by T.F. Rigelhof (1998)
"That's everyone's dilemma: at the times we think we're coolest, what everyone else sees is a guy with his mouth full of banana... ."
"I'm just a famous nobody." - Leonard Cohen
Whenever Leonard Cohen is mentioned, I think "fabulous novelist, ferociously funny, too soon finished." I always think this but say it less and less because I feel helplessly skewed, hopelessly eccentric in my response: few people seem to know what I'm talking about, fewer seem to care. As a novelist, Leonard Cohen is better known as a poet. As a poet, he's better known as a song writer. As a song writer, he's better known as a performer. As a performer, he's best known for a public persona which isn't usually construed as comic. As the personification of world-weary, urbane, chic suffering, he's a pop icon, so instantly recognizable that the book designers at Random House have used a black-and-white image of his face in left profile, eyes closed, on a black background as the front and back covers on Ira B. Nadel's recent biography, VARIOUS POSITIONS. Cohen's face is encased with a clear plastic dust jacket upon which titles have been printed in Buddhist saffron. Remove the dust jacket and Cohen meets the reader unadorned, sideways on (but only left-sided). At first sight, I thought, Ah, an error - no right profile. No, Random House is cutting costs by using one photographic plate twice. Then the joke hit me, Cohen is insisting we see less than the full picture. In his lifelong game of outsmarting everyone who wants to appropriate him for themselves, he's won again. With Ira B. Nadel, it wasn't much of a contest. Jacket copy identifies Nadel as the author of studies in biography and James Joyce. It says he teaches at the University of British Columbia where he's a Professor of English. This suggests that VARIOUS POSITIONS is a scholarly and critical work. It isn't. Professor Nadel is scholarly only in the earnestness and humourlessness of his prose: as a critic, he's just another fan offering homage. Instead of developing critical distance, he shuffles his way through a pack of index cards and selects careful comments from Cohen's friends that just add more layers to the enigma wrapped within a mystery that the singer has become. The end product is a shrunk-to-fit-the-celebrity biography that suits a novelist as inventive and comic and outré as Leonard Cohen as badly as a tweed jacket and polka-dot bow tie. Like any other straight off the peg to the pen of a hack biography, VARIOUS POSITIONS offers a warning to hoi polloi of the extraordinary high prices an ordinary superstar has to pay for fame and success; but, it doesn't get near the naked skin of this hard-core troubadour notorious for penetrating his audience's erectile tissue. Even though his songs, as Ann Diamond says, "became a weathervane of neo-conservatism about fifteen years ago" and his image has become his most important fiction, Cohen remains a subversive and dangerous novelist. But Nadel plays it safe, expends less than five percent of his book on the novels and considers them as autobiographical facts, not art. Leonard Cohen re-invented himself as a singer-songwriter at the age of thirty-two because he couldn't make a living as a poet and novelist in Canada without either (a) turning into a hip Adrienne Clarkson impersonator at the CBC or (b) finding himself a niche somewhere in the academic hierarchy. He borrowed money and headed off to Nashville with his guitar. He got as far as New York's Chelsea Hotel. In retrospect, the makeover of Leonard Cohen the writer into Leonard Cohen the singer seems inevitable. At the time, it was anything but a sure bet. He had a singing voice even Bob Dylan fans disliked, he was an indifferent guitar player with a five-chord repertoire, a decade older than anyone else who was hip and too bourgeois to be beatnik. He'd never played with professional musicians and was so heavily into tranquillizers that he'd picked up the nickname Captain Mandrax. In 1969, SONGS OF LEONARD COHEN sounded so wasted and wounded, so used-up, nobody I knew could listen to the album straight through. That's when I started thinking of Leonard Cohen as "fabulous novelist, ferociously funny, too soon finished." THE FAVOURITE GAME was published in England in October 1963 and in New York in September 1964. It was available in Canada only as an import until McClelland & Stewart published a paperback off-print of the British edition in 1970. In all three places, it was a rarity. Nowadays, THE FAVOURITE GAME is as common as muck and about as attractively packaged as a bag of potting soil in a $6.95 New Canadian Library reprint that features an afterword by Paul Quarrington. Quarrington trolls for new readers with a foreign lure. "THE FAVOURITE GAME... like David Copperfield, falls into a subset of the bildungsroman, the k nstlerroman, a novel which portrays the maturation of an artist (in German, ein Kuenstler)." But, THE FAVOURITE GAME isn't David Copperfield nor is it Joyce's PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN (let alone Mann's Doktor Faustus). THE FAVOURITE GAME is a young man's book full of precisely articulated un-Teutonic follies that are so outrageously naive, so blissfully unsophisticated, so innocently unthinking that this novel just doesn't square with any hole a Professor Frye-gean pigeon like Quarrington wants to nest it in. "To be a writer is to use all the brains you've got," says Stephen Vizinczey in TRUTH AND LIES IN LITERATURE and you don't have to look any further than Cohen's friendship with Vizinczey during the years in which THE FAVOURITE GAME took shape to grasp its own peculiar braininess, its revel in the ability of a young man to live entirely in a middle world between sensory and intellectual realities, in the non-literal, non-rational realm of poetic imaginings. This is what makes THE FAVOURITE GAME as poignant, hilarious and erotically charged as Vizinczey's own IN PRAISE OF OLDER WOMEN. Both novels were too brave and unbridled for Jack McClelland. In April 1959, when he was twenty-four, Leonard Cohen was awarded a Canada Council grant of $2000. He used the money to live cheaply in London and even more cheaply on Hydra while drafting the novel he called BEAUTY AT CLOSE QUARTERS. McClelland objected to Cohen writing prose in the first place, found his novel tedious, egotistical, disgusting and morbid in its sex, worried about its autobiographical content and suggested radical revisions without guaranteeing publication. Cohen signed contracts with Secker & Warburg for Commonwealth rights and with Viking for the American edition. Both publishers wanted a shorter book: Cohen began to revise with some ambivalence. He knew he'd created something important, "a book without alibis; not the alibis of the open road or narcotics or engaging crime." He'd "wanted to tell about a certain society and a certain man and reveal insights into the bastard Art of Poetry. I think I know what I'm talking about. Autobiography? Lawrence Breavman isn't me but we did a lot of the same things. But we reacted differently to them and so we became different men." It wasn't self-mutilation when Cohen cut the book in half. He wrote Irving Layton, "anyone with an ear will know I've torn apart orchestras to arrive at my straight, melodic line... I walk lighter and carry a big scalpel... I don't know anything about people - that's why I have this terrible and irresistible temptation to be a novelist." We're lucky he didn't resist the temptation. If M&S celebrated our literature rather than flogged it to death, they'd do as Random House does with Michael Ondaatje and offer us Cohen in quality trade paperbacks. Front to back, THE FAVOURITE GAME is dead certain about its society and a certain Lawrence Breavman who relates his history as a poet within it. It's Jewish to the core, so steeped in biblical consciousness that Cohen has no need to draw direct analogies between his brave and bereaved protagonist and the psalmists. Breavman is simultaneously a priest exiled in Babylon mourning the loss of King Solomon's glories and King David reveling carnally in the delights of a multitude of women that includes a particularly beguiling foreigner. The book opens with the line, "Breavman knows a girl named Shell whose ears were pierced so she could wear the long filigree earrings." Breavman is creating a song of songs to her glory and a lament over his inability to renounce his Jewish soul to her Gentile body even though she possesses his body with her mind. Breavman may be somber but the book isn't. Cohen finds the trick of subverting the conventional to comic effect by having Breavman study himself as a narrator imagining himself as a character within his own autobiography. Breavman strives for distance from himself but can't help constantly imploding. He sends himself up serio-comically as both a self-mocked hero and a self-inflated villain in a story that has multiple orgasms but no climax. The effect is highly visual, dominantly cinematic. Breavman never quite knows what movie he's in but he always knows that there's a camera on him. Several dozen scenes are pure photographs. This passage gives the book its title:
On a napkin he scribbled: Jesus! I just remembered what Lisa's favourite game was. After a heavy snow we would go into a back yard with a few of our friends. The expanse of snow would be white and unbroken. Bertha was the spinner. You held her hands while she turned on her heels, you circled her until your feet left the ground. Then she let go and you flew over the snow. You remained still in whatever position you landed. When everyone had been flung in this fashion into the fresh snow, the beautiful part of the game began. You stood up carefully, taking great pains not to disturb the impression you made. Now the comparisons. Of course you would have done your best to land in some crazy position, arms and legs sticking out. Then we walked away, leaving a lovely white field of blossom-like shapes with footprint stems.The New Canadian Library jacket copy calls it "a shrewd appraisal of the human comedy, where ‘the favourite game' is love." Anybody who thinks this probably thinks Breavman is Leonard Cohen. *** TWO During his return to Canada in 1963-64, Cohen found himself torn by the conflicts arising from the Quiet Revolution in Quebec. He internalized the contradictions between Indian, French, and English senses of nationhood and his own Jewishness and out popped BEAUTIFUL LOSERS in two eight-month periods of intense writing and revision back on Hydra. It's a bloody marvel that in 1996 a Western Canadian like Nadel can gloss the politics of BEAUTIFUL LOSERS lightly, seeing them as sources for a couple of scenes and leaving it at that because if this book is about anything, it's about the willing of new systems to replace old: "What is most original in a man's nature is often that which is most desperate. Thus new systems are forced on the world by men who simply cannot bear the pain of living with what is. Creators care nothing for their systems except that they be unique." The words are those of the unnamed Jewish narrator (but the ideas are those of F., his mentor, a Québécois MP who has been committed to a prison for the criminally insane because of his anarchist activities on behalf of the Separatist Cause). The book can be read allegorically as a political fable wrapped inside a sexually transfigured religious fantasy. Hugh MacLennan's "two solitudes" are replaced by two solitary madmen who keep jerking each other around and off until the beautiful woman meant to unite them is utterly lost through too much history on one side and too much transcendence on the other. As a fable, it's absolutely brutal satire that offers a clearer view of the peculiarities of Canadian repressiveness than anything else written in English in that period: the English are unresponsive to the French but the French are merciless to the Iroquois and the Jews don't do themselves any good. Before general interest started to wane in the mid-seventies, BEAUTIFUL LOSERS was read many ways, not least by Cohen himself. Part of his own list was adopted for the jacket of the first edition:
Driven by loneliness and despair, a contemporary Montréaler tries to heal himself by invoking the name and life of Catherine Tekakwitha, an Iroquois girl whom the Jesuits converted in the 17th Century, and the first Indian maiden to take an Oath of Virginity. Obsessed by the memory of his wife Edith, who committed suicide in an elevator shaft, his mind tyrannized by the presence of F., a powerful and mysterious personage who boasted of occult skills and who was Edith's lover, he embarks on a wild and alarming journey through the landscape of the soul. It is a journey which is impossible to describe and impossible to forget... BEAUTIFUL LOSERS is a love story, a psalm, a Black Mass, a monument, a satire, a prayer, a shriek, a road map through the wilderness, a joke, a tasteless affront, an hallucination, a bore, an irrelevant display of diseased virtuosity, a Jesuitical tract, an Orange sneer, a scatological Lutheran extravagance, in short, a disagreeable religious epic of incomparable beauty.Reading this as a put-on by an extraordinary con-man, some people found the novel easy to put down and cast aside as pretentious pornography. Until it was "liberated" from my bookshelves by a former student, I had a signed copy of the first edition that I'd picked out of a box of trash. M&S bound BEAUTIFUL LOSERS from Viking's sheets and Viking gave it the quality it required because Cohen employs a number of typographical oddities that need space to exhale - comic book captions, an advertisement for Charles Axis, a radio transcription of Gavin Gate and the Goddesses, a Greek-English phrase book. These aren't the best things in the book (but they're fun). In his fine 1970 pamphlet, LEONARD COHEN, Michael Ondaatje asserts that this book has to be given the benefit of second thoughts. On first reading, BEAUTIFUL LOSERS is simply too sensational, savage, raw, manic. Thanks to Nadel, we now know details of the fasts, sunstrokes, breakdowns, esoteric enterprises, Tantric sex practices, obsessions with Ray Charles's songs and amphetamine overdoses that fed its composition. This book roars along at chemical-additive freaked-out speed, twists, turns, spins around until you can't miss the point that F. is literally correct when he says, "Hysteria is my classroom." It's simply too exhausting to be grasped all at once. Ondaatje says that BEAUTIFUL LOSERS was the funniest novel to appear in a long time, that it takes the notion of sex as religious liberation to as extreme a position as it can go, and reduces it to a level of absurdity from which it should never have recovered. Exactly. Writing about a model of sainthood that isn't his own sex practice and doesn't represent his own religious position, Cohen transfigures the vulgar images of Montréal's "solid bloody landscape" into a wild and peculiar tract. Ondaatje says Cohen lets his imagination ride through the landscape "like an escaped ski, keeping an incredible balance." He's right about the balance but wrong about the carriage: Cohen is riding two runaway horses in what looks to me like a reconditioned Egyptian war chariot dedicated to Isis. And he doesn't know how to rein his horses in when they roar out of the west into the spring of Montréal: "Spring comes into Montréal like an American movie of Riviera Romance, and everyone has to sleep with a foreigner, and suddenly the house lights flare and it's summer.... Spring is an exotic import, like rubber love equipment from Hong Kong, we only want it for a special afternoon.... Spring comes to Montréal so briefly you can name the day and plan nothing for it." The book doesn't end on that unplanned day, it just evaporates into a fog of Busby Berkeley transcendentalism unworthy of both horses and rider.
He greedily reassembled himself into - into a movie of Ray Charles. Then he enlarged the screen, degree by degree, like a documentary on the Industry. The moon occupied one lens of his sunglasses, and he laid out his piano keys across a shelf of the sky, and he leaned over him as though they were truly the row of giant fishes to feed a hungry multitude. A fleet of jet planes dragged his voice over us who were holding hands. -Just sit back and enjoy it, I guess. -Thank God it's only a movie. -Hey! Cried a New Jew, laboring on the lever of the broken Strength Test. Hey. Somebody's making it.Because the book fails to find its own true ending even by "renting" the last page to the Jesuits, I don't think it's as "incomparably beautiful" as Cohen asserts. To be this, order has to be restored or chaos must triumph. Since we're left neither the gold of Jerusalem nor the babble of Babel but only some bits of Assyrian astrology propped up on a Hollywood stage, BEAUTIFUL LOSERS isn't Cohen's masterpiece as a novelist. That remains unwritten. In 1976 when Cohen's literary reputation was as high as it ever got, Michael Gnarowski edited LEONARD COHEN: THE ARTIST AND HIS CRITICS. Even though he's far grumpier about the novels than I think is just, the best article in it is an essay by George Woodcock, "The Song of the Sirens: Reflections on LeonardCohen." Woodcock's response to the novels is humourless and constricted by his belief that poets ought to stick to poetry. He assumes THE FAVOURITE GAME is autobiographical in ways that it isn't and is so concerned with the aesthetics of BEAUTIFUL LOSERS that he overlooks the political allegory. But he can't be faulted in his grasp of the poems, the songs, or the sexual politics. Woodcock says Cohen is a good minor poet whose work will last because of his "sense of the magic of sound in poetry, and .... Yeatsian sense of poetic propriety." The "voice for which he will be longest remembered" is the one that records permutations of desire, examines the ambiguities in human response to the universe, and sniffs out the sacred in sexual encounters. It's the voice of "Suzanne," who Takes You Down. In both technique and sentiment, Cohen is deeply conservative as a poet: Woodcock gives chapter and verse and finds the songs even more exaggerated. Cohen's songs, he says, are nothing more than "the popularization of a conventionally romantic type of verse" that lacks intrinsic feeling. They're essentially empty until life and meaning are simulated by the singer's voice. I can't argue with that: Cohen cheerfully admits that "[a]lmost all my songs can be sung any way. They can be sung as torch songs or as gentle songs or as contemplative songs or as courtingsongs." That's why I prefer tribute albums to Cohen's own recordings. The success of his songs as escapist vehicles within popular culture has made Cohen far more reactionary than most of his younger fans realize. I haven't tracked his singing career closely enough to determine at what point he unconditionally surrendered to the patriarchal world view that the best of his early work seems to be struggling to overturn. Or when the original irony of calling his back-up band "The Army" utterly failed him. But by the early eighties, not only his haircuts and suits but something deeper in him implied a takeover by Ronald Reagan. Woodcock suggests this was inevitable from the beginning: I have my doubts and my doubts are sustained by the novels. But I have no doubt that Woodcock got to the bottom of Cohen's sexual politics a lot faster than some of Cohen's female friends. Nearly thirty years ago, Woodcock understood that Cohen's loneliness and pain are passive conditions, attributes of a love that gains ultimate fulfillment only in its loss. In Cohen's world, love can be felt but not thought: Women are to be looked at, not listened to. As individual intellectual beings, women don't exist and cannot be imagined: they are mere ikons, sacred objects to be used in sexual ceremonies for poetic purposes. For some women who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they really seem to like. It flatters narcissists. It pleases sadists and masochists. What it doesn't do is age gracefully. In the final chapters of VARIOUS POSITIONS, Nadel drools so heavily over Cohen's over-age Don Juanish triumphs over girls living the lives of women and women living the lives of girls that he dodders off without mentioning anywhere that he wrote a previous book about Leonard Cohen. It's called LEONARD COHEN: A LIFE IN ART and it's smaller but smarter than VARIOUS POSITIONS. This is what Nadel writes at the end of its penultimate paragraph:
In the first phase of his career, life and its ritual symbols formed his art, providing the substance for, and shape of, his writing; in the second, art, as symbolic and religious expression, has fashioned his life.Criticism is more implied than stated but there's at least some critical element here, some sense that Cohen has ended up as his own best fiction. Whenever I think about the great novel Cohen's first two portend, I think of a novel as cunning and original as Naipaul's THE ENIGMA OF ARRIVAL. I think of a work of genius - not ingenuity. But having read Nadel's account of Leonard Cohen's obsessions over the past two decades, I fear it won't ever be written. Cohen has reinvented himself too often to conclude that all he has left in him is the silence implied by "Jikan" (Silent One), the name he took when he was ordained a Zen monk on August 9th, 1996. But if the only thing left in him is silence, it ought to be remembered that before he surrendered so much of his talent to transcendentalism, involvements with women, and fictionalizing his own life that he has ended up "the Bliss Carmen of our generation" (as John Newlove once described him), he's still a novelist to be reckoned much higher than a footnote appended to Michael Ondaatje's career. So whenever Leonard Cohen is mentioned, I think "fabulous novelist, ferociously funny, too soon finished" and remember this - from Bliss Carman's "Envoi" -
Success is in the silences, Though fame is in the song.
THE FAVOURITE GAME by Leonard Cohen, New Canadian Library 239 pages, $6.95 paper ISBN 0-7710-9954-1 BEAUTIFUL LOSERS by Leonard Cohen, New Canadian Library 269 pages, $6.95 paper ISBN 0-7710-9875-8 LEONARD COHEN:THE ARTIST AND HIS CRITICS by Michael Gnarowski, McGraw-Hill 169 pages, ISBN 0-07-082179-8 (At your library if you're lucky.) VARIOUS POSITIONS by Ira B. Nadel, Random House 325 pages, $29.95 cloth ISBN 0-394-22413-2 LEONARD COHEN: A LIFE IN ART by Ira Nadel, ECW Press 160 pages, $14.95 paper ISBN 1-55022-210-4 LEONARD COHEN by Michael Ondaatje, Canadian Writers 5, New Canadian Library 64 pages, no ISBN (Available at your library if you're very lucky.)
© 1998 by T.F.Rigelhof. Reprinted here by permission. T.F.Rigelhof in the Gallery of The Beautiful Losers This review article originally appeared in PARAGRAPH: CANADIAN FICTION REVIEW (Volume 19, No. 4, Spring 1998), pp. 2-5. An expanded version will be included in T.F. Rigelhof's forthcoming collection of essays, THIS IS OUR WRITING, to be published by Porcupine's Quill in Spring 1999. The longtime resident of Montreal had a thoroughly Catholic education and spent five years in seminaries in Saskatoon and Ottawa, a period of his life captured to compelling effect in A BLUE BOY IN A BLACK DRESS (1995) which was nominated for the 1996 Governor-General's Award for Non-Fiction and won the Royal Bank of Canada QSPELL Award. Rigelhof's edgy stories were collected in the critically acclaimed JE T'AIME, COWBOY. His most recent novel is BADASS ON A SOFTAIL (which features cameo appearances from a certain famous stranger).
Thanks to Judith Fitzgerald for help & the summary!