Albert Cossery: 1913-2008
Al-Ahram Weekly pays tribute to three Egyptian intellectuals who died late last month
The novelist Albert Cossery, who has died in Paris at the age of 94, was almost the last of a generation of Franco- Egyptian writers that included talents as various as poets Georges Henein and Edmond Jabès and novelist Andrée Chedid. All these writers, born in Cairo in the early decades of the century, made significant contributions to Egyptian cultural life between the wars before leaving the country in the 1940s or 50s.
Born in Cairo in 1913 and leaving Egypt for Paris soon after the publication of a collection of short stories, Les Hommes oubliés de Dieu, and a first novel, La Maison de la mort certaine, in Cairo in the early 1940s, Cossery insisted until the end of his life that he was "an Egyptian writer" and a writer who had "never felt outside Egypt."
Though he spent the second half of his life at least as a resident of the Paris district of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where he was a fixture of café life for more than half a century, Cossery set all but one of his seven novels in an Egypt remembered from early years in Cairo.
Appearing at a slow but steady pace from the early 1940s to the publication of a final novel, Les Couleurs de l'infamie, in 1999, these novels typically present a Cairo underworld of beggars, idlers and other characters close to the author's heart. Together, they satirize a world of widespread corruption and folly, presenting "gentle deliverance" from it in attitudes of laziness, nonchalance and the mockery of those in power.
Following the publication of his first books in Cairo, Cossery made a name for himself as an original and unusual writer in post-war Paris, which was undergoing a cultural revival following occupation during the Second World War. A friend and associate of well-known literary figures of the time, among them Henry Miller and Albert Camus, Cossery published a second novel, Les Fainéants dans la vallée fertile, in 1948, followed by a third, Mendiants et orgueilleux, in 1955.
This novel, translated as Proud Beggars, set the seal on Cossery's reputation, and it is still his best-known work. It was given a new lease of life by the 1991 film version, directed by Egyptian director Asma el-Bakry.
The novel focuses on the story of Gohar, a university professor who abandons his profession in order to become a Cairo beggar. Gohar is presented as a kind of moral touchstone since, faced by the folly and misery of the world, his attitude is one of mockery and laughter. Together with his fellow beggar Yeghen, he recommends the benefits of doing nothing.
While the novel naturally contains a great deal of satire -- Cossery was a gifted writer of comedy -- in addition to its concern with the proper manner of relating to the world, there is also a concern with how to achieve something approaching equanimity within it. Nour el Dine, a police officer sent to investigate a murder, slowly develops a curious sympathy with Gohar, so much so that Nour el Dine's self-conception and ambitions are reconstructed in the light of his example.
Impecunious and good-humoured contemplation of the world and the search for personal sympathy and friendship within it are the virtues recommended in Mendiants et orgueilleux, contributing to what has been described as Cossery's life-long philosophy of "laziness," and attitude of contemplative non-engagement.
However, though the views of the "proud beggars" in Mendiants et orgeuilleux seem to come closest to Cossery's own attitudes, in later novels he also investigates possible developments of them, especially in situations that threaten philosophical contemplation.
Social revolutionaries of various stripes appear in Cossery's novels, perhaps a reflection of the precarious character of the monarchical regime in inter-war Egypt, and the revolutionary path to social change is mentioned in Mendiants et orgeuilleux and subsequent novels such as La Violence et la dérision (1964), Un Complot de saltimbanques (1975) and Une ambition dans le désert (1984).
In Mendiants et orgeuilleux the revolutionary El Kordi is the butt of Cossery's satire , but perhaps the most telling indication of his attitudes is found in La Violence et la dérision. This novel, set in Alexandria, describes the peaceful lives of Karim, Heykal and others who are threatened by the city governor's plan to crack down on "laziness and nonchalance". Rejecting conventional forms of social protest, they develop tactics already seen in Cossery's earlier works and respond with a campaign of tongue-in- cheek praise for the governor that puts "the terrible weapon of mockery at the service of the revolution."
Cossery published his last novel in 1999, and it opens with a description of "the thousand-year-old city of Al-Qahira" that could have come from any of his books.
Among the crowds filling the city's broken pavements, Cossery writes, are "unemployed workers, craftsmen without customers, disabused intellectuals, junior civil servants turned out of their offices by a lack of chairs, university graduates weighed down with sterile learning, and finally those given to eternal laughter, the philosophers, who, loving shadow, peace and quiet, consider the spectacular deterioration of the city to have been brought about specially to sharpen their critical senses."
Despite efforts to put Cossery's work back into circulation in his native Egypt, not least through film adaptations, his choice of language and his long residence in Paris have inevitably made his books better known in France than elsewhere.
Following his death late last month, there was renewed interest in the French media in the life and work of an author who, in the words of the obituary writer in Le Monde, had produced a series of novels each one of which was "a jewel of eccentric humour" and had made "laziness into a philosophy and poverty into a kind of art de vivre."
By David Tresilian