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Albert Cohen: Dissonant Voices
Jack L. Abecassis

Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004
US $45, 272 pages, ISBN 0-8018-7982-5


Reviewed by Nadia Malinovich

Jack Abecassis begins his study of French novelist Albert Cohen by posing the reception to his work as a paradox. While Cohen is generally acknowledged as one of the great French writers of the twentieth century, his novels rarely find their way into French national examinations; he never became a media figure, and the publication of his oeuvre by the prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade collection in the early 1990s inspired little critical attention. For Abecassis, “the Cohen paradox” [1] stems directly from the fact that the principal subject of all of Cohen’s oeuvre was his ongoing reflection on the state of being a Jew in the modern world, a state which was, for Cohen, first and foremost, a source of pain and tortured emotions. Antisemitism per se, Abecassis makes clear, is not the issue: numerous writers of Jewish origins have made their way into the French literary canon. It is not Cohen’s Jewishness that is disturbing, but rather the fact that “the catastrophe of being Jewish” [11] was the source of his literary drive.

Abecassis’ reading of Cohen is thus intended as a corrective to the “French Republican” reading of Cohen, which has tended to ignore the centrality of Jewishness, to his oeuvre. Abecassis treats Cohen’s oeuvre thematically, emphasizing the extent to which Cohen’s fiction revolves around the same basic plot and characters—Solal, a Greek Jew who moves to Europe, seduces/marries a Gentile woman, achieves great success but find himself caught between the irreconcilable worlds of his Jewish relatives and the Europe to which he so desperately wants to belong, and is ultimately destroyed/self-destructs.

Cohen’s sense of being inevitably tied to a community of origins towards which he harbored strong feelings of repulsion, Abecassis suggests, was a direct reflection of his childhood experiences as an immigrant, a Jew, and a Frenchman. Cohen was born on the Greek Island of Corfu in 1895, and arrived with his parents in Marseille at the age of five. The fact that French language was an acquired one for Cohen made the young Albert particularly enraptured with all that France and French culture had to offer. As he recounts in his autobiographical novel, O Vous Frères Humains, as a child he secretly assembled an altar to the Republic, to the France that he so desperately loved and with which he aspired to become fully integrated and accepted. It was this passionate love of France that made an antisemitic attack that Cohen suffered on the streets of Marseille at the age of 10—an incident that Abecassis describes as Cohen’s “metaphorical bar-mitzvah” [15]–of such primordial importance in the writer’s life: it was at this moment that he first began to conceive himself “not as an israélite citizen of the French Republic,” but rather as a “perennial universal pariah” [15]. He is made to understand that no matter how much he loves France, he will never truly be accepted as part of the national community.

Cohen’s metaphorical bar-mitzvah, Abecassis argues, functions as foil for the actual bar-mitzvah that the author describes in his first novel, Solal, when the protagonist’s father presents his son with an insular, intransigent brand of Judaism, and warns him against being influenced by or mixing in the Gentile world: the Jew is condemned from both within and without to the tragedy of being Jewish. In Solal, Abecassis underlines, Cohen introduces the theme of attraction/repulsion to Jews and Judaism that would comprise the critical theme in all of his future writings. Jews are often described as deformed, unnatural, monstrous, but the protagonist’s attempts to break away from this world always and inevitably fail. The Jew is inevitably drawn back to the visceral world of his origins that forms the core of his inner soul, irrespective of his outward desire for assimilation and acculturation

Abecassis’ next chapter focuses on the specifically Jewish dimension of the narrative of escape from childhood and refashioning of the adult self that is so central to Cohen’s fiction: “Solal is no ordinary Balzacian country chap intent on conquering the city by means of erotic exploits and manipulations,” he argues [35]. Rather, the underlying theme of Cohen’s characters’ escape/return to Judaism, is informed by biblical stories of concealment/dissimulation, most importantly, the book of Esther, which held a special meaning for Sephardic Jews descended from those forced, like Esther, to keep their Jewishness a secret in order to escape the Inquisition. Many parallels, Abecassis shows, exist between the book of Esther and Cohen’s fiction: “Sarai saves Abram; Joseph saves a clan of seventy; Esther saves a whole people in exile. In the context of Cohen’s narrative, we must ask, will Solal, the undersecretary of the League of Nations, save millions in Europe?” [45]. Hence, Abecassis concludes, Cohen’s narratives can be read as tragic, secular, Purim stories: whereas in the Book of Esther, the dissimulating Jew saves his people and happily reaffirms his Jewish identity, Cohen, writing on the eve of the Holocaust, posits crypto-Judaism as a permanent, alienating state, and it is in failure and suicide that Solal’s epic ends.

