Albert Cohen, Novelist of Totality

Albert Cohen is most often considered a French writer, though he was born an Ottoman citizen and became a naturalized Swiss citizen. He is the author of a masterpiece that brought him fame late in life: Belle du Seigneur (1968)[1]. He died on October 17, 1981, forty years ago. This anniversary is an opportunity to revisit in K., thanks to Maxime Decout — the author of Albert Cohen. Les Fictions de la judéité — the figure of the man who was the representative of the Jewish Agency for Palestine before devoting himself essentially to his work, in which lyricism and an extraordinary narrative invention are combined – not to mention a powerful reflection on Jewishness and Judaism.

 

 

The only son of a Jewish family, Albert Cohen was born in Corfu in 1895 and emigrated with his parents to Marseille at the age of five. In 1915 he moved to Geneva for the first time, where he studied law. In 1926, he began a career as an international civil servant by joining the ILO (International Labor Office), a position he held until 1932. After spending part of the war in London as a representative of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, he returned to Geneva in 1947 where he was appointed Director of the Legal and Political Protection of Refugees Service at the UN before devoting himself entirely to writing.

It was during these years that Belle du Seigneur, which is undoubtedly the novel of choice for Cohen’s readers, was being prepared. For what reasons? Beyond the immense success it had when it was published, and which has not been denied since, it is a novel of passion, one of the most intense there is, and this despite the fact that it was published at a time when love stories in literature seem to have died out. But it is also a book in which all of Albert Cohen’s temptations and obsessions crystallize and are exacerbated to the point of ambiguity and totality.

Passion reaches an uncommon degree of incandescence, as Ariane and Solal lock themselves into a life of isolation in their villa in Agay, in an attempt to live, on the model of Romeo and Juliet, a “chemically pure love”, cut off from the social and the basely physiological reality of the body. A delusion obviously: the “scurvy” stalks this love deprived of the “vitamins of the social,” and the lovers are “condemned to the forced labor of love in perpetuity.”

The story stands as a novel of totality also by the scope and diversity of its writing. The ferocious satire directed at the League of Nations (where Solal and Ariane’s husband both work) and the petty bourgeois that is Adrien Deume, Ariane’s husband, is mixed with an exalted lyricism that sings of love. With Belle du Seigneur, Cohen pushes to an exceptional degree of mastery the narrative techniques that had made the success of Joyce’s Ulysses forty-eight years earlier. The interior monologues, sometimes without any punctuation, abound and are accompanied by a virtuoso work on the voice, even if the modernity of such writing was ultimately somewhat anachronistic in 1968, at a time when the New Novel had already moved literature into other territories.

*

The fact remains that Belle du Seigneur itself belongs to a totality, a vast fresco that Cohen had already thought of in 1930 with his first novel, Solal (translated as Solal of the Solals in 1933, it is now available in English via a bilingual education edition published by Gallimard, Cohen’s French publisher). Due to numerous editorial vagaries, this ensemble, which Cohen would have liked to have entitled Solal and the Solals, only saw the light of day in fragments, with Mangeclous in 1938 (translated as Nailcruncher, 1940), then Belle du Seigneur in 1968 and finally Les Valeureux in 1969 (not translated)[2]. Obviously, thirty-eight years after Solal and thirty years after Mangeclous, few readers saw that Belle du Seigneur was part of the continuity of these two texts. It has also not been so clearly perceived to what extent the story of Solal and Ariadne is in fact inseparable from that of the hero’s burlesque and jubilant cousins, the Valeureux, among whom are counted the famous Mangeclous, a professional liar and boaster, and Saltiel, Solal’s maternal uncle. The seriousness of the love affair is torpedoed by the counterpoint Cohen had intended through the Valereux’ glib and parodic denunciations of idealized love and its supposedly sublime nature. Mangeclous’s indictments leave no room for doubt:

“Ah, gentlemen, let a novelist come and explain at last to the candidates for adultery and passionate fugues that a lover purges himself! Ah, may the novelist come who will show Prince Wronsky and his adulterous mistress Anna Karenina exchanging passionate oaths and speaking loudly to cover the rumbling stomach and hoping that each one will believe that the other will be the only one to have a churning stomach. Let him come, the novelist who will show the lover changing position or surreptitiously compressing her stomach to suppress the sound while smiling with a lost and delighted air! (…) Let him come, the novelist who will show us the lover, prince Wronsky and poet, having a colic and trying to hold on, pale and clammy, while Anna declares to him her eternal passion. And he lifts his foot to hold back. And as she is astonished, he explains to her that he does a little Norwegian gymnastics! And then he can’t take it anymore and he begs his beloved to leave him alone for a moment because he has to create verse poetry! And, remaining alone in the perfumed workroom, he is stalked! He does not dare to go into the usual room, because the cute Anna is in the anteroom! So Prince Wronsky locks himself in and takes a bowler hat and squats in the manner of Rebekah, my wife, who does not pretend to be a creature of art and beauty! [3]

*

It is also by placing Belle du Seigneur within this ensemble, as well as within Cohen’s three autobiographical texts Book of My Mother (1954) (translated, trans. Bella Cohen, New York: Archipelago Books, 1997), O You, Human Brothers (1972) (untranslated), and Notebooks 1978 (1978) (untranslated), that one discovers the scope and power of his reflection on Jewishness and Judaism.

