There is a French Jew, probably somewhere in Paris, by the name of Albert Cohenâ€”a rather ordinary name, you’ll admit. I do not believe that, outside of Paris, there are many persons who know who he is or how he looks. His American publisher has not even a photograph of him. This Albert Cohen, as you see, has written a book, a novel, published here under the title of “Solal.”
It is a very unusual kind of story, a romantic yarn, a picturesque tale, with more than a touch of weltschmerz, the story of a Don Juan who torments himself as well as others. The novel is rich, various, sensuous, if not sensual; it is a book which glories in adventure and in distinctive narrative prose. There is in it something of the qualities of both “South Wind” and “The Wandering Jew.” Its prose has a throb, something like that which agitates the ground under which a volcano, or a geyser, is in travail. One almost resents the unceasingness of its vitality. It is an exhilirating, sometimes a tiring, book; but it doesn’t let you down. The crackle of its phrasing is unrelieved; it is the kind of book against which might be brought the indictment that it is too brilliant, maybe a bit unreal, maybe a bit laboredly phrase-making and bourgeois-baiting.
The story begins in the lazy Greek island of Cephalonia, with the attention of the Jewish family centered on the Jewish Apollo, Solal. It is in his beauty and intelligence and great promise that the Schlemiel of the family, the devoted Uncle Saltiel, finds the solace of his poverty and his trivial uselessness. The Exilarch, the Rabbi Gamaliel, father of the boy, is a magnificent figure. The comic accent of the story is provided by the four semi-beggars, led by Uncle Saltiel, whose adventures, prosaic and far-flung, and whose conversations and debates, either wittily scintillant or screamingly idiotic, would make a story of their own.
We first meet our hero at the age of sixteen; he is even then Solal of the Solals and soon discovers his forte in life in an affair with the wife of the French Consul. The description of their first assignation is a sustained throb. Solal is one of those who is as much seduced as seducing, but perhaps because he, or his author, is a Jew, the joy of life is touched by the tragic. Not one, but a dozen Byrons would be required to live the life of a Solal. He ends his life a vagabond, mocked by the urchins and youths as an imitation Christ, finding that life has cheated him. The four Schlemiels of Cephalonia, curiously enough, are found, at long last, in a Palestinian colony, repulsing an attack of Arabs and dying like noblemen.
In short, this is a distinctly unusual story, a delight where it is not an irritation.
The Modern Library anticipated the book conflagrations of May 10 by reprinting, in one volume, several of the works to which the Nazi boys applied torches, as well as some others that escaped the pyre. The book is called “Great German Short Novels and Stories” and contains almost five hundred pages of story. It begins with Goethe and ends with Arnold Zweig. In between are stories, long and short, by Schiller, Hoffman, the two Grimm brothers, Heine, Storm, Keller (the Swiss who wrote such lovely tales) Sudermann, Schnitzler, Hauptmann, Wasserman, Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig. Goethe contributes Werther; Heine, “Gods in Exile”; Schnitzler, “The Fate of the Baron”; Hauptmann, “Flagman Thiel”; Mann, “Death in Venice”, and Stefan Zweig, “Amok”. Almost a little bonfire’s worth, all for less than a dollar.