An old man sits in front of Saint-Sulpice fountain, perhaps in the middle or at the end of his daily walk: starting from his hotel La Louisiane in rue de Seine, moving to the cafés Flore and Lipp on the Boulevard Saint Germain, to the jardin du Luxembourg and then back to the hotel. At all these places, of course, he sits for hours and hours just thinking – or should that be watching the young girls go by.
Frédéric Andrau's book – which includes some whimsical details and addresses its subject Albert Cossery (1913–2008) throughout as 'vous' – is the first biographical interpretation of the writer's life, and its publication marks the centenary of his birth.
It begins with a quotation by Cossery as a epigraph, which pretty much sums up the writer's work and ethos, and which I translate as:
'I am an aristocratic anarchist because I believe that humankind, apart from women, doesn't amount to much. But I'll always be on the side of the little people, never on that of the bastards and if, after reading my books, you don't know who the bastards are then you've not understood a thing.'
It's fairly well known that Cossery – who adopted French as his language – was born in Egypt, moved to France in 1945 and stayed there, spending almost all the time there in hotel rooms and only managing to write eight (fairly brief) books. His father had lived off his lands and rents from his properties and so didn't actually work, and Cossery too scarcely ever worked: after a short time working on a transatlantic ship, he said – after settling in Paris – that he only wrote about a sentence a week towards his books.
Andrau doesn't spend a great deal of time praising Cossery, who some of the time comes across as an egotistical sponger – gate-crashing the literary scene at first in search of anyone who'll buy him a meal, etc. He married once (Monique Chaumette) and didn't even live with her: he preferred to have sex with her in his hotel room when he woke up in the afternoon after evenings and early mornings having a good time (often at others' expenses); when, after several years, his wife announced that the party (or at least the marriage) was over he said it had come at a wrong time as the monthly hotel bill needed paying: if that was a joke, it wasn't a good one. But when Cossery years later inadvertently met his ex-wife with her second husband Philippe Noiret, he actually shed tears: was that because he'd let his guard slip and forgot to hide his true feelings behind his usual mask of insouciance?
If all this sounds like a story of a writer not writing, well it is in part,
although he does meet a number of writing friends, such as Henry Miller, Albert Camus, Lawrence Durrell, Roger Nimier (whose politics I'm pleased to learn Cossery didn't like), Louis Guilloux, etc. And Cossery's work is later recognised in the form of three literary prizes – the first carrying the significant award of 400,000 francs in 1991.
Towards the end of the story I warmed a lot more to Cossery, and not just because he's growing older, undergoing illnesses and therefore more sympathetic. There was something more: the now eighty-seven-year-old meets a young girl follower: the Belgian photographer Sophie Leys – who is anonymous in the body of the book – and Cossery agrees to have her publish a book of her photos of Egypt followed by extracts from Cossery's books that they chose together: L'Égypte de Cossery (2004). Furthermore, Andrau mentions the short film Leys made: Une vie dans la journée d'Albert Cossery: this I had to check out.
Digression: Ley's thirty-two minute film is well worth seeing even if you don't speak French. It shows Cossery in Luxembourg, in his hotel room, in cafés (such as Brasserie Lipp), and contains comments on him by, for instance, Michel Piccoli, Joëlle Losfeld, Georges Moustaki, Roger Grenier and Frédéric Beigbeder. Age has not softened his ideas, and he emphatically states – barely speaking and partly using sign language after a pharyngotomy – that less people vote now because we no longer live in a democracy: the bastards are the only ones profiting from the situation.
Near the end he was mainly writing on pieces of paper to communicate, and this sentence is beautiful: 'La télévision participe à un complot mondial destiné à éradiquer l'intelligence sur toute la planète': 'Television is part of a world plot to destroy intelligence throughout the planet.' Lovely. A link to the film is here.
But (briefly) back to Monsieur Albert: thanks to Frédéric Andrau, I now feel that all my questions about this remarkable writer have been answered. Andrau goes about it in an original way which is really effective.
On the negative side, this book is in need of an Index. There are also several indications of sloppy proof-reading: Fegallah or Feggallah? Both versions are used on pp. 14 and 15 respectively; it's Sunsiaré de Larcône, not Sunsarié (p. 109); on p. 226 Les Couleurs de l'Infamie is called Cossery's eight novel, whereas it's his seventh: Les Hommes oubliés de Dieu is a collection of short stories; Andrau writes of the book L'Égypte d'Albert Cossery, but it's in fact called L'Égypte de Cossery and was published in 2001, not 2004 as he states; on p. 252 Andrau says Cossery spent sixty years in one hotel room, when he's already said that he moved from Montmartre to La Louisiane in 1952 (p. 67), and also on pp. 182–83 there is mention of a room change from 58 to 77.
My other Cossery posts:
My other Cossery posts:
Albert Cossery: Cimetière du Montparnasse
Albert Cossery: Proud Beggars
Albert Cossery: Un complot de saltimbanques
Albert Cossery: The Colors of Infamy