Albert Cossery was a living legend — until he died a few weeks ago. The Egyptian author was one of the last links to the glory days when Paris was the capital of world culture, with Saint-Germain-des-Prés its swinging epicentre.
Having already sampled the louche pleasures of interbellum Montparnasse, Cossery left Cairo in 1945 and relocated to the Left Bank where he hung out on a nightly basis with Genet, Giacometti, Gréco, Queneau, Sartre, Tzara, Vian et al. His first book, Men God Forgot, was published in the States courtesy of Henry Miller, one of his biggest fans. Accompanied by Camus, he cruised the streets of the Latin Quarter, soon acquiring something of a reputation as a Levantine lover. Indeed, by the early 90s he was boasting that he had bedded more than 3,000 women which, if true, would put him right up there in Simenon’s priapic super league. When the American secret services suspected him of being a spy, Lawrence Durrell — another close friend — pointed out that he was far too busy shagging.
The secret services had good reason to be wary of this dapper anarchist, often dubbed the “Voltaire of the Nile”. His caustic satire burned like the desert sun, undermining all forms of authority. In La Violence et la Dérision (unfortunately not translated into English) freedom fighters use mockery and contempt, not violence, as political weapons against state tyranny.
All his life, Cossery sided with those he felt God had forgotten: petty thieves, pretty prostitutes, exploited workers and hungry vagrants. He despised materialism and eschewed the rat race. In Proud Beggars (1955), usually considered his masterpiece, a university professor finds peace of mind by becoming a bum, proving that beggars can be choosers. In The Lazy Ones (1948), a character stays in bed, out of choice, for a whole year. Another decides, on reflection, not to take a wife for fear she might disrupt his precious sleep patterns. In an early short story, the inhabitants of an impoverished neighbourhood even take up arms against all those who prevent them from snoozing in peace until midday.
For the author and his lovable rogue’s gallery, sleep, daydreams and hashish-induced reverie are endowed with mystical qualities. Idleness is more than a way of life. It offers the greatest luxury of all: time to think and therefore the chance to be fully alive, “minute by minute”. The overt message of these people whom God has forgotten (but who themselves have not forgotten God) is that paradise is not lost, but most of us are too busy to bask in “the Edenic simplicity of the world”.
There is, however, a darker covert message. In practice, living “minute by minute” meant living the same minute over and over again. Time seems to have stood still for Cossery as soon as he settled in Paris. In 1945, he checked into a small room in a hotel called La Louisiane on Rue de Seine and remained there until his death. Every day, he got up at noon (like his characters), dressed up in his habitual dandified fashion and made his way to the Brasserie Lipp for a spot of lunch. From there, he usually repaired to the Flore or the Deux Magots where he would cast an Olympian eye over the drones passing by. Then it was time for his all-important siesta. Repeat ad infinitum. Cossery, who once described sleep as “death’s brother”, lived a strange, mummified existence, reminiscent of Beckett’s “sleep till death/ healeth/ come ease/ this life disease”.