Leonard Cohen, the poet-singer, died in 2016. He was widely remembered for songs like So Long, Marianne and Hallelujah delivered in a lone-wolf monolog that made us wonder if he was in fact singing at all. Now in 2022 a book Leonard wrote in the late 1950s has been published. A Ballet of Lepers is more than an attempt by his heirs to squeeze the last dollar out of his legend. The volume, a long novella and sixteen short pieces, reveals the taproot of his creative adventure.
The eponymous novella is related by a thirty-something alter ego living in a rooming house on Stanley Street in Montreal. Residence in an arty, metropolitan neighbourhood and his out-of-the-way thinking makes us feel he’s only marking time working at casual clerical jobs. He skirmishes with his landlady and hosts his mistress, Marylin, in the evenings. The placid routine inches forward until he, our narrator, who is an orphan, has to deal with family. An immigrant grandfather with next to no English falls to his care. The grandson is no good Samaritan and we are surprised by his grateful reaction. He takes the demented old man to live with him in his one-room accommodation. Comedy ensues from the traffic-jam of the kibitzing landlady, eager Marylin and a truculent grandpa.
The old man’s erratic outbursts—attacking policemen and shattering windows—stirs his grandson from his passivity. The younger man admires the older’s decisiveness in his violence and begins to emulates him. He proposes marriage to Marylin and then coldly drops her with a shrug and a denial that he ever cared for her at all. Bizarrely, he begins an involvement that takes us beyond domestic farce into Marquis de Sade territory and an altogether different story. Picking a victim at random, an ugly Mr Average, the narrator begins to pile humiliation on him and set up a master-slave relationship of love/hate. Torturer and tortured will be accomplices.
We have left behind rooming-house high jinks and entered a sadistic ritual of purification which sounds like the Old Testament. “…[I]t is only among lepers that we can be pure,” says our narrator in prophet-speak. He goes so far in his persecution as to seduce his victim’s wife and set her against her husband. Never fear, comeuppance is on the way. The old man whom he thought was his grandfather turns out to belong to another family. The narrator is deprived of his decrepit roommate and can’t lure back the brutally rejected Marylin. He feels absolutely adrift when the couple he has persecuted with method turns on him, raining blows. From being a self-confident manipulator, he finds himself alone like a bawling infant. He aimed to be included, part of something, albeit perverse, one way or another connected. He ends listening while:
“The voice in my mind proclaimed my loneliness over and over like a passionate promise of an oracle. Now you have no one, now you have nothing.”
However tentative and sketchy as a literary performance, A Ballet of Lepers sounds notes that will be heard in Leonard Cohen’s songs and texts for the next half century. He never stopped telling us that his heart had the shape of “a begging bowl” and insisting that “I need you.” (Undertow, 2004; The Guests, 1979). In a version of Is This What You Wanted (1974), it comes up as a hard-fought conflict, “I need you. I don’t need you.” His tensions with the unfortunate Marylin forecast There is a War [between…man and…woman] (1974), another abiding theme.
The short pieces of A Ballet of Lepers show a novice hand. Some are obvious allusions at one remove from Leonard’s boyish insecurities. They move toward a worldly cynicism that seems premature and not yet experienced by an author who is compensating for the boyhood innocence he has confessed to without a blush.
Leonard wrote the novella in the mid-1950s at his family’s home in Westmount, an upmarket part of Montreal. The French-Canadian city had a English-speaking minority that deemed itself superior and stood apart. Uncomfortable between the two was a Jewish community to which the Cohen family belonged. They were prosperous Orthodox Jews of immigrant stock and some standing. "I had”, Leonard said, “a very Messianic childhood. I was told I was a descendant of Aaron, the high priest." Leonard’s father who owned a clothing business, died in 1944 when Leonard was nine and left his son a modest trust fund.
