Albert Cohen (1895-1981), prize-wining author of Belle du Seigneur (available in English, with the same original French title, thanks to David Coward's deservedly award-winning translation ) is one of the most underrated French language writers and still widely unknown to the English speaking public, mostly for lack of English translation until fairly recent times.
Born in 1885 on the Greek island of Corfou in a Sephardic Jewish family, he emigrated to Marseilles at the age of five with his parents, in 1900 and moved to Geneva in 1914 to study law. He graduated in 1917 and took the Swiss citizenship in 1919.
While publishing his first novels (Mangeclous and Solal), he worked as a Senior civil servant and lobbied with the League of Nations to alert public opinion on the rise of anti-semitism in Europe.
In 1940, he joined the European governments in exile in London, to help coordinate the resistance to German occupation in Europe. After the war he moved back to Switzerland where he worked as director of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees at the United Nations and helped pen a few major international agreements favouring the cause of refugees and stateless throughout the world.
Meanwhile, he resumed his writing with Le Livre de ma Mère ("A book for my Mother") and, in 1968, his most famous novel: Belle du Seigneur which won the Grand Prize from the French Academy that same year.
Although by no means a real "sequel" to his previous work, Belle du Seigneur was the last part of a remotely autobiographical, loosely interconnected, tetralogy focusing on the life of Solal, a young immigrant from the Jewish community of Cephalonia, his ascension from poverty to the highest diplomatic spheres, and more importantly his tormented passionate affairs with women of much higher social standing. But as most critiques have commented: this is not a story about one or any character, but most definitely a story on passion itself, or rather a deconstruction of passion.
He only published a few more books, including one novel (Les Valeureux) and two autobiographical pieces: O vous, frères humains ("O Humans, my Brothers") and Carnets 1978 ("Notes 1978") and died in 1979 in Geneva.
Themes such as the weight of cultural heritages, religious hypocrisy, bourgeois narrow-mindedness, bureaucratic organizations and overall petty mediocrities of everyday people are omnipresent throughout his works. But more than anything else, they serve as a canvas to the depiction of the age-old story of an irreconcilable, uncompromising and passionate love between diametrically opposed characters...
What probably set aside the books of Albert Cohen from most other writers of the 20th century is an unclassifiable style that invariably takes the reader by surprise: in turn traditional narrative description, "silent" dialogs or lyric stream of consciousness, he sometimes keep switching first-person POVs with no indications on the new narrator other than a subtle change of tone. Chapter-long sentences and endless digressions are not unusual and one particularly striking chapter of Belle du Seigneur follows the awkward arrival of an old Jewish representative to an official diplomatic reception amidst the silent hostility of the "right-thinking", mildly anti-semite, Genovese society: an uninterrupted sequence of thought fragments, giving an overwhelming chaotic snapshot of the crowd's state of mind, spread over several pages without any punctuation...
Under his tragic irony and violent sarcasms, Solal, the main character in many of his books, barely hides a desperate misanthropic love for his peers. While attracted to the perfection of female beauty and himself nearly irresistible to women, he shows only contempt for their animal adoration of physical strength and violence in the guise of virility (the "female baboon fascination for the strong baboon and his ability to kill"). He provides the bait and at the same time, despise them when they fall for it.
Although some critiques consider Albert Cohen's style somewhat longwinded and don't see a real interest in his merciless autopsy of passion, he is considered by many as one of the most influential writers of this century. If you can stand to read through its humongous amount of pages, Belle du Seigneur is very likely to leave a deep mark on your mind.