Arts & Culture

Everybody Knows: The Novels of Leonard Cohen

It’s common wisdom that Leonard Cohen is more than just a singer-songwriter: he’s also a poet, a sage, even a religious figure. “Leonard is this almost prophetic voice in music for me. He’s got this almost Biblical significance and authority,” … Read More

By / May 26, 2009

It’s common wisdom that Leonard Cohen is more than just a singer-songwriter: he’s also a poet, a sage, even a religious figure. “Leonard is this almost prophetic voice in music for me. He’s got this almost Biblical significance and authority,” said U2’s Edge in the 2005 concert film, I’m Your Man. That’s laying it on a bit thick, perhaps, but it’s an understandable reaction to many of Cohen’s songs. From ruminations about Jesus in “Suzanne” to the Jeremiad of “The Future”, his work doesn’t lack for profundity. While Cohen is widely accepted as a songwriter and a poet, however, there’s one thing that he’s rarely called: a novelist.

In fact, Cohen has published two novels, both of which be wrote before launching his music career at the age of 33. They have faded into obscurity compared to his better-known musical oeuvre, but the thematic depth and lively prose of both books show them to be more than just the scribblings of an immature writer or a brief preamble to a more significant songwriting career. And though Cohen is perfectly suited to his current role as singer-poet elder statesman, both The Favorite Game, published in 1963, and Beautiful Losers, from 1966, were criticized for their avant-garde literary experimentation and provoked outrage because of their violent, sexually explicit, and morally disturbing scenes.

By today’s standards, however, The Favorite Game seems rather tame. Written in the late 1950s and early 1960s while Cohen was living with friends in London, and later in his whitewashed, three-story house on the Greek island of Hydra, the novel is a semi-autobiographical account of Cohen’s Montreal upbringing and his pursuit of a poetic vocation. Like Cohen himself, the novel’s protagonist, Lawrence Breavman, is the scion of a prominent Jewish family from the wealthy neighborhood of Westmount.

Also like Cohen, Breavman loses his father at a young age, has a painfully neurotic mother, and uses hypnosis to seduce the family maid. Most of the novel focuses not on his home life, however, but on his relationships with women and with his pal Krantz. As teenagers, the two friends spend their nights driving around downtown Montreal, trying unsuccessfully to pick up girls while amusing themselves with high toned conversations peppered with loud proclamations of their own genius. Eventually Breavman’s sexual drought comes to an end, but not before a few frustratingly incomplete, coming-of-age type encounters.

“Then he was in a room undressing her. He couldn’t believe his hands. The kind of surprise when the silver paper comes off the triangle of Gruyere in one piece. Then she said no and bundled her clothes against her breasts. He felt like an archeologist watching the sand blow back.”

Negative reactions to the book were in part because of its sexual descriptiveness, but also because of its saw-toothed criticism of the Jewish community. Breavman is not by any means ashamed of his Jewishness, yet he is contemptuous of his family’s style of Judaism. “Victorian gentlemen of the Hebraic persuasion,” he terms them.

“They had sold their sense of destiny for an Israeli victory in the desert. Charity had become a social competition in which nobody gave away anything he really needed, like a penny-toss, the prizes being the recognition of wealth and a high place in the donor’s book. Smug traitors who believed spiritual fulfillment had been achieved because Einstein and Heifetz are Jews.”

Despite such deliberate button pushing, the literary and moral incitements of The Favourite Game remain relatively low-key. Beautiful Losers on the other hand, Cohen’s second novel, still retains its power to shock readers 43 years after its publication.

The book is aggressively experimental. As Cohen’s biographer Ira Nadel puts it, Beautiful Losers “almost bursts its form” by “incorporating journals, letters, grammar books, historical narratives, advertisements, catalogues, footnotes, poetry, and drama.” Or, as Cohen himself put it, the book is “a love story, a road map through the wilderness, a joke, a tasteless affront, an hallucination, a bore, an irreverent display of diseased virtuosity, a Jesuitical tract, an Orange sneer, a scatological Lutheran extravagance.” But objections to Beautiful Losers ran deeper than readers’ discomfort with the book’s unfettered architecture.

The first section of Beautiful Losers is delivered by an unnamed narrator – a chronically constipated scholar of deteriorating mental health who is a specialist on the A – s, a nearly vanished North American aboriginal tribe. Though the book is set in Montreal, Cohen shifts his attention away from his own past to focus on larger themes, such as Quebec nationalism and the history of the Jesuits in colonial Quebec. The narrator is obsessed with Catherine Tekakawitha, the first Iroquois saint, and his disjointed narrative is riddled with invocations to her. His wife Edith was herself a Mohawk, though at the beginning of the book she has already committed a gruesome suicide at the bottom of an elevator shaft.

The second part of the novel consists of a long letter written by the narrator’s friend F., and only delivered five years after his death. F. is a Quebec nationalist and a disgraced member of Canadian parliament who, in a mirroring of real life events, blows up the statue of Queen Victoria on Montreal’s Sherbrooke Street. In their mutual need for each other the two characters have a Breavman-Krantz type of relationship, conducting the same kind of amused dialogue. In this case however, both characters are thoroughly stripped of any pretension to innocence. The fact of their bisexuality would have been more controversial in 1966 than it is now, but F.’s description of his affair with Edith can still raise eyebrows. The book’s signature scene is a trip F. and Edith take to Argentina, where their erotic exploits include being raped by a vibrator that has come to life and “learned to feed itself”, followed by a bath with an escaped Nazi who sells them a bar of soap made from human flesh.

Such episodes may be grotesque, but they are successful at provoking an intensity that is at the core of all of Cohen’s work. The shock factor of Beautiful Losers isn’t an exercise in masochism, but the distillation of experience to its most horrific, as well as its most euphoric elements. An acute awareness of the present moment pervades both novels, complete with all of its rawness and uncertainty. “We sought the peculiar tone of each peculiar night. We tried to clear away the static, suffering under the hint that the static was part of the tone,” F. says in Beautiful Losers. Sex in particular is a means by which his characters transverse the emotional distances that separate them and establish meaningful contact with other human beings. “When I see a woman’s face transformed by the orgasm we have reached together, then I know we’ve met. Anything else is fiction,” says Breavman. The narrator of Beautiful Losers expresses a similar sentiment. “For a blessed second truly I was not alone, I was part of a family. That was the first time we made love. It never happened again.”

As Cohen’s Canadian publisher observed, The Favourite Game has the quality of a first novel and it bears the traces of self-indulgence that accompany almost any kind of autobiography. Beautiful Losers is a progression, at a further remove from Cohen’s life, but the literary experiments carried on within its pages have an exploratory quality and suggest further developments. By abandoning the form of the novel it seems as though Cohen left something unfinished; experiments usually lead somewhere, even if it’s only to more experiments. Perhaps this is a small complaint against a man with no shortage of artistic achievements to his name. Reading Cohen’s books, however, and reveling in the ingenuousness of his prose, one can’t help but be a little wistful that he didn’t pursue the form further. As Cohen himself might admonish us, however, we should be thankful for what we’ve already got: two groundbreaking novels of the very first order.