24 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On Wednesday, November 9th at 7:30pm, Two Lines is collaborating with The Bridge reading series to put on a special event at McNally Jackson (52 Prince St.) in celebration of the new issue, Counterfeits. “Counterfeits” editor Luc Sante will host the event, and will be joined by translators Aaron Kerner, Patrick Philips, Alex Zucker, Alyson Waters, and author Magdaléna Platzováfor.

In preparation for this event, Two Lines just posted an interview with Alyson Waters about Albert Cossery and her translation of The Colors of Infamy, which is coming out next month from New Directions.

Scott Esposito: We’re here to talk about your excerpt from The Colors of Infamy, which comes from the third novel by Egyptian-French writer Albert Cossery to be published in the past couple of years. Cossery, who died in 2008 and did most of his writing decades ago, has become something of a sensation lately, with these new translations getting rave attention in a lot of leading periodicals. Why do you think Cossery has caught on so much?

Alyson Waters: I wish I could say that he’s moved into best-sellerdom, but that would be overstating the case a bit! I think that Cossery’s a great writer, and maybe it’s taken some time for people to realize that here—an Egyptian author who writes in French translated into English is not everyone’s first choice as a “go-to” book. We’re fortunate to have wonderful publishers like New Directions and New York Review Books who took a chance on publishing these translations in the last few years, although some of his work was translated into English decades ago, but it’s all gone out of print. I started translating The Colors of Infamy for the pleasure of it some seven or eight years ago, but it wasn’t until I won a PEN Translation Grant for the book that publishers sat up and took notice. I was lucky that Barbara Epler of New Directions wanted me to translate A Splendid Conspiracy as well. And now, in addition to The Jokers, brought out last year in Anna Moschovakis’ translation, New York Review Books is bringing out a revised version of a translation by Thomas Cushing of Proud Beggars that was originally done in 1981. It would be nice to think that all this interest has to do with the Arab Spring, and that may be true right now as far as new readers are concerned, and I hope interest continues to grow. But those of us who have been pushing for Cossery to have a bigger presence in the English-speaking world have been doing so for about a decade, some even longer. He’s got a wicked sense of humor, a very appealing anti-work/anti-capitalist/anti-materialist philosophy that goes with our current recession mood, I think, and a rather cynical—though some might say accurate—view of the benefits of any revolution for the poorest of the poor—all of which can be seen quite clearly in The Colors of Infamy.

Click here to read the full interview, and be sure to order a copy of the new issue while you’re there.

28 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

As referenced in this article in the New York Times, the April issue of Oprah Magazine has a special feature on Spring Fashion Modeled by Rising Young Poets. And one of the featured poets? None other than Anna Moschovakis, who is one of the editors at Ugly Duckling Presse (whose collection Geometries by Guillevic is a poetry finalist for the BTBA), author of a new poetry collection, You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, and . . . translator of Albert Cossery’s The Jokers, which is a fiction finalist for the BTBA.

Congrats, Anna!

Favorite quote from the piece:

“I use writing as a way of thinking. Poems allow us to hold two ideas that don’t add up.” While she’s drawn to dissonance in her writing, when it comes to clothes Moschovakis most prizes ease.

Love that turn from “dissonance” to “ease” . . .

Also worth noting that this particular issue of Oprah Magazine has a bit with David Duchovny on his favorite books, which include The Crying of Lot 49. Admittedly, I’m a bit surprised at how well done and literary this particular section was. Makes the rest of glossy mag media look illiterate. As if they didn’t already.

16 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

The Jokers by Albert Cossery, translated by Anna Moschovakis

Language: French
Country: Egypt
Publisher: New York Review Books
Pages: 160


A Splendid Conspiracy by Albert Cossery, translated by Alyson Waters

Language: French
Country: Egypt
Publisher: New Directions
Pages: 224

Why Cossery Should Win: One of the best discoveries of 2010; Cossery would’ve loved the Egyptian revolution; Cossery’s belief in idleness is awesome; Cossery’s belief in hedonism is awesome; both books are hilarious; he has 2-in-25 odds, which is twice as good as any other longlisted author

Today, Bill Marx of World Books and The Arts Fuse takes a look at both books by Albert Cossery that made the longlist.

