Top-Drawer in Geneva

Michael Wood

  • Belle du Seigneur by Albert Cohen, translated by David Coward
    Viking, 974 pp, £20.00, November 1995, ISBN 0 670 82187 X

Proust said he didn’t understand how critics could divide literary works into good and bad patches, admiring the first half of a novel by Gautier but not the second, praising everything to do with Goriot in Père Goriot, damning everything to do with Rastignac. He was thinking of Emile Faguet, but we might think of F.R. Leavis performing the same sort of operation on Daniel Deronda. ‘A book is still for me a living whole,’ Proust said, ‘with which I strike up an acquaintance from the very first line, that I listen to with deference, that I allow to be in the right all the time I am with it, without choosing and without arguing.’ Proust’s principle is admirable, but he hadn’t read Albert Cohen, parts of whose Belle du Seigneur are so mawkishly terrible you wonder why the publishers haven’t folded from embarrassment, while other parts are brilliantly, minutely observed, mercilessly funny, a parade of social and moral dissections that make Waugh and Montherlant look like teddy-bears.

Cohen was born in Corfu in 1895, died in Paris in 1981. He had some success as a novelist and playwright before World War Two; spent the war in England liaising between various governments in exile; became famous for Belle du Seigneur in 1968; and is the object now of a growing scholarly and critical industry in France, with several books about him published in the last few years.

The very first lines of Belle du Seigneur are these, and I’m not sure deference is possible here or would do us any good: ‘He dismounted and strode past hazel and briar, followed by the two horses which the valet led by the reins, through the crackling silence, stripped to the waist under the noonday sun, smiling as he went, a strange, princely figure, confident of coming victory.’ You wouldn’t think this was Geneva in the Thirties, and that this chap was a major functionary at the League of Nations, and you think it still less when you read of ‘the sun-dappled forest, the still forest of age-old fears’. But there is plenty more of this rhapsodic stuff to come: ‘Solemnly gyrating among the loveless couples, with eyes only for each other they danced, with eyes feasting on the other, solicitous, intense, engrossed. Blissful in his arms, happy to follow his lead, oblivious to her surroundings, she listened to the happiness coursing through her veins.’ Love, would you say? You would. ‘Those first moments of love, the kisses of those first moments, awesome chasms of their fate, oh those first embraces, there on this sofa handed down by generations of the stern and the dead, their sins tattooed on their lips.’ It’s true that the awesome chasms are the translator’s contribution, but ‘précipices de leurs destinées’ is scarcely less purple. You wonder if the sofa is meant to knock the whole thing over into bathos, but there doesn’t seem to be any stylistic support for this idea.‘O Youth, O ye of tousled mane and perfect teeth, disport yourselves on that shore where love is for ever, where love is never not for ever, where lovers laugh and are immortal.’ Something has gone wrong with the translation here, since the French says ‘where one always loves for ever and never loves for always’, but it doesn’t make any difference, since the words aren’t supposed to mean anything anyway. In general this translation is a miracle of patience and suppleness, loyal to all the difficulties and cleverness and mush it finds.

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