For those among the world’s inhabitants who take for granted that one day, in some far flung corner of the cosmos, a preternaturally melancholic being — earthling or otherwise — will come by chance to hear a Leonard Cohen song and thereby be made if not suddenly blissful then at least able to enjoy his, her, or its melancholy a little more, a recent edition of Rolling Stone will hold interest. In an interview timed to coincide with the release of Mr. Cohen’s 13th studio album, an event in turn coinciding with his 80th birthday, the man says essentially that he cares not at all what becomes of his work after he dies, nor what his legacy will be. The music? The poems? The novels? The life? He could give a damn.
Ouch, a Cohen believer might predictably reply.
They who tend to be a mite sensitive to begin with. And remember also the bad old days, before the present éminence grise phase of the career. When to speak too lovingly about Leonard Cohen was a sure way to get one’s emotional stability called into question. So now might be excused for getting their backs up. Certain that a blasphemy has gone down, in an “et tu, Brute” kind of way.
At least that’s what I feel, but why? What is it about Leonard Cohen that not only commands my interest but can also set off no small burst of emotion? Something else, too: what exactly is my legitimate stake in someone else’s posterity? Even as a fan. Somewhere in my bones I hear my late grandmother putting it this way: if Leonard Cohen doesn’t care what becomes of his work and legacy after he dies — what’s that your business?
Theory # 1: Adolescent Attachments
Like many people, whether they know it or not, my adolescence extended well into my 20s. With the most challenging aspect coming all at once, after college, and brought on by what at the time was a bewildering discovery: the world I’d entered in no way resembled the one of my childhood conception. And, as bewildering, the role I’d set myself up to play, based in commerce and convention — in this much ruder, rougher, cynical, uncinematic world — contained neither of the things I ended up needing most, which were creativity and risk.
There I was, making great money at an international accounting and consulting firm, living in Manhattan, in the thick of a super-abundant social scene; with everything, supposedly, in front of me to make a fulfilling, even enviable life. Why was it then I felt increasingly anxious and in despair? And carried about a suspicion that in all but the physical sense I was engaged in a form of gradual self-mutilation? With this condition exacerbated by a lack of understanding from a beloved parent, and my own weakness, ignorance, insecurity, confusion.
And it was in the midst of this storm I found Leonard Cohen’s music. Found and grasped immediately that, more than a perfectly exquisite soundtrack to my suffering, these sounds and words could somehow help me come through. I remember those first experiences well. Alone in a room, sitting or more often lying down, listening and letting my mind unravel was the primary activity. Something done in anticipation of relief, and compelled by a purely intuitive sense that the music was functioning as a kind of cure.
And in this, by the way, I’m far from alone. Legion are the stories about the outsized role Leoanrd Cohen’s music has played for those in distress. Stories like the one told to me by a woman in a bar: how as a teenager, while in a dark-night-of-the-soul kind of way, she ventured into a blizzard to attend a Leonard Cohen concert, and was turned around by it, made okay (And how, years later, she had the opportunity to describe this experience to Leonard Cohen directly, and he replied, ”Do you mean the night it snowed?”). Stories to be found on the vast array of Leonard Cohen-related fan websites, including Here It Is, a site whose sole purpose is to collect such personal anecdotes, testaments, expressions of gratitude. Stories like the one recounted by Christopher Hitchens in his book Mortality connecting terminal illness and the increased likelihood of Leonard Cohen’s music turning up in the mail as an otherwise unprompted gift.
Something is there: in the bare, honest, intrepid voice; the lamenting, mysterious, romantic, at times oddly rejoicing lyrics; the oft-austere, never showy arrangements. Something that at the very least harmonizes extraordinarily well with psychic dissonances; and at most, for some, if they possess the Leonard Cohen gene, induces an outright religious feeling. One all the headier for its universalist and literary qualities, but also the uniqueness of its source: a popular culture figure, somehow both playing the popular culture game and standing outside it, engaged in a seemingly authentic contemporary struggle between the sacred and profane.
Certainly, during my hard time, all of the above were at play. But also something else, which had to do with my only listening to the first three albums — Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs From a Room, Songs of Love and Hate — which are the most pained, wrenching, raw of his catalogue. These, when listened to in a focused manner, first song to last, reliably brought about the kind of reaction Aristotle attributed to Attic tragedy; that is, a feeling of purging and catharsis, for having both experienced and escaped a fate worse than my own!
