Navigate to Arts & Letters section

America’s Albert Cohen Moment

Is the Greek-born Swiss Jewish author and diplomat a hapless romantic or a man with a message for our times?

Matt Alexander Hanson
August 16, 2019
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Image
Albert Cohen in Geneva, 1967Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Image
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Image
Albert Cohen in Geneva, 1967Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Image

One-hundred-twenty-four years ago today, the 20-year-old daughter of a notary, Louise Judith Ferro, washed her newborn son, Avraham Coen, with the soap made in her family’s home across from their synagogue on the island of Corfu. He heard his first words in Judeo-Venetian, his only language for the next five years. In 1968, as the streets of Paris blazed with anti-establishment protests, he won the Grand Prix of the Académie Française. By then, he was Albert Cohen, celebrated as the immigrant son of Jewish egg sellers in Marseille. In May of this year, the Swiss journal Le Temps listed Cohen’s great novel Belle du Seigneur as the fifth-best book since 1900, trailing Apollinaire by a vote, and a bit behind Proust.

Cohen first read Proust in Alexandria when he apprenticed as a lawyer for a British bank, fair for a working-class upstart in Geneva freshly married into the family of a Protestant minister. Within a Budding Grove, the second volume of In Search of Lost Time, was published in 1919, the year of Cohen’s Swiss naturalization, wedding, and foreign post. Penniless, he read it in an Egyptian bookshop. Proust’s conceptual nonconformism, mixed with his poetic response to the Dreyfus affair touched a nerve. Guermantes Way, published the year before Cohen returned to Geneva in 1921, dedicated 100 pages in support of Dreyfus, whose scandal catalyzed Jewish nationalism and encompassed the first decade of Cohen’s life. On his tenth birthday, Aug. 16, 1905, he confronted his lifelong Jewish identity crisis when a street hawker of stain-remover called him a dirty yid among the German spies and international financiers who had best return to Jerusalem.

Cohen was then learning how to be French with his high school classmate, Marcel Pagnol, who would change the bourgeois conservatism of the Académie Française by becoming its first elected filmmaker in 1946, after making a name for himself in literature, drama, and memoir. Cohen was an attorney in London for the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, for whom he published what he controversially called his “best book,” the 32-page Agreement on Refugee and Travel Documents, signed by 15 governments. His legal writ survives verbatim as Article 28 of the Geneva Convention of 1951, known as the Refugee Convention, and still actively secures travel documents for stateless migrants.

Cohen wrote the Intergovernmental Agreement on Refugee and Travel Documents in 1946 after its prototype, the Nansen certificate of 1922. Its signatories granted travel documents to forced migrants from Russia, as well as Armenians and Turks fleeing the Ottoman Empire’s penultimate year. In 1933, the landmark Nansen certificate paved the way for German refugees, mostly Jews, to receive birth, death, and marriage papers under the “Identity Certificate” act.

Cohen’s contribution to international refugee law was his attempt to save Jews, not only of European citizenry. As early as 1929, he saw it coming. In his debut book of prose, Solal, published in 1930, anti-Semitic crows in Geneva croak of danger in a xenophobic country where Jews were demonized, in his language, as an incomprehensible race of worms.

In the wake of the Balfour Declaration, first signed in 1917 as a doctrine of sympathy for the Zionist cause on behalf of the royal British government, Cohen met Chaim Weizmann, whose support granted him the editorship of La Revue Juive. His writers included Martin Buber, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein. In the first issue, January, 1925, Einstein wrote: “The Jews must also make use of their nationality. May they do this for the benefit of the common good!”


After working for the International Refugee Organization (IRO), Cohen ended his diplomatic career at the International Labor Organization (ILO), which is celebrating its 100th year. In 1952, Cohen quit his ILO job and turned down an ambassadorship in Israel in order to write. In Solal, he presciently bemoaned, “Ah, how difficult it was to explain the beauty of Israel to one that saw only Jews!” But in his lifetime, Cohen never visited Israel, despite serving as a liaison for the Jewish Agency for Palestine and rallying for Zionist statehood in the prime of his diplomatic career.

For the centennial of the ILO, Cohen’s former office in Geneva’s William Rappard building will be open every Thursday, with guides relaying Cohen’s early human rights work against anti-immigrant intolerance and the emasculated sham of international organizations, whose art deco opulence and chauvinistic classism he mocked in indisputably perfect French.

Some of those who work in human rights, such as young historian Pierre-Étienne Bourneuf of the United Nations in Geneva, reject Cohen’s infamous portrayal of their institutions. Bourneuf works out of an office where Cohen fans imagine League of Nations employees boasting of earning more than Mozart, making anti-Semitic jokes, and seducing compliant women in decadent halls on the way to sterile hearings.

People such as Bourneuf do not like Belle du Seigneur, which is, at heart, a sappy romance—a point Cohen understood as a master of the novel. And indeed, hundreds of pages at a time are devoted to dinner parties, evening outings, and the monologic insecurities of a suicidal relationship based on outbursts of sex and passion in hotel rooms.

Yet as an immigrant, nonnative Francophone, Cohen wrote romantic literature as an expression of desire to love his people. His wording on the matter is a point of contention for Jack I. Abecassis, the leading Cohen scholar in America, who judged the award-winning translation of Belle du Seigneur by David Coward as malpractice in the context of what he referred to as the most important phrase in the book: “I want to love.” Coward translated “je veux aimer” as “I will treasure.” Abecassis excoriated Coward in his paper titled “Problems in the Translation of Belle du Seigneur,” published in 2006, rejecting what he saw as a “tendentious (mis)interpretation.”