Readers will first have to wait until 1972 to become acquainted, with Ô vous, frères humains[4], with what can be considered an original scene of Cohen’s relationship to Jewishness. This brief autobiographical text recounts a single event: in the streets of Marseille where he was walking on his birthday, the child approached a crowd gathered around a peddler and stopped, fascinated by the man’s eloquence. The man looks at him and, after a moment, pours out a torrent of anti-Semitic insults that exclude him from the French crowd with whom he thought he was in communion. This discovery of his Jewishness, in the midst of insults and hatred, provides a key to the retrospective reading of the entire work: it is here that a Jewishness lived in exclusion is deeply rooted, as are the messianic dreams that animate Solal. The event, in all its violence, is the foundation of Cohen’s writing as well as of his political commitments to Zionism at the beginning of his career.

Cohen began to write in the context of France’s “Jewish Renaissance” of the 1920s, which saw an increase in the number of publications by Jewish authors such as André Spire, Edmond Fleg, Jean-Richard Bloch and Henri Franck, and the development of a literature conceived as the affirmation of an identity that was both Jewish and French. Cohen is one of the few of these authors, who chose to write ostensibly on Jewish themes, to have achieved lasting recognition in the French literary field. The first text he published was a collection of poems, Paroles juives (untranslated), in 1921, strongly inspired by André Spire and his Poèmes juifs. Supported by Chaïm Weizmann, who was then president of the World Zionist Organization, Cohen then managed to create in 1925 a short-lived but important review, intended to promote the dissemination of Zionist ideas and which was discontinued after its fifth issue: La Revue Juive.

La Revue Juive, n°1, January 15, 1925. Fac-Simile.

In 1930, Solal, his first novel, tells the story of a tension, between a Jewishness, which associates election and curse, and a desire to assimilate into Western society. It is through women that Solal begins his ascent: he deserts his native island, Cephalonia, to discover the West, thanks to Adrienne and then Aude. Exile is therefore an experience of loss and separation, where the hero feels himself to be a foreigner and questions his identity in relation to two groups between which he moves and which are most often presented as antagonistic: the Westerners and the Jews. Solal’s questioning of his identity begins with this experience and continues: “who was he, he Solal, alone in the world?” he asks. Solal experiences himself doubly as a foreigner, in relation to his own people, whom he has left, and in relation to Westerners. He is a “stranger among strangers.”

Belle du Seigneur obeys a different pattern: the rifts between the East, embodied by the ‘Valeureux’, and the West are attenuated, in particular because several passages devoted to the cousins of Cephalonia could not be integrated into the text as Cohen wished[5]. A single woman gives its unity to a novel whose symbolic, ethical and metaphysical scope has perhaps been accentuated.

The fact remains that, put together, the four novels rest on a complex balance between the adventures of Solal and the ‘Valeureux’, who form a group of outrageous and grotesque characters, with prolix and incisive speech, fond of disguises of all kinds and the most extravagant accoutrements. Faced with them, Solal oscillates between shame and love. His adventures follow a dynamic that alternates the rejection of the Valeureux’ and a series of stratagems to make them come to him in the West, a game of cat and mouse where Solal denies his origins in order to better reappropriate them.

Especially since the Valereux has a completely different relationship to Judaism and Jewishness than Solal, a peaceful relationship. Their Judaism is anything but orthodox and sclerotic. Mangeclous’s gargantuan appetite, for example, does not sit well with kashrut, as he certifies that “ham is the Jewish part of the pig.” The rite is perceived by the cousins as arbitrary and contrary to a pleasure principle that remains primordial for them.

An essential fact of the Jewish tradition is however placed at the center of the novels: the Law of Moses that Solal sets up as the primary value of his thought and ethics, because it would allow man to become truly human. This Law is conceived as a Law of anti-nature, a moral code that opposes man’s natural strength and animality and that Solal never ceases to stigmatize, especially when he seduces Ariadne:

“The worship of power is universal. Note how underlings bask in the sun of their leader, observe the doting way they look upon their chief, see them ever ready with a smile. And when he utters some inane pleasantry, just listen to the chorus of their sincere laughter. Yes, sincere. That’s the most awful part of it. For underneath the self-interested love your husband has for me exists another, perfectly genuine and selfless love: the abject love of power, a reverence for the power to destroy. Oh that fixed and captivated grin of his, the obsequious civilities, the deferential curve of his backside as I talked to him. The moment the dominant adult male baboon steps into the cage, the younger, smaller, adolescent males get down on all fours, assuming the welcoming, receptive position of females, adopting the position of voluptuous vassalage, paying sexual homage to the power of destruction and death, the moment the dominant fearsome adult male baboon steps into the cage. Read up on apes and you will see that what I say is true.

