BOOK REVIEW / Vanity made flesh

27 years late, are we ready for Albert Cohen? Belle du Seigneur by Albert Cohen, Viking, pounds 20

Belle du Seigneur, Albert Cohen's gargantuan tour de force which won the French Academy's Grand Prix du Roman in 1968, has enjoyed commercial as well as literary success, with sales in Europe of nearly one million copies. Yet till this year, the centenary of Cohen's birth, it has remained virtually unknown and inaccessible to the English reader. What chance has this 974-page potpourri of passion and pessimism, cynicism and naivete, satire and slapstick of making a mark today?

The heart of the novel is the doomed love affair between Solal, a devastatingly handsome Mediterranean Jew who rose from his exotic origins in the Greek island of Cephalonia to become Under-Secretary-General of the League of Nations; and Ariane Deume, wife of one of his subordinates, a breathtakingly beautiful Genevoise aristocrat who has married beneath her. It is the very Mills and Boon-type attributes of the protagonists, however, which contain the seeds of tragedy.

In the eyes of Cohen and his hero, the genesis of amour passion is the worship of power and brute force, skilfully conceded by an overlay of noble refinement. Yet Solal's yearning for the tenderness that women display after the heat of passion condemns him to seek this poisonous elixir. To attain a love of a different order, he attem- pts, at the outset of the novel, to win his lady in the guise of a shabbily-dressed, toothless, white-bearded old Jew. In fairytales of the Beauty-and-the-Beast variety, where purity of soul transcends apparent physical imperfections, such a gambit may succeed. Here the peerless words of love spoken by our hero in mufti earn him a physical wound that leaves a scar. In revenge, he declares, he will seduce his quarry "in ways that women love and cannot resist, foul and filthy ways...''

Such a bizarre opening and the premise on which it is based may deter many an English-speaking reader in the politically correct Nineties and here the deficiencies of the English language prove an additional handicap. Solal's declaration of love, spell-bindingly incantatory in the original French, is virtually untranslatable. Nevertheless, Belle du Seigneur, on the whole very creditably served by David Coward's translation, develops into an epic of adulterous passion in the Tristan and Isolde/Paolo and Francesca mode; it is also a compelling anatomy of one-dimensional love. In the "noble heart,'' Dante's Francesca claims, love quickly takes hold. In lieu of Tristan and Isolde's love potion, Solal needs only a flutter of his lady's eyelids. "Love led us to one death,'' is Francesca's unforgettable plaint. The same is true for Cohen's lovers.

In Dante's Inferno, Paolo and Francesca are doomed to float perpetually on the wings of love. In the final third of the novel, Solal and Ariane are condemned to a similar fate. Cohen shows, through the consciousness and antics of his hero, how a life of "noble'' love in isolation is equally deadly.

Notwithstanding passages of lyricism which rival the Song of Songs, Belle du Seigneur is more than a love story. At root, with its superb, minutely observed satire of human pretensions and frailties, its frequent, haunting allusions to death lurking in wait, it is the scriptural "Vanity of Vanities'' made pulsating, exuberant flesh.

This theme is reflected in the varied cast of characters, from the cuckolded Adrien Deume, toadying bureaucrat yet gentle and devoted husband, to Solal's comic Cephalonian relatives, whose outlandish outbursts are laced with smatterings of wisdom, from the Hungarian countess Solal abandons to Deume's foster-father. Most are redeemed by an essential humanity, though Cohen has no patience for the smug and self-serving. The lengthy stream-of-consciousness passages, Cohen's principal means of establishing character, are sometimes rivetting but could become tedious, particularly the faux-naif interior monologues of the animal-loving yet obsessively narcissistic heroine, Adriane.

The Jewishness of author and hero is a leitmotif which recurs throughout the novel, with the menace of Hitler and the climate of residual anti- semitism frequently, if briefly, evoked. A central, rather extravagant episode in a Berlin cellar with Nazi jackboots marching above, introduces the hunchbacked dwarf, Rachel, a soul-sister of the hero and a counterpart to Ariane, the priestess of love. Once again Solal tries to atone for his ambivalence towards his Jewish origins, this time by parading in the Berlin streets in prayer-shawl and phylacteries. His final tragic destiny is to be the king who has failed to save his people.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions