January 2014

Edward Stephens

fiction

Laziness in the Fertile Valley by Albert Cossery, translated by William Goyen

Stop me if you have heard this one before. A reclusive man at the tail end of middle age, his three sons, an elderly and ridiculous hanger-on, and their servant, whom they regularly deride, form an independently wealthy household. There has long been a latent animosity in the relationship between the sons and the father, lately brought to a head by the latter's plan to remarry -- partly out of the whim to live out his years with the attentions of a young wife, and partly out of spite for his children. The eldest son shares, to a hyperbolic degree, his father's sensual preoccupations. The middle son, an intellectual, determines to block his father's nuptials at all costs. The youngest is earnest and attempts to do some good in the world, although he finds the genetic imprint of his unlikable family difficult to overcome.

What a collection we are, we humans and our stories, to share skeletons but to drape them in an infinite wardrobe of skins! The Black Mark Boys these are not, not by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, they are the pompous layabouts who populate Laziness in the Fertile Valley by Albert Cossery. New Directions Press has reissued William Goyen's 1949 translation of the book, warts and all. (There must be thirty-some typographical errors in the text, including every conceivable misspelling of Hafez, the aforementioned paterfamilias.)

Cossery's narrative technique (about which, to judge from his 2002 novel A Splendid Conspiracy, he did not rethink over a half-century of writing), is formulaic -- in the neutral sense of the word. He introduces a character burdened with a moral dilemma in the first chapter, then in a tight third-person cycles through the perspectives of several other characters in the ensuing chapters. With each new character the plot advances a step or two, and the moral dilemma of the hero acquires a new facet. Cossery is conscientious enough to resolve the plot by novel's end, but it hardly matters except as a vehicle through which the character in crisis interacts with those who shade its meaning. His characters, all of them delightfully incomplete, emerge from only a narrow subsection of the human spectrum, ranging from vengeful to devious to noble to hapless. His tone is aloof, his humor is bathetic, and he has a penchant for ridicule and slapstick. So runs what we might call the Cosserian mode of fiction. But this is a red herring: it is not at all his technique but his moral preoccupations that make his art so compelling.

Three such preoccupations distinguish themselves in Laziness in the Fertile Valley: the nature of work, the nature of luxury, and the nature of happiness (and, specifically, the importance of the first two to the last). The characters, wealthy by legacy, have the freedom to choose an occupation. That very freedom is the complication in and of itself. Serag, the youngest son of the family, longs to find work in a factory or as a bureaucrat, but cannot quite shake the appeal of his father's and elder brothers' exemplary languor. The whole novel hangs on his decision. It seems simple enough, but in the echo chamber of Cossery's suburb, it reveals its true philosophical consequence: is it through business or leisure that the independent man fulfills himself? Serag's brothers, who counsel him not to give up the laziness he has inherited, arrive at the same answer through different modes. For Galal, the eldest, sleep takes on a religious significance; he hibernates with the devotion of a monk, emerging only for meals. Rafik approaches inactivity from a putatively logical position actually rooted in the bitterness of unrequited love. Each of them rejects outright Serag's curiosity about work.

Sexual urge is the most compelling argument of the minority opinion, although in the fiction of Laziness in the Fertile Valley it is far from the trump it often is in real life. Hafez, Galal, Rafik, and even the ambivalent Serag recognize the dangerous appeal of women, and so they are fiercely misogynistic. The misogyny of Cossery's characters is fascinating. I imagine readers responding to it with indignation, which would miss the point, or else accepting it as simply part and parcel of the Egyptian way of life, which would be patently stupid. Serag struggles with his attraction to Hoda, a teenager in the service of his household. She seduces him from time to time, and after the deed he hates her for it. It is not so rare for young men to loathe the women they fuck (for it is inconvenient to loathe oneself) but there is more than just verisimilitude behind Cossery's evocation of it. Carnality, in the moral logic of the book, breeds responsibility, which is the first step toward work. This conclusion is made more explicit in the three sons' outrage at hearing their father's plan to re-marry. (In the novel's most hilarious invention, their ill-conceived plot to stop him is obviated by his repulsive hernia.)

I have no doubt that Egypt's recent -- forgive the platitude, for I am no journalist -- political upheavals will stoke Western interest in Cossery as it has for his countryman Naguib Mahfouz. (Indeed, New Directions is counting on it.) But to turn to Cossery's novels for cultural, let alone political, insight into the spate of regime changes is misstep, and not just because he died in 2006. Yes, he sets his novels in a not-so-remote dimension of modern Egypt. But beyond the incontestable significance of the Nile, which courses through his books as immutably as on our globe, irrigating the valley, beyond certain details of diet and dress, his "Egypt" can be anywhere, an argument to which he devotes considerable attention in A Splendid Conspiracy. Cossery takes, rather, the long view, the supra-Egyptian view -- or, one might say, the human view, acid though it may be -- that we are born and we live and we die, and the rest is fiction.

In fact, if one were compelled to apply the morality of Laziness in the Fertile Valley to current events, the prevailing American economic culture would make a wonderful starting point. "Fertile Valleys" abound here: the Willamette, the Hudson, the Great Lakes, the Great Plains, the Mississippi Delta, my own dear Coastal Plain -- there are hundreds of corridors here whose providential soils rival the lands along the Nile. We have renewable food resources close at hand, and yet simply to enjoy the bounty and follow one's fancy, even for the super-rich, is forbidden by every custom of society. We must each of us help drive the economic engine for all; not to participate is disgraceful, treasonous. To this cultural monologue Laziness in the Fertile Valley introduces a new option: social disobedience. Perhaps Cossery's young hero, Serag, chooses in the end to find work. Then again, perhaps he does not. It makes all the difference only that he arrives at the fork in the yellow wood. The resolution is, I repeat, strictly conventional.

Laziness in the Fertile Valley by Albert Cossery, translated by William Goyen
New Directions
ISBN: 978-0811218740
176 pages