Which French novelist, in Henry Miller’s opinion, surpassed even Gorki and Dostoyevsky in depicting the despair, debasement and resignation of the poorest inhabitants of sprawling 20th-century cities? The answer is Albert Cossery (b. 1913), an Egyptian-born writer who has lived in Paris for more than 60 years. Miller was characteristically hyperbolic in his comparison, as Cossery has admitted, but the author of Tropic of Cancer rightly emphasized the force with which Cossery evokes the down and out. His seven novels and one short-story collection are packed with harsh truths, vivid scenes, compelling anti-heroes and especially bleak humor.
Cossery has long enjoyed the esteem of peers like Miller. Albert Camus and Lawrence Durrell championed Cossery’s first novels; sculptor Alberto Giacometti and Dadaist writer Tristan Tzara were also admirers. I should add that only two or three other contemporary novelists are as frequently recommended to me by French writer-friends, who are ever eager to draw my attention to neglected mentors. Most of Cossery’s books have remained in print over the decades, and he was (belatedly) awarded the Grand Prix de la Francophonie in 1990. Still, the writer has achieved widespread recognition only recently, when his unique and disturbing work was gathered into a two-volume Oeuvres complètes (Editions Joëlle Losfeld).
Cossery’s books possess a remarkable stylistic and thematic unity. From his first collection of stories, Les Hommes oubliés de Dieu (1941), to his latest novel, Les Couleurs de l’infamie (1999), his style is admirably clear and concise. Classical in its succinctness and syntactic rigor, Cossery’s prose nonetheless blends exact descriptions with colorful dialogue that literally renders Arabic insults and invocations. A woman calls her husband a “laundry line,” which means “wimp,” while another character sits outside a café and “feels as unlucky as a louse on the head of a bald man.” It is not uncommon to hear a character calling out “Salut sur toi,” “Ô homme,” “Par Allah” or “Mon bey.”
As a narrator, Cossery is derisive and provocative. His satire of bourgeois proprieties is scathing. Beyond his sarcasm and humour noir, however, looms the ubiquitous theme of sleep as a means of escaping social and existential contingencies. The author brings out the profound ontological dimension of closing one’s eyes and dropping off (and out). For Cossery, sleep represents a character’s response to the absurd fact of being born, of being cast into a repulsive world.
Correspondingly, all his main characters are heavy sleepers or desperate seekers of oblivion through other means. Often anarchistic in temperament, they disdain common morals, personal ambition and social hierarchies as they shift between an aspiration to prolonged unconsciousness and the desire for a remote vantage point from which the essence of life can be meditated upon at leisure.
Their lethargy notwithstanding, they do search for whatever meaning life might conceal. They usually conclude that life has no meaning whatsoever and pursue rudimentary pleasures, including sleeping off what they did not experience in the first place. As for the characters who entertain hope, they have more likely than not fallen prey to a persistent unrealizable daydream, rather like the “pipe dreams” in which Eugene O’Neill’s characters, in The Iceman Cometh, remain absorbed. (Were the latter drunkards transported from Harry Hope’s chilly saloon to the coffeehouses of Cossery’s torrid Cairo, they would find their hookahs filled with hashish, a narcotic that plays an at once positive and negative role in all these novels.) If a criticism must be made, it is that Cossery’s novels sometimes end with unnecessary political or philosophical statements—messages that have already come through clearly in the books’ engaging images.
Except for Une ambition dans le désert (1984), a political tale that takes place in a fictional emirate state and recounts how a distant unnamed superpower attempts to manipulate an international oil crisis, Cossery’s novels and stories go back to Cairo and to the years of his youth. The Paris in which the author has spent two-thirds of his life, occupying the same hotel room ever since the end of the Second World War, is conspicuously absent.
Cossery came from a modestly well-off family, as we learn in Michel Mitrani’s Conversation avec Albert Cossery (also published by Losfeld). He attended French schools as a child, mastering the language of Stendhal and Baudelaire precociously enough to take a stab at writing a novel in French by the age of 10. (This bilingualism was not as exceptional as it might sound; the polyglot and culturally sophisticated quarters of Cairo and Alexandria spawned several key European modernists, ranging from the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy and the Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti to Francophone poets and novelists such as Edmond Jabès, Michel Fardoulis-Lagrange and Georges Henein. All were fluent in two or three languages. Readers of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet know all about this. Nor should one forget the other seminal Cairo novelist, Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, who wrote in Arabic and was Cossery’s elder by one year.)
Before settling permanently in Paris in 1945, Cossery thoroughly explored the sub-proletarian districts of the Egyptian capital. His intimate knowledge of sordid and poignant details can be perceived in his minor characters, drawn from outside his immediate familial experience yet convincing on the page. His street sweepers, barbers, peanut vendors, hashish dealers, ironmongers, prostitutes, bums and inveterate loiterers are graphically portrayed. One senses the novelist’s affection for them. Particularly notable is the pompous police officer in Mendiants et orgueilleux (1955), Cossery’s most psychologically complex novel.
Yet Cossery’s most important characters come from higher social classes. In Un complot de saltimbanques (1975), for example, the main character, Teymour, has returned to Cairo from Europe, where he had supposedly studied chemistry but had actually only bought a diploma and otherwise squandered his family’s money. This somewhat parallels Cossery’s own experience. He first went to France in the mid 1930s, ostensibly to attend a university, but admitted to Mitrani that he had “studied nothing at all” by the time he returned to Cairo in 1938.
Another personal analogy can be spotted in Les Fainéants dans la vallée fertile (1948). In that novel, Segag muses about working at some distant time in the future, probably in a nearby factory building that has not yet been finished (and even appears abandoned). The other members of his family while away their time sleeping. Interviews with the author have revealed similarities with his own family’s “chronic torpor.” Yet Cossery portrays himself in none of these novels, at least not in the sense of realistic autobiographical narration. (Need I point out the hard work involved in writing well-crafted novels about not working?)
The most significant main character is Gohar, the disabused former literature professor who, in Mendiants et orgueilleux, quits teaching, becomes a hashish addict and ruminates on “the imposture of existence.” This cynical yet somehow charismatic ex-intellectual volunteers to do the book-keeping for Set Amina’s brothel, a job that Cossery sarcastically describes as being of “the utmost literary importance.” Gohar is indifferent to sexual pleasure, so the urge to consort with one of the in-house charmers never torments to him. Then one day he kills one of the girls, for no reason whatsoever.
One thinks of certain existentialist fictions by Camus or Jean-Paul Sartre. One also thinks of Raskolnikov’s killing of the old lady in Crime and Punishment. Yet there is a fundamental difference between the author of La Violence et la dérision (1964) and the Russian novelist whom he read avidly in his youth. As in Dostoyevsky’s story, Cossery often centers his plots on an acte gratuit that should theoretically induce a spiritual crisis in the main character. Because of the reprehensible nature of the act, we imagine that the character will be shocked into finally facing up to his inner depravity. But Cossery’s characters decline even this ultimate confrontation with themselves. They have no desire for redemption. They maintain their (recumbent) postures as sleepy-eyed contemplators of a farcical world.
Transaction Publishers has recently issued the second volume of John Taylor’s essays, Paths to Contemporary French Literature. transactionpub.com