White Dog by Romain Gary

White Dog by Romain Gary 1969 French version: Chien Blanc.

 If evil things were done only by evil men, the world would be an admirable place.

Gary_CentenaireToday is the 8th of May and Romain Gary would have been one-hundred-year old. For the centenary of his birth, I decided to read the English version of Chien Blanc. The title is literally translated into White Dog but that’s where the literal translation stops. I mean it when I say the English version and not the translation. White Dog has been self-translated by Romain Gary and he took the liberty to change passages, split one chapter in two, change references that were too French, add ones that were more American. From what I’ve seen, and sadly I don’t have time to compare more thoroughly the two texts, the global text is close enough to be the same book but not enough to be called a translation. He just adapted his speech to his American public to better reach out to them.

So what’s it all about? White Dog is a fictional non-fiction book, meaning that it’s a memoir without a journalistic aim at accuracy. Maybe there’s a genre for that, I don’t know. White Dog is focused on the year 1968 in Gary’s life. It’s the year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy got killed, the one of the Spring of Prague, the one of the student revolution in France and in other countries too.

The book opens in Los Angeles. Romain Gary lives in Beverly Hills with his wife Jean Seberg while she’s making a movie. Their son Diego Alexandre is six. Romain Gary is an animal lover and specifically a dog person –White Dog is dedicated to his dog Sandy—so when a lost German shepherd lands on his door and seems lost, he takes him in and names him Barka. (“little father” in Russian). A few days later, he realises that Batka is a white dog, a dog that has been trained in a Southern State to attack black people. Gary decides to bring him to Jack Carruthers’ zoo, he wants him to reform Batka. Unfortunatelyn it’s easier said than done.

At the time, Jean Seberg is a fervent militant of the fight to civil rights for black people in America. She gets more and more involved with different groups of black activists, giving them money and support. Gary watches all this with wariness. Her naïve involvement in that cause puts forward their differences: he’s French, she’s American, he’s 24 years older than her and his lucidity, political sharpness and experience in the French Foreign Office make him analyse the situation with more accuracy. She doesn’t want to understand his point of view. White Dog shows how their different vision, not on the rightness of the cause, but on the nature of the black political movement, drives them apart. In White Dog, Gary lets the world know how much he loves his wife, as you can see in this passage, even if they’ll get a divorce in 1970, :

We part, and I walk back home wondering how my America is doing, if Sandy and the cats look after her, if she misses me, if those exquisite features under the short-cropped hair are sad or serene, and if those sweet peepers still look at the world and people with the same belief in something than can never be world or people, and which has always had so much to do with prayers…I miss my America very much.

The book is split in three parts, the first one describing Gary’s efforts to have Barka reformed, the second detailing his stay in Washington DC during riots and his views on the “black problem” in America and the last one picturing Mai 68 in Paris and the student riots.

White Dog is one of Gary’s best books. He’s everywhere in these pages and it helps understanding the novels he wrote. He describes how he liked to spend time in a python’s cage in Carruthers’ zoo and that leads us to Gros Câlin. When he wants to be anywhere else but with himself, he thinks of Outer Mongolia, like Lenny in The Ski Bum. His relationship with Jean Seberg gave us the one between Jacques and Laura in Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid. White Dog shows his inner struggles, his need to write off his problems by writing them down in a book. It pictures a man with strong beliefs, ready to stand to his ground even if his ideas are out of fashion. I love that passage about Stupidity.

The black-white situation in America has its roots in the core of almost all human predicaments, deep down within something it is high time to recognise as the greatest spiritual force of all time: Stupidity. One of the most baffling paradoxes of history is that all our intelligence and even our genius have never succeeded in solving a problem when pitched against Stupidity, where the very nature of the problem is, precisely, what intelligence should find particularly easy to handle. Stupidity has a tremendous advantage over genius and intellect: it is above logic, above argument, it has no need for evidence, facts, reasoning, it is unshakable, beyond doubt, supremely self-confident, it always knows all the answers, it looks at the world with a knowing smile, it has a fantastic capacity for survival, it is the greatest force known to man. Whenever intelligence manages to prevail, when victory seems already secured, immortal Stupidity suddenly rears its ugly mug and takes over. The latest typical example is the murder of the “spring of Prague” in the name of “correct Marxist thinking”.

