Shortly after fleeing to London from Nazi-occupied France, novelist Albert Cohen learned of his mother’s death in Marseille. His grief took the form of a series of personal essays for La France libre, which later grew into Book of My Mother. It was translated into the English by his wife. In honor of Mother’s Day, we bring you this excerpt.
She waited three hours for me in that square. Three hours which I could have spent with her. While she was waiting for me, wreathed in patience, I chose to concern myself, stupidly enthralled, with some poetic amber damsel, abandoning the wheat for the chaff. I missed three hours of my mother’s life. And for whom, good God? For an Atalanta, an attractive arrangement of flesh. I dared to prefer an Atalanta to the most sacred goodness, to my mother’s love, my mother’s incomparable love.
Incidentally, if some sudden illness had deprived me of my strength or merely all my teeth, the poetic damsel would have pointed me out and ordered her maid to sweep away that toothless garbage. Or, more nobly, the high-minded filly would have sensed—suddenly sensed in all pureness and in a flash of spiritual revelation—that she no longer loved me and that it would be impure not to live in truth and to go on seeing a man she no longer loved. Her soul would have made off on wings of scorn. Those noble creatures love men who are strong, energetic, and assertive—in other words, gorillas. Toothless or not, strong or weak, young or old, our mothers love us. And the weaker we are, the more they love us. Our mothers’ incomparable love.
A brief remark in passing. If poor Romeo had suddenly had his nose cut clean off in an accident, when Juliet next saw him she would have fled in horror. Thirty grams less meat and Juliet’s soul is no longer nobly stirred. Thirty grams less and that is the end of sublime moonlit babble, of “It is not yet near day: it was the nightingale, and not the lark.” If as a result of some hypophyseal disorder Hamlet had lost thirty kilos, Ophelia would no longer love him with all her soul. Ophelia’s soul can only reach divine heights of intensity if it has at least sixty kilos of beefsteak to feed on. It is true that if Laura had suddenly lost both legs, Petrarch would have dedicated less mystical poems to her. And yet poor Laura’s gaze would have been unchanged, and her soul, too. Ah yes, but good Petrarch’s soul cannot love Laura’s soul unless she has pretty little thighs. Poor meat eaters that we are, one and all, spouting bunkum about the soul. Enough, my friend, cut it out—they’ve got the message.
My mother’s incomparable love. She was completely uncritical where her son was concerned. She accepted everything I did, possessed with the divine genius which makes a divinity of the beloved—the poor beloved who is so far from divine. If one evening I suggested going to the cinema, she would immediately declare that it was a wonderful idea and that “Yes, indeed, we must have some fun and enjoy ourselves while we’re alive” and “Really, it’s crazy to be sensible” and “Why on earth should we shut ourselves up at home like old people, so I’m ready, my darling, I’ve only to put on my hat.” (She had always just to put her hat on, even that night when I was feeling gloomy on account of a sprite with fair hair and woke her at midnight to ask her to go out with me.) But if I mischievously changed my mind, knowing full well what would happen next, and said that all things considered I would rather stay at home, she would immediately agree—not so as to please me but in a burst of passionate sincerity because all my decisions were remarkably right. She would agree without even realizing that she was contradicting herself and say that “Yes, indeed, it will be so nice to stay comfortably at home in the warm and chat instead of going to see all that nonsense in the cinema where the woman always has a perfect hairdo even when she is ill, and, anyway, the weather is bad and it will be tiring to come home late, and at night there are thieves prowling the streets, those sons of Satan who snatch your handbag.” And so, if I mischievously changed my mind about the cinema four times, she would genuinely change her mind four times, contradicting herself each time with the same conviction. If I finally decided against the cinema, she would say, “Get into bed and I’ll sit up with you till you fall asleep, and if you like I’ll tell you the story of Diamantine’s broken engagement. You remember Diamantine—the soapmaker’s daughter, the girl who had only one tooth and no neck, and do you know it was a mouse that caused it all? Listen while I tell you about it, my son.” And she would begin: “Do you know, my son, that in those far-off times—for it all happened long ago and poor Diamantine is dead now and she’s well off where she is but we’re better off here below—do you know, my son …” And I would listen to her, enchanted, blissful, caressed by her words, physically charmed. For I adored my mother’s interminable tales, which were full of genealogical digressions and interspersed with little treats which materialized miraculously out of her suitcase, and she would sometimes break the thread of her story to say she was worried because she had not received a letter from my father. But I would sturdily reassure, and my docile mother would let herself be convinced and go on telling me endless heartrending or ludicrous tales of the ghetto where I was born, and I shall never forget them. How I would like sometimes to go back to that ghetto and live there, surrounded by rabbis like bearded ladies—live that loving, passionate, quibbling, and frenetic life.
