Dear Romain

LETTERS TO MEN OF LETTERS, Part 11

/ by Diane Joy Charney

We readers are marked forever by great authors—they are never really dead. We carry them around with us.

I write them letters.

 

Diplomat, prolific novelist, war hero, film director, and husband of American film actress Jean Seberg, Romain Gary (May 8,1914-December 2, 1980) was born in Vilnius, Lithuania. Although the Prix Goncourt is to be awarded only once to an author, Gary won it in 1956 and again in 1975 under a pseudonym. He also may be the only person to have challenged Clint Eastwood to a duel. Admiring Gary fans have said various versions of how unfair it seems that one individual should have had so much talent. Even so, Gary’s dazzlingly accomplished life came to a characteristically dramatic end by his own hand.

 

Dear Romain,

 

I came to you in a roundabout way, as a fan of your one-time wife, Jean Seberg, an innocent from the Midwest who was oddly plucked from the wheat fields of Iowa to star in a French production of Joan of Arc, and would later feature in Godard’s À Bout de Souffle. Everyone agreed you were a genius--a polyglot who won the Prix Goncourt twice by taking an assumed name, a war hero, a diplomat. But maybe you always felt like an impostor?

 

Some time after your divorce, a long-depressed Seberg was found dead in her parked car on a Paris street. There is a complicated back story about Seberg having been hounded to death by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI agents, because of her support of leftist groups like the Black Panthers. You later blew your brains out long before I was able to write to you—and tell you not to go and do something like that. And to think that I was living in Paris at a time when we could have discussed our mutual Eastern European heritage, among other things! (I was about to write “Russian,” but after hearing so many different legends about your origins, I was afraid to take the risk.) You, however, have always been all about risk, whereas I can’t run far enough away from it. Yes, we are an odd couple.

 

I regularly teach and have written about your rich and probably semi- autobiographical short story, "le Faux." Once I discovered you, I had to read everything. As anyone who has read your Promise at Dawn (La Promesse de l'Aube) knows, you were a man who knew how to write a letter! Indeed, your novel that portrays a mother-son attachment of similar complexity to those in Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, Camus' Le Premier Homme, and André Aciman's recent New Yorker piece about his deaf mother, is composed of wartime letters between a singularly devoted mother and her war hero son. I have never gotten over my shock at the surprise ending. And to think that you who were so accomplished and so loved—the raison d’être of such a mother—could have felt so estranged from yourself! I see that a new film version of this unforgettable book, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg as your mother, opens in France on December 20, 2017. The trailer already has 161,787 views. Yes, you are still irresistible.

 

Flash! Once again you, in your guises of “enchanter” and “chameleon” have left me enchanted! I who have never understood addiction, feel addicted to you, including the countless myths you created of yourself. It defies all logic, which I guess is what happens with true addiction. Each time I found a new reference that purported to tell your real story, I said to myself. “Yes! That’s the one I will read!” But after much research and having listened to the words of your biographer and former lover, Myriam Anissimov in the truly enthraling 2014 interview with Zoé Varier, “Romain Gary, le Chaméleon” on her L’Heure des Rêveurs” program, I feel sure that Anissimov’s books are the ones for me.

 

On the program, this woman who comes across as smart, psychologically astute, and sensitive seems to “get” you better than anyone, and I’m not surprised that you went for her. She offers plausible theories to explain your initial exoticism to the easily hoodwinked reading public, claiming that your books seemed to have a greater affinity with American masters like Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud than with the French tradition. The 54 minutes of that program flew by, enhanced by well-chosen music, excerpts of you yourself speaking, and the intelligence of the articulate interviewer who asks the right questions but knows when to get out of the way—a masterpiece!

 

Without any pretentious gobbledygook, in the face of your “complexity,” “incredible ambivalence,” and flair for the grand gesture (who else would have challenged Clint Eastwood to a duel because he had a fling with your wife?), author Anissimov gives convincing evidence for your being bipolar. She observed your depressed states of near-total immobility, as well as the feverishly productive ones during which you could work in the morning on a book written under your own name, on another that you would be writing under a pseudonym in the afternoon, after which you would go out on the town the same evening. She also reports your saying the equivalent of “I will never get old. I have a contract with the Guy upstairs.”

 

I’ve had a longstanding critical interest in the reliability of the narrator in confession. In the current mania for memoir, the Lie in all its forms can be a central issue: the personal myth, le Beau/Pieux Mensonge, the Little White Lie, the small exaggeration, the nose-extending whopper—the Pinocchio factor. Let’s just take a look at the varying versions of the “facts” about you.

