Archive for December, 2011

“The House of Certain Death” by Albert Cossery

Friday, December 30th, 2011



THE HOUSE OF CERTAIN DEATH (La Maison de la Mort Certaine, 1944) is Albert Cossery’s first novel. It marks an apprentice writer’s transition from his first book, the collection of short stories titled “Men God Forgot” (1940), to the accomplished later novels for which he is best known.

The author introduces us to a group of Cairo inhabitants, a handful of impoverished families living in a rundown tenement located in the squalid Native Quarter. We get to meet them during a cold winter season that becomes “a course of unlucky days.”

They include Chehata, an out-of-work carpenter who has gone mad due to his inability to provide food for his wife and daughter; Rachwan Kassem, an oil stove repairman who succumbs to anger; Soliman El Abit, a melon peddler who succumbs to fear; Souka, a café singer in unrequited love with an abused married woman; Abd Rabbo, a street sweeper who selfishly abandons the neighborhood; Bayoumi, a monkey trainer who provides limited comic relief; Kawa, a man resigned to painful old age; and Ahmed Safa, a hashish addict who, alone among the band, can read and write.

The character most interesting to the modern reader, especially one who has followed the impact of the 2011 Arab Spring, is Abdel Al, an unemployed carter. It is he who, in the final third of the book, undergoes a personal awakening — a new political consciousness — that guides him, tentatively, to thoughts of revolt.

As for a plot, the book is meager. We witness a few unsuccessful attempts by the tenants to confront their landlord, Si Khalil, and force him to do something about a building in imminent threat of collapse. The notion of a house in ruins is an idea Cossery again would examine 55 years later in his final novel, “The Colors of Infamy” (1999), whose plot turns on a catastrophe caused by a slum landlord’s indifference.

In this earlier story the crumbling tenement takes on a heavy — and some will say heavy-handed — symbolic weight as a sign of the corruption of Egypt’s social and political. We are reminded often that the crack in the tenement’s foundation is growing (“day by day its dimensions were becoming more alarming”).  As we learn more and more of the personalities and perilous individual status of these forgotten men, women and children, we also learn of their collective peril. Cossery repeatedly inserts in the mouth of one character after another the exclamation, “Don’t you know that the house is about to crash?”

Throughout his career Cossery was prone to florid writing, a dubious skill he eventually learned to apply selectively. Here in his first novel this tendency is wholly unchecked. For example, the carter’s eight-year-old son, wandering the neighborhood streets, is described as being “alone in the immense charnel house where men were murdered by torment and tyranny.” As well, there is a great amount of repetitive and tiresome text separating rare moments of prose that chill us with savage revelations.

As in better works by this author, an oppressive atmosphere prevails. Its cause is an unresolved tension between apathy (“The world could crumble, the world could rot; the tenants would not move”) and action (“the soul-stirring force of revolt”). The problem I had is Cossery’s avoidance of building a case either way. Readers will wonder, Where does the author stand?

One would imagine he stands with Abdel Al who comes to realize how man has “concealed within him, secrets that could shake the world.” Abdel seeks to be sustained “by something bigger than himself.” The education of Abdel Al (“there are certain things that I am just beginning to understand”) is finely evoked.

“Ever since I began to think about the misery in which we all live, I can feel ideas sprouting inside me like poisonous weeds. I am always trying to sort them out, but just when I’m about to grasp them, they suddenly retreat into the shadows. And I am never able to catch up with them . . . . He was filled with a feeling of impotence that tortured him like an open sore.”

“He realized that, by himself, he could do nothing. What could one man accomplish? A lone man was a powerless thing, fit only for sorrow and for tears. Abdel Al would have liked to see everyone aroused by the same feeling; he hoped for a universal awakening for those who were affected by a common misery and a mutual desire to live.”

How disappointing it is for the reader that his evolution of thought, so harrowingly relayed by Cossery, leads . . . nowhere.

The book concludes with a climactic confrontation between Abdel Al and the landlord Si Khalil in an unnamed public square (could it be Tahrir Square?). It peters out with a mere exchange of insults and slogans. The tenant warns of an eventual “vengence of an oppressed people that nothing can stop”; the landlord responds: “You’ll be dead long before that.”

