In a musty, cavernous house, three brothers, their father, and uncle sleep through day and night. The men can scarcely eat without falling back to sleep. The sunlight insults their eyes and even the softest of sounds, such as “a noise of dishes . . . [lays] itself upon the motionless air, like a cry lost in crossing the heaviness of sleep.” The very act of walking from one room to another, let alone up the stairs, is a painful exertion.
“I should tell you that this setting, this household, they were my family,” Albert Cossery once said in regard to his 1945 novel Laziness in the Fertile Valley. Cossery’s father and brothers did not work and his grandfather is said to have never left his room. When Cossery left Cairo for Paris in the 1930s, he wanted to be a writer and refused other forms of work. In Paris, where he settled permanently after the war, he used to sleep into the afternoon at the Hotel Louisiane. (He resided there until his death in 2008, at the age of ninety-four.)
Laziness, re-issued by New Directions and seamlessly translated by the late William Goyen, has been left unchanged with the exception of its title, previously The Lazy Ones. The new edition includes an insightful afterword by Anna Della Subin who describes Cossery’s satirical bent in the context of the modernization of Egypt after it gained independence from the British in 1922. Egypt was said to have undergone a modern “awakening”: the British had brought railroads, electricity, and clocks. Yet the Egyptian people did not readily welcome these changes. The railroad schedules were flexible and inconsistent because Egyptians were unused to keeping time. According to Subin, during the 1919 riots against occupation, Egyptians protested, among other things, newly installed electric streetlights, which were seen as an oppressive British measure to impose order on the night.
As Subin observes, Cossery’s novel confronts “the stereotype of Oriental indolence” and recasts the struggle of adapting to the modern world; rather than mere sloth, laziness is a kind of resistance and rebellion. Work, in the family’s view, is not only pointless but oppressive, and together they have vowed to find shelter in sleep. The story largely revolves around two of the brothers, Serag and Rafik, who both find the need to venture outside, which, when accomplished, is a mostly tortuous and traumatic experience.
The novel makes clear that modernity is not always progressive or moral; in fact, it can be, at times, profoundly anti-humanistic. Cossery’s characters, for instance, bow to impassioned, hyperbolic speech: people are condemned to “a world tortured by agony” and belong “to a sort of desperate and fallen humanity.” One prime example is a poor boy who hunts birds for a living and is in search of his “house”—a portable, wooden box. Serag takes a perverse fascination in this boy. Though Serag is appalled by the boy’s “trapped” existence, saying it is essentially “dedicated to slavery,” he also envies the boy’s adventurous nature.
Serag is the only one in his family who wants to work. He dreams of toiling away at a factory. All other work is “completely insignificant” and lacks “the grandeur” of “machinery in action.” For Serag, the poor boy embodies this greatness: he moves “like a mechanical toy.” The boy’s face shines “with a strange excitement” and “a certain extravagance” emanates from him. Serag seeks enlightenment in the industrialized world. His name means “lamp” in Arabic and to the horror of his brothers, he is sometimes found standing beneath the sun, soaking it in.
While observing the boy, Serag finds himself “on the threshold of an ultimate revelation.” Yet no revelation comes. The reader will often feel at once on the verge of slipping into unchartered territory and lost in an endless, hopeless expanse. Or, to put it another way: we seem to be on the brink of change, but stuck in eternal stagnation. This tension is immediately described in the environment: the fields are lush and fertile although also “implacable” and “congealed in a distressing torpor.” Sometimes the wind will pass through and the countryside will appear “roused, as if by a wave” but then “calmed little by little, returning to its gloomy desolation.” The lethargic plains of crops are on the verge of signaling life, but seem restrained, stuck.
Serag’s yearning for work is similarly fragile and fickle. It is physical: “crumbling” when it is questioned, or seeming to fail. Though he wishes to free himself from the darkness of sleeping life, the “unknown universe, cursed and suffering” makes him feel “frightened.” Once at home, he finds comfort in “peaceful security where there [are] no catastrophes.” Indeed, the family defends their way of life in the name of “tranquility.”
Still, their claim is unconvincing. Their bodies are slowly deteriorating: the father neglects to treat a hernia that grows in his lower abdomen, while one of his sons, Galal, is so pale that he is likened to a corpse. They seem to live as though they were dead, growing gradually oblivious to the world beyond.
The characters seem entranced in their languor, but there are moments where they remind us of their political cause. Sleep is not defined by dreams, conjured in a state of passive immersion, but instead a conscious act. Rather, the world outside is the “absurd dream.” Rafik, the most politically zealous family member, sleeps “as a refuge,” out of a fear of being subjugated by society. Yet he also sleeps because it is the shrewd decision: “Why did [men] have to struggle, always vicious and discontented, when the sole wisdom lay in a careless, passive attitude?” he asks. Cossery felt there was wisdom in laziness. In an interview he said, “The more you are idle, the more you have time to reflect. Laziness is a critical position by which to judge the world.” Needless to say, this is not how we usually think of lassitude. These family members are resolutely indolent: they do not disregard as much as disdain the modern world.
Perhaps, as Subin suggests, laziness was the only path to dissent. In 1945, thousands were arrested for protesting against the Egyptian monarchy. In Laziness, the father, Old Hafez, attempts to dissuade his son Serag from searching for work by claiming that the government arrests anyone with “subversive ideas.” Serag insists: “I don’t want to live in the dark.” Yet, whenever light does seep into the darkness, it reveals the ugly: “In the light of the kerosene lamp,” the prostitute’s “outrageously painted face looked like a mask.” The description recalls the pasty, lurid face of the prostitute Jane Avril in Toulouse-Lautrec’s Au Moulin Rouge, which similarly seems cast in the dim, distorting light that falls “like cold water” in Laziness. At times, Cossery evokes the works of modernist European painters, who, a few decades earlier, portrayed the effects of modernity on daily social life. Cossery shares their vision of public interiors, where degenerate people are spotted under the lamplight. Van Gogh also comes to mind when Rafik enters a café, lit by gas lamps, and observes “some shaky tables [swim] in the weird light.” Cossery’s use of detail is purposeful and precise; he shapes objects and people out of light and darkness, molding them as a painter would until she gives them form.
When light does not reveal the deformed, it quivers in place, not leading us anywhere. Such is the case when Serag finally resolves to leave home in search of work. It is nighttime, and he walks a road that appears as a “long line of flickering street lamps,” “lost . . . in infinity.” His destination is not tangible, though he knows “distant perils” await him. The thought of waking early to work, and facing the injustice of the government, ultimately turns him back. He gives in to sleep, knowing he will return home to the comfort of darkness.
Cossery seems to have emulated much of the behavior of his characters: don’t work, avoid politics, avert your eyes from the world. The timing of Laziness’s re-publication strikes a chord with the Egyptian protests of the past three years; we cannot easily reconcile them with Cossery’s portrait of laziness and political refusal in his own time. Nonetheless, like Cossery, his characters are idle but not entirely ignorant. In an interview Cossery said: “I am always indignant” about “everything that I see.” Writing, in the end, is about seeing, and one has to be awake to observe the world.