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.
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.
In the later Les Valeureux/Belle du Seigneur version, Solal sacrifices his brilliant position at the League of Nations to elope with Ariane, the wife of one of his subordinates, Deume. This time there is no overt attempt at a return to Jewishness, although in one chapter Solal repeats almost word for word many of the things that Cohen himself says about the special destiny of the Jews in his autobiographical writings. Instead, at first Solal seems to adopt the policy of “All for love and the world well lost,” as if he were trying to make erotic passion an end in itself. Here Cohen lets his style rip in a pulsating riot of lyricism:
First nights of their loving, long, stumbling, fumbling nights, desire perpetually reviving, limbs intertwined, secrets whispered, brief and ponderous collisions, turbulent storms unleashed, Ariane submitting, altar and victim, at times nipping her lover’s neck with plaintively sharp teeth. Oh her eyes showing white like a saint in ecstasy, and she would ask if he were happy in her, if he were content in her, and ask him to keep her by him, keep her by him always. First nights of their loving, mortal flesh colliding, sacred rhythm, primal rhythm, backs arching, backs lunging, deeply thrusting, rapid, dispassionate thrusting, male implacability, she passionately endorsing, suddenly flexing, reaching towards the male.
But love, however much helped by wealth, soon goes sour in a social vacuum. Solal becomes exasperated by Ariane’s continuous presence and mundane preoccupations and, to relieve his boredom, resorts to mental cruelty. In the excruciating final chapters, he tortures Ariane with retrospective jealousy and humiliates her in all possible ways. When the pair are at the end of their emotional tether, they tacitly agree on a double suicide and dose themselves with a sleeping draft. This bleak conclusion is not followed by any reassuring parody of the Christ myth. In the thirty years between Solal and Belle du Seigneur, Cohen’s mental atmosphere had become distinctly darker.
A vital point which cannot be guessed from Belle du Seigneur, but which certainly conditions the novel, is that Cohen himself at some stage, presumably after the composition of Solal, lost the simple faith in the Jewish God instilled in him by his mother, and which he attributes to Uncle Saltiel, the most endearing of his fictional characters. But he deals at great length with his loss of faith in his autobiographical writings, which are positively Job-like in the way they call God to account for the mystery of evil and suffering. At one point, in ironical despair, he says that he cannot help but give God “un zéro de conduite,” that is, the worst possible school mark for behavior, much in the way Woody Allen has declared that, in his view, God is an underachiever. Unlike the Book of Job, the Book of Cohen, despite its biblical rhythms, doesn’t end in a meek reconciliation with the Almighty. Cohen oscillates violently between belief and disbelief: “What a strange situation is mine: I cannot believe in Thee and I cannot live without Thee!” Most of the time disbelief dominates: “God did not choose Israel, Israel chose God,” that is, Israel invented Him, but it is now clear that there is no conceivable Person at the center of the mute, post-Newtonian, post-Darwinian universe. Moses, Abraham, and Jesus must have been hearing voices in the modern pathological sense; they were talking to themselves.
Cohen’s lack of faith in God seems paradoxically at times to intensify his pride in the Jewish people as the heroes of an impossible, self-inflicted, metaphysical mission—a sort of perpetual argument with the Absent God—which makes them unique. In Les Valeureux, even Mangeclous, the gluttonous, backsliding Jew (“Ham is the Jewish part of the pig”) is concerned about the possible loss of this mission. If the Jews get their nation-state, will they not cease to be Jewish through becoming normal and happy? “Happiness makes people stupid and deprives them of the genius of the heart.” To which the pious Saltiel answers: “Don’t worry…there will also be trials and tribulations in the Jewish State…if the Almighty favours us with unpleasantnesses and enemies two or three times a century, it is precisely to keep us in good Jewish form.”
At other times, Cohen blows hot and cold about the Jews as he does about God. Sometimes he presents them as being incurably demeaned and groveling because of their long history of persecution and the impurities consequent on the diaspora. Kind Uncle Saltiel has some harsh things to say about a group of Polish Jews he encounters, and Cohen, expressing himself directly, occasionally allows himself abusive remarks which, if made by a non-Jew, would be denounced as anti-Semitic.
After contrasting the Jews unfavorably with the ancient Greeks as regards their place in the history of civilization, because the Greek legacy is not limited by religious or racial exclusiveness, Cohen may argue, in a different mood, that the Jewish race has exercised the greatest of all civilizing influences, not directly through its orthodox religion, but because it produced Jesus, thanks to whom the gospel of love has spread throughout the world. (Uncle Saltiel has a guilty secret: he reads the New Testament on the sly and sheds a happy tear over Christ’s goodness.) But in the early prose poem Paroles juives, which is militantly Jewish in tone, Cohen suggests that Christianity was a fatal weakening of the essential Jewish doctrine.
