Cohen, Albert

views updated


COHEN, ALBERT (1895–1981), French novelist whose four outstanding novels, written over a period of four decades, form one of the most outspoken series in modern Jewish literature. Cohen, who was born in Corfu, was educated in France, then studied law in Geneva, where he became active in various international organizations and pursued a sporadic literary career. His first published work was a volume of poems, Paroles juives (1921), whose tone, by turns violent, opulent, tender, and lyrical, foreshadowed that of his later writing. In 1925, with the encouragement of Chaim *Weizmann, Cohen founded a short-lived periodical, La Revue juive. He later became the Zionist Organization's delegate to the League of Nations. During the Nazi occupation Cohen fled to London, where he became the Jewish Agency's special representative to the Allied governments in exile. After the defeat of the Nazis, he worked at the un headquarters of the International Refugee Organization.

The most important themes in Cohen's writings are the problem of personal integrity in a world of untruth, the eternal message of Israel to humankind, and the place of the Jew in the modern world. These themes recur in various forms in the four novels: Solal (1930: Eng. tr. Solal of the Solals, 1933); Mangeclous (1938; Nailcruncher, 1940); Belle du Seigneur (1968), which won the Grand Prix de l'Académie française, and Les Valeureux (1969). In Solal, the eponymous hero escapes from his native Greek island of Cephalonia and narrow Jewish environment into the glittering gentile world, where he is eventually destroyed by his own success and by a fatal passion for a non-Jewess. After a terrible struggle, Solal returns to his own oppressed people, "the poetic people of genius," and finds redemption. Mangeclous, a Rabelaisian extravaganza, has as its setting a semi-mythical Jewish Orient peopled by grotesque but innocent and lovable inhabitants. Under the burlesque absurdity, a profound Jewish wisdom is often brought to the fore. In Belle du Seigneur, which returns to the Solal story, the hero has achieved his ultimate ambition as an undersecretary at the League of Nations, but is haunted by the impending Nazi destruction of the Jews. Aware of his own helplessness and of the nations' indifference, Solal seeks escape in an impossible romantic adventure, but the lovers fall victim to a self-destructive passion from which only death can release them. Les Valeureux, a burlesque sequel to the epic begun in Mangeclous, tells about the five jolly cousins from Cephalonia, nicknamed the "Valorous Ones." This last novel contrasts the Jewish love of life and truth to the falsity and hypocrisy of the outside world. Other works by Cohen are the one-act play Ezéchiel (1956), produced at the Comédie Française in 1933, and the autobiographical Le livre de ma mère (1954), dedicated to the author's mother, who died in occupied France, and to the simple grandeur of maternal love.

Cohen, like his hero, can best be described as extreme – extreme in his love for his people, extreme in his satire (particularly concerning international organizations), extreme in his condemnation of sexual passion. Cohen's work is original, varied, and rich, containing humor, tragedy, drama, lyricism, satire, tenderness, violence, and anger.


A. Lunel, in: Revue juive de Genève, 1 (1932–33), 120–2, 165–70; A. Berchtold, in: La Suisse romande au cap du xxè siècle (1963); D. Goitein, Jewish Themes in French Works Between the Two World Wars (Columbia University Thesis, 1967); A. Pesses, in: Les nouveaux cahiers (1969). add. bibliography: D.R. Goiten-Galperin, Visage de mon peuple:essai sur Albert Cohen (1982); H. Nyssen, Lectures d'Albert Cohen (1986); J. Blot, Albert Cohen ou Solal dans le siècle (1995); C. Auroy, Albert Cohen, une quête solaire (1996); V. Duprey, Albert Cohen: Au nom du père et de la mère (1999); J.I. Abecassis, Albert Cohen: Dissonant Voices (2004).

[Denise R. Goitein]