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Reviewed by:
  • Albert Cohen: Dissonant Voices
  • Denis M. Provencher
Albert Cohen: Dissonant Voices, by Jack I. Abecassis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. 246 pp. $45.00.

Abecassis undertakes the first book-length study in English of Albert Cohen (1895–1981), one of France's most important Jewish writers and activists of the twentieth century. Cohen's oeuvre is known by many French readers; however, it remains largely ignored in academic circles and absent from literary canons. Abecassis explains this paradox by examining the ambivalent Jewishness or "identity impasse" (p. 154) exhibited in Cohen's novels and autobiographical essays. This critic illustrates how both Cohen and his central protagonist Solal exhibit dissonant voices as they find themselves caught between two worlds: 1) traditional Judaism and separateness prescribed by the father's Law; and 2) a Gentile or European domain of secularism and assimilation.

In the first several chapters, Abecassis examines Cohen's attempt to balance these dissonant voices in Solal (1930), Mangeclous (1938), and Belle du Seigneur (1968) in which the Jewish author creates stories that draw on the biblical figures of Joseph and Esther and their narratives of in-betweenness and masquerade. This critic draws parallels, for example, between Joseph, who [End Page 160] leaves Canaan to serve the Pharaoh in Egypt, and Solal, who leaves Cephalonia to work at the League of Nations in Geneva. For Abecassis, both protagonists eventually return home and must learn to reconcile "the conflicting demands of a foreign court and ancestral kin" (p. 43). Solal must also learn to mask his Jewishness while achieving success in the foreign land, and his saga draws from the concealment tactics recounted in Esther's masquerade episode during Purim. Nonetheless, Abecassis maintains, Cohen's protagonist does not successfully balance the two worlds like his biblical brethren, for his life eventually unravels on many levels.

In the remainder of the book, Abecassis continues to draw out Cohen's ambivalent Judaism as it emerges in relation to various female and parental figures. For example, he examines the "relationship" of Albert and Louise (his mother) in Le Livre de ma mère (1954) and illustrates how Cohen's career and public life eventually alienate him from her despite attempts to try otherwise. Abecassis draws a parallel here to Solal's alienation from the Valorous (his family) mentioned above and illustrates how this same dynamic plays out in Solal's relationship with the Jewess dwarf Rachel and the antisemitic Ariane in Belle du Seigneur. In essence, Abecassis illustrates how Cohen "repeats the same dialectic of repulsion, then reconciliation followed by a withdrawal" (p. 153) from a Jewish tradition in all of his narratives. For Abecassis, this metaphorically illustrates Cohen's inability to "save his children" (i.e., European Jews) from eventual destruction (read here as the Holocaust). This becomes most evident in Abecassis' enthralling epilogue where he exposes Solal's failure (suicide) in the painful father-son narrative Ezéchiel (1932), a story replete with antisemitic imagery and Jewish self-hatred. In sum, Abecassis attributes the "Cohen paradox" to his stance as an openly Jewish writer who made the "catastrophe of being a Jew" the central issue in his writing. Likewise, he largely attributes Cohen's lukewarm reception by critics to an inability to present himself as an Israélite or a "well-adjusted citizen" (p. 208).

Early in the book, Abecassis maintains that Cohen creates "bridge narratives" (p. 34) as a means to negotiate his ambivalent identity between the two worlds (p. 34). While this scholar deals systematically with the secondary literature on Cohen and occasionally draws on psychoanalytic theory to examine Cohen's Jewishness, he never explicitly engages several other bodies of scholarship related to identity and cultural marginality. For example, although Abecassis deals primarily with Jewish identity, assimilation, and ambivalent stereotyping, his analysis could have benefited from a consideration of scholarship in French and Francophone studies that deals with other types of borderland literature and forms of biculturalism. The work on immigrant (Maghrebi) literatures and cultures in contemporary France (Hargreaves, [End Page 161] 1997; Hargreaves and McKinney, 1997; and Rosello, 1998) first comes to mind. Furthermore, while Abecassis describes the performative nature of Jewish identity, especially in the...


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