 

In an excellent November 12, 2010 article, “Romain Gary: au revoir et merci” (www.telegraph.co.uk), your biographer, David Bellos calls you “the most glamorous of literary con men,” who “wrote novels under many names, won major prizes, and married an iconic actress.” In “the strangest metahoax in literary history,” one that had multiple twists and turns, Bellos shows how you pulled the wool over the bespectacled eyes of Sartre and de Beauvoir, along with everyone else, by winning the Prix Goncourt twice, the second time under the pseudonym of Emile Ajar. The last words of your suicide note, which Bellos terms “an entertainer’s farewell,” were: “I had a lot of fun. Au revoir et merci.”

 

In Victoria Baena’s December 2, 2015 article, “The Greatest Literary Imposter of All Time Deserves to be Remembered” (tabletmag.com), here’s what she says about you: “He eludes categorization and clear-cut identification… Ultimately Gary succeeded in writing his own history and leaving behind, if not a guarantee of how he was to be remembered, an evident desire to be remembered in a certain way.” Baena views your worship of Charles de Gaulle as a stand-in for your reviled, absent father, and your extreme heroic exploits during your years with the Free French as your “first conscious sense of community and an identity other than that of an exiled Jew.”

 

An earlier article, “Great Pretenders,” also from tabletmag.com (Oct.31, 2007) by Emma Garman opens with the kind of dramatic flourish you would have loved: “On December 2nd, 1980, Roman Gary lay down in his Paris apartment, a synagogue-sized menorah at the foot of the bed, and put a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson in his mouth. Seconds later, the life of one of France’s most celebrated and prolific novelists--a decorated war hero, globe-trotting diplomat, and notorious lothario was over. But this was more than suicide: It was the final act of mythmaking from a man preoccupied, above all, with manipulating the people and events in his life almost as deftly as those in his books.”

 

You certainly had the ultimate stage mother who quite accurately predicted the triumphs you would have on so many fronts--the military, diplomatic, literary, and the romantic: “the most beautiful women will be dying at your feet.” That sort of agenda, however, surely comes with a price. Even Sartre declared your first novel, A European Education (1945) “the best written on the Resistance” and even “the first great novel about the Second World War.” The game was afoot!

 

As your novelty with the critics wore off, you felt the need for a new adventure. You said “I am tired of being nothing but myself…there was the nostalgia for one’s youth, for one’s debut, for one’s renewal… I was profoundly affected by the oldest protean temptation of man: that of multiplicity.” Thus your alter-ego, the too-successful Émile Ajar of your own invention was born. Your nose got longer and longer as you tried to cover your tracks. To win the Goncourt a second time, you had persuaded your nephew, Paul Pawlovitch, to pose as Émile Ajar, the supposed author of the prize-winning La Vie Devant Soi. Then, you felt obliged to have Émile Ajar write a mad, hoax confession in the form of the book Hocus Bogus, considered by many to be a masterpiece, in which he pretends to be Paul Pawlovitch confessing to being Ajar. Who would have guessed that the pseudonymous Émile Ajar’s winning the 1975 Prix Goncourt for La Vie Devant Soi (The Life Before Us), a book whose beauty blew me and my students away, would have led to so much more complicated subterfuge that ended up making you feel even more like a has-been?

 

After hearing that Myriam Anissimov’s biography of you was over a thousand pages, I was attracted by the title of Madeleine Schwartz’s article in “The Harvard Advocate”—“Romain Gary: a Short Biography.” Her opener gets right to the point: “By the time Romain Gary shot himself in the head, the French-Russian writer had published over fifty novels under four different names, directed two movies, fought in the air force, and represented France as a consul. His marriages…had brought him celebrity. He had enmeshed some of France’s literary giants in an elaborate hoax that broke fundamental precepts of the country’s cultural institutions.” (That’s not the part of this article that I think you will like, but check out this next image)

 

“But Gary always saw his own life as a series of incomplete drafts.” Schwartz suggests that even as you planned your own death, you remained on the path to self-improvement: To renew myself, to relive, to be someone else, was always the great temptation of my existence, read the essay you left with your suicide note. She goes on to say, “It’s perhaps no surprise that biographies of the author often seem overwhelmed by the slippery nature of their subject. ‘Romain Gary: The Chameleon,’ ‘Romain Gary: The Man Who Sold his Shadow.’” Her punchline might please you: “Gary was one of France’s most successful writers, but he lived the life of a spy.”

