In Praise of Leonard Cohen

By Kevin Rabalais

 

Two weeks before he died, at age 82, Leonard Cohen gave the world one final gift. His album You Want it Darker is among his best work, a luminous coda to a career that spanned six decades. After learning of his death on Friday, I spent many hours revisiting the work of an artist—Cohen was nothing less—who began as a poet, published two novels, and then became one of the great songwriters of our era. Throughout his career, he investigated everything from love and loss, religion and history, politics, inheritance and sexual longing. His songs segue from sensual beauty to affirmation of the world’s delights to apocalyptic worry. Those of us who admired this work learned to witness the world through the lyrics he gave us with his “golden voice,” as he sings of it in “Tower of Song.” Observing couples on streets these past days only reminds me of one of his poems from The Book of Longing:

You go your way
I’ll go your way too
—“The Sweetest Little Song”

A version of the following article, commissioned for the January 17-18, 2009 issue of The Weekend Australian Review, covers the Australian reissue of Cohen’s two novels, The Favorite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966), and chronicles some moments in Cohen’s diverse and peripatetic life.

Before song, there was poetry. In between, the so-called Poet Laureate of Pessimism, Prince of Bummers and Bard of the Boudoir also knocked out a couple of novels. Leonard Cohen remains best known across the world as a singer-songwriter—with albums such as Songs of Love and Hate, I’m Your Man and The Future—but before Cohen’s recording career began, with Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), he had already made his mark on literature.

In Cohen’s two novels, The Favorite Game and Beautiful Losers, readers find a stranger kind of music, to paraphrase one of Cohen’s titles. These books will come as a welcome surprise to the many fans who remain unaware of his literary output. Both books display Cohen’s trademark intense lyrical imagery and sensuality. They are singular reading experiences that combine many of Cohen’s lifelong obsessions and themes.

In Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen, Ira B. Nadel notes that Cohen encountered poetry and music nearly simultaneously. For Cohen, aged fifteen at the time, these were life-altering events. He bought a guitar and began taking lessons from a young Spaniard whom he saw playing in Montreal’s Murray Hill Park. Cohen would later admit that he was as impressed by the Spaniard’s passionate flamenco playing as he was with its stimulating effect on his female listeners.

Several months later, Cohen stumbled upon poetry. He told The Toronto Star in 1986 that it was Federico Garcia Lorca who “led me into the racket of poetry.” Cohen began writing seriously the following year. He has described the sensations—“the mastery and power, and freedom, and strength”—that writing gave him as an awkward sixteen-year-old growing up in Montreal’s upper-middle-class suburb of Westmount, which serves as the main setting for his autobiographical The Favorite Game.

Cohen published his first poetry collection, Let Us Compare Mythologies, in 1956, when he was twenty-two. In a career that spanned six decades, he continued to write, sometimes for the page alone but more famously combining words and music to forge a career unlike any other in world music. His body of work—thirteen poetry collections, fourteen albums and two novels—demonstrates a sustained attempt to observe Ezra Pound’s dictum: “When poetry strays too far from music, it atrophies. When music strays too far from dance, it atrophies.”

In a rare interview with The New York Times in 1969, Cohen said: “All of my writing has guitars behind it, even the novels.” Beautiful Losers in particular develops more like a jazz improvisation than a traditional novel.

There and in The Favorite Game, Cohen continually experiments with the form of the novel and its possibilities. He does so—and this will dismay many readers—by often forsaking straightforward storytelling for lyrical investigations of love and loss, religion and history, inheritance and sexual longing.

Both of Cohen’s novels attracted less attention than his early award-winning volumes of poetry. But his literary influence lingers in his native Canada.

“Most serious Canadian lyric poets see Let Us Compare Mythologies, The Spice Box of the Earth and Flowers for Hitler as required reading whether they like the aesthetic or not,” says the award-winning Canadian poet Kevin Connolly, who considers Cohen’s novels to be classics.

In these novels we find Cohen perpetually reckless. Those willing to follow his experimental flights of fancy will be rewarded at many of these books’ unexpected turns, with brilliant shards of poetic and often prophetic writing.

The Favorite Game, an erotic coming-of-age novel, reads like an amalgamation of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Tropic of Cancer. The novel follows the youth and early manhood of Lawrence Breavman, artist and occasional hypnotist, who believes “poetry is a verdict, not an occupation.” Breavman’s adventures echo many from Cohen’s early life. Like Cohen, he is the only son of a prominent Montreal Jewish family. Confident of his talent and voice, Breavman (like the young Cohen) plans to forge a path as an artist and rehearses his future glory. “He was a kind of mild Dylan Thomas,” Cohen writes, “talent and behavior modified for Canadian tastes.”

For the most part, The Favorite Game maintains its narrative arc as it follows Breavman’s exploits and anxieties in Montreal and New York. Beautiful Losers, on the other hand, constitutes a remarkable leap in form and content. The novel combines multiple narrative forms and language and introduces journal entries, advertisements, historical records, footnotes, drama and poetry. In its genre-shifting and heightened use of imagery, it is unlike any other reading experience in contemporary literature.

Beautiful Losers follows the life of the seventeenth-century Mohawk saint Catherine Tekakwitha. Besides contemporary characters involved in a love triangle, the passionate artist F., his wife and the narrator, a scholar who is also F.’s protégé, are all fascinated with Tekawitha’s life.

Cohen wrote Beautiful Losers while living on the Greek island of Hydra and claims, in his reader’s note to the 2000 Chinese translation of the novel, that, while writing, he didn’t shade his head from the sun. “What you have in your hands,” he warns, “is more of a sunstroke than a book.”

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A cult standard and classic of 1960s experimental fiction that will disappoint any reader in search of story alone, Beautiful Losers is a rapid-fire hedonistic romp. It is a book for readers who enjoy wading through perplexity in order to divine intense flashes of insight that make you want to copy passages to share with friends, as when the narrator reflects: “Jesus probably designed his system so that it would fail in the hands of other men, that is the way with the greatest creators: they guarantee the desperate power of their originality by projecting their systems into an abrasive future.”

Along with such aphorisms and the lyrical writing that fills both of these novels, there is an abundance of the sexual desire and sensual writing that fuels much of Cohen’s music. In The Favorite Game, for instance, Breavman praises a woman’s beauty “and the ski slopes that had made her legs so fine.” Later, he admires women strolling in Montreal: “He formed wild theories out of pleats and creases.”

“Cohen was a well-known poet and a famous Canadian before he became a musical star, though many forget that,” Connolly notes. “He goes in and out of fashion, to a degree, as does poetry, and to some his status as a pop icon tends to make him suspect and, in my opinion, unfairly affects [readers’] appreciation of his work. But this is a rather minority position.”

These two novels offer fans of Cohen’s music an opportunity to glimpse another side of the consummate songwriter. As Cohen writes in Beautiful Losers, “I am too heavy for music. I am invisible if I leave no daily evidence.” 

 

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