Coward and Abecassis are at odds over critical aspects of Cohen’s literature and its posthumous appreciation. In his biographical preface to Belle du Seigneur, Coward admires Cohen’s first book, a poetry collection, Jewish Words (Paroles Juives), as akin to the Song of Songs, while Abecassis puts it in its place as the amateurish whims of a cloying aspirant. Coward prides himself for working with the author’s wife Bella, while Abecassis finds the intimacy a hindrance.

Abecassis, born of Francophone Sephardic Moroccan parentage in Israel, immigrated to the United States in his teens. While he specializes in early French philosophy, he has written extensively on modern authors like Milan Kundera. In 2001, he saw anti-Israel anti-Semitism return to the mainstream geopolitical narrative during the “World Conference against Racism” in Durban. After that, he read Cohen and his intellectual life changed. But the 30 years that Cohen sat on the initial draft of Belle du Seigneur, which he first completed in 1938, remain a nagging silence for scholars like Abecassis. And by 1968, Cohen had lost export value.


In a bookshop in Geneva, where Cohen spent most of his professional life and lived out his final years, a middle-aged bibliophile named Bernard Letu had his arm in a sling while directing his young assistant to stock the shelves of his Librairie-Galerie. He met Cohen soon before the author died at age 86 in the fall of 1981. But it is a sore memory for Letu, who is still at a loss for words when remembering a disgruntled, arrogant literary icon.

Letu’s assistant, a generation younger, redeemed Cohen’s memory with beaming eyes and a wide smile discussing the vitality of his prose. Gilt-leaved editions of his bibliography are issued by Gallimard, historic as the editor and publisher of Proust, and a recent, annotated critical edition of his four interlinked novels by Philippe Zard are canonical staples in French bookstores across Europe. Zard, widely considered to be the best Cohen scholar in the world, compared the identity of his Jewish compatriot to the negritude of poet Aimé Césaire, or the Catholicism of sculptor Camille Claudel in terms of multicultural self-determination in France. In pure literary aesthetics, Cohen’s prose is arguably most akin to that of Romain Gary, who was also of Jewish origin.

Cohen created an enigma of himself as the monotheistic god of a Promethean myth to preserve the rugged individualism of his uninfluenced originality. He is as American as the larger-than-life autobiographical portraits of his fiction. But in America, as Abecassis said, “it is unknown that that he is unknown.” Even to scholars in Europe, outside of his oeuvre, he only survives in dry, bureaucratic files buried at the ILO and UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

One scholar in Switzerland named Joëlle Zagury has researched Cohen’s legacy for nearly four decades. She is a specialist in refugee studies, and has contributed significantly to Francophone criticism of Cohen’s books. Eight months before the writer’s death, Zagury walked into the Cohens’ apartment in Geneva at 7 Avenue Krieg. Mme. Cohen opened the door, and they began a friendship. In time, even Zagury’s children came to think of Bella Cohen as their grandmother.

Zagury claims she will never forget Mr. Cohen’s glance. Her first impression of him was that he was every bit the lord, or Seigneur. He surprised Zagury with his genuine interest in her studies in Jerusalem and Montpelier. She sat on his couch. His round face stole puffs from his ever-present cigarette.


Unlike her husband, Bella Cohen worked at the ILO until her retirement, at which point she dedicated herself to the health and work of her husband. She translated his memoir, Book of My Mother, in 1997 and typed his dictations, a role that she assumed dutifully, as had his past wives (there were two prior). In his foreword, Coward hailed Bella Cohen’s translation as “sly, poetic, incantatory English” that “reunited him with words, his true homeland.” After Cohen died, she could not listen to their classical music records, nor watch the TV programs they enjoyed.

It was Bella Cohen who hand-picked David Coward as Cohen’s modern English-language translator. Belle du Seigneur therefore reads more like Bella’s translation of Book of My Mother than the 1933 translation of Solal by Wilfred Benson. The saccharine informalities of a lovers’ diction, the degraded immigrant French of his relatives, and the Jewish satire of WASP racism is conveyed with a Kafkaesque knack for cartoonish absurdism, and a Dostoyevskian tolerance for dramatic tension.

Writing for The New York Review of Books the year after Belle du Seigneur’s publication in English, the late John Weightman, a translator and announcer for BBC’s French service, introduced his eulogistic piece on Cohen: “Translation, which, like the wind, bloweth where it listeth…” And he continued: “to enter fully into Cohen’s intense and complex emotional world, it is necessary to look at his whole output.”

But Cohen has simply never sold well to Anglophones. It is possible to acquire rare first-edition copies of Wilfred Benson’s original 1933 translation of Cohen’s Solal. As for the fabled English translations of his other works, Weightman noted in 1996 that they were even missing from the catalog of the British Library.

While Cohen loved England, his home and refuge for the first seven years of the 1940s, the English-speaking world dismissed him both critically and publicly. In a 1940 review, George Orwell lambasted Cohen’s second novel, Mangeclous, published by Gallimard in 1938. Orwell wrote: “It is one of the most pretentious novels I have read for a long time … calculated to make any ordinary person physically sick,” and that Cohen himself “is an exceptionally perverse, morbid writer, a case for psycho-analysis.”

The reception of Cohen’s only play, Ezekiel, which premiered at the Comédie-Française in 1933, offers a fitting analogy for his ability to offend both Jews and anti-Semites alike. At its opening in 1956, the Jewish establishment boycotted it. It is, as Abecassis wrote, a “father-centered nightmare.” Abecassis also notes that his fellow Israelis prefer the New World satire of Philip Roth’s self-loathing over Cohen’s baldfaced prodding at Europe’s unhealed wounds.

Yet as the rise of anti-Semitism in America prompts Jews to ask the same questions as their European ancestors did in the 1930s, Cohen’s books are as artistically amusing as they call us to remain vigilant, proud, even romantic.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Matt Alexander Hanson is an arts and culture journalist based in Istanbul.