So then, yes, adolescent attachment — of course don’t mess with it. But is it this alone twisting me out of shape? No. Probably not.
Theory #2: Rug Pull
The Leonard Cohen I thought I knew was an ambitious artist. Early on, while still in his 20s and well before he turned to music, he was a serious and flamethrowing Canadian poet in the romantic tradition; and like the romantics he esteemed, his aspirations appeared anything but modest. Indeed, evidence of this — and a first rate riff in its own right — is something Cohen is reported to have said about his dear friend and fellow flamethrowing Canadian poet, Irving Layton:
“I taught him how to dress and he taught me how to live forever.”
Was I wrong to take this more or less at face value? Especially when combined with a motif I remembered Cohen often bringing up in interviews, wherein he would describe himself as being a “minor” artist — minor in that he knew he was not a William Shakespeare or Homer, but a rung below, a Percy Bysshe Shelley or John Keats, that felt about where he was hanging, or at least trying to hang. This implied a great insight, I thought, about the nature of artistry overall — that ultimately there are three types of practitioners: Major, Minor, Biodegradable. But also, by extension, that if Cohen gave such thought to rank and stature, and saw himself in or near the strata wherein a major perk would seem to be that your name and work live on, that this same might hold attraction for him.
So I was surprised by what I read in Rolling Stone. And somewhat embarrassed, if only to myself, in the way one can get when exposed for being less the expert one thought on a topic of passion and interest.
And this, I think, along with my adolescent ties, makes a good start at untangling my present feelings; and puts me in view of what I’d like to think is inside these feelings, at their root.
Theory # 3: What We Talk About When We Talk About Leonard Cohen
Put simply: it’s up there, in the heights, among the best our culture has produced in the last 50 years. And I’m not referring to the two novels, both published in the ’60s and still in print, which were ambitious, well reviewed, and retain their contingent of champions. Nor to the poetry, Cohen’s original calling, and a form he’s never stopped working in, both for the purpose of song lyrics as well as stand alone works; he is in fact on most lists of Canada’s major poets, and in recent years his verse has even begun to appear in The New Yorker. No, it’s the music I’m of course referring to, which has proved to be his most penetrating and popular means of expression.
Thirteen studio albums, 135 or so songs, released over the course of 44 years. Hardly a prolific rate of output — Cohen has a famously laborious process — but then again how can care, patience, resistance to commercial pressure, and the evident life lived around and between these efforts be held against him? Especially when the end result is large enough that it spins out and looms like its own solar system?
Starting with Songs of Leonard Cohen. A debut made at the ripe age of 32, here is the best advertisement I know for artists exploring new forms, especially at the moment in Cohen’s development that he did: a confluence wherein he was in early maturity as a man and artist, yet retained the youthful arrogance and iconoclasm upon which he and so many young creatives first draw.
Sonically, the elements of the songs are familiar enough. A bare male voice out front, accompanied by strings, mostly guitar. After this, though, we’re onto new ground. First, with the largely unmodulated arrangements, and recurring, hypnotic circularity to the guitar playing. Also though, with the quality of the singing voice — lacking mellifluousness, yes, like many singer-songwriters, but infused with a willful courage, intelligence, utterly disarming honesty. But most of all, with the lyrical content; the storytelling, or better, mythologizing effect a song can have. Because here is a song cycle that contains just enough that is ordinary — a platonic encounter in “Suzanne,” a tenderhearted chance meeting in “Sisters of Mercy” — but otherwise treads far, far, beyond. Abounding, for example, with religious imagery; lonesome wanderings; suicidal meditations; erotic power plays; and, no small part of the magic, the almost-but-not-quite-discernible. Rendered all in what meets the ear as finely pitched poetry.
The result is real estate, opened up for and around the listener.
And with the procession of albums, though they vary dramatically in style and tone, came a deepening and enrichment of this space. Certainly it has always been capable of nurturing far more than adolescents in crisis, as I was when I first got hooked. And really, here is the key. Contained in these recordings is a full literature for adults of a certain bent. Those who gain something essential of themselves when they pass through modern life’s deep and shadowy ravines — and all the more so when their guide is the right kind of priestly, worldly, hungry, humorous, humble; and possessed by a deft poetic gift.
Then there are the live performances, where all this can be encountered and experienced in three dimensions. This from his first tour in 1970, to his most recent, an extended series conducted between 2008 and 2013. And while, for the pre-2008 shows, I’m compelled to rely on written accounts, for the latter my source is first hand. I attended three shows, and here again religious themes must be employed. Leonard Cohen the performer literally on his knees for large portions of the evening, evincing reverence, effusive in his gratitude, and enacting a communion with the audience evidenced most tangibly among the latter in the form of tears.
