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Jocelyn Spaar Translates Early Poems of Albert Cossery for Paris Review Daily
“Revived at the fingers of a magician”! Where’s our flageolet: Artist, poet and translator Jocelyn Spaar, pictured above, has brought to the Paris Review Daily fore three poems by the Egyptian-born, French novelist Albert Cossery. Never before translated into English, they are the only extant poems from his long-lost book, Les Morsures (“The Teeth Marks” or “Bites”). Spaar’s translations are accompanied by a generous introduction from Anna Della Subin, who tells us more about the book by “[t]he patron saint of indolence—who wrote only when he had nothing better to do”:
…By all accounts the book has been lost, and Cossery himself up until his death coyly refused to aid any devoted readers in search of a copy. Yet three poems were preserved in the monumental anthology Poètes en Egypte, edited in Cairo in 1955 by Jean Moscatelli. The anthology, which brought together over fifty-five Franco-Egyptian writers, captured the collective achievements of a literary community in the twilight of its end. It included Cossery’s friends Georges Henein and Edmond Jabès, as well as Joyce Mansour and Horus Schenouda—all of whom were soon to leave, or had already left, for exile in Paris in the wake of Nasser’s coup.
In the extant poems—“The Beggars,” “Misery,” and “Night,” translated into English for the first time by Jocelyn Spaar—the teeth marks we find belong to Baudelaire, and the “macabre puerilities,” in Moscatelli’s words, of Flowers of Evil. At times, Cossery even seems to lift verses from his boyhood god: the scholar Bassem Shahin has pointed out, for instance, similarities between the first line of Baudelaire’s “The Sun” and Cossery’s “The Beggars.” The putrid, cadaverous mass in the poem further recalls the stench of “A Carcass.” And the blood-sucking temptress of Baudelaire’s “The Vampire” seems to strike again in Cossery’s “Night,” as the shadowy woman “who bit my dream / in times far-off like the moon.” But in the face of her, Cossery, unlike the vanquished Baudelaire, remains firm.
“The verses already carry the mark of a life haunted by all that is mortal,” writes Moscatelli, “the temperament of Albert Cossery being more attuned to the black than the blue of life.” Stealing a glimpse into the teenage abyss, we find flickers of what is to come. The battalion of the dead in “The Beggars” might well be the impoverished inhabitants of The House of Certain Death (1944), Cossery’s first novel, who await the imminent collapse of their derelict tenement on their heads. The speaker of “Misery,” if he combed his hair, could become the heroic, pickpocketing flâneur Ossama, cavalierly ignoring the advances of women as he takes on the corruption of the bourgeoisie in Cossery’s final novel The Colors of Infamy (1999). And the ode to blessed “Night” summons the endless dream of Laziness in the Fertile Valley (1948)—republished this month by New Directions—about a family that sleeps all day. Shrouded in quilts, their idleness is a refusal to participate in the evils and indignities of this world. Their house is as quiet as the cemetery of Montparnasse, where Cossery and Baudelaire meet.
Cossery attracts us poets–notably, Anna Moschovakis translated his novel The Jokers not too long ago. And Cossery is not the only morceau for Spaar–a little bird has it that she’s also translating contemporary French poet Amandine André. For now, read “The Beggars,” “Misery,” and “Night,” at The Paris Review Daily. Photo by Maya Korn.