Like his friend, fellow Scorpio, and confidant Albert Camus, Albert Cossery would also have celebrated his one hundredth birthday last month. The patron saint of indolence—who wrote only when he had nothing better to do—died in 2008. But one can imagine that Cossery, had he made it to his centenary, would have been exactly like Cossery at any age. The elegant Egyptian novelist, impeccably dressed, forever held fast to his routine. For nearly sixty years, until his death, he lived in an austere room in the Hotel La Louisiane in St. Germain des Prés. Each day he slept late, venturing out only in the afternoons, to bask in the sun and watch the girls of the Luxembourg Gardens, or to have a plate of lentils and fizzy water at the Café de Flore and linger for hours, doing nothing. Even when, toward the end of his life, he was hospitalized for an operation, Cossery—still wearing the ward’s pajamas—escaped the hospital for the café, pushed in a wheelchair by a beautiful blonde.
“Here comes Tutanhkamun,” the waiters whispered behind his back. Just so, Cossery’s writings, forever returning to the same scenes and casts—of mendicants and saltimbanques, failed revolutionaries and hashish-addled philosophers—preserved a certain consistency over the decades. The young Albert, who attended French schools as a child in Cairo, began his first novel at age ten. At seventeen, he published a book of poems, titled Les Morsures, “The Teeth Marks” or “Bites.” By all accounts the book has been lost, and Cossery himself up until his death coyly refused to aid any devoted readers in search of a copy. Yet three poems were preserved in the monumental anthology Poètes en Egypte, edited in Cairo in 1955 by Jean Moscatelli. The anthology, which brought together over fifty-five Franco-Egyptian writers, captured the collective achievements of a literary community in the twilight of its end. It included Cossery’s friends Georges Henein and Edmond Jabès, as well as Joyce Mansour and Horus Schenouda—all of whom were soon to leave, or had already left, for exile in Paris in the wake of Nasser’s coup.
In the extant poems—“The Beggars,” “Misery,” and “Night,” translated into English for the first time by Jocelyn Spaar—the teeth marks we find belong to Baudelaire, and the “macabre puerilities,” in Moscatelli’s words, of Flowers of Evil. At times, Cossery even seems to lift verses from his boyhood god: the scholar Bassem Shahin has pointed out, for instance, similarities between the first line of Baudelaire’s “The Sun” and Cossery’s “The Beggars.” The putrid, cadaverous mass in the poem further recalls the stench of “A Carcass.” And the blood-sucking temptress of Baudelaire’s “The Vampire” seems to strike again in Cossery’s “Night,” as the shadowy woman “who bit my dream / in times far-off like the moon.” But in the face of her, Cossery, unlike the vanquished Baudelaire, remains firm.
“The verses already carry the mark of a life haunted by all that is mortal,” writes Moscatelli, “the temperament of Albert Cossery being more attuned to the black than the blue of life.” Stealing a glimpse into the teenage abyss, we find flickers of what is to come. The battalion of the dead in “The Beggars” might well be the impoverished inhabitants of The House of Certain Death (1944), Cossery’s first novel, who await the imminent collapse of their derelict tenement on their heads. The speaker of “Misery,” if he combed his hair, could become the heroic, pickpocketing flâneur Ossama, cavalierly ignoring the advances of women as he takes on the corruption of the bourgeoisie in Cossery’s final novel The Colors of Infamy (1999). And the ode to blessed “Night” summons the endless dream of Laziness in the Fertile Valley (1948)—republished this month by New Directions—about a family that sleeps all day. Shrouded in quilts, their idleness is a refusal to participate in the evils and indignities of this world. Their house is as quiet as the cemetery of Montparnasse, where Cossery and Baudelaire meet.
—Anna Della Subin
Along a sad wall, at the end of an old quarter,
Like puppets wanting strings,
Poor ragged ones expose in broad daylight
Their countless tatters to the cruel vermin.
These ghastly rattletraps grotesquely deaf,
Half-witted, drag along the wall their spindly corpses
Projecting their lament to the crossroads’ ladies
Who give them a cent to merit Heaven.
From their toothless mouths the stinking breath
Rises like incense toward the splendid blue…
One would think, seeing them so frayed,
That a battalion of the dead, with their threadbare allure—
Revived at the fingers of a magician—
Had come to vomit certain ancient sins.
For having loathed their vile melee
The bourgeois had outraged looks for me,
And, sad vagabond on a stranger ground,
I walk like a madman, with tangled hair.
At this bohemian sight of ravaged clothes,
Little painted girls put on ruined airs…
But I walk on, lost in my winged dreams,
Yawning dolefully at the rabid passers-by.
On edge from the heavy hunger
My skeleton too weak to carry—
I fear I must, with regret, prostitute my soul,
And that, one fine day, for the paltry loaf
My gut demands, tired of waiting for the ideal,
To the morning flea market I might sell my genius.
For Jean Moscatelli
Night set with my tears
—Tears fled to hopelessness—
You are the negress who charms
My isle of gold and black.
Lascivious night, night of brown flesh,
You are the sex of a lost woman
Who bit my dream
In times far-off like the moon.
For now, blessed night,
I have refused the shaming weight:
I am alone like a pretty corpse,
The first night of the tomb.
—Translated by Jocelyn Spaar