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.