The theme of crypto-Judaism is also central to another of Cohen’s primary plot devices, that of the male Jew torn between his love of a Gentile woman and the pull of his Jewish family. After Solal has emigrated to France, become undersecretary general of the United Nations, married the daughter of a French senator and government minister, he builds a chateau where he lives with his French, Gentile wife upstairs, but secretly installs his Greek Jewish family below. The tragic confrontations that come out of this hopeless attempt to reconcile his French and Jewish selves are numerous, as Solal finds himself unable to either negotiate or choose between these two disparate worlds, and ultimately loses his wife to her former French, aristocratic, non-Jewish lover. While the common themes of desire, taboo and disgrace underlie Cohen’s romantic fiction (Solal, Belle du Seigneur), Abecassis argues, “the particular form that the acute consciousness of disgrace takes in Cohen’s work is a specifically Jewish experience, lodged in the center of his fiction; a haunting and recurring nightmare that is inscribed in an acute historical consciousness aware of its own mythic potential that run the gamut of saviors from Joseph to Jesus” [85].

Abecassis then turns to Cohen’s most widely read work, Le livre de ma mère, which appeared in 1954 after a sixteen year publishing hiatus. This autobiographical essay is presented as eulogy to Cohen’s mother, who died of a heart attack in occupied Marseille in 1943. Generally been read as a “lyrical and tended panegyric about filial love,” Abecassis argues to the contrary that, Le livre de ma mère, like the rest of Cohen’s fiction is “dissonant, disturbing, self-mutilating" [88], and he draws parallels between the way in which Cohen presents his relationship to/feelings about his mother with the theme of repressed Jewishness and inability to reconcile disparate worlds that pervades his other fiction. The young Cohen’s family life, Abecassis explains, was dominated by a tyrannical, often cruel father and a submissive, loving mother who the young boy often felt was his only ally in the foreign French world into which the family had immigrated. This early intimacy between mother and son made Cohen’s separation from his mother all the more difficult when he left Marseille to study law and literature in Geneva in 1914. As Cohen integrated into European society—marrying Elisabeth Brocher, the daughter of a Protestant minister, in 1919 and obtaining a post in the International Labor Organization in 1926—his semi-literate “oriental” mother became a liability, an embarrassment, a sign of the Jewish immigrant self from which he was trying to escape. “Perhaps there are good books built on fine sentiments,” Abecassis concludes, “but Le livre de ma mere is not one of them” [123].

The subsequent chapter, entitled Purim in Berlin, focuses on the relationship between Solal and the dwarf Rachel in Cohen’s 1967 novel, Belle du Seigneur. This novel, which puts forth the same basic plot and themes as his 1930 novel Solal, was written in the late 1930s against the backdrop of the Nazi rise to power. For Abecassis, the crux of the novel, which he speculates has been ignored by most critics because it underscores the very uncomfortable theme of the catastrophe of being Jewish, is when Solal, in a kind of macabre desire for self-destruction, dresses as an orthodox Jew in the streets of Berlin in 1936, and is rescued by Rachel, a Jewish dwarf who is hidden with her family in their underground cellar. Solal’s attraction/repulsion for Rachel, with her physical deformity and castrating violent fantasies, embody Cohen’s central theme of dissimulation/revelation that ties his Jewish oeuvre together. Here, the Purim festival, an annual reenactment of a survival narrative, becomes a tragic allegory, as “the playfulness of multiple identities butts against the real pressure of history” [141]. No dissimulated Jew can come to save his/her people from the awaiting slaughter, and tellingly, whereas the Chateau Saint-German drama in Solal, published in 1930, ends in his Jesus-like resurrection, Belle du Seigneur ends in the double suicide of Solal and his gentile lover, Ariane.

The penultimate chapter of the book focuses on the most developed female character in Cohen’s fiction, Solal’s lover in Belle du Seigneur. A Protestant orphan who traces her Genevian family roots back to the sixteenth century, Ariane first falls in love with another woman, a Russian immigrant who she meets at University and nurses when she falls sick and eventually dies of tuberculosis. Ariane’s subsequent life is a tragedy. She marries the kind but dispassionate young man who nurses her after a failed suicide attempt, and it is while she is in the throws of this miserable marriage that Solal seduces her. In a direct continuation of the morbid themes of Solal and Le Livre de ma mère, Abecassis notes, the central plot structure of Belle du Seigneur revolves around suicides; Ariane is subject to suicidal depressions and Solal comes to desire death both because he realizes that he is a failed Joseph/Esther who cannot save his people, and also, because he fails as a lover to his Genevian female double. These two interior/exterior suicide leitmotifs are complementary, Abecassis argues, as the love story would lose its epic quality without the overarching Josephic-Estheric dimension, and the epic would lose its novelistic depth without Solal’s interior love story.

On a metaphoric level, Abecassis posits, Ariane represents Europe, as do all of Solal’s female characters. Solal’s passionate love for women who ultimately reject and destroy him functions as a metaphor for the Jew’s impossible love of a rejecting, sadistic Europe. While Cohen remained cagey about his intended message at the end of Belle du Seigneur, when Solal and Adrienne commit suicide together, Abecassis sees the last paragraph of the novel as clearly indicative of the importance of the submerged Josephic and messianic plots, as Solal carries the dying Adrienne into the cellar where the dwarf Rachel is awaiting him, placing the corpse of his narcissistic female double in the cellar before proceeding to his own death. Importantly, Abecasiss notes, in his final fantasy, Solal imagines not that he has committed suicide, but rather that he is a failed Messiah, who is crucified because of his failure to save European Jews from destruction.

