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.

You stay with the book – I stayed with the book – after those awful first lines, because strange things begin to happen quickly, and several other novels turn out to be hidden in the romance. The princely fellow striding through the forest is the fiendishly handsome Solal, descendant of a line of eccentric Jews from Cephalonia, which is what Cohen calls his native Corfu. He’s about to invade the bedroom of the lovely Ariane Deume, née Ariane Cassandre Corisande d’Auble, ‘very top-drawer in Geneva’ as David Coward nicely renders ‘ce qui se fait de mieux à Genève’. The two horses suggest Solal hopes to abduct the girl right now, but he has other tricks up his sleeve, in spite of his bare breast. He appears to be thinking of killing himself, and he dons an old overcoat and moth-eaten fur hat, puts on a false beard and blacks out all but two of his teeth. This, in case you’re wondering, is so he can show himself to the girl as the old Jew he will one day become. Later we learn that he likes to walk around town in this costume, picking up a few anti-semitic gibes for fun; fuel for his scorn of the world. Something more interesting has happened before Solal dresses up, however. David Coward in his Introduction says Belle du Seigneur sometimes reads ‘as if Cohen were trying to see how slowly he could pedal his bicycle without falling off’, but it also reads as if Cohen were trying to turn narrative ineptness into an artistic method. It is at this level that Proust’s principle may be right after all, even for Cohen: Cohen’s deep indifference to causality and plausibility does allow his book to hang alarmingly together as a phantasmagoric display of a certain view of the world.

Meanwhile, back at the abduction, waiting in Ariane’ bedroom while she plays a little Schumann on the piano downstairs, Solal finds a notebook on the bed. You can’t believe Cohen will commit the narrative gaucherie of having Solal read it, and/or of reproducing it for us. But he does: it’s 14 pages of Ariane’s notes for a novel. What’s even harder to believe, and this is where I got hooked, is that these pages will be any good. They’re marvellous. ‘I have decided to become a great novelist,’ Ariane begins. ‘But this is my first shot at writing and I need the practice.’ What follows is not only a charming portrait of daffy but intelligent innocence, but an expert evocation of old Protestant Geneva, represented chiefly by Ariane’s aunt, an austere, respectable person who has a subscription to the Journal de Genéve and may indeed own shares in the paper but won’t read it because it has a fashion page, a serialised novel and allows mentions of Catholics and the Salvation Army. In fact, once he is launched on this programme of local observation, as if he himself were infected with Ariane’s project, Cohen scarcely pays any attention to Solal’s antics for some three hundred pages. Solal’s function at this stage is to desire Ariane and tell her so. He doesn’t abduct her and he doesn’t kill himself; he just takes off after announcing his desire. She says she’ll tell her husband, and he says please do. This is where the plotting gets ludicrous, straight out of French farce, but also irrelevant, because the slow-motion bicycle ride is so funny.

Ariane is married to the vain, stupid, lazy Adrien Deume, who works at the League of Nations under Solal. Solal promotes Deume out of lordly contempt and in order to amuse himself; Deume thinks he’s miraculously won the favour of a powerful superior, and that his career is made. The very fact that Solal taps him on the shoulder seems to him the promise of infinite professional success, and when Solal later calls Deume by his first name he can hardly contain himself. ‘Personal contacts’, he thinks, as if he’d found the bureaucrat’s key to heaven. Ariane, daunted by Deume’s enthusiasm for his new intimacy with his superior, can’t bring herself to tell him about Solal’s visit, and the great set-piece of the early part of the novel, occupying some two hundred pages on and off, is the dîner intime that Deume and his ghastly parents – pious mum and servile dad, creatures straight out of some Balzacian social swamp – devise for Solal. We get the pretentious menu, the pre-prandial practice for all the fawning they are going to do. We get the mother’s bedroom:

Mixed smells: camphor, methyl salicylate, lavender and mothballs. On the mantelpiece, a gilt bronze clock surmounted by a uniformed standard-bearer valiantly dying for his country; a bride’s posy under a glass dome; everlasting flowers; a small bust of Napoleon; a terracotta Italian mandolin player; a Chinese peasant sticking out his tongue; a small trinket case covered with blue velvet and decorated with sea-shells, a present from Mont-Saint-Michel; a little Belgian flag; a miniature coach made of spun glass; a china geisha-girl; a fake Dresden marquis; a dinky metal shoe stuffed with pin-cushion velvet; a large pebble, a souvenir from Ostend. In front of the fireplace, a painted screen showing two puppies fighting over a croissant.