Theory #4: Altruism
This is more of an anti-theory.
Because one thing I’m pretty certain not at play in my upset, in the stake I feel in Leonard Cohen’s posterity, is altruism. That is, when I ponder the possibility that future generations will neither listen to Cohen’s music nor know his name, the feeling I’m left with is largely indifference. A shame, I’m aware, as a do-gooder angle would certainly play well. Would certainly be an easy and dare I say fashionable way through this self-examination.
Why am I sharing this? I’m not at all sure. It could be in the spirit of Leoanrd Cohen himself, the absolute value he places on truth telling in his work. And/or it might be more pragmatic. As in I just need to get this confession out of the way so I can get back to more promising ideas.
Theory #5: What We Talk About When We Talk About Leonard Cohen — Part II
It matters who makes the art. We may like to think otherwise. That in our consideration the creator and creation can be kept separate. But the more we enjoy a song, picture, story, movie, the more our imaginations seek out the biographical. And what we find informs our connection, especially over time.
And so here is Leonard Cohen, who does far better than most in this regard.
Starting with the figure he cuts today, and has for the last many years. The always well-attired gentleman with an aura that is part ageing artiste, part Old Testament sage, part retired high-level Hollywood fixer. A man who in interviews speaks thoughtfully, incisively, playfully, at times elusively about his life, career, spiritual pursuits, reputation as sexual gourmand, decades-long struggle with depression (a struggle from which in his early 70s he emerged victorious). Indeed, it’s hard to imagine someone encountering the contemporary Leoanrd Cohen in interview or profile, or for that matter the most recent biography, and not come away more favorably disposed.
Yet really this seems so for all the figures he’s cut: aging-but-still-trenchant cult figure of the ’80s and ’90s, whose musical activities were significantly curtailed by depression and spiritual pursuits, including a five-year residency in a Zen Buddhist monastery. A-list supporting player in the ’60s and ’70s zeitgeist — an always fierce but decidedly non-Aquarian voice whose friendships, adventures, liaisons connected him to the likes of Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Nico, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, Brigitte Bardot, Robert Altman, Judy Collins, Leonard Bernstein, Janis Joplin, and the Chelsea Hotel.
Before this, the serious writer living on a Greek island, pushing boundaries with literary narrative and obscenity laws on a regimen of sun, acid, barbiturates, fasting, family life with a Norwegian woman and her young son.
Preceded by Montreal, where Cohen grew up and found himself before the age of 20 the junior member of a school of like-minded artists; a group amped up on poetry, bohemian ideals, friendship, swinging the first axes at Canada’s still petrified cultural milieu.
So, wow, a bio that actually holds the light; that is, among other things, posterity-worthy. And, I realize, whether I like it or not, enforces my attachment to the man, and enriches my enjoyment of his music.
Theory #6: Me, Me, Me
True, also, it occurs in all this there might be some measure of ego involved — mine in particular.
That really, what is fandom anyway, if not an extension of self into the wider world? A blinking light of identity — and the bigger the fan the brighter the shine — wired to what one holds of great value? Worth defending? Getting really, really pissed off over?
And through this association a kind of contract is struck. With the fan, in exchange for a chunk of their identity, getting certain rights, namely to partake in the object of their fandom’s success, honor, recognition, glory. With some not-so-fine print stipulating a further condition: that the fan also suffers their object’s failures, dishonor, slights, nasty crap people post about it online.
Yes, absolutely, and the details of the relationship matter. That is, how long has it been going on between the fan and the object of their fandom? And where exactly was the object when the two first got together?
And while in my situation I’m not claiming to be the equivalent of the first shmoe in Memphis to say Hey, that Presley guy might actually have something, I have been a Leonard Cohen fan for over 25 years. And got on board when he was still a relatively obscure figure. Still prompted a lot of “Leonard who?” And to many who had heard of him, he was still something of a punch line. Misunderstood and underappreciated, even by his ostensible friend Leon Wieseltier, whose 1988 profile in The New Yorker was titled “The Prince of Bummers,” and ignored almost completely the spiritual dimension of Cohen’s work, person, appeal…
So where was I?