Leonard took a B.A. in 1955 from Montreal’s excellent McGill University, a creation of pioneering Scotsmen. He was launched as a published poet at a moment of socio-cultural renewal in Quebec. French-Canadian civic life, like that of Francisco Franco’s Spain and Ireland after independence, had been bullied by a totalitarian clerical regime. In 1948 a painter and teacher, Paul-Émile Borduas, set in motion a movement in the arts and society that would lead to Quebec’s Révolution tranquille. Because Borduas was an artist in step with the the Paris and New York avant-garde and steeped in poetry, the arts in Montreal were immediately invigorated. Leonard, apprentice poet, and other writers in English couldn’t escape the stimulus from across the linguistic divide.
At twenty-two Leonard spent a year at Columbia University in New York, 1956-57. Convention has it that that the years of the Eisenhower presidency (1953-61) were staid and conformist. But the flame lit in Montreal in 1948 was burning in Manhattan where the Abstract-Expressionist or Action Painters were throwing off sparks. Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956), Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1959) had introduced The Beat Generation.
Leonard returned to Montreal and then in 1959 set out for Europe. He still aimed at a traditional literary career with added touches of the 1960s counterculture. London didn’t suit him and he went on to the Greek Island of Hydra. It became a second home and he sent back poetry that was published and built his reputation. He also worked on a novel, The Favourite Game, to appear in 1963. The temper of the times can be seen in how the publishers promoted it. For them “Sex was the favourite game”, while the competition Leonard referred to was children vying to make the best designs in snowdrifts. The novel was, though, a coming-of-age story of a Leonard alter ego and did turn on his endless boyish curiosity about sex and his fixation on the body as a source of pleasure and pain.
The Favourite Game is about Leonard’s native city of which he says, “Just as there are no Canadians, there are no Montrealers. Ask a man who he is and he names a race.” The family of Breavman, the Leonard stand-in, is part of the well-to-do wing of the Jewish community. The story will trace how he rejects his family’s solid and secure position and the impossible demands of a widowed mother to indulge in what he loftily calls, “moment-to-moment creation in the face of annihilation”. The same thinking will be behind the painful leaving of his ideal woman, Shell. He’s afraid steady life and emotional security will undermine his creative work, his writing, his poetry. Leonard’s permanent edginess is here: “Commitment was oppressive but the thought of flesh-loneliness was worse” and “I’m afraid of loneliness.”
The Favourite Game proceeds by vignettes of Breavman’s passage to manhood. The forward movement that we expect from a novel is provided by his growing older. The writing is clear, traditional, and amusing. But by the time we reach New York and his encounter with the inner life of the beautiful Shell, we begin to suspect that Leonard, the poet, is not cut out to be a novelist. Those vignettes are like loosely connected islands in a stream whose flow is too still.
Leonard’s second and final novel, Beautiful Losers (1966), was another kettle of fish, brought to a boil, also at Hydra, on a blaze of amphetamines. In later life, Leonard became a virtuoso of modesty. However, of Beautiful Losers, he said at the time, “It’s a technical masterpiece. It was written with blood.” Few reviewers shared his enthusiasm. The upshot made him change direction. The literary life wasn’t paying off in the way he wished. With the young of those years, he felt the impact of popular music. He had strummed a guitar and recited to its strains. He determined to take his poeticising to Nashville and become a country singer.
Beautiful Losers drew talk of a James-Joyce like talent. Joyce too had written a coming-of-age, autobiographical novel. The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man had been written in exile over ten years, 1904-14, while Joyce with a family scraped a living around Europe. He had no trust fund. The book was refused by publishers and would be torn apart by censors as had happened to his earlier Dubliners. Earnings amounted to zero on both. Never mind, he would spend the next twenty years writing Ulysses.
Times change, courage quotients too, and what a young artist demands as his due. Leonard gave up long form fiction. He never got to Nashville because he stopped in New York City and fell in with the Chelsea Hotel Bohemia. In Greenwich Village, Bob Dylan sang folk music since 1961 and Judy Collins had made a name for herself in folk rock. She found a place for Leonard in an anti-Vietnam War concert in New York’s Town Hall in 1967 and his career as a singer-songwriter began. Leonard was right to sing in 2004:
Because of a few songs/Wherein I spoke of their mystery,/Women have been/Exceptionally kind/to my old age.
Did Leonard make a crucial mistake in abandoning the life of stringing sentences together till they filled a book called a novel? Let’s look again at the 283 pages of Beautiful Losers. It’s a story of a supposed Montreal researcher into the history of the native Indians and the French forces that with the help of the Jesuits seized Canada in the 1600s. The academic is another stand-in for Leonard and goes coyly nameless. He is the narrator and finds himself in a relationship of three with his wife Edith and a very close boyhood friend, F. We are back in A Ballet of Lepers’s country and Leonard’s 1950s. The threesome has simply worked themselves to death to fill out the novella into the verbal and imaginative extravaganza that is Beautiful Losers. The peeping- tom sadism remains. In Lepers, the narrator, Leonard’s alter ego, relished being dominated by a grandfather figure. He failed in his own effort to make slave-subjects of his mistress and a random chosen male. His failure plunged him into a mortal loneliness. In Beautiful Losers, a more weighty story by far, the narrator is lonely from the first word and tells us, “I cannot bear loneliness.” The novel consists in the main of his reflections on the doings and sayings of his two partners who have both died and left him a desolate ruin. There is no end of excerpts from 1600 Jesuit chronicles featuring the horrible self-mortification of their Indian converts. As always Leonard is fixated on the body and its possibilities of pain and ecstasy. The novel hovers in a high fever between innocence and obscenity. The impression is that Leonard is paying himself back for being so naive an adolescent in The Favourite Game.
The surprise is that Leonard who is from a marginal, Orthodox Jewish community and educated into an elite English-speaking minority here sinks his spokesman up to his neck in local French Catholic lore. He goes so far as to hand him an obsession with Catherine Takakwitha, a Mohawk maiden and historical figure that the Jesuits declared the first North American saint. Was this 1960s bias for the underdog? It raises a question of Leonard’s spiritual elan which will float like a rosy cloud over his long career as a songwriter. It is ever up there above him, but what is it made of besides tenderness? Leonard would spend time in a Buddhist monastery, exiting with official Zen-monk credentials. He never denied his Jewish beliefs and in his final songs introduces Hebraic religious elements. His default position seems to be the existence of a slimmed-down, occasionally dozing God that offends nobody’s version of a supreme being. A friend said of Leonard, “He never met a religion he didn’t like.”
Leonard was right to claim Beautiful Losers was neatly structured. Its main section is followed by a long deathbed letter from the irrepressible F. and a third-person epilogue on the fate of the hapless researcher. But within this orderly arrangement Leonard has let himself go to desultory word spinning and free-association fireworks. There are stunning nuggets but they contribute nothing to the kind of narration a novel cannot do without. They are, in fact, poetic gems around which songs can be built. Leonard did well to forget his ambitions as a novelist and follow his talents into music.
His songs begin in the folk-movement vein of the Greenwich Village 1960s. But gradually they move towards something more universal. Leonard couldn’t have become a world figure topped with a halo by singing Greensleeves and A Man of Constant Sorrow. He worked his way through fifty years of man-woman conflicts, always a winner and heart-melter as themes go. We loved Leonard because he was spiritual but only vaguely so. He wasn’t vociferous, offered no threat, blamed no one. The positions he took were so general nobody would have to disagree. He kept his personal inquietude in a constant fever. It reminded us that we still had choices in matters of the heart, that we too still have possibilities. And always there was melancholy and the abiding loneliness, a call for listeners to cradle Leonard in their arms like an orphan child. It was a stunning lifetime performance. Listen to Hallelujah:
Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor falls, the major lifts
The baffled king composing Hallelujah.
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah