Mark Polizzotti on Albert Cossery

Excellent French translator and critic Mark Polizzotti covers Cossery for The Nation.

Interesting contrast between Polizzotti’s take on misogyny in Cossery:

More disturbing is the unmistakable tint of misogyny running throughout these novels, an old-school male chauvinism that neither Cossery’s times nor his culture can excuse. Phrases such as “Gohar was grateful to women because of the enormous sum of stupidity that they brought to human relations,” or “secret and insidious, like a sensual woman’s sighs at the moment of ecstasy,” or “the words of a woman will remain empty of meaning for all eternity” abound, as do traces of the author’s predilection for barely pubescent girls, before womanhood invariably brings out their “thoughtless and vindictive nature.” James Buchan reports that Cossery was briefly married to the French actress Monique Chaumette but that the union failed. Indeed.

And translator Anna Moschovakis whom I interviewed last year:

SE: The portrait of women in The Jokers is not a positive one. They hardly appear as characters, and perhaps the book’s most vivid depiction of them is as distractions for the men in the cafes to ogle. Did you find Cossery, or his work, to be chauvinist?

AM: As any Googler will readily find out, Cossery was a self-proclaimed anarchist who lived in a Parisian hotel and claimed to have slept with more than 2,000 women before dying at the jolly old age of 94. True, three main female characters in The Jokers are archetypes of literary chauvinism: Urfy’s mother, the madwoman in the attic; Amar, the hooker with a heart of gold; and Soad, the would-be Lolita. One could reproach Cossery for a lack of imagination in that regard, a lack that apparently pervades his work, though (not having read all of it yet) I can’t state that with authority. Most articles about Cossery echo his entry in the Encyclopedia of African Literature, which ends with this sentence: “His fiction revolves around men; when women are present they are mostly prostitutes.”

But to see his female characters only in this reductive way is, in a sense, to fall into a chauvinist trap as readers. I found the role of the female characters in The Jokers to be less dismissible than this. Certainly, these women are portrayed with little to no agency over their material existence; their sole power boils down to their ability to occasionally affect the otherwise numb emotional lives of the men in their orbits, eliciting unexpected and usually unwelcome glimmers of tenderness, vulnerability, or shame. But I wouldn’t say that the portrait of the women is any less positive than that of the men. The women recognize the extent to which they are limited by their cultural position (elderly, destitute, privileged), and all the choices they make are legible, reasoned responses to their conditions. Soad is perhaps the most poignant case: wild, infatuated, and unpredictable at the beginning of the story, she is trying to rebel against her Governor’s-lackey father―the picture of a social climbing sycophant―by participating in her idol Heykal’s subversive plot. At the end of the book, she appears for a farewell coffee with Heykal wearing makeup and jewels, gifts from her new, patriarch-approved, class-appropriate love interest. She has been tamed, or has given up, or both, and her defensive misery is equalled by Heykal’s depressed disappointment. There is at that same cafe a little girl who catches Heykal’s eye: in her, he sees a budding rebel in the process of being socially trained by her mother, and he fantasizes about enticing her out of her conventional life, out onto the street. She flirts with him, but then rejects him, turning back to her mother’s lessons.

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