Baboonery is everywhere. The worship of the military, custodians of the power to kill: baboonery and the animal reverence for strength. The thrill of respect when the heavy tanks roll by: baboonery. The crowd which cheers the boxer who is about to demolish his opponent: baboonery. The crowd urging him on to the kill (…)

Baboonery is everywhere. The crowds who cry out to be enslaved, who shake in orgasmic ecstasy when the square-jawed dictator, custodian of the power to kill, makes his appearance: baboonery. Their hands reaching out to touch the sanctifying hand of their leader: baboonery. Discreet, ecclesiastical, ministry baboons who stand behind their minister as he is about to sign the treaty and rush forward bearing blotting-paper and feel honoured as they beatifically dry his signature: such loyal little baboons.” (See Coward’s translation, in Chapter 35.)

It is against this generalized baboonery that the Law of Love and Justice turns into an obsession for Solal. In Belle du Seigneur, he demands that Ariadne comply by loving him for himself, not because of his beauty and sexuality.

It is in this way that we can better understand the almost insane incipit of Belle du Seigneur, in which Solal decides to seduce Ariane disguised as a toothless old man. Erasing the grandiose body, the hero seeks to arouse in Ariadne an entirely pure love, which could make her the “first human,” But Ariane, terrorized, rejects him. Solal then unmasks himself and shrieks at her:

“But first, female of the species, hear me! Female thou art and as a female shalt thou be done by. Vilely shall I seduce you as you deserve and as you want. When we meet again, and it shall be soon, in two hours I shall ravish you in ways that women love and cannot resist, foul and filthy ways, and you, love’s great fool, shall be mine, and it is in this wise that I shall avenge the old and the ugly and all the poor innocents who could never fan your flame, and you will come away with me, in doe-eyed ecstasy. Meanwhile, stay here with Deume until it pleases me to whistle for you as I whistle for a dog!”<footnote Coward’s translation, see Chapter 3.</footnote>

Behind the virulence of such an affront, it is the tragic fate of the lovers that is decided from that moment when Solal’s redemptive project is destroyed. The most surprising thing is that Jewishness and its ethics condition the grasp of what is perhaps the most foreign to them: passion. Cut off from society, prevented from acting on the world, Solal defers to love the need to fight what scandalizes him in man. Always associated with the Messiah by women, he lives true Passions on the model of Christ and would like passion in love to serve as a model for love of neighbor and to take over the Law of Moses.

Ô vous, frères humains [O you, human brothers], illustration by Luz © Editions Futuropolis, 2016

But if Solal closed with a surprising and hopeful resurrection of the hero, Belle du Seigneur concludes with the death of the lovers. The failure of messianic love seems total. This messianic defeat may not, however, be entirely foreign to a certain Jewish tradition in which the Messiah is the one who is to come and not the one who has come. Such a situation, Cohen qualifies in Solal with a magnificent expression borrowed from André Spire: the “eternal tomorrow.” That is to say, the promise of another future that constantly relaunches man’s action, tying the past and the present to a future to be accomplished. Behind Solal’s excess and contradictions, it is finally a messianism on a human scale that takes shape and that could serve as a foundation for a true ethics of man.


Maxime Decout

Translated by Daniel Solomon

Maxime Decout is a researcher in literature and essayist. He is the author of Albert Cohen. Les Fictions de la judéité (Classique Garnier) and Écrire la judéité. Enquête sur un malaise dans la littérature française (Champ Vallon, 2014). For Editions de Minuit, he published Qui a peur de l’imitation? (2017), Pouvoirs de l’imposture (2018) and Eloge du mauvais lecteur (2021)

 

Notes

1 Available in English translation under the same title, Belle de Seigneur: A Novel, trans. David Coward, New York: Viking, 1996. There is also a translation under the title Her lover. 
2 The four novels are now available in a single French-language volume, accompanied by a rich critical essay written by Philippe Zard, under the title Solal et les Solals (Paris, Gallimard, “Quarto,” 2018).
3 Albert Cohen, Mangeclous, Paris, Gallimard, “Folio”, 1980 [1938], pp. 137-138, translated Daniel Solomon
4 This text had been published for the first time in 1945, in two issues, in the journal La France libre.
5 This counterpoint is foreseen by Cohen as early as Mangeclous [Nailcruncher, translated from the French by Vivyan Holland. London : Routledge, 1940]. Faced with the size of the manuscript of Belle du Seigneur, which was more than 2000 pages long, Gallimard asked that certain passages concerning the ‘Valeureux’ be deleted. These were taken up and published in 1969 in Les Valeureux, whose plot precedes that of Belle du Seigneur and reproduces part of that of Mangeclous [Nailcruncher].

Support us!

You can help us
Donate

With the support of:

Thanks to the Paris office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for their cooperation in the design of the magazine’s website.