Belle du Seigneur (1968)
by Albert Cohen
Belle du Seigneur is another one of those novels where the publication date is deceptive. Belle du Seigneur was published in it's original French edition in 1968, but not translated into English until 1995. Despite it's obvious literary merit, the delay in translation is understandable considering the bulk of the volume- 971 large pages with narrow margins, and the fact that almost all of the "action" of the book takes place inside the rooms of hotels and private residences in Geneva in the 1930s. Arguably, there are only two characters in the entire book. Other humans exist in those claustrophobic pages, but this is the story of Solal and Adriane. He, a French Jew by way of Greece, Under Secretary of the League of Nations in Geneva in the 1930's. She, a poor-ish Swiss aristocrat, married to one of his subordinates at the League of Nations.
It is clear, from page one, that Belle du Seigneur is to be an extended riff on the portion of Anna Karenina where Karenina and Count Vronsky slip away to Venice in an attempt to escape their Russian fate. It's like that, although instead of it being a hundred page portion of a seven hundred page book, it takes up about 700 pages of a thousand page book. Stylistically, Cohen blends Joycean stream of consciousness prose with a sharp first person narrator, Solal, who is obviously a stand in for the author himself. The stream of consciousness technique embraces many different narrators, Ariane, her husband for almost a hundred pages at the beginning and Ariane's maid.
Even accounting for the fact that Belle du Seigneur is backward looking in time, the ability for Cohen to transcend the limitations of the publishing industry circa 1968 is totally amazing. Belle du Seigneur isn't just a thousand page novel, it's a thousand page novel about to social pariahs who have literally no friends for almost the entirety of the book. Although the opening chapters take us all the way back to the beginning of life for Adriane, by the end I could think of nothing else but the two lovers, locked in their love shack on the outskirts of Geneva, Solal cutting his hands with glass, just to make things interesting between the two of them.
That's a universal statement about the effect that time and proximity has on the love between two peoples and it's fair to say that identified more with Solal and Adriane than with any two characters I've read recently.