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The Book of Cohen

Belle du Seigneur: A Novel

by Albert Cohen, translated and with an introduction by David Coward
Viking, 974 pp., $34.95

1.

Translation, which, like the wind, bloweth where it listeth, has suddenly and for reasons unexplained presented the Anglo-American public with this remarkable book, some thirty years after its original publication in France. Albert Cohen (1895-1981) seems to be little known in the English-speaking world. If there have been previous English translations of his works, they are missing from the catalog of the British Library, and critical references are practically non-existent. This apparent lack of interest is surprising, given the fact that all Cohen’s work has the same basic theme, which is quasi-universal: it is the pain, the drama, and the glory of being Jewish.

This may not be immediately obvious to the reader of Belle du Seigneur, which the blurb describes as “one of the greatest love stories in modern literature.” The action is set mainly in Geneva during the Thirties, and it is true that the passionate relationship between Solal Solal, an important official of the League of Nations, and Ariane, the upper-class Genevan wife of one of his subordinates, is, in a sense, the backbone of the book. But what is not at all clear from the text itself is the reason for the neurotic destruction of the love relationship by Solal. I shall argue that he is a Jew who has tried to break away from his Jewish roots, but cannot find peace with a Gentile partner. In this, he must be a projection of Cohen’s peculiar creative neurosis, which—I may as well say so at once—some readers, whether Jews or non-Jews, will probably find rather antipathetic. I myself have observed several happy mixed marriages and relationships, and so I suspect that Cohen’s version of Jewishness is quite idiosyncratic. Moreover, it cannot be fully understood from this novel alone, since Belle du Seigneur is not a completely autonomous work.

It is the final volume in what may be called the Solal sequence, which began before the war with Solal (1930) and Mangeclous (1938) and continued after a long interval with Belle du Seigneur (1968) and Les Valeureux (1969). For technical reasons, Les Valeureux was brought out last, but as regards the chronology of the action it should be read as Volume III; its final chapter throws light on the otherwise puzzling early scene in Belle du Seigneur where Solal initiates his seduction of Ariane by paradoxically disguising himself as a toothless old man.

However, to enter fully into Cohen’s intense and complex emotional world, it is necessary to look at his whole output, which is like one continuous and repetitive book, reintroducing the same representative characters and offering variations, and even flatly contradictory viewpoints, on a number of basic issues. As he himself wrote in his seventies: “Ressasseur je suis, et ressasseur je reste,” a lapidary phrase which might be lamely translated as “I am an inveterate harker-back.” Although his tone varies from the lyrical to the Rabelaisian, and from the pathetic to the comminatory, the same divided personality is powerfully present in all his writings: the early prose poem Paroles juives, his one short play, Ezéchiel, the Solal sequence, and the three incantatory autobiographical texts Le Livre de ma mère, O vous, frères humains, and Carnets 1978, the last of which he wrote at the age of eighty-two. Having just read, or re-read, these various books, I am left with one strong, positive impression: Cohen is among the outstanding stylists of modern French literature. Whether or not one can sympathize with his views, he can be read for the sheer enjoyment of his linguistic virtuosity, with which, I am happy to say, the translator of Belle du Seigneur has coped most manfully. Yet French was not Cohen’s mother tongue, nor was he ever technically a Frenchman.

He was born on the island of Corfu, where his paternal grandfather was head of the Jewish community, and his first language, so he tells us, was the Venetian dialect spoken in the community. He was an only child whose parents emigrated to Marseilles in 1900 because of financial and political difficulties on the island. For complicated reasons, his first nationality was Turkish. In 1919 he became a Swiss citizen, and it would be interesting to know why he didn’t opt for French nationality, since he expresses the warmest feelings about France and French culture, but is much less enthusiastic about Switzerland.

On his tenth birthday, there occurred a traumatic incident that was to mark him indelibly, and to which he refers again and again. A Mar-seilles street vendor, whose eloquent performance he was innocently admiring, drove him away with the insulting expression: “Sale youpin.” The shock was so great that he couldn’t go straight home to his parents but wandered the streets until nightfall, pondering in anguish on the implications of his outsider status, which he had never quite realized before. This incident, as he presents it, was the seed from which all his later writing was to grow, and he continued to harp on it even in extreme old age.

Another painful, but purely personal, circumstance was that he had no temperamental affinity with his father, who remains a shadowy, if irascible, figure. All the young Cohen’s emotional capital was invested in his mother, a gentle, pious, self-effacing person, steeped in Jewish lore, who tended him with infinite care. After her death, he celebrated her memory in Le Livre de ma mère, which must be the most emotional and adoring hymn ever addressed to the Jewish mother, or indeed to any mother. It contains the explicit statement that the highest form of love is that between mother and son, from which one can perhaps deduce that Cohen never really cut the umbilical cord. This is all the more curious, in that he gives us to understand that he had many love affairs. He was married three times and his third marriage, to Bella Berkowich, lasted for the whole of the second half of his life.

He returned to Corfu briefly at the age of thirteen for his bar mitzvah, but after that, through some inhibition we can only guess at, never set foot on the island again. Instead, in the imaginative world of his novels, he magnified the Jewish community of Cephalonia, as he called it, into a ghetto Utopia, poetic although primitive and poverty-stricken, peopled by Chaplinesque or Marx Brothers-like characters with a metaphysical dimension and inexhaustible loquacity.

He had the happy idea of supposing that a branch of the Solal family once lived for several generations in France, and that its descendants have jealously preserved the use of the French language in a rather archaic form. This allows him to combine highly literary French with biblical or oriental turns of phrase to form a touching, mock-heroic style, in which all his Jewish characters, apart from Solal, express themselves. To give a brief example—in the following excerpt, Saltiel, the leader of the Cephalonian band, is upbraiding his companions, who, when asked by Solal in his palatial Genevan apartment if they would like some refreshment, eagerly request their favorite dishes:

Pay no attention to these unschooled morons!” cried Saltiel, who could contain himself no longer. “O cursèd crew! O men of little breeding! From what manner of mannerless mothers did you spring? Where do you think you are? In a station buffet or some tavern? Sol, if you can find it in your heart to forgive them, a small coffee for each and nothing else! (With arms crossed and feeling perfectly at home, he glared at each of the uncouth cousins in turn.) Strawberry cordial, indeed! Egg yolks! Equivalent in cash! As for this other unspeakable oaf! Wanting ham, like some Freemason!”

O tiger-hearted uncle,” muttered Naileater. “A harmless, inconsequential petit déjeuner and he takes it out of my mouth!”

This style, which is unique to Cohen, occurs intermittently in Belle du Seigneur, and is sustained almost without a break in Mangeclous and Les Valeureux.

To complete his higher education, Cohen went to study law in Geneva, perhaps because at that stage France had become disrupted through the outbreak of the First World War. Subsequently, he never opted for a purely literary career, but produced his books at intervals, at the same time as he earned his living in different capacities—as an international civil servant or through working for various Jewish organizations and publications. During the Second World War, he was entrusted with an official mission in London, and I happened to meet him then in French-speaking circles. I remember him as being short, dapper, and ceremoniously polite, much more akin to nice Uncle Saltiel in Belle du Seigneur than to the tall, disdainful Solal.

2.

I have already referred to Cohen as a divided personality. In view of the structural pattern of his writings, it is perhaps not too much to say that he was crucified on his love-hatred of Jewishness. The central figure in all four volumes is Solal, the gifted, ambitious Jew, whose temperament compels him to burst out of the ghetto in late adolescence through boldly seducing the wife of the French consul. He probably owes something to two literary models, Stendhal’s Julien Sorel and Balzac’s Rastignac, but he is also different since he carries with him the memory of his origins. Cohen credits him lavishly with the usual romantic qualities: he is handsome, intelligent, and daring; he can command riches at will through his wizardry on the stock exchange; and he plays the power game with ease. Actually, the sequence contains two different versions of his story, but they point to the same psychological conclusions.

In the first volume of the series, Solal becomes a close collaborator of the French prime minister, whose daughter he marries after jettisoning the consul’s wife. In the later volumes, he appears as Under-Secretary General of the League of Nations. In both these guises, he is hero-worshiped by members of his family left behind in Cephalonia—his affectionate Uncle Saltiel and his cousins, Pinhas Solal (nicknamed Mangeclous because of his ferocious appetite), Mathathias, Michael, and Solomon. Only his very strict father, Gamaliel, has cut him off, because he has consorted with Gentile women. His admiring relatives are naively thrilled by the concept of power—that is, of Jewish triumph over persecution and humiliation—embodied in Solal, and themselves have dreams of hobnobbing with important people in Gentile society. Only dreams, however, because they are feckless and in any case far too much at home in the humbly proud, warmly disputatious ghetto to have any real thought of adapting to the outside world.

In both versions of the plot, a crisis occurs when Solal sends money to these picturesque and devoted relatives so that they can travel through Northern Europe and visit him in Paris or Geneva. They arrive like a troop of circus clowns, and while he is too proud and self-assured to be embarrassed by their outlandish behavior—he even imposes them for a while on his entourage—they remind him acutely of his essential Jewishness. In the first version, he feels he must go back to his roots and he tries to compel his wife, Aude, to identify with him in this reversion to type, but she cannot overcome the culture gap and rejects him. He suffers a nervous breakdown, turns into a beggar-like Wandering Jew for a time, and, in the end, commits suicide. Then an unexpectedly supernatural epilogue shows him rising again, Christ-like, from the dead and, followed by his train of impoverished hangers-on, riding off happily into the future.

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