Gary_White_DogHe’s an uncompromising moderate. He sees violence as being violence, not a means to defend a cause. He’s disgusted with the so-called good deeds done by the Hollywood circles. He’s appalled to see an old black friend turn into a vindictive and unrealistic activist. He’s a strange mix of a strong will not to give up in human nature and an ingrained cynicism gathered through the years, in spite of him.

His style is brilliant. Funnily, I could hear the French under the English. It doesn’t have the same ring as the passages of French literature translated into English I’ve read. When it’s done by a native translator, the general feeling is that it is an English text. Here, I can hear that English is an acquired language for a French native (or almost) speaker. I spotted mistakes Francophones tend to make when they speak English and turns of sentences that sound like a Frenchman speaking English. It made me smile.

It is risky to re-read a book you have loved when you were young. Will it be as brilliant as the first time? So far, all the Garys I’ve re-read have passed the test of years with flying colours. This one is no exception. It’s thought-provoking, witty and lovely at the same time. Gary has a knack with words and his style shines through and through, even if he’s not aiming at beauty or poetry:

I drive through Coldwater Canyon with enough stones in my heart to build a few more cathedrals.

I’m happy I picked this one for Gary’s centenary. It’s him as a man and him as a novelist too. The mix is potent. Highly recommended, the kind of book your want to share with your friends right away.

PS: I have tons of quotes and I can’t share them all but here’s a last one:

All this must have been happening in a wonderful smell of roses. Whenever I leave Jean alone, I am immediately replaced by bouquets of roses. Dozens of them come to fill the void, all with visiting cards, and I have estimated at various times that my flower value is about a dozen roses per pound. It is flattering and very satisfying to know that as soon as you leave your gorgeous wife alone, an impressive number of people rush to the florist’s in the admirable hope of replacing with roses your sweet-smelling self.

PPS: Another thing: White Dog has been made into a film by Samuel Fuller in 1982. You might have seen it.

  1. Charlotte
    May 8, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    Wow ! I’m celebrating his birthday too, and as I traveled through the internet, I found this website… Awesome ! I’m French but I don’t want to be picky about helping people discover my favorite author, so I’m gonna use this site, if that’s okay with you. (I’m hoping to be a translator later, and I’ve always been curious about his English books… Will read.) Keep up the awesomeness, I’ll be around for Gary month !

    Like

    • May 8, 2014 at 12:18 pm

      Hello and welcome!

      Use my blog as much as you want to celebrate Gary’s centenary. I hope new readers will discover him.
      You may want to check out Delphine’s blog Romain Gary et moi. Link in the blog list on the right.
      What’s your favourite Gary?

      Like

  2. May 8, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    “We part, and I walk back home wondering how my America is doing, if Sandy and the cats look after her, if she misses me, if those exquisite features under the short-cropped hair are sad or serene, and if those sweet peepers still look at the world and people with the same belief in something than can never be world or people, and which has always had so much to do with prayers…I miss my America very much.”

    What does he mean in this quote?

    With the age difference, I thought of course of Your Ticket is No Longer valid, but the difference there is 37 years.

    Like

    • May 8, 2014 at 4:00 pm

      His America is Jean Seberg

      Like

      • May 10, 2014 at 6:06 pm

        Oh ok, I thought he meant literally and I couldn’t make sense of that. Why does he call her that?

        Like

        • May 10, 2014 at 6:09 pm

          Because for him she’s a pure American, in her culture, her way of thinking and dealing with life. He feels terribly European and French compared to her.

          Like

          • May 11, 2014 at 5:17 pm

            Interesting as she had radical beliefs that placed her on the fringe.

            Like

            • May 11, 2014 at 5:47 pm

              I’ve read she had the FBI breathing down her neck all the time. Their phone was tapped.

              Like

            • January 20, 2015 at 6:45 pm

              Seberg was as American and midwest as they come. Politics and nationality are not the same thing.

              Like

  3. Déborah
    May 8, 2014 at 11:13 pm

    Malheureusement pour ma part je ne parle pas anglais. J’arrive quand même à parcourir vos articles, tant je suis passionnée par Romain Gary, même si je ne comprends pas grand chose.

