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“I do not like to talk in the present tense”
Egyptian novelist Albert Cossery lived in Paris for over 60 years. He has published seven novels in French and was winner of the Francophone Prize for Literature. His work has been translated into many other languages but, unfortunately, very little into English. His first collection of short stories, Men God Forgot, (Cairo 1940) was highly praised, so much so that Henry Miller wrote the introduction to the American edition (published in Banipal 1, Spring 1998, and now available to read on this website).
I had read some of Albert Cossery’s novels before I knew him personally. When I became a friend, after meeting him many times over the last ten years, I started to interview him. And here follows a short interview, which could not be completed for many reasons: firstly, Albert Cossery really doesn’t care much for the media or interviews, and then there is his illness which prevents him from speaking. We still meet in the café and sit watching people go by.
Cossery was born in Cairo on 3 November 1913 and was educated in Cairo’s French schools where he received his Baccalaureat. In 1930, he moved to Paris to continue his studies. During World War Two he was a captain of an Egyptian merchant ship going to New York. He stayed in New York for a time and then travelled to Britain, returning to Egypt at the end of the war, although he quickly took up permanent residence in Paris in September 1945. He set up home on the fifth floor of Hotel Louisiane in Saint-German, where he still lives today.
Some might wonder how Albert Cossery managed never to forget Cairo, even for one moment, either in his every day life or in his writing, or how he could stay closeted in one hotel, in one room, for such a length of time. He strolls the streets of Saint-Germain without a cheque book or cash card; there is only one purchase on his mind – Le Monde newspaper.
He has an abhorrence of what is referred to as ‘material possessions’ and since 1945 his sole ‘possession’ has been his hotel room, which did not include, of course, the furniture. So I asked him:
– What do you carry in your pockets?
His answer: My treasure trove – my French residency documents are all I have in my pockets.
– Do you have a French passport?
No. I never applied for one.
– Why did you choose to write in French?
Coincidences themselves chose the French language for me. I had no choice since I studied French throughout my childhood. I have forgotten both the Arabic and the English that I once knew well. My mother tongue is Arabic; and certainly my mother knew no other language. Women in her time did not go to school. If my mother was alive today she would be more than 120 years old!
– When do you write?
I write when I have nothing better to do, or in other words when I am bored.
– Do you recall what you read when you were a child?
We never used to read children's book in our home. We read books by authors such as Nietsche, Dostoyovsky and Baudelaire. Of course, my mother, like all Egyptian mothers at the time, did not know how to read or write."
– Are the characters in your novels real or fictitious?
First and foremost, I have a special regard and fondness for my characters, they are moving and rare. They possess their own special ideas and are somewhat marginal in society. I do not write about characters who are there for everyone to see, but about a section of the population that really has something to offer. Most people have nothing to offer except worries, they waste your time and vex your senses. My characters hold certain views on life and the world. Unfortunately, most readers imagine my characters to be fictitious because they are unable to see anything other than the conventional in people. However, I could not invent all I write about. I travel to Cairo to meet the people and when I stroll amongst a crowd, whether in public squares, popular markets, or cafés, I listen to their conversations.
How did the idea of coming to France come about?
It was just coincidence, again, that brought me here. Ever since I was eighteen years old I have lived in France – in the Monteparnasse district. But Paris has now lost its sparkle, it’s no longer the crucible it once was. It no longer has authors, now it only has ‘composers of novels’.
– How can you assess an author?
One excerpt is enough to evaluate this or that writer. A great author’s presence is felt when we read one paragraph of his work.
– You have lived in Hotel Louisiane a long time. Do you find hotel life comfortable?
I do believe I have salvaged my life and saved my time by living in a hotel. People spend a lifetime caring for a house. I execute all my affairs by phone. Today, I am the only one living in the hotel. People nowadays cannot live in hotels because of the expense. But, you know, I feel very much at home in the hotel. At two o'clock in the morning I can come down from my room and go out to buy food and cigarettes – everything is available in Saint-Germain.
– You knew many now famous writers here in Paris. Tell me about that time with Albert Camus, Trisian Tzara, Alberto Giacometti and Lawrence Durrell?
When I first encountered Lawrence Durrell, he had not written anything. I remember, when he arrived from Greece – it was at the time that the Germans were invading and all the British people living there were reluctant to go to Cairo – he sent the English translations of my novels to America to be published. As for Albert Camus, he was a friend of mine. We used to spend many evenings together, dancing the night away in the underground clubs and cellars such as ‘Le Tabou’ or ‘Le Mephisto’. Money was not an object between us, and whoever had it would pay for the other. During that time, I would go to a night club at two o’clock in the morning and was certain to meet a friend. Nowadays, there’s nothing.
– Tell me about Gabis Admon.
With Gabis Admon, I used to spend my time flirting with women. We did not discuss literature.
– And your youthful days in Café de Flore?
There is a huge difference between the present clients of Café de Flore and those in the past. Café de Flore used to be a meeting place for writers and artists. Nowadays, it is a tourist place and, especially when the fashion shows are on, I am often unable to find just a single chair to sit on. Perhaps tourists deliberately choose this café knowing that it was a café for writers and artists. Look around you! I do not recognise one person. In the past, I would find my friends here. Now Saint-Germain has become a façade for memories. The writers have either moved on to the countryside or passed away.
– What are your hopes for the future?
My only aspiration is for my books to be available.
– Can you tell me about the impulse behind your writing?
I write because I have certain things to say about this world, its corruption, and about the simpletons; and also I have to narrate a love story – though I would not spend a lifetime doing just that. Only simpletons believe that writing is a comfort. I have a loathing for serious people.
– Some writers prefer writing in the countryside.
I hate living in the country. How can one criticise the trees?
– Why did you choose to live in Saint-Germain?