Before this we have had Deume at the office, meticulously wasting time and avoiding work, among other devices by calculating the number of days off he can get a year if he counts in all the religious holidays, possibilities of sick leave and stolen afternoons. By the time the Deumes senior and junior are sitting down, ‘grave-faced and dignified’, to wait for Solal – Ariane is upstairs in her room thinking her own thoughts – we know Solal is not going to come. The comic dinner turns into the comic non-dinner, the long wait, the edginess of the hosts, the lame invented excuses, the cessation of excuses, the family disgrace. Fortunately Mme Deume is able to invite someone else for the next night to eat most of the food.

The plot of the farce thickens. Solal invites Deume and Ariane to dinner at the Ritz, where he lives. Ariane decides not to go, Deume goes alone. Ariane changes her mind, but arrives after Deume has left, and Solal goes into an improbable and disagreeable seduction scene, all misogyny and bogus cleverness, lasting for fifty pages. The Ariane we know so far wouldn’t listen to more than half a page of this, and if she listened to any more would be laughing her head off; but Cohen now needs her for the role of the submissive woman, the female unable to resist the glorious physical splendour of the male when he’s not dressed up as an old Jew, and so she promptly falls in love with Solal, and condemns the novel to its meandering later pages, the tale of their torrid love, its inevitable disenchantment, their quarrels, their reconciliation, their joint suicide as an expression of the terminal impossibility of living with or without such a love. There are still some great pages about Deume and his mother, and the novel perks up every time they appear; but Solal and Ariane are just being put through a programme, a proof. All life death does end, Hopkins wrote; Cohen takes this not as a desperate consolation but as a reason for spoiling life before it looks too good. It’s not true, I think, as David Coward bravely suggests, that ‘for Solal, Cohen has the same mix of affect ion and ridicule which Stendhal showed for Julien Sorel.’ There is a sense that Cohen knows much of Solal’s posturing is absurd, but it’s absurd only because it makes manifest life’s absurdity. It is offered to us as a form of clarity and courage, a willingness to take misogyny, for instance, to its bitter and supposedly truthful end. Take the moment when Solal sounds not like one of the great troubled lovers of the world but like the hero of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, the future Mr Rochester, who cannot bear the thought of a world and a mentality he cannot possess:

In the semi-darkness, she watched him through half-closed eyes and smiled, and suddenly he was afraid of her smile, for it was a smile from another world, a dark and potent world, was afraid of this woman who lay in wait for him, afraid of her tender eyes, afraid of their unwavering beadiness, afraid of her smile so single-minded in its purpose. Supine and soft in her web of spells, she wore her expectant smile in the dim, diffused red glow, and beckoned silently to him, a loving, terrifying magnet. He got up, and stepped into the world of women.

Or he got up, and stepped into the world of the mythology he won’t relinquish, into the demonised, dying despair which is the ground of Cohen’s vision.

Cohen does try to offer us an antidote to this vision. His earlier novels, Solal (1930) and Naileater (1938), had introduced us to Solal’s anarchic cousins, who also appeared at greater length in Belle du Seigneur when Cohen first submitted it to Gallimard. He took out whole sections, which then appeared as a separate novel, The Valiant, in 1969. These cousins are ragged, elderly scamps, weirdly dressed, full of self-importance, and addicted to circumlocutions they themselves obviously find hilarious. ‘With the help of the tutelary goddess, I have obtained an electrical coupling of the apparatus which transmits the human voice, with the corresponding apparatus inside the League of Nations.’ This is the senior cousin speaking, and he means he has got the telephone operator to make a connection for him. There is some pretty good knockabout involving these characters in Belle du Seigneur, particularly when the one called Naileater delivers a letter from Solal to Ariane, wearing a grey topper, the sash of the President of the French Republic, and carrying a golf club and a tennis racket to create an impression of Englishness. He is, he says, letting himself go into total fantasy, ‘sole and legal owner of half of Shropshripshire ... oh Shropshripshire of my oligarchical youth!’ David Coward sees the cousins as ‘prefiguring Snow White’s dwarves and the Marx Brothers’, but its a pretty faint forecast, and the reason these characters are really no antidote to Cohen’s lofty despair is that they obviously come from just the same region of the disappointed soul. The satire and the romance and the farce of Belle du Seigneur, while certainly unequal in their effects and their entertainment value, all stem from a fascination with the world’s failure to live up to weirdly loaded and insatiable demands. A sequence of two moments tells this story perfectly. In Chapter 11, Cohen does a brilliant, brief number on the arena of internalional affairs: ‘One of Luxemburg’s ministers, dumbfounded at being taken seriously, cupped a hand to one ear and relished the remarks directed at him by the German delegate who had a twitch which exposed a set of terrifying canines ... ’ In Chapter 26, Cohen does the same number, at greater length, with more anger, and with weaker jokes. Then he says: ‘But enough, more than enough of this ghastly crew. I have seen my fill.’ As if he hadn’t chosen to evoke this crew; as if feeding one’s disgust were not also a mode of feasting.