The play Ezéchiel, also an early work, presents the two contrasting stereotypes of the poor, spiritual Jew and the rich, avaricious Jew, and implies that God, in his wisdom, made them as complementary agents; money is what allows the race to keep going from generation to generation, so that the spirit will eventually triumph through the advent of the Messiah.
Then again, he asserts more than once that the distinctive feature of the Jews is that they are against Nature, by which he seems to mean the animal part of human nature. He appears to be echoing the puritanical principle: “Nature is what we are put into this world to rise above,” which is more commonly associated with Christianity. But he is not consistent in this either. In telling the story of Solal and Ariane, he celebrates their beauty and the joys of sex at great length—that is, he is for Nature—yet Solal, and to a lesser degree Ariane, are extremely squeamish about the other bodily functions, so much so that the sound of a toilet being flushed might endanger the perfection of their relationship. In this respect, they signally fail to become one flesh, if that is the test of a true union. Also, they spend an inordinate amount of time bathing and preening, separately and narcissistically, before each encounter, as if Nature has to be greatly improved upon before their instinct can function.
Solal’s fastidious attitude toward the body even causes him to be exasperated at times by his own beauty, which attracts women too easily and, in any case, is only a temporary mirage hiding the universal sordidness of the flesh. This explains why, at the beginning of Belle du Seigneur, he begins his seduction of Ariane by perversely disguising himself as an old man—and a conventional Jewish caricature at that—as if emphasizing the non-spirituality of sexual love by demonstrating that it cannot exist between a young woman and an ancient wreck. The implied, and peculiar, demand that it should is a form of metaphysical rebellion, a reproach to God for having organized the world in such a basely animal or material way.
However, if the Jews are against Nature, why did Cohen invent the Jewish, yet very Rabelaisian, figure of Mangeclous, who is the polar opposite of Solal and, in the end, remains in the reader’s memory as perhaps the stronger and more interesting of the two characters? Mangeclous is aggressively ugly, but is totally indifferent to the fact. He eats like an ogre, breaks wind with panache, and, in his relations with his wife, Rachel, is of the earth earthy; only his speech remains delicate and flowery. He may make outrageous remarks, but at heart he is a conformist who believes in arranged marriages within the community as being in accordance with Nature. He sees no reason why Solal shouldn’t marry his daughter, Leah. She isn’t beautiful, but who needs beauty in a wife, as long as she is healthy? She happens, as an individual, to be stupid, but she belongs to an intelligent race and heredity is full of surprises. Solal has gone after the will-o’-the-wisp of Western romantic love, which is incomprehensible to East Mediterranean Jews.
It could be argued that all these tensions—pro-God/anti-God, pro-Jew/anti-Jew, pro- Nature/anti-Nature, Solal versus Mangeclous—only go to show that Cohen covers a very broad spectrum and is therefore all the richer. Since life is full of contradictions, literature should be so too. I would agree with this, if I were convinced that Cohen’s creative instinct were always fusing the contradictory features of his temperament into a truly aesthetic whole. But I feel that Belle du Seigneur, in particular, is weakened by certain emotional confusions which are not compensated for by the brilliance of the writing. They concern, in the first place, the quality of the love story.
In the course of the Solal sequence, Cohen makes several direct and indirect references to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, including a hilarious guying of the plot by Mangeclous as an example of Western absurdity. However, in Belle du Seigneur, the implication is rather that the reader should identify with Solal and Ariane, as he can with Tolstoy’s protagonists. In fact, there is no parallel between the two love stories. Vronsky and Anna are average, honorable persons, in the grip of a passion that has caught them unawares, and they come to grief through the iron resistance of nineteenth-century social conventions. Cohen’s couple, on the other hand, are two egoisms juxtaposed in a social void.
