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

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 …

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