"It’s one of the great documents of the wilder shores of the Jewish mind, but this is great writing for everyone"by Simon Schama / May 9, 2019 / Leave a comment
Belle de Seigneur by Albert Cohen
A dozen years ago it fell at my feet from a display carousel in the bookshop at Jewish Book Week, all one thousand pages of it, barely held together by Penguin covers. Since I hadn’t so much as touched it, or the carousel, this was obviously an other-worldly summons to make the acquaintance of a writer I’d never heard of: Albert Cohen, Romaniote-Corfiote Jew, educated in France, Jewish Agency representative to the French government before the war and officer of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees afterwards.
But this vast, heaving, antic, sexy, outrageous fiction—misleadingly titled Her Lover when the French original is Belle de Seigneur—has nothing of the dead hand of international officialdom about it. In fact, it has the all-time demolition of such gatherings, in the kind of comic take-down that will have you weeping with laughter.
The trilogy of the Solal dynasty—including Mangeclous (Eater of Nails) and Les Valeureux—is one of the greatest works of literature of the last century. Its subject is desire and power, tragedy as much as comedy, the farce of politics and the compulsiveness of infatuation. If you can’t tackle the French read the excellent translation of Belle de Seigneur by David Coward. You will be caught in a maelstrom of language, wild, implausible, operatic and intimate. It’s one of the great documents of the wilder shores of the Jewish mind, but this is great writing for everyone. It changed my sense of what language could do, and it could change yours too.
Simon Schama will be discussing Rembrandt’s Eyes on the Baillie Gifford Stage, Saturday 25th May, 1pm
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