Solal has deliberately seduced Ariane, it seems, simply to prove that he can do so. He has also behaved caddishly by using his senior position in the hierarchy to get Ariane’s husband temporarily out of the way. He has conquered a beautiful, upper-class woman, but it is as if, having got her, he doesn’t know what to do with her, except make love until he is sickened. As for Ariane, she is not given much dignity or intellectual presence. She is condescending toward her husband, whom she can treat cavalierly since she is financially independent. Once she is bowled over by Solal, she is mainly concerned, in her long, babbling, Molly Bloom-like interior monologues, with worshiping her seducer as the male principle. He is Lord and Master and she is his Beautiful Slave. (It crosses my mind that Cohen could be worshiping his own virility par personne fictive interposée.) Her occasional sharper remarks sound like obiter dicta slipped into her monologues by her creator. True, she plays the piano and takes a general interest in music, but Solal loathes music, a fact he conceals from her. Their relationship is strangely devoid of any mental or spiritual reciprocity; he is a phallus with half-understood hang-ups, and she is a mere attractive receptacle; “Sois belle et tais-toi,” as the old French misogynist saying has it.
Since Belle du Seigneur is set in the Thirties, if Solal and Ariane’s love had any substance, apart from sexuality, divorce and remarriage would be possible. Also, if Solal is intelligent, as we are given to understand, he must know that to opt for la solitude à deux in luxury hotels is a recipe for disaster. Something which is not expressed in the text seems to be guiding Cohen’s pen and dictating the unhappy outcome. What is preventing Solal from trying to create a better relationship with Ariane? Is it Cohen’s mother-fixation, which is causing him to assume that the conjugal, or quasi-conjugal, relationship is inevitably impure and imperfect? He says somewhere that the most tender endearment a women can use in addressing her lover is “My son!”—a remark that will cause the raising of more than one male eyebrow.
Is it because Solal Mark II secretly shares the sense of guilt openly displayed by Solal Mark I? He has succeeded brilliantly outside the ghetto in order to avenge himself and his people; he has become the Lord of a Gentile Beauty, but he cannot found a Jewish family with her unless she converts, as the Aude of Solal Mark I was unable to do. Or is it because, like Cohen himself, Solal has lost his simple Jewish faith and, being a half-conscious victim of metaphysical despair, works off his frustration on Ariane and then takes her with him into oblivion?
Whatever Cohen’s real-life relationships with women may have been, it seems a reasonable guess that some combination of these different factors must have caused him, on the imaginative level, to create the same negative, indeed suicidal, pattern twice. It is a pattern that runs counter to his own eloquent plea for universal human understanding in his moving diatribe, O vous, frères humains. We are all poor mortals, Jews and Gentiles, men and women, sojourning for a limited time in the Absurd world, so why can’t we learn to love, or at least respect, each other, instead of adding gratuitously to the sum of inevitable evil? Since Solal willfully adds to the sum of evil for dubious reasons, of which his creator is perhaps not fully in control, it is difficult to see him as a truly tragic hero.
It also goes against the grain of O vous, frères humains that there should be an unconscious imbalance in Belle du Seigneur in the presentation of Jews and non-Jews. Cohen gives an almost uniformly satirical picture of life in the Gentile world. There are long passages describing in detail the small-mindedness and sanctimonious hypocrisy of Ariane’s Genevan, middle-class parents-in-law, the Deumes, and particularly of Mme Deume, a bland and snobbish monster who behaves as if she had a direct line to God. It is true that young Deume has the grace to be shaken out of his materialistic complacency by Ariane’s defection, and he even attempts to commit suicide, but he remains slightly ridiculous; he is not given the benefit of the poetic rhythms that accompany the sufferings of Solal, his wife’s seducer. Cohen’s picture of the League of Nations is similarly caustic; the League is a talking shop, peopled by officials who are not thinking primarily of world problems but of salary scales, promotions, and freebies. We are treated to some dazzling scenes showing the grotesqueries of the different national representatives as they jostle for position, but there is nothing here of the warmth that accompanies every appearance of the band of Cephalonians, however eccentric their behavior.
No doubt everything Cohen says about the Genevan middle class and the League of Nations is justified as far as it goes, and it is certainly all very amusing. But I am struck by one false note. Solal, Cohen’s idealization of the Jew as physical and intellectual hero, moves effortlessly among this mass of unworthy humanity without being sullied by it; he is not involved in its ludicrousness, and although we never see him doing anything of any importance, his position is obviously meant to enhance his prestige in the reader’s mind. In other words, he is automatically given superior status through his personal essence as un seigneur juif, whereas all the other officials are shown as absolutely “flat” characters with no metaphysical dimension.
So, a final, and perhaps regrettable, peculiarity of the Book of Cohen is that its author, for all his goodness of heart and universal concern, didn’t think of completing his imaginative picture by bringing in one or two fully rounded Gentile characters, more representative than the gushing and rather flimsy Ariane, to show that Gentiles as well, whether believers or non-believers, can have a spiritual aspect.
July 11, 1996