It is as if Cossery lost the nerve to pursue this grand theme.

“The House of Certain Death” is currently out of print. The likelihood of its revival in today’s uncertain publishing world is slim. Ardent and adamant Cossery readers will want to track down a used copy, if for no other reason that to trace the early development of this excellent writer. But the literary explorer should be prepared to find an awkward book, one lacking the controlled pace, the sly humor, and the intelligent talk that enlivens prime Cossery.

For those treats, check out the newly translated editions of the author’s “Proud Beggars” and “The Jokers,” both published by New York Review Classics.

Note: My reading was of the 1949 hardback edition of “The House of Certain Death” translated by Stuart B. Kaiser, published by New Directions as book 11 in its Directions Series. If ND decides to re-issue the books, news of that will likely be posted here.


“The Father Costume” by Ben Marcus

Sunday, December 11th, 2011



This novella by Ben Marcus (with illustrations by the artist Matthew Ritchie) is currently unavailable except from a handful of used book dealers who are selling copies at forbidding prices. What a shame.

The Father Costume was published in 2002 by Artspace Books as part of a series featuring “collaborations of image and text by today’s most innovative artists challenging the culture in which we live.” Here’s how Marcus describes his interaction with Richie:

We got together and talked a little bit about stuff that interested us. He’s really into physics and creation stories and origin theories of the universe, yet his relationship to all that heavy stuff is really light and playful and subversive. When you look at his paintings, there’s certainly nothing didactic or overbearing about them. He wants painting, essentially, to visualize the first moments of time. We threw some ideas around and decided to make a book. I wrote something and I showed it to him. He made some images and we got together again to mess around some more. There’s the book.

The book ought to be brought back into print, for the simple reason that I can think of no more exemplary introduction to the accomplishments of Ben Marcus, a so-called “experimental” writer who in these 45 pages belies that label’s negative implication of inscrutability by producing a work of deep emotion and resonance.

On the immediate level The Father Costume is a family drama told from the awed perspective of a child who attempts to follow the unfathomable actions of his father. It is narrated by one of two brothers removed by their father from their ancient home to escape some amorphous danger. They embark on a sea voyage that takes an ominous turn. As strange and at the same time as genuinely moving as Donald Barthelme’s affecting tale, The Dead Father (1975), the book bears an even closer kinship to Jesse Ball’s The Curfew (2011) which centers on the bond between a father and his daughter and is also set in a time and place not exactly of this world. Marcus previously examined relationships within nuclear families in Notable American Women: A Novel (2002) and does so again in the upcoming The Flame Alphabet (2012).

Veteran readers of Marcus know that the author achieves his signature brand of queasy disconnection and anxiety by means of language manipulation. He moves way beyond the relatively simple language games of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” (where nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, are replaced with nonsense word counterparts) — upping the ante by constructing sentences with familiar but “wrong” words, crafting images and actions that catch you off guard. Early in the The Father Costume the son notes, for example, “I dotted our windowsills with listening utensils, in case a message came in the night.” The reader must remain nimble in order to negotiate the uncertain ride of these games. What serves you best in this mythical and fantastical universe is a comfort level with surrealism and a willingness to tap into your intuitive side. As well you must also accept Marcus’ obsession over certain objects (here, cloth, costumes, lenses), rituals, and failures of communication. Early on the son explains, “I could not read fabric. I had a language problem.” He notes that “the antenna of our radio had been soaking in honey overnight.” Later he confesses, “My brother and I would have attacked my father with chopping motions until he had been silenced. Keeping maybe his hair, just in case.”

Some of this oddness is amusing, but all sense of playfulness disappears as the story reaches its climax with violence and death. That is when essential questions are unavoidable. What is the meaning of the cryptically-described “costumes” the father makes for himself and his sons? Are these their personas? Socially-imposed behaviors? God’s constraints? Can The Father Costume be viewed as a religious allegory, and a specifically Christian one? At the end of the story the surviving son wonders whether “there may be a father operating on the other side of the glass.” In an interview C. B. Smith conducted with Marcus devoted solely to The Father Costume the author explains: “The narrator has no idea what is really happening. That kind of innocence appealed to me, the trust you put in someone whose designs are beyond your comprehension.”