My mother’s love. She approved my whims. She was a willing partner if I suggested eating sandwiches from the Automat, because it is wise to economize “and don’t waste the money you earn with your brain, my son.” But she also agreed if I wanted to go to the most expensive restaurant, because life is short. For what strange and mysterious reason did I often hold aloof from that most loving creature, my mother, avoiding her kisses and her gaze, and why was I so cruelly reserved? Too late now. Nevermore will I see her alight from her train in Geneva, glowing with happiness as she brings me her tribute of twenty-franc gold coins which she has secretly saved for me. On one of her visits she had a mad fit of making red-currant jelly, more than a hundred jars, to be sure I would not want for sweet things when she had gone. During her visits, all she wanted was to cook heaps of food for me and then, decked out like a clumsy queen, corseted, and prouder and slower than a cruiser with a fine jutting prow, to walk out in the afternoon with Her Son, slowly, respectably.
My mother’s love. Nevermore during the night will I go and knock at her door because I cannot sleep and want her to keep me company. With the cruel thoughtlessness of sons, I would knock at two or three in the morning, and always she would reply, waking with a start, that she had not been asleep, that I had not woken her. She would get up at once and come in her dressing gown, staggering with sleep, to offer me her dear assortment of maternal comforts, an egg flip or even almond paste. What could be more natural than to make almond paste for her son at three in the morning? Or else she would suggest piping hot coffee, which we would drink cozily together, chatting endlessly. She saw nothing unreasonable in drinking coffee with me at three in the morning, sitting at the foot of the bed and telling me until dawn tales of old family quarrels—a subject on which she was an expert and in which she took a passionate interest.
No more mother to sit with me until I fall asleep. At night I sometimes put a chair by my bed to keep me company. When you have no mother you make do with a chair. The billionaire of love has become a tramp. If you have insomnia some night, you can fend for yourself, my friend, and you do not knock at any door. And if you remarry and choose that brunette who took your fancy the other day, take care not to knock at her door at three in the morning. You would be sure of a warm reception. “I insist that you respect my sleep,” she would say, steely eyed and square jawed. My mother’s incomparable love. Yes, I know I keep dwelling on it, chewing it over, repeating myself. That is what ruminating grief is like, its jaws weakly in perpetual motion. That is how I take my revenge on life, by harping disconsolately on the kindness of my mother, who lies deep in earth.
My mother’s love, nevermore. She is in her last cradle, the bounteous and gentle giver. Nevermore will she be here to scold me if I worry over nothing. Nevermore will she be here to feed me, to give me life each day, to bring me into the world each day. Nevermore will she be here to keep me company while I shave or while I eat, watching me closely, a passive but attentive sentinel, trying to find out whether I really do like the walnut biscuits she has made me. Nevermore will she tell me not to eat so quickly. I loved having her treat me like a child.
For love of me she mastered her fear of animals and came to feel affection for my pretty little cat. She would awkwardly stroke that animal whose motives were a mystery to her, that animal with claws always ready to transgress the Ten Commandments but nonetheless loved by her son and therefore undoubtedly delightful. She stroked it from a distance just the same, her little hand ready to withdraw in a flash. Every instance of her love comes back to me: how she shyly radiated joy when she saw me on the station platform; her awkward little hand the day she wrote down at my dictation, with so many spelling mistakes and so much goodwill, a few pages of a book of mine, with never a clue as to what it was all about. I remember, I remember, and yet this is still not the most valuable of my possessions.
Some men must have passion and young huntresses with long thighs, or glamorous stars—who, by the way, blow their noses in handkerchiefs and do not produce pearls. That is their affair, and much good may it do them. Speaking for myself, my mother is all I want—especially Maman in her old age, with her white hair and her enthusiastic chatter about things I already knew by heart. What I want is my old mother, my mother with the false teeth which she wore during the last years of her life and which she used to wash under the tap. She was so sweet without her false teeth, so defenseless, innocent and harmless as a gummy babe, childlike, her pronunciation distorted, and with motherly coyness she would stifle her laughter and put her hand in front of the gap in her mouth. With her alone I was not alone. Now I am alone with everyone.
With her alone I could have lived far from the world. Never, like others, would she have thought, “He has stopped publishing books” or “He is getting old.” No. “My son,” she would have said trustingly to herself. And so, lifting up my eyes, which bear the noble mark of your goodness, and cutting through the immensity of space and silence, I reciprocate that act of faith, and I say to you gravely, “Maman.”