Albert Cossery’s Last Siesta in Paris

This appeared in Dazed Digital on 16 July 2008:

Albert Cossery’s Last Siesta in Paris

The cult author, famous for his indolence and libido, closes his eyes for the last time

Albert Cossery was a lazy old sod — a relic from the past who looked, of late, as if he felt he had outstayed his welcome. Always dressed to the nines, this dandy anarchist could be observed sitting in the legendary Café de Flore, casting an Olympian eye over the aimless crowds outside, biding his time. His militant idleness coupled with a strange mummified existence blurred the boundary between life and death for so long that his passing away, last month, could almost have gone unnoticed — had he not been a living legend.

The cult author moved to Paris from his native Cairo in 1945 and soon became a fixture of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés boho scene. His friends included some of the most influential writers and artists of the last century: Sartre, Genet, Vian, Queneau, Tzara, Giacometti and others. Lawrence Durrell championed his first book — a brilliant collection of short stories entitled Men God Forgot (1940) — and Henry Miller ensured it got published Stateside. He even picked up girls — lots of them — with Albert Camus. According to legend (that word again), Durrell informed the American secret services that Cossery could not possibly be a spy, as they suspected, because he spent most of his time shagging. By the early 90s, he was claiming more than 3,000 female conquests.

Sex aside, Cossery never believed in exerting himself. His very name evokes divine indolence: avoir la cosse is a colloquial expression meaning to be bone idle. True to his moniker, he spent his life resisting any work ethic that prevents people from enjoying “the Edenic simplicity of the world”. He often showed off his delicate hands, explaining, somewhat provocatively, that they had not toiled in 2,000 years. And when a journalist inevitably enquired why he wrote, he answered that he hoped his books would prompt readers to pack in their jobs.

For Cossery, idleness was more than a way of life. It afforded him the greatest luxury of all: the time to contemplate — to think or observe — and therefore the opportunity to be fully alive, “minute by minute”. This accounts for the constant connection he establishes between destitution and nobility, which is reflected, for instance, in the beautiful descriptions of glistening gobbets of spit, or light playing upon puddles of piss. The author claimed that he always felt like the son of a king, even when he was penniless — or rather, especially when he was penniless, just like the university professor in Proud Beggars (1955) who finally feels like a million dollars after electing to become a pauper. The lesson here is that those who reject (or are deprived of) material wealth gain access to a heightened state of consciousness. When Cossery died, the French Culture Minister described him as a “prince”, even though he owned little more than the clogs he had just popped.

All his works (for want of a more congenial word) focus on the members of this aristocratic underclass — the holy hooligans who wear their hashish-smoke halos raffishly askew and jump through the eyes of needles like so many biblical camels. Cossery was not just their poet laureate: he considered himself as a fully unpaid-up member of the idle poor and certainly put his lack of money where his mouth was. Long before downshifting became trendy among trustafarians, he checked into a small hotel room and lived off handouts and publishing rights. Not so much because property is theft but because it can rob you of your soul.

Cossery’s anti-work ethos and all-round laziness only partly account for his limited output (a mere eight books in sixty-five years). He was a typical Platonic author who saw his works as imperfect reflections of an unattainable ideal. As such, he despised hackwork, often only producing a single perfectly-honed sentence a week. No wonder his last novel — a slim volume called Les Couleurs de l’infamie (1999) — was fifteen years in the making.

This unattainable literary ideal is symbolised by his characters’ noble dreams. Cossery’s anti-heroes are for ever lost in sleep or reverie, as if they were hankering after some prelapsarian state of perfect vegetative bliss. In the aptly-titled The Lazy Ones (1948), a character remains bedridden, out of choice, for a whole year; another opts for celibacy in order to preserve his sacred sleep patterns. In an early short story, the inhabitants of an impoverished neighbourhood are prepared to kill off those who have the nerve to disturb their slumber before noon. Some characters are even afraid to move lest they should break the magic spell of their daydreams. The author himself revelled in the out-of-time experience afforded by sleep, which is hardly surprising given that what he called living “minute by minute” meant, in practice, living the same minute over and over again Groudhog Day-style.

Time stood still for Cossery as soon as he settled in Paris. In 1945, he checked in to a small room in a hotel called La Louisiane on Rue de Seine and remained there until his recent demise. Every day, he would get up at noon (like his characters), dress up in his habitual dandified fashion and make his way to the Brasserie Lipp for a spot of lunch. From there, he would usually repair to the Café de Flore or the Deux Magots before going home for his all-important siesta. Repeat ad infinitum. A similar case of arrested development can be found in the books, which are all, without exception, set in the Middle East, although Cossery, of course, spent most of his life in France. His French style even mimicks the Arabic of his youth. One of the most haunting passages in Men God Forgot is the description of a crude fresco representing a motionless sailing boat on the Nile, frozen in time, refusing to move on.

Cossery described sleep as “death’s brother” and one can wonder if this refusal to turn his back on the glory days of Saint-Germain-des-Prés did not hide a desire for the big sleep: the eternal here and now. The author’s later years give a distinct impression of slow exhaustion. In 1998, he fell silent as a result of cancer and the following year he stopped writing, claiming that he no longer had anything to say.

For almost fifteen years (the time it took him to write his last book), I lived just up the road from Cossery. Whenever I got home in the small hours — usually a little worse for wear — my thoughts would turn to the “Voltaire of the Nile” sleeping in his diminutive mausoleum. It was a comforting thought, like a sailing boat that will never sail away.

The next time you walk down Rue de Seine, tread lightly: Albert Cossery sleeps on. Shh!

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