Albert Cossery, 'Voltaire of the Nile,' dies at 94

23rd June 2008, Comments 0 comments

The Egyptian writer who wrote with humour about the life of common people in his native country died Sunday in Paris.

23 June 2008

PARIS - Albert Cossery, an Egyptian writer who, in his adopted Paris, wrote with humour about the life of common people in his native Cairo, died Sunday in Paris, his publisher Joelle Losfeld said. He was 94.

Cossery, whose eight books were translated into 15-odd languages, passed away in the modest streetcorner hotel that was his home for more than 60 years on the Left Bank, the literary heart of the French capital.

"A few days before he died, this magnificent man was still making his usual rounds to the Cafe de Flore and the Deux Magots," a manager at the Louisiana hotel said, citing two famous literary haunts in the neighbourhood.

His books - which blended humour, sarcasm and Oriental wisdom - included "Proud Beggars," "A Room In Cairo," "Men God Forgot," and his last novel, "The Colours of Infamy," published in French in 1999 and made into a comic book.

Fans nicknamed him "the Voltaire of the Nile" and his stories were peopled with humble folk and misfits - streetsweepers, thieves, prostitutes - who mocked authority.

"He writes in a French that belongs entirely to him about a Cairo that exists in his memory and imagination - he left Egypt decades ago," said scholar and translator Alyson Waters in New York magazine, which last year named "Infamy" one of the world's best novels not yet published in English.

Born on November 3, 1913, the son of a newspaper-reading Cairo landlord father and an illiterate mother, Cossery's early writings first appeared in French-language periodicals in Egypt in the 1930s.

His childhood was spent at a time when French was the lingua franca of the middle classes in Cairo.

He went to sea with the Egyptian merchant marine during World War II, then turned up in Paris in the late 1940s to write and live alongside a galaxy of literary friends that included Lawrence Durrell, Jean Genet and Albert Camus.

"I love this language," he once said of French, although he added that he "thought in Arabic".

"I am and remain an Egyptian of French culture and language, with an Egyptian universe," he added. "That is why my books only make reference to my country of birth."

In Paris he always lived in the same room at the Louisiana hotel on Rue de Seine, free of all belongings bar his clothes. "To attest to one's presence on Earth, you don't need a car," he said.

Throat cancer in 1998 left him almost unable to speak, and in interviews with journalists he resorted to scribbling his answers in a notebook.

[AFP / Expatica]

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