    A propos de la danse de Gengis Cohn, il existe un film, que j’avais vu sur Arte, il y a de cela… longtemps. C’était drôle, avec une musique Yiddish, bienvenue, en fond. Bien sûr, ils avaient modifié la fin.

    Pour le baron, il est toujours décrit dans un état de stupeur alcoolique et se contente souvent de dire “pipi” et “caca”. Peu flatteur pour l’auteur donc.

    J’ai fini de relire “Adieu Gary Cooper”. Je trouve que le début est un peu dur car il tourne un peu en boucle mais après une cinquantaine de pages, difficile de lâcher le bouquin. Bien sûr j’étais sous le charme de Lenny. Et je trouve que Jess n’est pas dénuée d’intérêt. Je ne sais plus où je lisais que les personnages féminins manquait de “réflexions” dans les livres de Gary, sauf dans Lady L. Mais je trouve que c’est faux pour Jess. Je crois me souvenir que c’est faux aussi dans les mangeurs d’étoiles par exemple et madame Rosa elle-même se pose des questions et a une vision bien précise du monde.

    Pour la citation, difficile de n’en retenir qu’une en effet :
    “Je connais un type, à Zermatt, qui dit : “C’est pas au point, tout ça. Il faut changer le monde. Il faut qu’on se mette tous ensemble et qu’on change le monde.” Mais si on pouvait se mettre tous ensemble, le monde, on aurait plus besoin de le changer. Il serait déjà complètement différent. Seul, tu peux faire quelque chose. Tu peux changer ton monde à toi, tu peux pas changer celui des autres. ”

    Bonne soirée
    Déborah (qui est ravie de pouvoir “entendre parler” et “parler” de Romain Gary)

    Like

    • May 9, 2014 at 6:27 pm

      Bonjour,

      C’est vrai que le baron est un personnage peu flatteur. Mais connaissant l’humour de Gary, il représente quelque chose.
      J’adore de début d’Adieu Gary Cooper et Bug Moran, qui rend fou le Valium 10. Dans Chien Blanc, Gary fait plusieurs remarques où il reprend à son compte les mots de Lenny. (Il veut aller en Mongolie intérieure, et il aime aller au Japon pour l’impossibilité de communiquer)

      En y réfléchissant, je me rend compte que les personnages principaux sont toujours des hommes. Ceci dit, Madame Rosa a une forte présence, Jess aussi et Lady L évidemment. Les personnages féminins ont souvent une force intérieure que n’ont pas les personnages masculins. Je pense aux femmes dans Clair de femme, à Lady L bien sûr, mais aussi à Laura dans Au delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable. C’est comme si elles savaient mieux que les hommes quelle est leur place dans le monde.

      J’ai également relevé cette citation de Adieu Gary Cooper. J’ai fait un billet sur The Ski Bum, il est quelque part sur le blog, en anglais, désolée. J’espère inciter des lecteurs anglophones à découvrir cet auteur.

      Passage à L’est a fait un excellent billet (en français) sur Education Européenne ici: http://passagealest.wordpress.com/2014/05/08/romain-gary-et-son-education-europeenne/

      Like

  4. May 12, 2014 at 11:00 am

    This sounds so good as well. I love that first quote.
    I’ve never heard of a White dog. That’s so utterly disgusting. What a shocking thing.
    I have a bad conscience to be honest. I received Les racines du ciel but it’s far too chunky. Now I’ve ordered the short story collection Orage. So I can at least review a few short stories before the end of the month. Well …. I can always read and review him at a later date. I started Au-delà de cette limit …. But I’m in the wrong frame of mind at the moment.
    Have you read the short stories in that collection?

    Like

    • May 12, 2014 at 8:35 pm

      I love that quote too. It’s true, isn’t it?
      About the white dog: when its owner comes to fetch him, Gary faces a perfectly “normal” man, someone who’s sure to be in his good rights. It’s scary.
      I think you’d like this one.
      I’ve reviewed L’orage.

      Like

      • May 12, 2014 at 8:46 pm

        I’m sure I’d like it, yes.
        I’ll read your review after I finished the book.

        Like

        • May 12, 2014 at 8:48 pm

          Ironically, the billet is entitled The Roots of a literary heaven. 🙂

          Like

          • May 12, 2014 at 8:49 pm

            🙂
            Just had a look and remembered it again.

