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Albert Cohen’s Hidden Homage to Du Bellay in Ô vous, Frères Humains

From: Romance Notes
Volume 52, Number 3, 2012
pp. 245-253 | 10.1353/rmc.2012.0022

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In Chapter XXIII of his 1972 autobiographical essay, Ô vous, frères humains (henceforth OV), Albert Cohen evokes his love for France in signature incantatory style. Here is the brief chapter in its entirety:

France aimée, disais-je en mon enfance, France aimée, redis-je pendant que j’écris, redis-je en mon vieil âge, redis-je si près de ma mort, France qui m’as donné mes amis que j’aime, mes intelligents vivaces rapides parleurs français, France qui m’as donné ces inconnus lecteurs de mes livres, chers inconnus qui m’écrivent et me dissent qu’ils m’aiment, France qui m’as reconnu serviteur étranger de ta langue, France dont le nom m’est doux à dire.

France, haute reine vers moi s’avançant, avec la grâce et la fierté du génie s’avançant, France, tendre aimée rieuse aux yeux clairs, ô vivante et inventive, ô lucide et courtoise, ô sensible et sensée, ô charmante par tant d’enchantements plaisante, ô fortunée en tous biens abondante, ô bien-disante, ô subtile et dissertante, ô éloquente et de tous gais savoirs armée, ô narquoise et bénigne, ô lèvres de sinueuse ironie, ô pensantes commisures.

France, ô jeune mère et déesse Raison aux palpitantes narines, ô pensive au casque d’or surmonté du sphinx, porteuse de la lance et de l’égide, ô généreuse et enseignante, France, une de mes patries, et je suis ton vassal et aimant bâtard et fils étranger, car tu m’as fait ce que je suis, car tu m’as nourri du précieux lait de ta mamelle, car tu m’as formé à ton génie, ô souveraine ourdisseuse des mots, ô discernante, car tu m’as donné ta langue, haut fleuron de l’humaine couronne, ta langue qui est mienne et pays de mon âme, ta langue qui m’est aussi une patrie.


Just before this panegyric to France, Cohen tells how he first experienced French anti-Semitism on the day of his tenth birthday (August 16, 1905, during the wake of the Dreyfus affair in France). According to Cohen, after leaving school that day, he joined some people grouped around a street vendor. He pushed to the front of the group and listened admiringly to the vendor’s pitch for a stain-remover. As he advanced to make a purchase, the vendor presumably noticed that the child was Jewish, berated him with an anti-Semitic rant, and chased him away from the crowd. For Cohen, the day marks a pivotal and traumatic moment in his life. All of OV revolves around the trauma of becoming conscious that, as a Jew, he is an unwanted outsider in French society.

After describing his immediate reaction to the vendor’s invective, Cohen evokes his great admiration for France as a child, as exemplified by the secret altar to France that he had set up in his bedroom. The author describes this altar in Chapter XXI. Among the items chosen for the altar were several “relics,” or portraits of great French men: “Les reliques étaient des portraits de La Fontaine, de Corneille, de Racine, de Molière, de Napoléon, de Victor Hugo, de Lamartine, de Pasteur” (67–68). As a man of letters, it seems fitting that Cohen includes six literary figures in his recollection of the altar. It has been noted that Cohen draws upon fundamental texts of the French literary canon in his work, especially in his masterpiece, Belle du Seigneur (cf. Kelly). In doing so, Cohen demonstrates his knowledge of the canon he so admired as a child, and of which Belle du Seigneur made him part. (In 1968, the novel was awarded the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française – a canonical bestowal if ever there was one.)

Cohen’s familiarity with French literary culture is illustrated once more by the third paragraph of Ch. XXIII, cited above. In fact, this passage, which follows closely upon Ch. XXI’s description of the altar to France and its portraits of grands hommes français, draws on a sonnet by a foundational member of the French canon, the sixteenth-century writer Joachim Du Bellay. Following is...

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