from Joshua Cohen Harper's Magazine -- "New Books" a review of Book of My Mother
“Every man is alone and no one cares a rap for anyone and our sorrows are a desert island” is how Albert Cohen begins his book of my mother (translated from the French by Bella Cohen, Archipelago Books, $15), before going on to contradict himself and repent of cheap nihilism in this gorgeously lapidary, overperfumed novella-length tribute to his mother, a woman who never left him alone, who cared more than a rap for her only son—“there is no greater love.”
The desert island of Cohen’s initial sorrows was his native Corfu, which in the century before his birth in 1895 had changed hands multiple times, from the Venetians to the French to the Russians and the Turks to the French to the British to the Greeks. His family were Romaniote Jews who fled the island after a pogrom in 1909 and went to Marseille; their surname was originally Frenchified as “Coen,” but, in a reversal of assimilation practice, Cohen added the h muet to make it read, if not sound, more Jewish. Cohen was educated in Geneva, where he worked as a lawyer and founding editor of the Zionist journal La Revue juive, whose contributors included Einstein, Freud, and Chaim Weizmann. The war found him briefly back in France en route to London, where he worked for the Jewish Agency for Palestine and, later, for the Intergovernmental Committee for Refugees. Cohen’s pain at abandoning his mother during the war is this book’s raison d’être, though there’s no mention of, let alone reason for, that abandonment anywhere in it. (This particular son, who shares the author’s regard for Freud, wonders whether this omission is even conscious.) Louise Judith Coen died in 1943 in Marseille of natural causes, if that could describe dying during the Occupation. Instead of admitting to being too principled, or too afraid of allegations of nepotism, to try to obtain an exit visa for his mother, Cohen prefers to unfold the quieter neglects, such as being late for a filial stroll, wasting her pocket money and homemade jams, and being embarrassed by her bad French grammar and “Oriental” public effusions.
Writing about one’s own replaceable/ irreplaceable mother is more difficult than maintaining sobriety or talking a Norwegian off the ledge: the writer is portraying an actual person’s emotional impact, with the result that any drama can easily degenerate into sentiment, and, in Cohen’s case—you’ll forgive me, Mom—into an ejaculatory froth: “O my pen!” “O Maman!” Even Edward Dahlberg fell prey to the kitsch of kinship in his memoir Because I Was Flesh, when he decided that “not even Solomon in his lilied raiment was so glorious as my mother in her rags.” Harold Brodkey, too, could never conceive of a maternity unworthy of hagiography, or apostrophe; The Runaway Soul, his runaway novel, is overflowing with nostalgic exclamations and compoundadjective descriptions of his baby self being bathed and fed and spanked. Like them, Cohen was a good, wet-eyed, full-lipped boychik who spent a goodly portion of his literary life pretending that he wasn’t, writing vast, slightly-harder-than-softcore romans collected as the capacious Belle de Seigneur. Book of My Mother’s most telling vignette comes after Cohen’s mother bids adieu to her son in Geneva, to return by train, or phallic symbol, to Marseille. The moment the woman’s out of the house, Cohen goes in search of a girl to replace her: a “Diane” or “Atalanta” to ravish atop the very bed he just shared with Maman. Her recent presence doesn’t stop him, just guilts him, though he always follows her advice: “not to smoke more than twenty cigarettes a day.”