Led by young people dreaming of freedom from authoritarian control, energized by plots and counterplots placed on Facebook and Twitter, the inspiring revolution in Egypt fits the resurrectionist fantasies of author Albert Cossery (1913-2008), though he would have preferred the liberating results be attained with less sacrifice and energy. His languid fiction treats subversion as a romp, a nervy comic game played against repression and routine. Given his delight in turning government puppets into clowns, Cossery would have reveled in how quickly Hosni Mubarak became a superannuated figure of farce.

Cossery left Egypt as a young man for Paris, where he hung out with Albert Camus and other French intellectuals while leading a life of hedonism (he estimated he had slept with over 2,000 women). His fiction financed his bohemian lifestyle and promulgated his relaxed anarchistic perspective—he was no lover of democracy but a libertine, an ironic satirist in the manner of Oscar Wilde who thought men salvageable as long as they didn’t bore. (Objects of desire, fear, and sentiment, women are irredeemable, at least in these two books.) The Jokers sums up the attributes of Cossery’s ideal male: “That he gives me a wonderful sense of plentitude, even when caught up in life’s trivalities. The breath of joy he conveys. That’s how you recognize the richness of a man’s love.” Think of a guy who exudes perpetual delight, especially when contemplating nihlistic destruction: the cocky panache of Cossery’s buddy-buddy vision of the world.

Both of the entertaining Cossery novels on the BTBA long list are masculine love stories in which young men who set out to undercut their clueless oppressors in Middle Eastern cities. For me, A Splendid Conspiracy, published in French in 1974, is the stronger of the two, perhaps because Cossery seems to be paying serious attention to his multi-layered faux-noirish tale of murder, political intrigue, and sexual perversity. The Jokers, which dates from 1963, deals with the same theme—a plucky, ultimately futile takedown of offical power—but provides sketchier, less exhilerating black comedy, though it has a nicely absurd payoff.

Also, given current concerns with terrorism, A Splendid Conspiracy presents an especially nervy parody of “revolutionary” violence. A police inspector in a small Egyptian town suspects a team of “radicals” are kidnapping and/or killing some of its most notable citizens. Of course, Cossery’s gang of sluggards, who mock everything but leisure and sex, are suspected to be the culprits. In one striking passage the ringleader of the laidback crew expresses sympathy for those dedicated to the decombustion of the status quo: “The tinest bomb that explodes somewhere should delight us, for behind the noise it makes when it explodes, even if barely audible, lies the laughter of a distant friend.” What price the joy of deconstruction? Cossery never asks.

23 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is something I wrote on Albert Cossery’s The Jokers, which was translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis and published by NYRB earlier this year.

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.

To read the full piece, simply click here.

23 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [3]

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. One of the best parts of The Jokers is the opening set-piece in which a policeman, under orders to remove all homeless people from the streets, attacks a beggar who has seated himself outside of a bank. He begins with insults, moves onto kicking, goes a bit crazy, and ends up knocking the beggar over:

Bending over the old man, he grabbed him by his turban, shaking him with savage fury in an attempt to bring him back to life. This action was both rash and irreparable: as if by magic, the beggar’s head became detached from his neck and remained stuck to the turban, which the policeman continued to brandish in the air like a bloody trophy. [. . .] What had at first appeared to be a genuine flesh-and-blood beggar was in fact only a dummy, ably made up by a skilled artist, that had been left out in this respectable neighborhood precisely in order to provoke the police. [. . .] Far from calming the crowd, this discovery incited it to an opposite extreme: people began to snigger and sneer at the unfortunate cop, who stood there stunned.

And with that little prank, we’re off, leaving the dusty, baked streets behind to find Karim — the brains behind this prank — in bed with his latest “conquest.” (Whom he calls Zouzou, because he calls all of them Zouzou.) Karim wasn’t always so a joke bombing, Egyptian Yippie — as we come to find out, he spent some time in jail for his more violent revolutionary outbursts.

This philosophical conflict — do you defeat violence and oppression through more violence or jokes? — runs throughout the book, as in this somewhat pedantic and stilted debate between a joker and a more traditional revolutionary:

“Games,” [Heykal] said, looking pensive. “You’re right to talk about that. Because we’re all playing a game, aren’t we, Taher effendi? I profoundly regret that my game has given you offense and caused you trouble. But any man has the right to express his rebellion in his own way. Mine is what it is; at least it doesn’t harm the innocent.”