More telling to me is how in the final pages the narrator finds solace in reviewing his martyred brother’s voice: “And though I do not understand the words, I enjoy their defeat of silence . . . I know them to be the right ones, the ones that someone had to say. I am happy that they are mine now.”

A few words on the book as a physical object. Fascinating to me is the book designer’s decision to take cues from childrens books of an earlier age. This includes retro 1950s-style thick cardboard covers whose edges are cut to expose gray paper pulp, as if this were much-handled book. Adding to the worn look is a spine wrapped in black cloth tape, as if Dad had repaired the falling apart pages with a trusty spool of old-style electrical tape. Inside the front cover is a place inviting the young owner to fill in his or her name in clumsy block letters. All of this adds a sense of innocence to a challengingly adult book.





“Meditations in an Emergency” by Frank O’Hara

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011



This slim volume contains 30 poems, short to medium in length. Thirteen are one-pagers, twelve are two pages, five are three.

Some of the poems in MEDITATIONS IN AN EMERGENCY are opaque. An exuberant talker, O’Hara on occasion goes on auto-pilot erudition spills, and when this is applied to a subject of limited interest the result can be a poem that may not speak to most readers, especially those of us not thoroughly tutored.

Yet I think I am like most of his readers who forgive him this, knowing that with the next poem or the one after the next he will return to his naturally communicative, pleasure-giving mode.

What the American poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth once noted about O’Hara is right on the money: Each of the poems has the air of a “fresh start.” When encountering the best of them it is as if your eyes, long occluded, open suddenly onto the world.

This being O’Hara, there are newly-coined and revived words and phrases (cupiditously; buttered bees); thoughts of suicide, express and implied, and premonitions of violence; paeans to pop culture icons (“For James Dean”); a campy fandom of Hollywood (“To the Film Industry in Crisis”); tossed off witticisms (“It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so”); a devotion to New York (“I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life”); and, finally, intimate love poems that draw us near.

He has an original voice, and yet I enjoy the occasions when he behaves as other poets, like Ginsberg or the Romantics, or even Shakespeare, who I swear I hear in the poem “Radio.” It begins:

Why do you play such dreary music

on Saturday afternoon, when tired

mortally tired I long for a little

reminder of immortal energy?

This shares the questioning voice found in Shakespeare’s sonnets (the constant Why? Who? What?) as well as the author’s expression of mock petulance — disappointment turning into complaint turning into self-pity — such as in Sonnet 34:

Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day

And make me travel forth without my cloak

To let base clouds o’ertake me in my way?

For some reason I like to read O’Hara’s poetry while standing, or walking around a room.


“Fists” by Pietro Grossi

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011



Because the three works in this collection (“Fists,” “Horses,” and “The Monkey”) occupy 52, 45 and 41 pages respectively, some critics want to consign them to the category of the novella. I reject that label. It is too easily misunderstood as a warning to the reader to expect an awkward or forbidding reading experience — that the writing will lacking the quick digestibility of the short story and the embracing sweep of the novel. Instead, I think the pieces Pietro Grossi has written are best considered simply to be “stories.”

All three of these tales boast an uncommon degree of “readability.” Grossi’s unadorned prose drives forward a trio of plots that, while wildly different, share the common theme of young men discovering themselves at crossroads in their lives. Most notably in the title story, the reader is carried into an engrossing story you will long remember.

The first story, “Fists,” is the only one told in the first person, and the winning personality of the unnamed, adolescent narrator grabs you from the start. Though he is at heart “studious, nerdy, conventional, obedient,” echoes of Holden Caulfield can be heard in his rebellious talk (“I hated the piano. I hated Mozart and Bach and that deaf freak Beethoven”) and his simultaneous, sentimental acquiescence (“I don’t know, maybe if you convince yourself of something, in the end you get it”). His major act of rebellion that sets the plot in motion is demanding his mother permit him to take boxing lessons. She reluctantly agrees. Soon enough, as a amateur junior welterweight, he excels in sparring, acquires the nickname “Dancer,” and is lavished with praise (“so accurate and fast and technical”). But he remains ambivalent about fighting a regulation bout — until, that is, he watches the work of someone with an opposite style (“all hunched and as closed up as a ball of granite”).

