Retranslated and republished, Albert Cossery's novel follows the lives of three men who eschew the pursuit of material wealth in favour of nonconformity in 1950s Cairo.
Proud Beggars: plumbing the extremes of pride and poverty
The characters in Albert Cossery's novels are not judged according to concepts of moral superiority or inferiority. Instead, for Cossery, there are merely degrees of cooperation that operate with or against the social system. This was very much in accordance with the values of this lifelong flâneur, who began life in 1913 in Cairo and passed away in 2008, scattering almost a dozen books of fiction, poetry and theatre across the decades. Claiming that he only wrote out of boredom, he consistently hewed to a philosophy of laziness that would not be out of place among one of the many self-respecting dispossessed that regularly inhabit his fiction.
In his 1955 novel Proud Beggars, the fourth of Cossery's books to be republished or retranslated from the original French in the last two years, few words figure so prominently as dignity. The plot centres on a clique of three destitute men in midcentury Cairo who have no inclination to seek wealth. Impoverishment is their chosen status, and they organise their social hierarchy not on money but their ability to look askance at authority, to preserve their pride despite their lowly status.
Gohar, a former professor on the verge of old age who has renounced academia for a far more vacuous lifestyle, is the only one of these men possessed of anything resembling ambition. He dreams of accumulating the pittance necessary to take the train to nearby Syria, where hashish is legal, and where he can end his days in a perpetual stupor. This trip is a harmless fantasy for him until one day, hallucinating and out of his mind, he murders a prostitute, believing her cheap costume jewellery to be made of the sort of high-quality gold that would finance his escape. "Sobered" by his error, Gohar calmly collects his belongings and walks back onto the street as though nothing has happened.
Proud Beggars is loosely based around the police investigation following the murder, but the book doesn't follow a plot so much as Cossery's deconstruction of what one character calls "the myth of respectable poverty". The closest thing it has to a protagonist is Nour El Dine, the police officer sent to investigate the murder. We see his transformation from a representative of authority to a reluctant acceptance of the "beggars" way of living. This change showcases Cossery's skewed system of values, where the misery of impoverishment is not an evil to be escaped but a "sacred state". Here, a police interrogation is not a search for the truth but rather a "burlesque" to be appreciated for the humour in its inherent absurdity, and poverty and addiction are virtues because, in addition to removing the blinkers of bourgeoisie morality, they offer access to "that delicious moment that follows extreme privation."
Though Cossery himself lived a comfortable, if marginal life on the crumbs of his well-to-do family's income, his novels feel truthful because they stick to what he knew: the rules and permissions that come with a life dedicated to idleness. In Proud Beggars these are rendered via encounters with El Dine. As the detective attempts to impose his will on the destitute men - himself constrained by the requirements of bureaucracy - Cossery derives tension, humour, and occasionally pathos from the strategies used by the powerless to frustrate authority.
Cossery's ability to show how these scenes teeter between farce and tragedy gives the encounters their strength. Though an agent of repression, El Dine is a nuanced character determined to rise above the indignity of his position. But Cossery continually undercuts him, always pushing his exertions of force towards absurdity. For instance, believing he has found a worthy adversary in Kordi, a lowly bureaucrat with pathetic dreams of being a revolutionary, El Dine enters into a tête-à-tête with the young man during an interrogation, but it is clear that Kordi's "ideas" are nothing more than clichés adopted to sate his hypocritical arrogance. Maintaining an ironic distance, Cossery lets us appreciate the absurdity of this battle of wits that the two witless men take with utter seriousness.
Proud Beggars is full of encounters like this, which drive home its fundamental quality: a profound cynicism that makes fools of those who hold to any beliefs. One of the book's cruellest and most powerful creations is a limbless man who is as helpless as a newborn baby. Rather than be put on guard by his perilous state, the man berates his woman harshly, confident in his power over her. Proudly bemoaning his wife's jealousy, the man tells Gohar, "Every time she sees a woman come near me, she goes crazy with jealousy. And yet I am faithful. I can't help it if women make advances to me." Naturally, Gohar takes to the man's fatuous arrogance, but it baffles the more conventional El Dine who finds him both frightening and intriguing. It is creations such as this man, so caught up in his own dignity as to carelessly dismiss reality, that give a window onto Proud Beggars' characteristic sense of the world.
Gohar is in fact so detached from all forms of authority that the only thing that seriously troubles him is the horror of the atomic bomb. At one point he and his friend Yeghen, a destitute poet who adopts Gohar as a father figure, are discussing it. Yeghen explains how he has made the bomb into yet another escape from authority - he told El Dine that he could never fear a mere policeman when the threat of an atomic weapon is out there. He feels confident in this rhetorical flourish because he is certain no one in their right mind would waste a nuclear weapon on Cairo. Gohar persuades him otherwise: the bomb can fall anywhere, he says, even on their heads: Yeghen seemed sad, as if someone had just destroyed his last illusion. How could he have been so naive as to think that these miserable surroundings were safe from the bomb? Gohar was never mistaken in his judgements about humanity. Those [people] who had made the bomb would stop at nothing. It was clear as could be.
This is Proud Beggars at its most extreme, a sense that there is nowhere on earth where one might simply be left alone. It is this belief that radicalises Gohar, Yeghen, and Kordi into their extreme repudiation of all forms of authority, a way of life that El Dine at one point describes as "a life in the primitive state, without constraints". Indeed, this repudiation does lead to life without constraint, nor society or government. While Cossery is correct to conclude that such a form of life frees one from "fear or shame", he does not spend enough time considering the depredations that such a philosophy invites.
Cossery here offers a bracing vision of a life where wretchedness is made to serve dignity. His prose style is as strong as ever, brought into English with much economy and sensitivity by Thomas Cushing and Alyson Waters. It serves his concepts well - the author is almost mechanically precise as he pushes his ideas on destitution and dignity to their rigorous conclusions - but the amorality required by this book gives one pause.
Proud Beggars implicates without judgement the senseless murder of a prostitute, police torture, mirth from mass murder, misogyny and cruelty. One cannot fault Cossery for failing to work his ideas through to completion, but one can surely disagree with the conclusions that these ideas appear to endorse. It is a world free from weariness for those proud and strong enough to live as Cossery and Gohar did, but it offers little space or pity for those who fail to fill their shoes. Reading Cossery gives one a stronger appreciation of William T Vollmann, who similarly plumbs the extremes of pride and poverty without blithely rebuffing the questions of morality that necessarily come with them. Cossery was surely possessed of a strong vision and an equally strong style, and his recent resurgence in English translation is justified, but his books would be stronger if they exposed idleness to the same harsh gaze as they do authority.
Scott Esposito is the editor of The Quarterly Conversation.