Around the World in Classics: The Kites by Romain Gary

Our ongoing series of unheralded global classics continues with a French novel that offers a wise and worldly beacon of hope.

Maria Bedford
Around the World in Classics The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura Japan
Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

‘These unprecedented times’ has become a lockdown cliché, but it’s true that we don’t have a model in our minds for what we’re currently going through. There are thousands of books and films about other global crises – none more so than the Second World War – and enough that I think we’ve all thought about how we might react if the bombs started falling again. But weeks spent sheltering in our own homes from an invisible threat? We don’t have a narrative for that yet.

People talk about the ‘blitz spirit’ as if it is something built into the British character, but how did people really find the emotional strength to carry on under such unimaginable hardship? The Kites might provide some guidance.

Romain Gary’s novel is a French war hero’s reflection upon the spirit that carried his country through the occupation. First published in 1980, 35 years after the end of the war, one can only conclude that that is how long it took him to create this intensely hopeful narrative out of the horror of that time.

How did people find the emotional strength to carry on under such hardship? The Kites might provide some guidance.

It’s a second world war book, but a very local one: our hero is a boy named Ludo, who lives with his uncle, a kite-maker in a small village in Normandy. He meets his first love, a visiting aristocratic Polish girl named Lila, in 1932 while hiding in a strawberry field. It’s their love story, and the small, defiant actions of their friends in the village, that show us how tiny acts of resistance together add up to something transcendent. There is the local restaurateur who carries on cooking haute cuisine even as ingredients become harder and harder to get; there is the brothel madame who passes on information stolen from her clients to La Résistance; and there is Uncle Ambrose, the kite-maker who disappears to help shelter Jewish children in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, leaving Ludo a note that reads “don’t give up on her.” Ludo isn’t sure whether he is talking about Lila or France.

Jean Seberg and Romain Gary in Venice, 1961. Image: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Jean Seberg and Romain Gary in Venice, 1961. Image: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Romain Gary’s life was an impossibly romantic one. If he didn’t already exist, Wes Anderson might have created him. Born in Vilnius as the son of a poor, intensely demanding and ambitious single mother, the Jewish family emigrated to France in 1930. He later wrote in his autobiography Promise at Dawn that “I have heard only two people speak of France in the same tone: my mother and General de Gaulle.”

He fled to London at the outbreak of war, becoming a celebrated fighter pilot in the Free French army. His war record led to him becoming the French ambassador in Hollywood in the 1950s (what a job!), his novels brought him literary celebrity, and he married the beautiful, gamine actress Jean Seberg, made famous by her role in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, walking down the Champs-Élysées selling copies of The New York Herald Tribune. Photographs of the two of them together are a picture of gorgeous mid-20th-century glamour. At one point, Gary even challenged Clint Eastwood to a duel to preserve her honour (Eastwood refused).

Their love story didn’t have a happy ending. Seberg died of suicide in 1979; Gary did too, a year later, just months after publishing The Kites. Reading this intensely hopeful novel, it’s hard to imagine that its author was on the verge of suicide; it’s perhaps foolish to read this action into its themes, as tempting as it might be to do so. After reading it, you are left with a feeling of fortitude, hope for humanity – and not a little longing to soon be in a strawberry field in Normandy yourself.

The Kites
The Kites
A New York Times Notable Book 2018

'A rebel French writer ... a brilliant storyteller, a master craftsman and one of France's most original writers' Independent

'The Kites is a novel touched from beginning to end with grace, a great saga about the innate dignity of love that succeeds in the feat of being funny and poetic, tender and sharp, committed and fierce, with a touch of brilliance in the art of dialogue' Muriel Barbery, author of The Elegance of the Hedgehog

A quiet village in Normandy, 1932. Ludo is ten years old and lives with his uncle, a kindly, eccentric creator of elaborate kites. One day, sitting in a strawberry field, Ludo meets the beautiful young Polish aristocrat Lila. And so begins Ludo's lifelong adventure of love and longing for Lila, who only begins to return his feelings just as Europe descends into the devastation of World War 2. After Poland and France fall, Lila and Ludo are separated. Ludo's friends in the village must find their own ways of resisting: the local restaurateur who is dedicated above all to France's haute cuisine, a Jewish brothel madam who sleeps with her unwitting enemies and Ludo, who cycles past the Nazis every day, passing on messages for the French Resistance - thinking always of Lila.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more