversations’ between them in the way people often talk to those close to them but not in the moment physically present. Such exchanges are reminders of memory at work. “I’m not forgetting you,” Ludo tells Lila in one such moment, “I’m just hiding you.” As we have come to learn in a time of separation (partly assuaged as ours is by forms of contact unavailable to those of occupied France) the survival of bonds and relationships can, and sometimes must, take many forms.
Camus, in focusing on his doctor, Rieux, gives the reader little information about his absent wife. As readers, we know that when the plague begins she is away at a sanatorium, and her death comes towards the close of the novel almost as an aside, occurring at a distance in the midst of so many other truncated lives. Gary, taking a different path, does not have Lila die but, indeed, brings her back to France as the companion of Hans, a German officer (himself a figure with whom Ludo has had dealings earlier in the novel) so as to problematise the extent to which the Lila of Ludo’s memory can ever be matched by the woman who has seen her homeland vanish and had to make a string of sacrifices to survive. In the final analysis, Ludo’s love for her – like his love for France itself – must be tested by the end of the war as much as by the privations of occupation and separation. In ‘victory’ it will be necessary to recognise the actions that individuals, like their homelands, chose to take in order to try and survive a bit longer.
As in The Plague, though, there is an eventual victory in Gary’s novel, and at least the prospect of a return to normality. In the aftermath of D-Day, Ambrose Fleury’s kites once again fly over the fields of Normandy, and the restrictions and impositions of occupation give way to an intoxicating sense of freedom. Like the occupants of Camus’ Oran, however, the release of victory only partly conceals the awkwardness of coming to terms with one’s own actions, and those of others, under the ‘lockdown’. “I told myself that we’d really miss the Nazis,” Ludo recalls toward the end of the novel, “that it would be difficult without them, because we wouldn’t have any excuses anymore.” Were all of the people as heroic as they would like to be seen, and what ‘justice’ is to be meted out (and by whom?) to those who are deemed to have fallen short of the ideal? In one of the most famous sentences from Camus’ novel Rieux muses that in times of trial “there are more things to admire in men than to despise”. Ludo, on the other hand, is told by ‘Madame Julie’, brothel madam and Resistance coordinator, that at the end of the war “there’s been enough black and white. Grey is the only thing that’s human.”
Some aspects of Gary’s tale of France under German occupation are, arguably, more clichéd than effective. Writing in The New Yorker in 2018 Adam Gopnik described The Kites as “oddly eighteenth-century in its piling on of coincidences” and readers may well agree that some elements of the plot are more contrived than realistic, being set up in order to offer up opportunities for reflection and comparison. As the Frenchmen and women prove capable of either heroism and cynicism in their actions, but rarely a blend of both, the Germans are equally clear-cut, being crudely barbaric or awkwardly humane. The fate of the Clos Joli restaurant, a Michelin-starred outpost of the country’s finest gastronomic traditions, can seem too much like an obvious symbol of some essential Frenchness resolved to continue serving as the ‘soul’ of the nation even as its clientele becomes largely German in nature. Continuing to source and serve haut cuisine may seem a questionable form of resistance, although the restaurant’s role as a source of information for the Resistance gleaned from its diners’ table-talk reminds us that simplistic judgements are not the best. However we choose to view the restaurant’s remaining open, there is, as its owner proudly asserts, at least something of ‘France’ still standing when the Allies arrive in 1944.
For the bulk of the novel, though, concerned as it is with Ludo’s very personal set of experiences, it is individual memory and imaginations that provide the most lasting and valuable consolations for the present and hopes for the future. At the depth of the crisis, with France occupied, Poland wiped from the map, Lila missing, and the past seemingly lost beyond recall, Ludo visits his old schoolteacher and finds that whereas Monsieur Pindar was once concerned about his pupil’s excessive memory he is now more understanding of its usefulness, although also worried about what might occur at the moment when Ludo has to exchange idealised memory for post-war reality. Hoping that Lila will indeed prove to be the same as the figure of Ludo’s remembering, Pindar equates her return with that of the country as a whole. “France, when it returns, will need not only all of our imagination, but a lot of imaginary things as well” he muses, conscious that while memory and hope can sustain people through privation, they remain necessary at the difficult moment when ‘normality’ returns and proves not to be all that people have chosen to remember.
Nonetheless, The Kites is a testament not only to keeping faith, but to choosing not to be defined by loss. The kite workshop, like France itself, is in a poor way when the thrill of victory wears off. Ludo’s recollection that “our stock had suffered a lot and we more or less had to start from scratch” could just as easily refer to his homeland as to his uncle’s business concern. Even so, the kites can fly again over the village of Cléry at the novel’s close. Composing his narrative, the older Ludo closes the memory of his wartime meeting with Monsieur Pindar by recalling that his old teacher and his wife were arrested a year after their last encounter, and that neither of them returned from the prison camps. Nevertheless, he adds, “I visit them often, in their little house, and they welcome me just as warmly as they always did, even though they’ve been gone a long time now, I’ve been told.” Memory, whilst woven into a larger matrix of loss, keeps alive and present those things that matter: a man, a woman, an idea of a community, or a vision of what a country is or should be. If Camus saw the epidemic as a trial set for humanity by an indifferent universe, to which men and women responded with the qualities, good or bad, that they held in reserve, then Gary reminds us that in facing those challenges the act of remembering is also an act of resistance. Like Ludo’s idea of France, our lives post-Covid may not come back in quite the way we recall them beforehand, or quite the way we expect, but as the weeks and months accumulate our memories can still keep alive the things we wish to find in the future, and help us to recognise them or work for their resumption when we emerge there.
The Kites by Romain Gary (trans. Miranda Richmond Mouillot) is published by Penguin Books.