            Like

  5. Lesley Lawn
    May 19, 2014 at 9:39 am

    Bonjour Emma! I love Romain Gary, have been reading him for years…I am a translator and have retranslated ‘La vie devant soi’ …unfortunately the rights situation seems a bit complicated so I am not sure if Ill ever get it published! Keep up the good work! J’attends avec impatience le prochain mercredi!

    Like

    • May 19, 2014 at 7:18 pm

      Bonjour,
      Thanks for the message. I’d love to see him re-published.
      Gros Calin deserves an English translation, do you want to give it a try? 🙂

      Emma

      Like

  6. May 22, 2014 at 11:16 pm

    Great to see readers celebrating Romain Gary’s centenary. Good choice of quotes too in this post.
    What did you think of Fuller’s film? I was disappointed in it because it simplifies all the issues. Gary and Seberg’s relationship disappears entirely, with its age and nationality gap complexities, as well as the twist at the end which gives a deeper insight into racism.

    Like

    • May 22, 2014 at 11:21 pm

      I haven’t seen the film (I’ve never seen any film version of Gary’s books) The book is really subtle and it intertwines with intelligence the story of the dog, the events in the US and Gary and Seberg’s relationship. Plus there’s the black American in Paris and the twist in the end is increadible and so plausible.
      This book is stunning for its literary qualities and Gary’s insight. It shows his talent as a writer and his superior intelligence.

      Like

    • January 20, 2015 at 6:51 pm

      Just found this, and belatedly responding–I saw the Fuller movie first, then read the book. The book is so far superior, it’s not even a conversation. Fuller was a brilliant filmmaker, but when he dealt with racial issues, he invariably fell on his face. He made a film before this one called The Crimson Kimono–its protagonist is a Japanese-American who has this strange paranoia that white people are prejudiced against him–he eventually realizes it’s all in his head, and marries his white sweetheart. This film was released in 1959–it never once mentions the internment camps for Japanese Americans during WWII.

      Fuller created a film where until the very end, you never see a single human racist–the dog’s trainer, who is an aging cliche, seen for maybe two minutes. He condensed the story (which was of course necessary), but he also distorted it almost beyond recognition. He never did seem to understand what racism was, or how it worked. He was the worst possible choice to adapt Gary’s novel, but there are some powerful images in the film. All of which involve the dog.

      Like

      • January 20, 2015 at 11:03 pm

        I love comments on older posts. Welcome!

        White Dog, the book, is powerful and I’ve been trying to convince fellow bloggers to read it but I haven’t been successful so far. It is a tremendous reflexion on racism and the story of the dog just enforces Gary’s message.

        Did you know Gary before watching the film or did you come to the book as being the one that inspired the film?

        Like

        • July 1, 2015 at 9:14 pm

          Ah, apologies, now I’m responding very late to a response. Forgot to check back.

          No, I saw the film, because I do enjoy some of Fuller’s work, and White Dog was until recently one of his hardest films to see. I didn’t like the way it ended. I was curious. I got Gary’s book. I didn’t stop there. I’ve read The Roots of Heaven as well, and I mean to read more. But there’s a special power that arises in him when he writes about animals, and compares them to us.

          I think people find racism a depressing enough subject without injecting ‘racist’ animals into the mix. But to me, this is what makes the book so unique–and to a dog lover, it seems to be asking the question “Do we deserve the love of our dogs. If they could see us, even for a moment, as we truly are, would they run from us in horror?”

          But it’s not all that dark–“The one place in this world where you are always certain to meet a man worthy of the name, is in a dog’s eyes.” We can try to live up to that. To make their illusion real. To be the people they think we are. As we, I often think, made them the people we wish we could be.

          Like

          • July 4, 2015 at 9:34 am

            I’m happy to hear about someone who enjoyed White Dog and The Roots of Heaven.

            Gary loved animals and dogs in particular.
            The Roots of Heaven is also related to animals and full of wonderful thoughts about humanity.

            What is it to be a real human? One worth of being called “human”?

            And you’re right, he questions the relationship between humans and animals. There’s also this question : why would we want them to be human? When you look at humans, it’s a chance for animals not to be like us.

            Gary was deeply affected by WWII: he was in the airforce, his mother died when he was away and he was Jewish. The barbary of the Shoah made him question humanity and dig into what turns someone from human to inhuman.

