Of Jewish origin, Albert Cohen (1895–1981) was of Swiss nationality, born in Corfu. Winner of the Grand Prix de l'Académie Française, Belle du seigneur (1968) is generally considered his masterpiece and one of the greatest Francophone books of the twentieth century. It is the third part of a tetralogy: first came Solal (1930), then Mangeclous (1938), and the original Belle du seigneur, at 1300 pages, was too long for Gallimard, so Cohen excised a large part and with it made the final volume: Les Valeureux (1969).
Brilliant Belle du seigneur certainly is, although it is no easy read, and not just because of its dense 845 pages. It is written in different styles, and there are a number of chapters or sections filled with unparagraphed, unpunctuated stream of consciousness. I wouldn't hesitate to put this tome among a group of other 'unreadable' door-stoppers such as Josuah Cohen's Witz, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, William Gaddis's The Recognitions, Jean-Pierre Martinet's Jérôme, James Joyce's Ulysses, Lionel Britton's Hunger and Love, Alexander Theroux's Laura Warholic, and Marguerite Young's Miss MacIntosh, My Darling.
Albert Cohen's novel is a book of strong satire on the various diplomatic positions within the Société des Nations, the preening and posturing, the fawning and the frivolity of it all. It can be very funny, pitiless to the pathetic, filled with representations of sexual passion, but death always lurks behind the scenes, or is even a major player at the heights of apparent life.
Essentially, though, this is a love story doomed to failure. Here, the rakish big shot at the SDN, the Jew Solal, falls in love with Ariane, the bored wife of the unbearably sycophantic m'as-tu vu Adrien Teume, promotes him and runs off with his wife. Adrien tries to kill himself, fails and continues working. Meanwhile, Solal has lost his nationality, and therefore his job and entire status, but carries on regardless living in a sexual fantasy land with Ariane at an expensive hotel in the south of France. But you can't escape your own consciousness, nor the fact that love is evanescent, and the dangerous games that Solal and Ariane are playing will lead inevitably to mutual suicide. You might say that Romeo and and Juliette are hoist with their own petards, but this is much more Joycean and Proustian than Shakespearean.
In this mammoth novel Albert Cohen is often funny when talking about death, from the 'joyeux futurs cadavres' ('joyful future corpses') to Solal and Ariane being 'enterrés vivants dans leur amour' ('buried alive in their love'); he sees the insanity of tourism: whyever should they go to Venice only to see themselves?; he is acutely aware of the malice behind the social smile; the madness of being jealous about a dead affair; the vacuousness of having nothing to do in your home but use a spirit level on items of your furniture, just to check; or the despair that leads you to kiss your own hand in order to give yourself the appearance of companionship.
Belle du seigneur may be tedious to the point of being unspeakably boring at times, but isn't that true of life itself? Albert Cohen has drawn a true picture of life, and this work should be recognised as the vital literary work of art that it is.
My other Albert Cohen post:
Albert Cohen: Mangeclous | Naileater