I cannot bear living in a quiet district, where nothing takes place at night. I have to be able to leave my hotel room and examine the beautiful things that are taking place, and then return at any hour I please, to read. But what to read?. You are aware that I have no other occupation. But it would be pathetic of me to list you the authors’ names and the titles of the books I have read; that is for people wh just want to show off.
– How much has café life altered over the years, do you think?
In the past, we used to meet inside the cafés and on the pavements. Nowadays, though we spend pleasant times, the people are very different, they seem ugly.
– Are you writing a new novel?
I am not working very much for a new book . The urge is not there. I have said what I want to say. For us to say one or two ideas about the world, we do not need to write thirty volumes. An eighth book would be excessive, particularly as I feel I’d be rewriting the same book. But, for me, the advantage of being able to stop writing a novel whenever I like is that I know somehow that the characters will turn up in other books, under different names.
– Can you live from the sale of your books?
When a publisher re-prints one of my books, they do not make a fortune out of it, and nor do I. No one can understand that! Yet I can live from the royalties on my books.
– Do you feel responsible for anything at all in this world?
The only things I feel responsible for are observation and investigation.
– It is well known that all your novels speak of Egypt. There is no trace of Paris in your work, however?
All my novels are about the Egyptian districts, the old neighbourhoods and their inhabitants. When I began writing I wanted to express the concept of place in Egyptian districts, and of the man living and nourishing his existence. I also wanted to express the reality I cohabited with, and the unreal characters who were my contemporaries during the time I lived in Egypt.
– If you love Egypt to this extent, why not live there?
I own nothing there . Here, I can at least live from the royalties on my books. I can tell you that when I left Egypt the population was 18 million. Now it is 55 million. In Cairo it was approximately two million and now 13 or 14 million people live there.
– Some of the critics and writers who know you, think your work is like Henry Miller’s. How do you feel about that?
I do not write like Miller. Miller transformed his life into special material for writing. His only concern was to live the moment, away from the past and the future. Of course, he wrote about Paris more than any other writer who has lived here. Perhaps a foreign author is able to see things which others cannot. His best work on Paris is perhaps The Tropic of Cancer, which was the first novel in which he talks about Paris as I knew it in my days of youth, particularly the Monteparnasse district.
– You are often referred to as a ‘marginal’ author. What do you say to this?
I know. I am not like other authors. But it has to be said that in the last ten years, I have yet to find an important writer. The main concern for an author nowadays is to amass the largest sum of money. They write either to achieve fame or to win literary prizes. An outsider to this game is referred to as a ‘marginal writer’. So in this sense, yes, I am a ‘marginal writer’ .
– As an author, you combine being both an eastern novelist and a contemporary western writer. How do you balance the two?
The story itself does not concern me. I invent a story to manifest the characters that reflect my ideas. That is all there is to it. There is some distance between a novelist and an author. The novelist writes any story that comes to hand, while an author always write the same book. To me, for example, all my books are just one book. I have a concept of the world. The novelist usually attempts not to burden the reader or alter a particular idea he holds. A novelist does not change your life when you read his work, but an author does.
– Your world is a similtaneous mixture of reality and myth, in that you expand the events into unfamiliar territory. Is that due to the variety already existing in your world, or is it an attempt on your part to give it your own special creative flavour?
There is no myth in this world where man oppresses his fellow man. If, in my novels, I have stepped away from tradition, and by that I do not mean what is noble and great but the tattered values that are imposed upon us, then that to me is sufficient. My work is not exclusive to an reader from the elite. It is available to any man or woman. In Europe there is a common belief that complicated writings imply great talent. When we do not comprehend what you say, you are a gifted author, but when you are understood, then it is said that you are not an important author, and so forth.
– Do you bring into your work any of the political events that have happened in the Arab world?
I do not write about them directly. Take, for example, my last novel Desert Aspiration; it talks about events that have happened or might take place in the future. We have to search for the essence of political events and not the actual course of events themselves.
In Desert Aspiration you tackled the issue of petrol in a manner unique for Arab writers.
First of all, the novel doesn’t define any specific place; it concerns an Arab principality to which people went in search of petrol which they never found. The hero of my novel went there because he wished to live in security, as apposed to those who were visiting it looking for petrol. He wanted to live with peace of mind, was quite taken aback when he found an ID was needed to cross the desert.
– Have you encountered any problems with censorship in Egypt or elsewhere?
It is unfortunate that in our Arab countries novels are treated by the censors as documentaries, while the author is dealing, of course, with imagination. In the cinema, certain scenes of a film based on my novel Proud Beggars were censored. In a novel you must not censor – not even one line!
How do you convey to the French reader the Egyptian spirit which you have discussed?
I confess there are problems with my work because it is read in French. Sometimes I do not achieve the required effect on the French readers, because I employ certain expressions used in Parisian novels. I find myself reluctant to search for a special meaning in order to create the atmosphere of a novel. When a French reader reads me, he believes he is in Egypt. One way or another, I am forced to tame the language to serve the Egyptian climate with all its different intimate and private worlds.
What do you make of Cairo now when you go there to visit?
Lately, I discovered human masses crowding everywhere. I felt tired and exhausted because someone of my age is unable to tolerate such overcrowdedness. I must point out that Egyptians enjoy a good sense of humour. I believe that an author who writes about Egyptian society without picking up this spirit is an unsuccessful writer. At any moment you will encounter a joke, an anecdote or a funny tale. There are thousands of funny stories – we shall never know who invented them – and, particularly, sarcastic commentaries relating to heated political events, which makes a mockery of everything.
– Having lived for more than fifty years in Paris, have you considered writing your biography?
I do not like to speak in the present tense, nor do I have any wish to talk about myself.
This interview of Albert Cossery by Shaker Nouri was published in Banipal 4, Spring 1999