Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)
Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

The strange case of Albert Cossery

An eccentric new biography may exactly suit the late Franco-Egyptian author, writes David Tresilian

Al-Ahram Weekly

Frédéric Andrau’s Monsieur Albert, a new biography of the late Franco-Egyptian writer Albert Cossery, is unusual in that it makes a secret of its source material (it has no notes), and large parts of it are given over to what might best be described as speculation. The book as a whole is addressed to Cossery, though since he died some years ago he will never read it.

On the other hand, despite its eccentricities Andrau may have written what could be the best (and thus far only) full-length account of its subject. Cossery, born in Cairo in 1913, moved to France permanently after the Second World War, where he lived for the rest of his life in Paris in a hotel in the city’s famous Latin Quarter. From this vantage point, made up of his small hotel room, the café de Flore on the boulevard Saint Germain and the nearby Lipp brasserie, Cossery published a series of novels that looked back with a mixture of affection and satire on his native Egypt.

Appearing at a rate of one a decade for 50 years, these found a small but dedicated French readership. Many of them have recently been reissued in English translation, though Cossery seems to have yet to find his Arabic translator. The publication of a handsome two-volume set of his complete works in French in 2005 marked the apogee of the author’s reputation, and, as Andrau remarks in his biography, Cossery enjoyed something of an Indian summer as far as public recognition was concerned, being awarded prestigious literary prizes when he was well into his eighties as well as finding new audiences as a result of appearances on television.

Cossery’s first novel, La maison de la mort certaine, appeared in Cairo in 1944 shortly before his permanent move to Paris, inaugurating a stream of others that culminated in the publication of his last, Les couleurs de l’infamie, in 1999. However, before the appearance of his first novel, Cossery had already published a first book, Les hommes oubliés de Dieu, which announced his subject matter and acted as a kind of passport to the world of French publishing. Made up of short pieces given over to mood and situation, the book presents fragments from the lives of Cairo’s lower middle-classes – shopkeepers, craftsman, the owners of cafés – as well as from those of its less respectable underworld.

Cossery himself, born into Cairo’s Levantine community and speaking Arabic at home and French at school as a pupil of the French lycée in Bab al-Luq, had direct acquaintance with this world, and with only one or two exceptions it was the staple of his writing until his death in 2008. Once in France, his first novel was followed by a second, Les fainéants dans la vallée fertile, in 1948. These books, set in a 1930s Egyptian milieu of which Cossery apparently always considered himself to be a part, were followed in 1955 by Mendiants et orgueilleux, a book that perhaps best expresses his characteristic outlook on life and is still his best-known work.

The story of Gohar, a university professor who abandons his career in order to become a beggar in what Cossery was still given to calling Cairo’s “native,” as opposed to “European” town, the novel was given a new lease of life in 1991 thanks to Egyptian filmmaker Asma al-Bakry’s film version. Marked by Cossery’s trademark elegance, the book is humorous and reflective by turns, the characters and situations belonging to a Cairene world that is instantly recognisable as Cossery’s own, whether developed in this novel or in those following it.

However, the novel also has another purpose, besides its wish to entertain, and this is to argue seriously for the virtues of marginality, of doing nothing, when faced with a world apparently rotten with folly and corruption. Cossery, like many a satirist before him, also had a significant moral purpose, and it was this that he explored in the enhanced psychological content of his novel.

Writing about Cairo’s beggars, thieves and underworld in the kind of exacting French associated with Proust is an unusual project, and while critics have sometimes talked of Cossery’s “dandyism” or “aristocratic” manner, Mendiants et orgueilleux, focusing on the Cairene milieu introduced in the earlier stories, sets out a coherent response to it that insists along the way on the virtues of intelligence, light-heartedness and friendship. These seem to have sustained the author, and they are to be found in different combinations in all of his subsequent works.

Cossery enjoyed an unusually long writing career, and once he had found his subject-matter he never changed it. He also did not modify his habits, and this presents a challenge for his biographer, especially if the latter is interested in reporting on the kind of paraphernalia that makes up the biographies of most other writers. Andrau meets this challenge by effectively by-passing it, apparently conceiving of his biography, written in the kind of exacting French also associated with Cossery, as being itself a work of literature. It is one that aims to set up a dialogue, almost a complicity, with its subject.

Of the beginnings of Cossery’s writing career, for example, Andrau writes that “you went on writing, mostly short stories, and in 1936 the first of these was published in French in the year-end edition of La semaine égyptienne. Amidst articles on the affairs of the royal family and various travel pieces there appeared Un homme supérieur, its title later changed to Le facteur se venge. Such pieces were immediately seized upon by the critics because of their style and the richness and originality of their subject matter. Your mastery of French was particularly remarked upon, all the more so since you had never left Egypt.”

Later, commenting on Cossery’s decision to leave his native country, Andrau reminds his subject that this was because of his dedication to his work. “You wanted to move to France because you thought that anyone who wanted to live a literary life would have to live there. You thought that when an author wrote in French and wanted to be published in France, he would have to live in France. That was how you saw it. When you read the works of Balzac in Cairo as a child, you were already dreaming of one day living in Paris.” This mode of address, a (one-sided) conversation between subject and author, is used throughout Andrau’s biography, it being overheard, as it were, by the reader.

One learns from this book that Cossery was briefly married, in 1953, his decision to do so surprising all who knew him, and Andrau also says something about Cossery’s early influences, or at least about the writers that meant the most to him, including Albert Camus and Henry Miller. However, unlike Camus, “who fought for his ideas, you never fought for anything,” Andrau says, perhaps preferring to use, like Joyce, the more subtle weapons of “silence, exile and cunning.” This stance was a disappointment to journalists, who would occasionally drop by at Cossery’s hotel hoping for an interview.

“People were forever trying to draw parallels between your career and that of Naguib Mahfouz,” Andrau says. “You were born in practically the same year” and wrote about the same districts of Cairo. However, whereas Mahfouz “talked a lot about developments in the Arab world… you never said anything at all about them.” While “everyone in Egypt knew Mahfouz, you were known in Europe, perhaps a little in the United States thanks to Henry Miller, but almost not at all in your native country.”

Overall, Cossery seems to have remained remarkably true throughout his life to the philosophy set out in his novels. “People would write to you, hoping for an appointment,” Andrau writes, and their letters would go unanswered, usually left uncollected at the hotel reception. On the one occasion when Cossery returned to Egypt, in 1975, in order to research a commission (never completed) for a French publisher, he found that while some parts of Cairo were scarcely recognisable, others were reassuringly familiar. “Cigarette in hand, you walked in the footsteps of your memories. How many times did you walk back and forth along Sherif Street, the street you had once lived in?”

“In the end the journalists found out that you were in Cairo. They wanted to meet you, but you talked to them about France. You asked them whether they had read your books. You always asked them that, adding that all the answers to their questions could be found in your novels.”

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