The Abjection of Albert Cohen

Albert Cohen died in 1981, hailed in France as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. His passing barely registered in the English-speaking world; not even the New York Times ran an obituary, and it is unlikely to correct this particular mistake in its “Overlooked” feature. Cohen was the author of a fictional tetralogy that included a masterpiece called Belle du Seigneur, as well as three volumes of memoirs, but at the time of his death he had not been translated into English since 1933. In that year his first novel, Solal, published in 1930 in France, appeared in English to dithyrambic reviews. The vagaries of the translation market deprived us of translations of Belle du Seigneur until 1995 and of The Book of My Mother until 2012. The rest of Cohen’s work remains untranslated. Lost to Anglophone readers is a body of work of real genius, books that are humorous, romantic, tragic, sensuous, challenging, enthralling, and occasionally exasperating and even repugnant. They are books that are overflowing with love, thought, and ambiguity; that are extremely Jewish and extremely French, and explore the ties and the disjunctions between those two adjectives of belonging. There is much in them to admire and even to adore, and much that will enrage. Cohen really does contain multitudes, a writer roaming in style and form — there is humor, there is Biblical narrative, there is stream-of-consciousness realism, there is exalted lyricism, there is even the language of swashbuckling tales and serial novels à la Eugène Sue. His language flows drunkenly and freely yet also precisely, with a seeming infinity of verbal resources, able to change tone on a dime. The result is a body of work that is utterly unique. It is also, in both its fictional and autobiographical forms, an oeuvre

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