We’ve thought a lot about Leonard Cohen over the years. We’re perhaps, uh, not the only ones. Recently, Cohen’s love letters to Marianne Ihlen sold for a whopping $876,000. While Ihlen and Cohen’s love is recorded in songs like “So Long, Marianne,” these letters appear to preserve something more quotidian: the writing and publication of Cohen’s novels. Referring to his debut, The Favorite Game, Cohen wrote that the literary critics have “all screamed about the wild undisciplined dirty book, so it’s selling quite well.”
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.