Albert Cohen (1895-1981) was an author and civil servant, whose Greek Jewish parents emigrated to Marseilles soon after his birth. He worked in Geneva through the 1930s, where his mother visited him regularly. He emigrated to Bordeaux and then London in 1940 during the German occupation of France. He urged his elderly and widowed mother, who was in failing health, to move with him to London, but she preferred to remain in Marseilles. Cohen was grief stricken once he learned of her death in 1943. He wrote a series of articles in tribute to her in La France libre
during the war, which were later compiled and published as Le Livre de ma mère
in 1954. It was translated into English by Bella Cohen, his third wife, and published as Book of My Mother
in 1997. Archipelago Books released a new edition this month.
The book opens with a flowery ode to his late mother, then provides the reader with a detailed glimpse of his mother, a heavy set but attractive woman who served her husband and son with bottomless devotion and love, regardless of how she was treated by them. Albert was somewhat carefree, and wasted the extra money his mother gave him on the vacuous young women he favored. He subtly rejects his mother's old-fashioned advice, as he prefers to live for the moment and to take advantage of the freedoms that modern society affords him. He does love her, but takes her presence for granted, despite her health problems.
In the middle of the book, Cohen writes to her in sorrow and regret, as he finally realizes how much she meant to him, and how impoverished his life is without her:
I was cruel to you once, and I asked for your forgiveness, which you granted so joyfully. You know, do you not, that I loved you with all my heart. How happy we were together, what chattering accomplices we were—such garrulous good friends, talking interminably. But I could have loved you yet more and written to you each day and given you each day a sense of your importance, which I alone was able to give you and which made so you proud, you who were humble and unacknowledged, my little genius, Maman, my dearest girl.
His anguished cry in this portion of the book brought tears to my eyes, as I thought of my own elderly mother, and know that our days together on earth are numbered.
Had the book ended at this point, I would probably have rated it five stars. However, much of the last half of the book is a maudlin and repetitive dirge, with frequent proclamations that "She is dead" and intermittent macabre details about his mother's interment.
He closes the book with a heart felt plea to his readers:
Sons of mothers who are still alive, never again forget that your mothers are mortal. I shall not have written in vain if one of you, after reading my song of death, is one evening gentler with his mother because of me and my mother. Be gentle with your mother each day. Show her more love than I showed my mother. Give your mother some happiness each day, that is what I say to you with the right accorded to me by regret; that is the grave message of a mourner.
This is a difficult book for me to rate. I have settled on a four star rating, as it touched and deeply moved me, and has affected how I view the very good but not perfect relationship I have with my elderly parents. However, the book's latter half was quite disturbing and nearly unreadable to me, as I felt as if I was looking into the intimate thoughts of a mentally disturbed man. I would highly recommend this book, but I would also suggest skipping much of the latter half starting from Chapter 14 and resuming with Chapter 28.