The epilogue focuses on Cohen’s one act play Ezéchiel, which was first performed in 1931. The action takes place on the Island of Celephonia, where Solal’s wealthy banker father Ezéchiel, awaits the return of his illustrious son, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer. Solal, however, has died on the boat returning him to Greece, and the Celephonian Jewish community entrusts Jérémie, an impoverished Eastern European who accepts five drachmas to carry out the dreaded task, with breaking the news to Ezéchiel. The nervous Jérémie stalls for time by engaging Ezéchiel in a discussion of various hair-brained business schemes. When Jérémie finally conveys the tragic news, however, the father is only momentarily distraught; the play ends with Ezéchiel agreeing to marry Jérémie’s daughter so that he can sire another son, to be named David in hope that he will surpass the accomplishments of Solal, becoming not only financially and politically important, rather the “Messiah in person.” For Abecassis, this play, which brings to the fore numerous stereotypical images of Jews as arriviste, crude, and materialistic (the opening scene features Ezéchiel praying before the altar of his safe, as one would normally pray to the Torah), represents the starkest, most boiled-down version of Cohen’s Jewish inability to reconcile his Jewish and European selves.

Ultimately, Abecassis concludes, it is the lack of a universalist message in Cohen’s literary oeuvre that makes his full integration into the French literary canon impossible. The driving force of all of Cohen’s fiction is the tragedy of being a Jew and the inability of merging one’s French and Jewish identities, and as a result, “there are simply no grounds for his appropriation by or assimilation into the French collective conscience” [208]. While Cohen’s focus on the bleak, catastrophic aspect of Jewish identity has also made his work impossible to read in Israel, Abecassis concludes, it is perhaps in the United States, which is free of both an antisemitic heritage and a nationalist master-narrative, that a frank reading of Cohen can begin.

Abecassis’ study represents a welcome addition to scholarship on both Albert Cohen and French Jews more generally. His central thesis—that Cohen’s oeuvre has been misread and/ or ignored within the French academy because its central theme of Jewish alienation in the modern world does not mesh with universalist French Republican culture—is on the mark, and contributes to a growing dialogue about the difficulty that Jews and other minorities have had in reconciling their own ethnic, cultural, and religious particularisms in a France whose universal pretensions in fact mask the specificity of its very particular age-old Christian culture.

Abecassis is a literary scholar, and the book is first and foremost an analysis of Cohen’s oeuvre. However, his line of analysis necessarily takes him into the domain of history, and it is here that the book is at its weakest. Abecassis’ bibliography does not include even the most basic books in twentieth century French Jewish history, and he rather arbitrarily bases his discussion of how French Jewish identity functioned in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries on Alain Finkielkraut’s 1980 memoir, Le juif imaginaire. Bizarrely, the only historical study of French Jews that appears in the bibliography is Arthur Hertzberg’s 1968 book, The French Enlightenment and the Jews, which Abecassis refers to as part of a “more positive tectonic shift” that has “already begun?!” within the American academy [211]. Evidently, Abecassis in unaware that since the publication of Hertzberg’s book close to forty years ago, a whole body of historical literature has arisen questioning the notion that the history of French Jews from the Revolution through the mid-1930s can simply be told as the story of assimilation, as Jews sacrificed all public expressions of Jewishness in exchange for acceptance as “universal” French citizens. Scholars such as Paula Hyman (From Dreyfus to Vichy: The Remaking of French Jewry, 1906-1939, Columbia University Press, 1979; The Jews of Modern France, University of California, 1998), Michel Abitbol, (Les Deux Terres promises: les Juifs de France et le Sionisme, 1897-1945, O.Orban, 1989) Pierre Birnbaum (Les Fous de la République: histoire politique des Juifs d'État de Gambetta à Vichy, Fayard, 1992), to name only a few of the most glaring omissions on Abecassis’ bibliography, explored the complex ways in which French Jews negotiated their commitment to Jewish particularism with the responsibilities, opportunities, and quandries that political emancipation and citizenship offered.

Abecassis’ lack of familiarity with contemporary scholarship on French Jewish history, in turn, leads him to offer too stark a portrait of Cohen as a tormented, lonely soul, struggling impossibly to express his Jewish identity in a way that was completely at odds with the reigning “Israelite” mentality of his day. In fact, Cohen, who was active in the French Zionist movement and founded the Revue juive in 1925, was one of a growing number of French Jews who began questioning exactly the kind of assimilationist “Israelite” attitude that Abecassis mistakenly assumes was dominant within French Jewish circles in the inter-war years. While the rise in antisemitism in France in the 1930s which paved the way for the horrors of the Vichy period inevitably influenced Cohen’s oeuvre, it is noteworthy that he began his literary career in the 1920s. During this period, antisemitism was at a low ebb and French Jews felt a new sense of freedom to explore the complexity of Jewish identity in the modern world in the French public sphere. This period saw a flowering of Jewish cultural life, with the creation of Jewish youth movements, Zionist-inspired associations and press organs, as well as a new generation of French Jewish writers, including Cohen, who felt an unprecedented sense of freedom to tackle controversial issues such as antisemitism, assimilation, and intermarriage head-on.


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