Latest Review: "The Jokers" by Albert Cossery
For a long time I was planning a post called “Albert Cossery is $%^&ing Amazing,” after reading A Splendid Conspiracy and totally falling in love with Cossery’s style, sense of humor, etc.
I’ve told this story a few times already, but I think the “how” of how I came to read Cossery is an interesting 21st-century story about how books will be recommended in the future . . . Back at the beginning of the summer, I noticed that Tosh Berman from Book Soup in L.A. had given Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy 5 stars on GoodReads. Which made me take note, since a) I’d never heard of Cossery except in typing his books into the Translation Database and b) Tosh has great taste. (See TamTam Books, his publishing company, which publishes a ton of Boris Vian works.) So I added A Splendid Conspiracy to my “to read” bookshelf—something that was automatically posted on my Facebook wall.
A couple of days go back (like literally two), and Jeff Waxman of Seminary Co-op in Chicago gives Cossery’s The Jokers 5 stars on GoodReads. Since Jeff is a) also a great reader and b) part of the BTBA judging committee for fiction, I marked The Jokers as a book “to read,” which was automatically posted to my Facebook wall.
A half-hour later, I was watching my kids try and injure themselves jumping off of dirt ramps in the forest by my house, and decided to check my e-mail. There was a message notifying me that Brad Weslake—a professor at the University of Rochester and member of our editorial committee—had posted something on my Facebook wall. This something turned out to be a link to Cossery’s wiki page and a comment about how interesting he sounded. (And the wiki page is pretty intriguing, especially this bit: “In 60 years he only wrote eight novels, in accordance with his philosophy of life in which ‘laziness’ is not a vice but a form of contemplation and meditation. In his own words: ‘So much beauty in the world, so few eyes to see it.’)
Three times makes a trend, so I picked up my dirty, sweaty children and ran off to the local bookstore to buy a copy of A Splendid Conspiracy, which I read over the next three days and also gave a 5 star rating . . .
And to drive home the connectedness of this all, as of this morning, six GoodRead friends have either marked A Splendid Conspiracy as something they want to read or gave it a 5-star rating. And of non-friends who have read/rated this, there’s at least one who also gave it 5 stars and included the comment “Tosh: You were right.”
I don’t know what this all means, but in the class I teach to my interns, we’re talking about the future of book recommendations, about how we’ll find out about stuff when it’s all e-book this and that and there are no friendly indie stores where we can go to talk to over-educated, more-than-well-read booksellers willing to give us accurate, individualized suggestions. I’m not sure if the Facebook/LibraryThing/GoodReads networks can actually ever replicate this, but it’s interesting to talk about and see in action . . .
Anyway, here’s the opening of my review:
Albert Cossery is the best dead writer I’ve discovered this year. A few of his books were published in English translation back before I was born, but this year saw the publication of two never-before-translated Cossery novels — A Splendid Conspiracy, which was translated by Alyson Waters and published by New Directions, and The Jokers, translated by Anna Moschovakis and published by New York Review Books — both of which are great fun, centering around groups of Middle Eastern pranksters determined to overthrow the oppressively mundane nature of everyday life (and/or the oppressive government) through practical jokes, entitled laziness, and constant debauchery.
It wasn’t just in his novels that Cossery supported this sort of playboy lifestyle—he truly believed that laziness wasn’t a vice, but a way of meditating, of appreciating the beauty found in world. This is even exhibited in his output. Although writing eight novels over 60 years might be an accomplishment for you, me, and Jonathan Franzen, it’s not really all that impressive for most writers of the time. Especially when titles like The Jokers clock in at fewer than 150 pages. (Although these are a tight 150 pages, filled with interweaving perspectives, a tricksy plot based on trickery, lively characters, lots of debauching, and a good deal of wit.)
That said, of the two Cossery books that came out this year, A Splendid Conspiracy is probably the better one. It’s more autobiographical: the protagonist is a very Cossery-like character who returns to Egypt from studying abroad in Paris (where, instead of getting a degree in Chemical Engineering, he spent all his time getting wasted and trolling around in whorehouses) convinced that life in this small Egyptian town will be incredibly boring. To his surprise, he winds up falling in with a group of dandy troublemakers who are under suspicion by the authorities for the disappearance of a number of wealthy men.
In many ways, The Jokers comes from a similar place, where the overbearing authorities are pitted against a group of young and hip pranksters.
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