6 May 2016

Albert Cohen: Mangeclous | Naileater (1938)

Charles Dickens on acid, with strong hints of Rabelais. That's my impression of the huge (only 421 pages, but it seems much bigger) novel Mangeclous (1938), which itself is only the second episode of a tetralogy by Albert Cohen (1895–1981), the other novels being Solal (1930), Belle du Seigneur (1968) and Les Valeureux (1969). The only other book of Cohen's I'd read before this is the autobiographical Le Livre de ma mere (1954), which made me cry; this, however, made me laugh: it's a riotous, digressive, insane, hyperbolic, wholly unbelievable novel full of much-larger-than-life characters who don't seem to belong anywhere outside of a comic book, and yet make it their business to appear to belong everywhere. Albert Cohen has performed a tour de force.

This is the story, for want of a better word, of five Jews in Cephalonia (Cohen was in fact born in Corfu) who are French-speaking, or at least speak a kind of French, although they look and behave like no other known group of people.

Mangeclous is the main character, and the English translation of this book has a literal title translation: Naileater. Mangeclous is only his nickname, and his real name is Pinhas Solal, although no one calls him that: as a child, he was once so hungry that he swallowed a dozen screws, so the (surely slightly – and intentionally – incorrect?) name has stuck to him forever after. On leaving the womb he was hungry, but on receiving nothing went back inside for the lovely milk, but was pulled back by forceps and in the process developed a gulley in his skull in which he now keeps cigarettes and pencils, etc.

Mangeclous is many things, but perhaps a liar in particular, as he sees lying as a great asset. He calls himself a lawyer, although he doesn't quite have the training. And he delights in otherwise embroidering on reality: you might say he has the gift of the gob. He virtually never bathes, usually goes about barefoot, and has green fungal growths between his toes and has been known to put his feet on the table, play with the moss and roll it into balls.

He's married to a huge woman who sits on a chamberpot and is obsessed with pharmaceuticals, and has three young children who talk like characters from centuries old books and whom he doesn't feed much, until he reads the occasional article about rickets and then force-feeds them. He's an atheist Jew when it suits him to be so, and comes up with the paradoxical sentence 'Je ne Lui pardonnerai jamais de ne pas exister' (I'll never forgive Him for not existing.') (This reminded me of the earlier Dipychus of Arthur Hugh Clough, tolling the glory of a non-existent God: 'Ting, ting, There is no God; ting, ting', and also the later Endgame of Samuel Beckett: 'The bastard! He doesn't exist!')

The other main characters in the Solal family (the 'Valeureux') are the very small and shy dry-swimming Salomon; the one-armed Mattathias, who is avaricious, has developed a squint from looking sideways into dark alleys to make sure no one has dropped anything there and who walks around with a magnet to attract metal objects people may have dropped; the quiet and courageous Michaël; and the older Saltiel, who receives the letter that will lead the five (with hope) on a journey to fortune in Geneva via Marseilles.

And this also leads to many other digressions, on the boat going, then to Scipion (a compulsive teller of tales about the women who can't resist him) following the group to Switzerland and him bumping into Jérémie and the pair posing as ambassadors from Argentina, and Solal finally meeting up with the motley band, who go camping and...well, that's the kind of book it is. It loses itself, its readers lose it, but then surely that's the idea.

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