“How infantile!” Taher retorted disdainfully. “I don’t doubt your intelligence, Heykal effendi, not in the least. But excuse me if I tell you that you’re just having fun while people are suffering from oppression. Fun is no way to fight. Violence must be met with violence. And forget about innocence!”

It might be due to the time when this was originally written (1964), but these political diatribes are a bit of a blindspot for Cossery, coming off in stiff, naïve terms that aren’t a tenth as interesting as his more subtle depictions of the attraction his characters have for children and childlike activities. These bits really underscore the philosophical bent of the novel, such as when Karim waxes poetic about making and flying kites, or when co-conspirator Urfy starts a private school so that he wouldn’t have to spend all his time with those hideous adults:

What Urfy admired in children was, above all, their complete lack of ambition. They were content with their daily lot; they strove for nothing but the simple joys of being alive. But for how much longer? It passed quickly — childhood and the marvelous pointlessness of youth — an undeniable truth that filled Urfy with bitterness. These children would later become men. They would join the pack of wolves; they’d abandon their intransigent love of purity and lose themselves in the anonymous crowd of murderers.

Cossery’s strength is in constructing these characters out of minor quirks (Karim always calls them Zouzou, Heykal wears the same luxurious suit every day, Urfy’s anxiety about feeling bad for his insane mother, etc.) and weaving together these viewpoints into a cohesive, compelling plot. Even amid the various missteps (e.g., not detailing what’s written on the poster that brings about the governor’s downfall), it’s clear that Cossery’s most interested in the characters — the jokers of the title — and not necessarily on the jokes themselves, which is one reason this book still resonates today. It’s a rich work, and taken in combination with A Splendid Conspiracy establishes Cossery as one of the most interesting international authors — living or dead — to be published in America this year.

16 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I just received a copy of The Jokers last week, and as soon as I finish it I’m going to write my own appreciation of just how awesome Albert Cossery is. I can’t believe I never heard of this guy before this summer . . . His books are incredibly funny, smart, well-crafted—but more on that in a later post.

In the meantime, here’s David Ulin’s wonderful review of both Cossery books that came out this year: The Jokers (translated by Anna Moschovakis, published by NYRB) and A Splendid Conspiracy (translated by Alyson Waters, published by New Directions):

The Jokers is one of two Cossery novels newly translated into English; the other is A Splendid Conspiracy, from 1975. If these books are any indication, someone should get the rest of his writing — there are seven other titles — back into print. The Jokers is a small masterpiece, the story of a group of pranksters who conspire to bring down the governor of the unnamed city in which they live. They do this not by direct action or revolution but rather by a subtle subversion, initiating a campaign to overpraise the official so lavishly that his credibility is destroyed. “Has anyone ever known revolutionaries to attack a government with praise?” asks a young man named Heykal, the driving force behind the plan. Later, Cossery elaborates on the peculiar challenges of this quiet insurrection: “The governor was the sort of public figure who stumps even the cleverest caricaturists. What could they do that nature hadn’t already accomplished? Short and potbellied, with stubby legs, he had a squashed nose and huge bug eyes ready to pop out of their sockets. . . . But in fact the governor was only trying to show that in this city of chronic sleepers he was awake.”

Here, we see the delicate tension that defines Cossery’s vision, located somewhere between ironic derision and a very real sense of sedition. For all that Heykal and his friends Karim, Khaled Omar and Urfy (a teacher popular among his students because he “inculcated them with a single principle: to know that everything grown-ups told them was false and that they should ignore it”) claim to stand outside the ordinary push-and-pull of society, they clearly have a purpose and a point of view. What sets them apart is the knowledge that even if they succeed in overthrowing the governor, it won’t make any difference; they cannot derail “the eternal fraud.” Why do it, then? As a lark, in part, a remedy for boredom, but also as an existential statement, a protest at once pointed and absurd.

Were this all there is to The Jokers, it would be a vivid effort, a philosophical novel in the most essential sense. Yet the true measure of Cossery’s genius is how he finds room for real emotion, even among those who might purport to disdain the feelings he describes.

Cossery’s definitely worth checking out . . . I wouldn’t at all be surprised to find both of these books on the Best Translated Book Award longlist for this year . . . (Again, I’m not on the judging committee, so this is pure speculation.)

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