Albert Cohen: Dissonant Voices

Article excerpt

Albert Cohen: Dissonant Voices, by Jack I. Abecassis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. 246 pp. $45.00.

Abecassis undertakes the first book-length study in English of Albert Cohen (1895-1981), one of France's most important Jewish writers and activists of the twentieth century. Cohen's oeuvre is known by many French readers; however, it remains largely ignored in academic circles and absent from literary canons. Abecassis explains this paradox by examining the ambivalent Jewishness or "identity impasse" (p. 154) exhibited in Cohen's novels and autobiographical essays. This critic illustrates how both Cohen and his central protagonist Solal exhibit dissonant voices as they find themselves caught between two worlds: 1) traditional Judaism and separateness prescribed by the father's Law; and 2) a Gentile or European domain of secularism and assimilation.

In the first several chapters, Abecassis examines Cohen's attempt to balance these dissonant voices in Solal (1930), Mangeclous (1938), and Belle du Seigneur (1968) in which the Jewish author creates stories that draw on the biblical figures of Joseph and Esther and their narratives of in-betweenness and masquerade. This critic draws parallels, for example, between Joseph, who leaves Canaan to serve the Pharaoh in Egypt, and Solal, who leaves Cephalonia to work at the League of Nations in Geneva. For Abecassis, both protagonists eventually return home and must learn to reconcile "the conflicting demands of a foreign court and ancestral kin" (p. 43). Solal must also learn to mask his Jewishness while achieving success in the foreign land, and his saga draws from the concealment tactics recounted in Esther's masquerade episode during Purim. Nonetheless, Abecassis maintains, Cohen's protagonist does not successfully balance the two worlds like his biblical brethren, for his life eventually unravels on many levels.

In the remainder of the book, Abecassis continues to draw out Cohen's ambivalent Judaism as it emerges in relation to various female and parental figures. For example, he examines the "relationship" of Albert and Louise (his mother) in Le Livre de ma mère (1954) and illustrates how Cohen's career and public life eventually alienate him from her despite attempts to try otherwise. Abecassis draws a parallel here to Solal's alienation from the Valorous (his family) mentioned above and illustrates how this same dynamic plays out in Solal's relationship with the Jewess dwarf Rachel and the antisemitic Ariane in Belle du Seigneur. In essence, Abecassis illustrates how Cohen "repeats the same dialectic of repulsion, then reconciliation followed by a withdrawal" (p. 153) from a Jewish tradition in all of his narratives. For Abecassis, this metaphorically illustrates Cohen's inability to "save his children" (i.e., European Jews) from eventual destruction (read here as the Holocaust). This becomes most evident in Abecassis' enthralling epilogue where he exposes Solal's failure (suicide) in the painful father-son narrative Ezéchiel (1932), a story replete with antisemitic imagery and Jewish self-hatred. …