            The power of White Dog is also in its ending. No pun intended, but things are not black and white. You’d think people who were oppressed wouldn’t do it to someone else. Wrong. Humanity is darker than that.
            It’s a thought Gary also expresses in The Roots of Heaven when he talks about African peoples and he writes, in the mid-fifties, before decolonization was done that African peoples would have their Hitlers, Mussolinis and Francos. How right he was.

            What I love about this writer is his ability to analyse complicated situations and to tell the darkest things with a great sense of irony.

            If you’re interested in discovering more about Gary, I recommend Promise at Dawn.

            Like

  7. Déborah
    May 24, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    Je laisse ici le même commentaire que sur le site “Romain Gary et moi” :

    J’ai acheté et lu Le Vin des morts.
    Je me suis permis d’en faire une critique et de mettre une citation sur Babelio :
    http://www.babelio.com/livres/Gary-Le-Vin-des-morts/612639

    A noter, comme je viens de relire “Adieu, Gary Cooper”, un passage qui m’a fait penser à ce livre, lorsque Lenny raconte la fois où il a pris de L.S.D. et que son sexe lui a volé ses ski :
    ” […] que son phallus fut saisi de peur, se détacha brusquement de sa personne, sauta à terre et s’enfuit clopin-clopant […] ” pour Tulipe dans Le Vin des morts.

    Pour les passionnés de Romain Gary : n’hésitez pas à découvrir ce livre.

    Déborah

    Like

    • May 25, 2014 at 9:18 pm

      Merci beaucoup pour le lien vers Babelio, je le reprendrai dans le billet de clôture du mois Romain Gary.
      Visiblement, ce premier roman (ou Roman?) vaut la peine d’être lu. Je suis curieuse de lire ce qu’il avait déjà en lui si jeune et surtout avant l’expérience de la guerre et la Shoah.

      PS: j’adore cette citation d’Adieu Gary Cooper, qui n’est pas présente dans la version anglaise du livre The Ski Bum. Quel dommage!

      Like

  8. May 31, 2014 at 10:16 am

    Beautiful review, Emma! I can’t believe I missed your post on Gary’s birthday! I didn’t know that ‘White Dog’ was a memoir. The concept of a ‘White Dog’ makes me really angry and sad. The themes covered in this book look quite fascinating. I would love to read it. Another Gary book added to my ‘to be read’ list, thanks to you 🙂 I loved that quote about Coldwater Canyon – so beautiful. I also liked the one about Stupidity – so sad and so true.

    Thanks for hosting Romain Gary month, Emma. I enjoyed participating in it and I can’t wait to read more of Gary’s books now.

    Like

    • May 31, 2014 at 4:59 pm

      It is a sad idea, this white dog concept, isn’t it? I wad shocked the first time I read it. It’s one of the Garys I’d recommend. It’s fascinating.
      I’m really glad you enjoyed Promise at Dawn.

      Like

  9. June 3, 2014 at 9:17 am

    I just came across your Gary article today. I’ve been a fan of his since I read “The Dance of Genghis Cohn” in English years ago–one of my favorite books. I’m in Paris for a couple of weeks so I was able to pick up “Le vin des morts”, his first book, the first version (he revised it many times, and lifted sections for other books) written when he was 19 and, apparently, never published until last month. It’s an incredible tour de force, funny, macabre, scatalogical. Not necessarily in that order. I’ve done some translation (appreciated your comments in that area) but wouldn’t want to take this one on.

    Eric Breitbart (e.breitbart@gmail.com)

    Like

    • June 3, 2014 at 10:46 pm

      Hi,
      thanks for dropping by and commenting. I’m gald to “meet” another Gary fan.
      I’ve read La danse de Gengis Cohn as well and I don’t think it’s his easiest one.
      I want to read Le vin des morts too.

      Like

  10. February 20, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    ‘White Dog’ immediately goes on my ‘Must-Read’ list. How could one go wrong with the only writer to win the Goncourt twice? Besides from your article ‘White Dog’ seems particularly suited for me.

    Like

    • February 20, 2015 at 5:24 pm

      I think you’ll find it interesting.

      Like

  1. June 3, 2014 at 10:42 pm
  2. November 13, 2014 at 12:02 am
  3. March 8, 2016 at 10:42 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: