Ira Nadel's article - Globe and Mail, Sept 18, 2009

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bridger15
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Ira Nadel's article - Globe and Mail, Sept 18, 2009

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http://www.theglobeandmail.com/books/a- ... le1292560/
From Saturday's Books section
A portrait of the artist as a young writer

A reissue of Leonard Cohen's only two novels on the eve of his 75th birthday prompts Ira Nadel to investigate their place in the artist's body of work

Last updated on Friday, Sep. 18, 2009 03:49PM EDT

In a career that spans almost 55 years, Leonard Cohen has written only two novels – in contrast to 12 books of poetry and 18 albums. And yet The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers, now published in a single volume by McClelland & Stewart (505 pages, $29.99), stand as intriguing entries to a singular calling: artist.

Cohen's Canadian publisher discouraged him from writing any prose before he submitted the first draft of a book in 1960. The manuscript was an undisguised and undigested autobiographical work titled Beauty at Close Quarters: An Anthology. The novel, Jack McClelland complained, was no more than a “protracted love affair with himself.”

Nevertheless, McClelland invited him to resubmit, although it took Cohen nearly two years to draft and revise the work. Cohen called the revision a “book without alibis.” But McClelland was again unsympathetic and The Favourite Game appeared first in England in 1963 and in the United States in 1964. It was available in Canada only as an English import until a paperback edition appeared in 1970.

The Favourite Game challenged its time and its readers to reject the restrictions of middle-class conventions. The unstructured imaginative freedom of the artist, in the tradition of Stephen Daedalus or even Holden Caulfield, was the alternative. This allowed the hero, Lawrence Breavman, to “sample all the possibilities.”

The novel earned modest attention because of Cohen's emerging presence as a poet, which began with Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956) and gained increasing notice with The Spice Box of Earth (1961). The failure of the novel to find a Canadian publisher, however, underscored the literary conservatism of the day. Canadians preferred the work of Farley Mowat or Hugh Garner, winner of the Governor-General's Award for fiction in 1963.

“ Beautiful Losers was a threshold work, marking a new stage of fiction for the country ”

The Favourite Game is a novel of education, or bildungsroman, in which the hero discovers his life as an artist, encouraged by his rebellious friend, Krantz. The tone is irreverent, the energy limitless and the present debased. The favourite games in the novel grow from childish amusements to dialectics and sexual play as the young Breavman and the city move into maturity. In the work, rejection brings freedom, the novel confirming many of Cohen's own choices, which saw him leave Montreal for London and then the Greek island of Hydra to establish an identity as a poet and singer. And although critics claimed the novel was autobiographical, Cohen declared, “I cringe before the tyranny of fact, but it is not autobiographical. I made it up.”

Beautiful Losers, published three years later, was a shock. How could a Canadian writer suddenly become so avant-garde and dangerous in a work that was alternately obscene and historical, kinky and conservative? His then-recent book of poems, the provocatively titled Flowers for Hitler, anticipated the edgier stance that was beginning to define his work as he tried more extreme themes in more experimental forms. He made it clear to Jack McClelland that he wanted to write a “big confessional oration, very crazy, but using all the techniques of the modern novel.”

Written over two intense eight-month periods in 1964 and 1965, Beautiful Losers was unlike anything else in Canadian fiction at the time: “Much work, many breakdowns,” he told his U.S. literary agent about the process. In Beautiful Losers, Cohen overlaid the story of Montreal separatists on an account of Catherine Tekakwitha, an early Mohawk saint, to narrate the adventures of three young Canadians driven by a sense of nationalism and sexual discovery.

The writing was passionate, poetic, frightening and mesmerizing, the result of the book's inspiration: a drug-induced three-day period of almost non-stop writing in Greece. Cohen was in a state of unbalanced composition. When McClelland read it, he was appalled but impressed. And he was sure that if published, the novel would be banned.

To counter that reaction, he planned a gala launch party, inviting Robertson Davies, F.R. Scott, Northrop Frye, Ramsay Cook, George Grant and Marshall McLuhan, among others. He was right and wrong. The novel was not banned, but critics found it threatening. Robert Fulford, for example, declared the work “the most revolting book ever written in Canada” at the same time as he called it the “Canadian book of the year.” It was a must-read.

Beautiful Losers was a threshold work, marking a new stage of fiction for the country. Sexuality united with history defined an emerging and radical set of values. William Burroughs, not Hugh MacLennan, was the new standard. Beautiful Losers showed that literary fiction could be sensational and well written. And in 1966, sex was the new “drug” on bestseller lists: The same year, Jacqueline Susann published Valley of the Dolls, an instant bestseller, and Masters and Johnson had the No. 1 non-fiction bestseller with Human Sexual Response. And in a landmark obscenity case that year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the banned novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (Fanny Hill) could be published.

The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers remain Cohen's only novels and in the context of his long career, marked by his 75th birthday on Monday, they remain a puzzle.

Two questions emerge: Just how important are they in his long list of his publications and, perhaps more interestingly, why didn't he write any more fiction? The answer to the first is that early in his career he needed to test the genre and in the sixties he was still unsure of finding a successful, popular form for himself. His poetry, while gaining attention, could not support him. Fiction might be the answer.

But after two attempts, he realized that novel writing was an intense and time-consuming job. If he wanted to ignite his artistic career, he had to reinvent himself: He did, as a singer. The long form – the novel – would have to wait.

The year Beautiful Losers appeared, Cohen met Judy Collins, played Suzanne for her on the phone and soon found it was on her next album, In My Life. Columbia Records then signed him, thinking they had found the Canadian answer to Bob Dylan. The first was a poet who sang, the other a singer who wrote poetry.

By 1968, Cohen released his first album, followed by albums almost every year until 1984. At 34, he was eager for success. A notebook poem from 1968 begins with, “I am so impatient, I cannot/ even read slowly.” When he retreated to the island of Hydra, where he had (and still has) a small home, he concentrated on song lyrics and poems, or poems that would become lyrics, rather than sustained prose that might become a novel.

It was not that he didn't want to write another novel; it was, rather, that he outgrew the genre. Poetry, with its allowance for lyric and song, with its condensed narrative, possessed more possibilities for expressing encounters, longings and lost love. The nature of a song also permitted melody to interact with language that matched his talent, although his many drafts and extra stanzas attest to the struggle to cut and compress his work. The finished song is only the top of the volcano, he once said.

Forty years after they first appeared, do his two novels maintain their worth or are they just curiosities? Both remain necessary texts to understand how Cohen developed as a writer and sharpened his poetic and songwriting style. Each allowed him to work through and then eliminate certain personal obsessions. He did the autobiographical, growing-up work in The Favourite Game and then the drug-induced visionary encounter with Canada in the radicalized form of Beautiful Losers. He could turn to song and to poetry without doubt about his identity as a poet/songwriter, freed from any social, literary or Canadian inhibitions. He was on a new path and now at 75 – he'll celebrate his birthday at a concert in Barcelona – he has found his groove again. But he slyly knew this a few years ago when he quietly but confidently sang in A Thousand Kisses Deep, “I'm turning tricks/ I'm getting fixed/ I'm back on Boogie Street.”

Ira Nadel is the author of Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen.
2009-San Diego|Los Ang|Nashville|St Louis|Kansas City|LVegas|San Jose
2010-Gothenburg|Berlin|Ghentx2|Oaklandx2|Portland|LVegasx2
2012-Austinx2|Denver|Los Ang|Seattle|Portland

Arlene's Leonard Cohen Scrapbook http://onboogiestreet.blogspot.com
iveta
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Re: Ira Nadel article-Sept 18-Globe and Mail

Post by iveta »

thank you
a-matter-of-fact-tone, but very wise summary
Of course I´m pathetic, I´ve spent my life getting the most impressive stuff out of the most impressive books. Malcolm Bradbury
Carmen
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Re: Ira Nadel article-Sept 18-Globe and Mail

Post by Carmen »

Thank you for sharing this article with us. I think the matter-of-fact tone was used on purpose - are there any praise words about Leonard that haven't been uttered yet? Anyway, I liked it - there is always some little detail which comes up, adding to the picture each of us have about him...
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Re: Ira Nadel's article - Globe and Mail, Sept 18, 2009

Post by tomsakic »

Among comments on http://www.theglobeandmail.com/books/a- ... le1292560/
9/20/2009 1:03:24 PM
With our thoughts and prayers LC's over his encounter with food-poisoning in Spain, a couple of things:

Although not widely known, he did turn his hand to writing short stories at one point. (I think he abandoned the form after completing four of same, one titled "Luggage Fire Sale" which appeared in the second issue of the first volume of Parallel circa 1965-6, e.g.)

A restless and urgent artist willing to give anything a shot or a few, he investigated everything to do with reading, writing, and performing. (He even tried stand-up, as I'm sure you recall from the NFB film.)

I think Dr. Nadel's right when he claims LC outgrew writing novels. They consumed huge chunks of living time when the last thing he wanted to do involved a kind of solitary confinement. The writing of the pair proved incredibly "maddening" for him; he prolly did decide, at that point, his love of the world came first.

Shift Seven, LC once told me, "I am not the character in my songs and other writings. I do the job of narrator, that's what the process involves for me." Makes sense. When I think confessional, I think Sylvia Plath or so.

IMO, part of his enduring charm and appeal resides in the fact the so-called "character" is his work best represents the universal, both the egregious and ecstatic, a fact which may partially explain his world-wide readerly base and / or listenership (evidenced in the translation of Beautiful Losers a few years ago, say, or the massive sales of his CDs in Europe and Japan). Just my deux.

Judith Fitzgerald
medicinejar
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Re: Ira Nadel's article - Globe and Mail, Sept 18, 2009

Post by medicinejar »

I recall an interview with LC when he noted that after leaving Mount Baldy he initially planned to write a novel. Does anyone know if ever started it and if its completely abandoned as an idea?

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Re: Ira Nadel's article - Globe and Mail, Sept 18, 2009

Post by honeyrose »

Maybe the truth is a little more prosaic. As Leonard himself has pointed out, critical acclaim is one thing, but if the acclaimed novels fail to sell, then you need to find other sources of income. Which was why he first turned his hand to songwriting. Even now he has hinted, he would write novels if there was a similar mass market for them, but the biggest market remains his music.
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Re: Ira Nadel's article - Globe and Mail, Sept 18, 2009

Post by lizzytysh »

Thanks for posting Ira's article on Leonard, Arlene. I like very much how he's written it and all that he said.


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