Midpoint in the narrative, training begins for the 7-round fight between the Dancer and the Goat, and even if you’ve had your fill of “Rocky” movies I defy you not to be swept up in the momentum. Boxing stories of course can sink under the weight of metaphorical and symbolic meaning — life, fate, destiny and all the rest. Yet Grossi masterfully avoids cliché and nimbly negotiates through the formula. The author keeps the reader’s focus on the uneasy transition from child to man. As the young narrator explains: “Suddenly reality had put itself back together in front of my eyes just as it was, at its own speed, and that terrified me.”

The second story, “Horses,” is set in an unspecified territory and traces the path to maturity of two adolescent brothers whose father has given each of them a horse. Here the code of masculinity takes its cues from the American West. Elements in the story reminded me, favorably, of John Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony” and Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams.” Some readers may say Grossi tries to stuff too many ideas into this framework, but I myself was entranced from start to finish.

The final story, “The Monkey,” again switches setting, style and tone. In contemporary Rome, a thirty-something but still adolescent screenwriter is asked to come to the aid of childhood friend. As in many a sex comedy (especially those of the late 1950s and early 1960s), Nico is a man lost among women, frazzled by his needy girlfriend, his wacky mother, his abusive female agent, and his too-understanding ex-wife. Grossi orchestrates the proceedings with droll wit and laugh-out-loud vignettes (he’s a master of the satiric telephone conversation).

If there is a lesson common to all three parts of this splendid book, it is found in the observation of one of the brothers in “Horses”:

“Life was always like that, Daniel thought: something was always missing, whereas the nice thing about stories was that everything that should be there was there.”


“Men God Forgot” by Albert Cossery

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011



MEN GOD FORGOT (Les hommes oubliés de Dieu, 1941) is a small but powerful collection of five short stories set in a squalid neighborhood of Cairo. These heart-breaking tales (averaging 20 pages each), are populated with living and breathing characters: men, women and children consigned to fate’s lowest rungs.

This book will be of interest to readers who have encountered one or more of the Albert Cossery’s later novels. In it you get to experience the novice writer flexing his muscles, deciding what modes and styles suit his temperament, testing themes, failing and succeeding. You’ll discover Cossery was from the very start a master of the psychologically astute observation. You’ll find the jaundiced air that pervades subsequent works has not yet appeared. Instead what dominates at this early stage is a passionate anger: “A hot substance penetrates, flows through life, burning it’s creatures, waking monsters in the bodies of defenseless children, looting everything in its infernal rage and bringing thirst, thirst to everything: lips, the soul, the eyes, the flesh. Ah, who will deliver men from this hell?”

He can pause to be humorous: “Hanafi continued his sleep just where he had left off, as one takes up an interrupted task.” (The pleasures of indolence if not sleep will be a recurrent theme of his work.)

Worth comparing also is the notorious misogyny of his later novels. Here there is little or none of that. In fact, the respect Cossery grants to the emotional strength and sexual integrity of Faiza, the girl in the book’s second tale (“The Girl and the Hashish-Smoker”) is quite remarkable. Cossery devotes the opening paragraphs to a description, from her perspective, of the title characters’ love-making: “The enormous Nile with its treacherous currents flowed in her. ( … ) Her joy swelled, rose as a wave rises. She was confounded with joy, became joy itself.”

It is reported Albert Camus, who was himself born into poverty in North Africa (Algeria), was favorably impressed when he read MEN GOD FORGOT soon after its initial publication. Did Camus see in it a kindred spirit, another incipient humanist? Was Camus disappointed by the direction Cossery took in his later fictions?

MEN GOD FORGOT is currently out of print. The edition I read was a 1963 paperback reprint of Harold Edwards’ translation from the French, printed in England and published by City Lights Books (the San Francisco shop of Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg and the Beats). New Directions and New York Review Books Classics are currently re-issuing other volumes of Cossery — most recently “The Colors of Infamy” (which I reviewed here a few weeks ago) and “Proud Beggars” (on my reading list). Here’s hoping one of those publishers sponsors a fresh edition of MEN GOD FORGOT