A pervasive Jewish mythology has always idealized the mother-son relationship. But Proust knew better. Shortly after his mother’s death, he wrote an article in Le Figaro about a man who bludgeoned his mother to death and attempted to speculate what might have ignited this man’s descent into madness. Proust discussed the crippling dependence and blurred poisonous boundaries that sometimes overtake mothers and sons.
“If we knew how to see in a loved body the slow work of destruction wrought by the painful tenderness that animates it,” he warned, “how to see the withered eyes, the previously indomitable black hair now defeated like the rest and going white, the hardened arteries, the blocked kidneys, the strained heart, the defeated appetite for life, the slow, heavy walk, the mind whose hopes were once invincible not knowing that it has nothing left to hope for, gaiety itself dried up forever, that innate and seemingly immortal gaiety, which kept such pleasant company with sadness-perhaps the person who could see that….like Henri van Blarenberghe when he had finished off his mother with dagger blows, would retreat from the horror of his life, and throw himself on a gun to die straight away…”
Much of this toxic cocktail of love and hate and guilt-infused passive-aggressiveness is present in Albert Cohen’s 1954 masterpiece “Book of My Mother” (Archipelago Books, $15), now available in an English translation by his wife, Bella Cohen. His nonfiction narrative chronicles his late-life torment about his own mother, Louise Cohen, who died of a heart attack in 1943, only four days after 5,000 SS troops entered Marseilles.
Cohen arrived with his parents in Marseilles while still a little boy. The family came from Corfu and spoke only a Judeo-Venetian dialect. His father was an uneducated merchant who struggled to make ends meet. After Cohen’s mother died, his father was able to hide in the south of France for the remainder of the Second World War. Father and son met only once after the war, and then never again. Cohen’s emotional universe was always mama; even during those years when all he could think about was how far away he could get from her. His book brings forth beautifully wrought searing passages of memory that haunt him as he confronts his own looming mortality. He remembers how neglectful he was of her, and how ashamed, particularly in front of his new elite friends.
Cohen left his childhood home in Marseilles for Geneva as a young man and began an impressive career as a writer and a diplomat. He managed to escape France in 1940 for London where he continued his pursuits. His best-known novel, which has received international acclaim, is a 934-page novel called “Belle du Seignur,” which is autobiographically based. It tells the story of a tortured, ambivalent Jew named Solal, who works for the League of Nations. Solal attempts to stop the annihilation of his people and, facing failure, he commits suicide in utter despair. Many critics have commented that laced throughout all of Cohen’s impressive body of work is an extended philosophical argument of sorts about the merits and drawbacks of being a Jew.
It is impossible not to be moved by Cohen’s struggle to come to terms with the enormity of his mother’s loss, or perhaps really to make peace with his own transgressions. The fierce battle that plays out on these wondrous pages are sometimes hampered by his bloated prose, unintentional perhaps, but glaring. An overly adored only son of his parent’s stale arranged marriage, Cohen can seem obtuse when it comes to imagining his mother’s feelings or thoughts at any given time. She remains in death a prop to his misgivings—all shadow and reflection. The author winces when remembering how she once sold for him her beloved pearls, the ones she wore on the Sabbath, to help him pay debts he had sloppily incurred. He describes the narcissistic bubble in which his younger self lived, writing, “I took, wild that I was and wreathed in sunlight and not much concerned for my mother, for I had fine dazzling teeth and I was the loving lover of this pretty girl and that fine lass and so on without end…I took the banknotes, and I did not know, for I was a son, that those meager large sums were a sacrifice offered up by mother on the altar of motherhood.”
Cohen was obsessed from a young age with fitting in and getting ahead. He built an altar of sorts to his beloved France in his childhood bedroom that was filled with candles and mirrors and pictures of Racine and La Fontaine and Jules Verne and Napoleon. He decorated his shrine with tiny handmade French flags. But this didn’t prevent him from seeing how his family was seen by others. He writes sadly “We were social nobodies, completely isolated, cut off from the world outside.” He wanted out. And he made it.
But the older Cohen seems now preoccupied with the costs of his escape. He remembers his mother’s visits to him in Geneva and his cruelty to her. He recalls how she would attempt not to embarrass him, to “curb her Oriental gestures and smooth her accent, half Marseilles and half Balkan, under a confused murmur that was meant to sound Parisian…” Pushing himself further back into their shared past, he remembers another incident that was more distasteful. He describes his shame at her overly reverent behavior towards their family doctor which he describes with a mocking bitterness claiming “I can still see her peasant-like respect for the doctor, a bombastic fool…I can still see her fervent admiration as she watched him listen to my chest with his head which reeked of eau-de cologne, after she handed him the brand new towel to which he had a divine right. How scrupulously she observed the magic requirement of a towel for the examination. I can see her now walking on tiptoe so as not to disturb him while, radiating genius, he took my pulse, and still exuding genius, consulted the fine watch of his hand…”
Cohen seems to be begging us to forgive him and sometimes his overflowing apologies begin to grate. We believe he is sorry and we know he is suffering but we are less certain he would behave differently if given a second chance. He shares with us his fantasy of reuniting with her and imagines that if somehow she were still alive the two of them might somehow find a way to go off together and live apart from the rest of the world. He claims he longs once again to hear her “endless heartrending or ludicrous tales of the ghetto where I was born,” insisting that he wants to “go back to that ghetto and live there surrounded by rabbis like bearded ladies-live that loving, passionate, quibbling, slightly negroid and crazy life.” But it is not the life he has lived and we don’t really believe him.
What we do believe is that there is an agonized undercurrent bristling beneath his prose that is filled with ambiguity about his own Jewish identity. Cohen wrote this book only a decade after the Holocaust and his mother’s death, and we can hear him grappling with the binds of Jewish identity in a post-Holocaust world. For Albert Cohen, who died in 1982, Jewishness seems to have only been synonymous with catastrophe. It appears he was unable to draw sustenance from its rituals and traditions and God was never present. In one of the saddest but most telling passages he confesses that the only consolation he has in his mother’s death is the certainty that she will never be hurt again. He writes provocatively “In her graveyard, she is no longer a Jewess with eyes on the defensive, carnally denying guilt, a Jewess with her mouth gaping in obscure stupefaction, the legacy of fear and waiting. The eyes of living Jews are always afraid.”
Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Journal and other publications.