Right — ego, mine, and that old playground saw: you mess with my guy and you mess with me…
Theory #7: Beautiful Losersville
Confession: I can’t really recommend Leonard Cohen’s second novel, Beautiful Losers. Oh, it has its merits — supercharged intimacy and urgency, smart hipster philosophy, and an underlying scheme that successfully co-locates the personal, political, and spiritual planes of modern life. Nonetheless, I find the narrative somewhat quickly bogs down. That the acid, amphetamines, and still-youthful mysticism the influence of which he significantly wrote it under are a bit too much on display; while things like coherence, economy, restraint — all guiding values of his music — are nowhere to be found. Creating, all things considered, an effect wherein the mad visions and esoteric riffs tend to go on and on, the plot not so much.
Still, I can’t overstate the importance of this novel to me — this for the title alone.
Beautiful Losers does it for me. The phrase itself. I can hardly think of one I find more brilliant and expressive, apposite for the beat and bankrupt but still somehow divine world I see around me. Or, for that matter, a phrase that works at once as taxonomy, sanctification, a cold hard fact.
And though I don’t recall the precise moment I encountered it, I know it was in my late 20s, which is to say toward the end of my adolescence. This also being several years after I’d gone AWOL on the life I’d stepped into out of college. Several years after recognizing how important engagement with art was for my survival, I had begun to do some writing myself. What an impression this juxtaposition — at least to my American ears! — made. How well it meshed with my own increasingly mashed up ideas on matters large and small, including the various things a person might end up becoming, want to become, the tricked-out words ‘losing’ and ‘winning’ themselves. And, if only implicitly, what validation that my struggle to find a way to live had been worth it. The pleasure I derived evidence that one of the unforeseeable rewards of becoming your self is the capacity to find society, with people as in ideas.
And here again I’m not alone. The term having become a fairly steady seller in pop culture vernacular — found today on t-shirts, tattoos, graffiti, the title of a band, a semi-recent documentary, countless pieces of journalism, miscellaneous communiqués in countless languages. While, at the same time, maintaining heightened resonance for people like me. A coinage acknowledged as being exceptionally representative of a Leonard Cohen state of mind. And that also, it occurs, may still have applications yet unexplored. I’m thinking in particular of something I referenced earlier, the singular space Cohen’s music evokes. That if it were ever to become an actual habitat, a locale perhaps for “the Leonard Cohen afterlife” Kurt Cobain requests in his song “Pennyroyal Tea,” Beautiful Losers might again find use. Would serve well, for example, as a password at the border. Or motto on the currency. Or, in slight variation, a pretty good name of the entire thing.
Theory # 8: The Ghost of Good Scenes Future
But then again, I might have been too hard on myself.
Earlier, when I stated that my emotional connection to Leoanrd Cohen, and in particular the stake I feel in his posterity, has nothing to do with altruism. This might not be altogether true. Which I appreciate. Because while I came away from the prior theory forced to concede I was a thoroughly selfish bastard, now I can reconsider, and make a case that it’s only partially so.
The commonweal — there is an aspect about which I most definitely care: I want there to be good scenes.
And by “scenes” I mean in the sense that gained currency in the ’60s. Counterculture slang, prompted in part by the advent of LSD, verbalizing a sense that had for decades been making its way to the fore: the way we experience our lives has become so influenced by the stories we consume — especially from movies and TV — that for accuracy’s sake, when describing life’s de facto fundamental unit, we may as well employ the corresponding term. Scenes then being what we actually get, a seemingly (but not) endless supply; our lives at any given moment, and especially in retrospect, the net sum of their quality.
And I say, good scenes for one and all.
What qualifies? Perhaps the best definition relies upon a criterion once used to legally define hardcore pornography; that is, we know it when we see it. Because for sure there are as many definitions on the planet as there are actors. Nonetheless, as a baseline, it can perhaps be said that all good scenes involve connection, even when we are by ourselves. Also this: a temporary suspension of what seems to make life a burden, and the sensation, for however long it lasts, that we are getting what we need.
And here is where Leonard Cohen comes in. Because without his music, an entire genre of good scene is in jeopardy. A genre whose basic nature should by now be evident. And, not incidentally, a genre whose best days may still lie ahead — in the rapidly approaching time of outer space habitation. A time when the near-incomprehensible distances between celestial bodies will find their way into the relations between people, with corresponding quotients of loneliness, alienation, drooping and tattered human hearts. A time, in other words, in which Leonard Cohen’s music will find optimal purchase, really make a difference, absolutely pack a punch.
Well, imagine there’s this guy. A nice enough fellow for a dumb cluck, he’s living far from the world we now occupy, in some down-market solar system, on some outer planet’s moon, waiting for a sunrise that’s been weeks on the come. More, this confused young fellow, say about 25, has time on his hands, having recently quit his job trading rocket fuel futures. And psychically too he feels somewhat, no, very much in flux. Is going through that thing when for the first time in our lives we acknowledge certain truths. For example, how little we know, or control, and therefore how uncertain is our future. That thing when we start to feel fate differently. Feel fate, that is, as something that might truly, quickly, unapologetically, no-joke-at-all run us over; or maybe worse, leave us behind. With this depressing our young man, but also, strangely, leaving him in a state of wonder, and open, even hungry to let in more.
And just then a beam of light appears. The new day’s first. And he puts on some Leonard Cohen. What song? It almost doesn’t matter, as countless in the catalogue would do the trick, get him on his way into deep good scene. And yet, there’s one in particular, one Leonard Cohen song I’m thinking of, that might do even more. That is, take him through and clear a good scene. To whatever might come next.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
“Canadian writers as a whole do not trust Nature. They are always suspecting some dirty trick.” – Margaret Atwood, Survival
Susanna Moodie’s 1852 Roughing it in the Bush was less an emigrant’s guide than a cautionary tale, and much early Canadian literature wrestled with the realities of that experience. Beautiful Losers (Leonard Cohen, 1966) finally freed Canadian writers from writing about the pioneer life and the implacable menace of the wilderness, but our anxiety about it never really went away (Elle, Solomon Gursky Was Here, The Orenda, and Indian Horse, to name a few). The land continues to demand our respect and attention.
The Bear, set in the early 1990s, rehearses that anxiety in a visceral way. Five-year-old Anna and her two-year-old brother Alex (Stick), survive a bear attack that kills their parents and then face the wilds of Algonquin Park on their own. “I need you to get your brother off the island,” her mortally injured mother whispers, when Anna and Stick emerge from the safety of the cooler. “It’s not safe.” With these words, Claire Cameron reminds us how tenuous is our mastery of the natural world.
I interviewed Cameron on a morning in early March. It was still too cold for a canoe trip, so we walked through the curated wilderness of High Park in Toronto instead. There was still snow on the ground but the cold snap had finally lifted and the birds were singing.
The Millions: In her study of Canadian literature, Survival, Margaret Atwood wrote that in the books she read as a child, “The main thing was to avoid dying, and only by a mixture of cunning, experience, and narrow escapes could the animal — or the human relying on its own resources — manage that.” Five-year-old Anna narrates your novel, and part of the tension in The Bear is the reader’s awareness of the killing indifference of the Canadian wilderness: we know the kids are not all right.
Claire Cameron: The real start was in the voice. It started to whisper to me. My son was five years old at the time and nattering incessantly. At five there’s that moment when their vocabulary catches up with their inner life. In the background was my ongoing interest in bears. I’ve spent a lot of time in the wilderness. I started to write with that voice and the wilderness stuff wrapped itself around that voice. A bear came to mind. I’m so well acquainted with the attack that happened in 1991 in Algonquin Park, where I’d worked as a camp counselor the year before and the year after it happened. It was a couple who were experienced campers and it was around Thanksgiving. As far as bears go, that timing is crucial. No one else was there to witness it, but in reconstructing the scene they think it was a predatory attack, and they think the bear attacked the woman first. There are signs that the man put up a fight. It was a young male bear, which is another important point. Young males get kicked out by their mums and they don’t have their own territory. They are the ones that are more experimental and willing to take a chance.
What took me years to come to terms with was that the couple didn’t do anything wrong, and the bear was just being a bear. The summer after, I and a lot of people who worked at the camp were searching for a reason, we were hoping that the campers had done something wrong, that the campers had done something to bring this on to themselves. There wasn’t much detail available. It wasn’t until years later that I came to terms with the idea that they’d done nothing wrong. It was quite chilling.
TM: You say the bear was just being a bear, but bears don’t attack people often.
CC: No. Some people call it a rogue bear, and I use that language sometimes, just to communicate that it’s very unusual for a black bear to do that. But there are biologists who say that if a bear, especially this young male bear, has made a successful kill of a young moose calf, that a human isn’t such a leap. It’s not a matter of them having taste for human flesh. It’s that it’s October and they need to hibernate and they need calories. A lone male is going to be struggling.
TM: When Anna and Stick reach the mainland and eat some of the “dangle berries” they forage, my mind went to the recent news about the neurotoxins in the wild yam seeds that Chris McCandless (Into the Wild) ate. If an adult, equipped with guides to edible plants, couldn’t figure out what might kill him, how could children be safe? Putting your characters directly in harm’s way meant simply letting them run out of food.
CC: Because I’ve taught Outward Bound courses, which were 30 day stretches in the wilderness with young kids who didn’t have much experience, I’m acutely aware of the boundaries, which are first and foremost hydration. And adults can really only go for three days. A lot of people worry about food but that’s just a distraction.
I love the wilderness for all sorts of reasons but my fundamental reason for being out there is what you learn about the people you’re with, especially when they come under stress. That section I was very much playing with those things, seeing how they’d react and what they’d do. What their priorities would be. A child is often stomach-led. I had this instinct that they would be wanting to put something in their mouth.
TM: Did you think of them getting hold of something poisonous?
CC: My son and I go hiking enough and one of the things we’re always talking about is, “Doesn’t that look tempting to eat? But you don’t eat that.” He can drone on about how he shouldn’t eat things. It’s one of my hobby horses. My intention was that her mother had been similarly on Anna about that kind of thing. I did feel that to be realistic and not fall into a heap, Anna needed some kind of prior structure.
TM: Earle Birney coined the term “bushed” in his iconic poem by that name to describe the way the wilderness does a number on our mental health. As the weather turned and the bush became something he knew he might not survive, Richard Wagamese’s young Ojibway character (in Indian Horse) put it this way: “The land around us was like a great being hunched in the darkness.” You give fresh meaning to being bushed when Anna imagines the darkness as a flesh-eating monster. Were you consciously working from that literary tradition? It’s hard to imagine in an urban park, but have you ever been bushed yourself?
CC: I’ve been bushed lots. I was working more from an experiential tradition than a literary one, probably, though I’m very attracted to all of those writers. I’ve done a lot of time outdoors. Some of the most interesting times, in retrospect, are when you get bushed, up against the edge. It reminds you of your place in the world, how small and insignificant you are. We love to put sentiment on nature, we love to give it human emotions, but it’s really about realizing your place, and how precarious your place is.
TM: Nick Cutter (aka Craig Davidson, the worst-kept secret in Canadian literature) recently published a horror novel about young people in the wilderness, The Troop. In an interview about it, he said, “I think for the boys in my book, they keep going because, simple as it seems, it’s impossible for them to believe that they won’t survive.” This childlike trust that the universe is benign is very much a thematic concern in The Bear, too. It makes it possible for Anna to endure.
CC: I loved The Troop for that point, that the young mind is flexible and can snap back. I feel like we had that observation in common. I picked up on that in conversations with my son, when I noticed he’d be so sad about something that he’d feel that his life was over and it was all ruined and then in the next minute be laughing hysterically. I was amazed at watching that, noticing how much protection there was in that, to be able to switch and be in a moment like that. I think it is a survival tactic.
TM: Writing from the perspective of a five-year-old also means childish self-absorption. She laughs at her brother’s nakedness, notices the way her skin turns white from so much water, and worries about being in trouble with her parents. Meanwhile, she’s lost in the wilderness. Does her tunnel vision protect her from the larger terror an adult with greater knowledge of the world would feel?
CC: I think it does. That ability to be in the moment helps you keep relaxed. In a survival situation, being relaxed is one of the key things. I think it stops her from overloading with stress, which an adult might do. It’s a survival mechanism of its own.
TM: You’ve said that you were very much aware of Lord of the Flies while you were writing this book, and that you were consciously writing against it. Tell me more about that.
CC: I reread it sometime in the year before I started writing. When I’ve been working leading wilderness courses, there’s been a longstanding joke when things start to break down, everyone says, “Oh, Lord of the Flies!” So I reread it. I’d known it wasn’t exactly a kind take on human nature, but having two boys I was really struck by how it gave them no benefit of the doubt. It was quite a mean take on human nature. I saw so much kindness in my boys that I got angry that I’d let Lord of the Flies define so much. Why is that the reference point? That really frustrated me. So I started writing against that.
TM: So you said you were listening to your son’s voice, and yet you drew the character as a girl.
CC: The book was originally two boys. I was listening to my son’s voice and the character was a boy, and I had a much longer section when they were grown up and returning to the island at first. I was really struggling with that and my agent said, Well, maybe it’s a girl. I went into a three-day snit. Absolutely not! It was so foundational that I was writing against Lord of the Flies. I calmed down and I read through, and the older character was going on about popsicles and Band-Aids. I realized that she and I shared a lot of interests. I started to leave Lord of the Flies behind. Maybe that was a reason for starting, but why would that matter to the reader? I knew I’d write about a strong little girl really well.
TM: In your review of The Troop for The Globe and Mail you wrote about how the female character is always the one being eaten, and how that irritates you. Was that part of that character decision as well?
CC: It became a big part of that. Especially in wilderness and survival writing, there’s been, similar to horror, a damsel in distress role for women. My grandmother’s sister was a climber in the 1950s who was in the Kootenays (south-east British Columbia), a back-country skier, and I don’t see her story. There were quite a few Victorian rock-climbers, they went in skirts, but it’s not really established in the wilderness writing canon. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there. I was so glad that Craig Davidson didn’t have anyone skinny dipping at the beginning!
TM: Releasing children to their own recognizance is a common fairy tale trope. When she was small, I’d hear my daughter announce “we were orphans” during imaginary play. Like in fairy tales, that was always the start of everything: get the parents out of the way so something interesting can happen. There are clear narrative constraints when you limit yourself to the perspective of a five-year-old, but I think there are freedoms, too. Did you ever attempt this story from the adult perspective?
CC: I didn’t, because it started with the voice. One of the first times I’ve thought clearly about this was when Mark Medley interviewed me for the National Post and he said, You have all these tools but you’ve chosen to throw them to the side and essentially tie one hand behind your back. Why would you do that? And I had no way to answer. I didn’t sit down and think, I’m going to write from the child’s perspective, I thought, I’m going to use this voice. In my first few drafts I had many more signposts for the reader, days of the week, some articles, a section from the rescuer’s perspective. I was not confident in my ability to pull it off. As I got more into the voice and attuned to what I was doing, I started to strip that back and the last step was taking it all out. I thought, Ok, I think I can stand up. I had to be brave.
It was incredibly freeing. I stopped worrying so much while I was writing, and I stopped using that analytical part of my brain and I let it go back to this instinctual brain. When I was writing Anna’s voice I let myself write fast and I didn’t read back. I just let it rip.
TM: Your bear is very different from Marian Engel’s bear, but both animals seem to stand in for our relationship with the natural world. We understand it as benevolent as well as destructive; we love it and we fear it. Has the writing of this novel changed your relationship with wilderness?
CC: The review in People magazine said something like, “This could do for camping what Jaws did for beaches.” I thought, Oh, good lord! I actually loved the novel Jaws and I’d been reading about how Peter Benchley has such great regret about what he did to great white sharks. They weren’t understood when he wrote that, and the novel portrays them as killing machines. If you read the blurb about my book, and you don’t actually read the book, there is potential for harm. It’s made me realize the extent of my conflict. Of course when I go outdoors I’m very conscious of them and I’m scared of them in a way, but all of my experiences say that I don’t need to be. I think that part of writing this book was trying to reconcile those two things.
Canada’s national airwaves took on a decidedly literary tone last week with the latest installment of Canada Reads. This annual, week-long competition began in 2002 when five celebrity readers went to bat for the Canadian book of their choice. The panel would convince and cajole each other and at the end of each day, they would vote one of the contenders off the literary island. At the end of the week, one book survives.The 2007 winner is Lullabies For Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill, and championed by Winnipeg songwriter and poet John K. Samson.In O’Neill’s novel, the 12-year-old narrator, neglected by her junkie father, “collects and covets the small crumbs of happiness she finds as she navigates the streets of Montreal’s red-light district.”Lullabies beat out Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis, (championed by Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page), The Song of Kahunsha by Anosh Irani, (pitched by writer Donna Morrissey), Children of My Heart by Gabrielle Roy (defended by journalist Denise Bombardier), and Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park (whose praises were sung by Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy).This year’s contest was an all-star competition, as each of the panelists had successfully championed the previous five winners:Page’s pick in 2002, Michael Ondaatje’s wonderful In The Skin of The Lion, set in the immigrant communities of Toronto between the two world wars, won that year’s contest.In 2003, Bombardier’s pick Next Episode by Hubert Aquin, was victorious. Cuddy outsung the competition in 2004, giving victory to Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing. In 2005, the crown went to Rockbound by Frank Parker Day, and pitched by Donna Morrissey. And John Samson’s first taste of victory came last year with his winning defense of A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews.Note that these books (and their contenders) include novels, short fiction and poetry, and are as likely to be drawn from Canada’s rich literary tradition as from the latest offerings from publishers. I might quibble with some of the choices (that Leonard Cohen’s second novel Beautiful Losers lost in 2005 still irks me, and I sided with Scott Thompson in his pitch for Mordecai Richler’s Cocksure in 2006). Still, sour grapes aside, it’s tremendously healthy for a country to be occasionally reminded of its often-overlooked literary past.Those of you who have read my bio or my Millions contributions over the years know that I don’t shy away from slipping a mention of my favorite songwriters and musicians – past and present – wherever I can possibly fit them in. So with that in mind, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this year’s and last year’s championing defender, John K. Samson is himself, one hell of a songwriter, and three albums by his band, The Weakerthans, sit proudly in my record collection. Samson is also a founding publisher of Arbeiter Ring Publishing, specializing in social and political works.
Leonard Cohen turned 70 a few months ago and, amid the celebration, was the subject of countless pieces of reflection. Most of them concentrated on the music career that has consumed the last half of his life, and on the poetry which runs as a current through everything. But this is not a music blog, and I’ve never felt particularly confident writing about poetry. (Though I implore each of you to get your hands on his various volumes of poetry and at least his first three LPs. No record collection is complete without Songs from a Room.)So this, then, is about Leonard Cohen, master of prose, and in particular, his first novel – The Favorite Game. By 1963 a 29-year old Leonard Cohen had already given the world two volumes of poetry and was living in London, reflecting on his youth in Montreal. And so we meet Lawrence Breavman, poet-adventurer. The Favorite Game weaves past with present, with an acute comic eye for Breavman’s childhood — his years of discovery of his place within and without his family, of friendships and girls. These scenes cut in and out of a later narrative which finds Breavman in his college days, still prowling for adventure, now adding words to his arsenal of weapons to conquer the hearts of women.Poetry is “a verdict,” Breavman tells us, a judgment passed, and quite distinct from the creation of the words themselves. When he writes them, when he utters them, they are “propaganda,” Breavman confides to us. They are spoken for their luring powers. In his childhood, Breavman experimented on unsuspecting girls with hypnosis with much the same intent. The boy becomes the man.Through it all, childhood and youth, there was Krantz — Breavman’s best friend, partner-in-crime. Devil in his ear. Their friendship was an ongoing dialogue played for comic effect, a running commentary on the world around them. It gave them an awareness, a self-awareness. A detachment.And then Krantz leaves. His next chapter will happen, unwritten, in England. “We’ve got to stop interpreting the world for one another.” And so the dialogue is suspended, but not immediately. The early post-Krantz days find Breavman still the prowler, still soaking up experiences, and still invoking Krantz’s name as if he were still there. Still devil in his ear.Enter Shell. We’d met her before. Snippets of dialogue and confidences popping up in the early narrative. But we’d never been properly introduced. Now the narrative catches up with their meeting. In New York now — grad school. Breavman and Shell. Shell and Breavman. They become a closed world to themselves. The tone becomes more serious. More adult. Krantz is no longer in his ear. We don’t know yet whether Shell will wind up as merely another conquest, another shadow, another scar. We do know that this seems different. She not only enters Breavman’s life, she anchors it.When Krantz’s name is mentioned late in the narrative, it’s jarring. A name from the past, from a different Breavman. We realize how different his world has become. And then Krantz is back — but he’s changed. Or maybe Breavman’s changed. Either way, the suspended dialogue is released, and it crashes.There’s more. Old voices call Breavman back. They mix with the new voices. Pretty soon the new ones become the old ones, and Breavman’s life continues, unwritten, beyond the pages of the book.Three years later, Leonard Cohen would give us Beautiful Losers, his only other novel. Its a stunning work, stylistically rich and daring. It deserves its own discussion, but not now.There’s a common and rather irritating perception of Leonard Cohen as a harbinger of doom. The song “The Future” and a few other cautionary tales aside, I’ve never really bought into this. Maybe for some its the deep voice of the later records. But then they can’t be really listening to the words. So maybe it’s the depth of the words. He digs deeper into life than most writers, but he doesn’t just reveal foreboding. He reveals absurdities with wit. He reveals longing with passion. And he reveals loss with sadness.This is not the stuff of dread and gloom. It’s the stuff of life. And we’re all the richer for his passion.