 

I’m going to end my survey of articles on you by giving a reference to one of the best: “A Chameleon on Show” by Benjamin Ivry (from Jan.12, 2011, but updated Mar. 24, 2015 at forward.com.) Ivry mentions what he calls David Bellos’ “insightful new biography” about you, “Romain Gary: A Tall Story,” and summarizes and synthesizes recent events and information about you from 2014 on the 100th centennial of your birth. There was a museum exhibit in Paris of your bafflingly illegible manuscripts, Arte TV showed a stage adaptation of the unforgettable Simone Signoret film of your La Vie Devant Soi, and Gallimard came out with a book of essays about you by various writers.

 

I’m another of those various writers--one who wrote a piece about your intriguing multi-layered story, “Le faux,” (“The Fake”) that I have taught for many years in my French classes, and I may be the only one to have done so in the context of art crime. My article appeared in the spring 2011 ARCA (Association for Research into Crimes Against Art) “Journal of Art Crime.” In addition to offering great possibilities for conversation in a French class (about it, and you, due to what appear to be its many autobiographical elements), I found that your “Le faux” functioned well as a lens through which to view the 2010 Art Crime Studies Conference. I will omit the specifics of the conference itself, but let’s see what you think of the rest.

 

In your story, a shady, nouveau-riche Neapolitan collector, Baretta, who earned his fortune selling Italian salami, is in the news for having purchased, for a princely sum, what many believe to be a “fake Van Gogh.” Seeking to burnish his image through buying expensive art, Baretta pays a visit to the renowned expert, S, who he hopes will authenticate, or at least not challenge, the authenticity of his Van Gogh. S, also a newcomer to Parisian grand society, has come a long way from his poor Turkish roots. Despite their equally modest backgrounds, however, Baretta and S have very different approaches to the exchange value of art. Among the themes of this richly suspenseful story are an obsession with authenticity in art and in cultural origins, and the valorization of the aesthetic object. (Sound familiar?)

 

Baretta’s request that S refrain from suggesting that his Van Gogh may be a fake go beyond Baretta’s hopes to enhance his personal glory by owning such a valuable piece. He also wants to look smart and to protect his investment. He didn’t become the Salami King by failing to understand marketing! (Does this ring any bells for you, Romain?)

 

S, who prides himself on his total commitment to authenticity at all costs, likes to think of himself as the defender of the more purely aesthetic issues at hand. As honorable as S appears, his excessive pride raises a red flag and makes him an enigmatic figure. To be complicit in authenticating a fake can be seen as a harm to all. Another way to view this, however, is to see S’s refusal as evidence that his reaction was always all about himself—especially his ability to flaunt his own power and influence, and by doing so, to make Baretta look foolish. (In contrast to your own tall, slender self, I’m visualizing the greasy Baretta and suave, dapper S both as short men.)

 

There’s an odd twist to your story in that longtime bachelor S has finally found total (uh-oh—there’s that dangerous word again!) marital happiness with the flawlessly (more red flags?) lovely Alfiera. Could there ever be a more perfect wife—the crowning jewel of his collection?

 

In asking that S not say anything to cast doubt on the authenticity of his Van Gogh, Baretta thinks he is making a coercive offer that S can’t refuse. But when S declines to budge on the Van Gogh authenticity question, Baretta promises that S will be very sorry. Indeed, his revenge is definitive, as he exposes something about Alfiera: A lack of perfection which results in the ruin of the marriage and the couple’s happiness. (This recalls the terrible bedroom revenge scene in The Godfather where the bad guy knows just how to skewer his enemy who loves nothing more than his prize race horse.) In his diabolical plot, Baretta, who knows that S will never be able to forgive Alfiera for her deception, succeeds in turning S’s obsessive commitment to authenticity against himself.

 

But what about S’s apparent view of Alfiera as his very own perfect “work of art?” Does his “ownership” of her represent his personal desire to elevate himself from the barefoot boy who started out by selling sexy “art” postcards to sailors? Because Alfiera has been surgically enhanced, she can indeed be considered a work of art, if one considers the definition of art as what is arranged, as opposed to what is “natural.” Further, as one whose face has been “arranged,” Alfiera can be seen as representing the art of the surgeon who crafted her new nose, which restored balance and harmony to the rest of her.

 

À propos of the above, I’ve read comments by you and others that there was more than a touch of Pygmalion in your relations with your much younger wife, Jean Seberg, whom you proudly educated by showing her what to read and how to present herself: “You should see what I gave her to read: Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert…” To that, Jean interjected, “Madame Bovary...That could have been me if I had stayed in Marshalltown (Iowa) one day longer.” (saintjean.co.uk)

 

But back to your “Le faux.” So what if Baretta’s Van Gogh was a fake? Was the extreme stance taken by S of divorcing his wife worth the unhappiness it caused everyone, including himself? Or was the satisfaction of staying true to his total commitment to what he considered authenticity enough to keep him warm on the long, lonely nights of the rest of his life? What does it mean that S is the only character in the story referred to only by a single letter, instead of a name?

 

These are some of the questions raised by your provocative story. In thinking more about it in the context of your own personal story, I’m still trying to figure out what you might be saying on both a conscious and unconscious level. That to try to maintain total control of one’s image and that of a loved one leads to heartache and solitude? That an extreme commitment to authenticity is overrated? That art or a pretty wife should not be used to enhance personal status? Was it wrong for the flawed woman to acquiesce to her ambitious parents’ insistence that she improve her natural appearance so that they could benefit from her attracting a rich husband? Does anyone in this story win?

 

In the world of art, with respect to a work whose provenance is suspicious, it is in no one’s interest to prove that one is dealing with a fake. But what about the world of literature? I have to say that in terms of teaching, you are an author whose stories, both your own personal story and those you wrote, hold extra allure for college students who are in the midst of trying to find their own identity.

 

As for S and Alfiera, there was a brief window of happiness enjoyed by the couple, but it was based on a lie. In the end, however, there was more than enough misery for all. Fascinating, seductive, mysterious, enigmatic…Does it sound a lot like the Romain Gary story?

 

In the wake of writing you this letter, I came across the French Review article (Vol.LVII, No.2, December 1983, “Emile Ajar Demystified” by Bettina H. Lustig.) She delves into the specifics of how you orchestrated the plan for your second cousin, Paul Pavlowitch, to be the public face of Émile Ajar, the supposed author of the Prix Goncourt-winning La Vie Devant Soi. She is interested in your motivations, how the pretense could have remained a secret for six years, what benefits you could ultimately derive from the ruse, and something I hadn’t considered before, the reactions and effect on Pavlowitch, survivor and your principal accomplice in the Ajar conspiracy. According to your younger cousin, you had always enjoyed disguises not for the sake of provocation, but for the pleasure of inhabiting another skin. I can relate to that thrill of being liberated from oneself by becoming someone else, but I prefer to do it in a less baroque way: by adopting a name and identity to go with each of the languages I speak. In my letter to Marcel Proust where I talk about Wallace Fowlie, my former thesis director, I noticed that this name change technique also worked well for him.

 

Let me explain about how foreign language and identity change have worked for me. In Saltillo, Mexico in 1969, I honed my Spanish identity. Since then, whatever I do in Spanish, I am Diana Narro de la Fuente. The name comes from the wife and daughters of my Saltillo family. Although none is Prix Goncourt-worthy, I have plenty of entertaining stories from there, including the Cucaracha/Black Flag/Anti-Insectos bomb facedowns that suffocated us without causing the dresser-dwelling insectos to miss a beat, the Let’s-try-and-kill-Diane’s sister-by-tricking-her-into-chomping-down-on-a-red-hot-pepper Caper, the water “purification” system that consisted of a large screen of chicken wire over the rooftop rain barrel to filter out the REALLY BIG insectos, to name just a few highights.

 

I needed to be a fluent speaker of Spanish for Ph.D grad school requirements, and worried that two years of high school Spanish from 1963-64 were not going to “cut it.” So my sister and I studied at L’Instituto Ibero-Americano for six weeks, mostly because it was cheap. We lived with Señor Alfredo Valdes de la Fuente (about whose Sunday family drives in his big red American Chevy I wrote in my letter to André Pieyre de Mandiargues), his wife Ofelia Narro de la Fuente, and spoiled, racist daughters Señioritas Alma-Rosa and Gloria Narro de la Fuente. Come to think of it, I could have usurped the name of my tutora—a sweet high school girl of darker skin color whom the school paid a pittance to hang out with me in the afternoons—Sara Elia Flores Valdes. With all the machismo down there where, you, Romain, might have felt right at home, it was a nice surprise to see that at least Mexican women get to keep their own names.

 

My Italian alter-ego emerged in 1972, when, with the help of my Sicilian train compartment-mates (and some Let’s Learn Italian flashcards that they found hilarious), I first taught myself many semi-useful Italian phrases on the Trans-Europa Express from Amsterdam en route to Rome. For many years until I moved to Italy, whatever I did in Italian, I was Donatella di Marco, the lyrical name of the daughter of the Italian Consul in Seattle during the 70s, when I lived there. My Italian adventures, which when not making me tear my hair out make me smile, are now recorded in a blog under yet another assumed name, Donatella de Poitiers. To speak Italian and tap dance are the two best antidotes to depression, and there are NO side effects. Niente! But you, Romain, seem to have been a born polyglot, which didn’t help you avoid depression. And frankly, I doubt if tap dancing would have saved you, either. Some of us are wired differently.

 

When my new husband and I finally arrived in Rome in 1972 without any hotel reservations, having memorized my Italian flashcards, I felt ready to swing into action. We daringly allowed ourselves to be “picked up” by a slightly suspicious-looking guy who offered us a room in his home. Despite visions of being clobbered on the head and robbed, Jim and I followed him to our first delightful encounter with an extended Italian family. My own so-called linguistic “genius” notwithstanding, there were a few funny misunderstandings. I was puzzled to hear the name “Louie” bandied about by la Signora in the direction of my own husband, as well as being used to refer the Italian guy, himself. I said in my best hour-old Italian, “No, no. MY husband’s name isn’t Louie; his name is Jim. YOUR husband’s name is Louie.” That really took her by surprise. She replied, “No, no MY husband’s name is Giorgio!” Then the smart, adorable grandma figured out the problem. She pointed to Jim and to Giorgio, gesticulating wildly, “lui, lui!” The light bulb in my dim head went off: “Lui” means “him” in both French and Italian. Duh…Non capsico niente! I understand nothing! (Too bad there weren’t any Let’s Learn Italian flashcards for that “lui/Louie” situation!)

 

On the continuing theme of you-may-have-a-great-accent-but-you-don’t-know-as-much-as-you-think-you-do, one of my Italian touchstones is a nifty manual gadget used to foam cappuccino. I’ve had three foamers in my life. How I lost the first one is one of my best stories, whose punchline is: “When leaving your rented house in Fungaia, never ask your son to ‘pitch in and help’ by putting your refuse-filled plastic bags in the garbage cans by the road.” If you do, be sure you know the Italian word for “cappuccino foamer” (instead of calling it a “gadgetto”—a word you invented on the spot) BEFORE you call your sweet, former landlady to ask in your really nascent Italian if she happened to find a “gadgetto” left behind in the rental’s kitchen, along with “some old cheese and some nice apricots.” And in a futile attempt to make yourself sound like less of a pest, you tell her that if she happens to find and want any of those things, she is welcome to keep them. (Huh?)

 

With respect to the aforementioned story, the poor woman was left speechless. All she could answer was, “Scusi, cara Diana, ma non capisco niente.” (“Please forgive me, Diane, but I haven’t got a clue about what you’re trying to say.”) And after hanging up the phone, I was left with no clues about the mysterious disappearance of my “gadgetto”/cappuccino foamer, either. I’m just hoping that the garbage man looked at our refuse deposit before dumping it. It would have been a shame to accidentally junk such beautiful apricots, old but still good cheese, and a really pretty cappuccino foamer. When we rented that same place, Il Mandorlo, a second time, Giovanna was happy to see us again, and was kind enough not to refer to the gadgetto/cappuccino-foamer incident. Italians are like that.

 

This brings me to my last point. Unlike you, who loved novelty, to be “reborn” here in Italy these past eight years has been enough of recharge for me. I am wondering, Romain, if your life would have been different had your mom made it here, to Italy, instead of to France. As the author of “Emile Ajar Demystified” points out, you could not bear being “pegged” by the French critics who, late in your career, seemed to glory in your fall from favor. You were furious at them for jumping to conclusions about your work without paying you the courtesy of examining it closely and impartially. You figured out what you thought was a good way to give them the finger. To write under an assumed name seemed an ingenious scheme that would prove that you still had more talent in your little finger than anyone else. Well, for what it’s worth, I agree with you, and I hope that this letter from a fervent fan proves that.

 

PS: I have to confess that I lied when I said at the beginning of the preceding paragraph, “This brings me to my last point,” but I think you will forgive me. Here comes a loose association. I don’t always read closely my Duke Alumni Notes, but I need to tell you about an article I found there on imposter syndrome. It arrived just as I was finishing my letter to you, and the headline got my attention: “How a Dean Got Over Imposter Syndrome—and Thinks You Can, Too.” I wonder what you would have made of this article—if it would have “spoken” to you, and if it would have made any difference in your trajectory.

 

The author, Valerie Sheares Ashby, currently Dean of Duke University’s College of Arts and Sciences, winner of National Science Foundation awards and several teaching prizes, is a woman of accomplishment by any objective standard. Yet for much of her life, by her own standard, she felt she was not measuring up. She now gives talks aimed at helping those plagued by self-doubt—who feel like frauds who will be found out.

 

I noticed this phenomenon frequently during my 33 years of teaching at Yale, where even the most gifted students often believed they were lucky imposters who had gotten in by mistake. In helping them with their writing, I took it as my mandate to convince them otherwise, with statements like, “Yale Admissions never makes mistakes. If you gained admission, it means that you can do the work and deserve to be here, so no need to worry.” But as Dean Ashby says, “all it takes is one professor in a classroom to embarrass you…one professor to tell you that your question didn’t make any sense or wasn’t valid. What that tells you is, there’s the evidence that I was right all the time [about being an imposter].”

 

So what does this have to do with you, Romain? Well, as it turns out, it’s usually the Romain Gary-type high achievers who can be most vulnerable to imposter syndrome—geniuses who need to prove they can win the Prix Goncourt twice, and with two entirely different books.

 

With respect to imposter syndrome and its possible relation to you, you’ve also gotten me to think back to pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott’s ideas concerning “the good enough mother.” I first learned about this concept in Shoshana Felman’s class where, perhaps in connection with Rousseau’s Confessions, we read Winnicott’s collection of brilliant essays, Home is Where We Start From.

 

Here are some of Winnicott’s insights that feel relevant to the connection between the over-achieving hero of your Promise at Dawn and his mother, whose ambitions for her son knew no bounds. According to Winnicott, the good enough mother starts out by being totally devoted to the baby, sacrificing all for his comfort. But then she needs to pull back so that the child can learn to tolerate small amounts of frustration—a necessary lesson for survival in the outside world. By gradually allowing the child to understand that there is an external reality that will not always conform to his wishes, the good enough mother helps her child gain the ability to live in such a world, but still maintain touch with a world of fantasy, magic, and illusion. Would you agree that your mother was much better at the second part?

 

It seems logical that the never-good-enough mother is likely to produce a child anxious to perform extravagant, over-the-top feats in an effort to fulfill such a mother’s grandiose plans for him. And unless he does so, he will feel like a not-good-enough son. But I’m guessing that this type of talk will not be music to your ears; indeed, you may be as allergic to it as another of my letter recipients, Vladimir Nabokov, who was violently hostile to anything vaguely Freudian. Even so, I hope you won’t hold it against me if I, as a mother who has aspired to be good enough, do a bit of further musing on this subject.

 

I see that to be a good enough mother requires a sense of balance—a willingness to avoid excess, an acknowledgement of the need for separation, and knowledge of when to let go. (By the way, the final two episodes of a series about England’s royal family, The Crown, that I watched last night showed Prince Philip as the wounded son of an appallingly not-good-enough father. Yet Philip repeated, with his own son, Prince Charles, a number of Philip’s own father’s mistakes and cruelty.)

 

But let’s get back to you. Your own formidable mother, a resilient gambler who bet all her cards on you and was always going for broke, probably did the best she could. She may have been an expert at creating the origin myth of a hero, but you knew the stakes and somehow rose to the occasion. Moreover, after all the exploits and accolades of the hero-son (who in classic hero fashion, completes his circular journey by returning home in triumph), at least the mother in Promise at Dawn, in her own way, showed she understood the power of letters as both umbilical cord and legacy.

 

Although I think I have an intellectual understanding of successful parenting as the ultimate act of generosity—as mothers and teachers we work hard to facilitate independence and not to be needed—I’m finding it hard to let go of you.

....
Diane Joy Charney

teaches French Literature and Creative Writing at Yale University, where she is Writing-Tutor-in-Residence. She divides her time between Umbria and New Haven.

 


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