The Mechanics of Abjection

Leonard Cohen, A Ballet of Lepers: A Novel and Stories

Canongate, 256pp, £20.00, ISBN 9781838852931

reviewed by Stuart Walton

'A man has to discover his own responsibilities,' states the narrator of 'Ceremonies', one of the short stories in this posthumous collection of Leonard Cohen's early prose. 'They aren't necessarily the ones he inherits.' It is a measure of the significance of the mature work of a writer that one looks for the premonitory traces of distinction in their earliest, as though the later production gained in stature through being a consummation of the nascent promise. If there is a clear line of development, the corpus as a whole takes on organic shape, so that what there was of the rudimentary receives its absolution when the classic works are examined anew.

Cohen's narrator, recalling the funeral of his father, which coincided with his sister's birthday, gives this insight into the nature of self-discovery, and its relation to the heritable traits a family inevitably bestows on its offspring, in the opening paragraph of a short piece written in about 1958 in his home city of Montreal. The two children overcome their instinctive aversion to look at their father's body in its open casket, 'swaddled in silk, wrapped in a silvered prayer shawl', his moustache blackened to lend his reposeful visage the dignity of a vigor mortis. A Christian neighbour, misunderstanding Jewish protocol in such circumstances, has brought a bouquet of yellow chrysanthemums. The boy notices his own failure to offer one to his sister in token of the forgotten birthday. 'I had to wait years before I could get that maudlin,' he tells the reader in a knowing aside.

It is next to impossible not to keep hearing the oracular voice, deepening through the decades, of Leonard Cohen the recording artist and public performer in these early efforts in prose. They cover a period in Cohen's twenties, from 1956 to 1961, from his leaving Canada and setting up home on the Greek island of Hydra in the Aegean, a period neatly bookended by the publication of his first two volumes of verse, Let Us Compare Mythologies and The Spice-Box of Earth. Even when reading his poetry in these formative years, it was observed by one critic that Cohen combined the stoop of an aged crop-picker with the face of a curious little boy, in acknowledgement that what distinguishes the youthful writer is already the yearning to take on venerability's mantle, rather than cultivating the unmixed and tiresome juvenility that adepts of the 1960s generation gap would expound.

We have here a novella of just over 100 pages and 16 short pieces, the last of which, 'Trade', is described as a playscript, although it isn't written in theatrical dialogue format. It evidently aroused the momentary attention of a commissioning producer at the Canadian state broadcaster, but the flicker of interest quickly fizzled. One or two of the short pieces have the air of contributions to the school magazine. The unpunctuated two-page snippet, 'ive had lots of pets', suggests a willingness for formal experimentation that would re-emerge at the culmination of Cohen's prose career, in the novel Beautiful Losers (1966). Far and away the best piece, 'The Jukebox Heart', carries suggestions of Saul Bellow in the evocative precision of its detail of the urban landscape, and the aspirational yearning of the narrator in his youth. Where he had imagined an ordered domesticity for his early adulthood, all he has is an empty-handed intimation of the impure politics of love:

She said to me 'You've won me,' and she said my name. Should I have believed that I had won her? Let men and women couple together, make the beast with two backs, cry kisses into each other's mouths, give every gift of flesh and spirit until there is no more giving or demanding but a blind divine exchange of bodies, and then let them whisper in exhausted voices, 'We have won each other'. Which we never managed.

A lyrical anticipation of the song 'Lady Midnight' from Cohen's second album, Songs From A Room (1969), seems palpable, but more telling is the ready disillusionment, the resigned acceptance that life is not a malleable substance, love more likely the counterfeit currency than the gold standard.

The editor of this volume, Alexandra Pleshoyano, reports that when Cohen's first published novel, The Favorite Game, appeared in 1963, he referred in interviews to a predecessor, which he evidently thought a better work. A Ballet of Lepers certainly has more reckless ambition to it, a strenuous grasp at a more monumental, and bitterly philosophical, tone, deriving much of its energy from those edges of existential literature that shaded into an inkling of the irreparable absurdity of everything.

A young man living in a rooming-house overseen by a hysterical landlady with a strong persecution complex receives a phone-call telling him that he has to take in his long-estranged elderly grandfather. Meeting him at the railway station, he discovers a phlegmatic, cheerily vulgar old codger straight from east Europe's Jewish diaspora, a man of alarming personal habits and boundless pugnacity. The narrator has also begun an affair with a young woman, Marylin, who must compete for his attention with the furious landlady and the troublesome old relative. In a typical fracas, the grandfather shits his bed, and then hurls his excreta at the landlady, an incident whose elusive funny side the narrator can't help but see. Although he secretly more or less despises Marylin and her devotion, he asks her to marry him, and then promptly cauterises her tumultuous joy by changing his mind.

An encounter with a hapless young luggage-clerk at the railway station, Cagely, provokes a much more authentic passion for the pleasure of victimising one of the world's already downtrodden, and the narrator embarks on a campaign of bullying that comes to a head when he intervenes sadistically in Cagely's marriage. 'Power through violence, what an intoxicating dream!' the narrator gasps in an early chapter, and the totem of male violence, explicitly inspired by the grandfather's comical nastiness, becomes the story's main obsession. Persecuting others, the narrator reasons, enables one to give off a warm glow of satisfaction that will bathe others in its incandescence. Both the persecution and the suffering it inflicts are purifying. It ennobles the sufferer with martyrdom and it relieves the persecutor of the lingering taint of humiliation, of which he has now been purged, as of a tapeworm 'starving me into lies and cowardice, growing fat in my bowels, a weight dragging me to my knees so that I must crawl'.

The fascination with the mechanics of abjection seems consonant with a certain strain in postwar nihilism. 'The creation was the beginning of shame,' the narrator claims, blaming God, as the logic of spiritual inversion takes hold of him. 'Understand contamination so you may be pure, violence so you may be peaceful.' Cagely's most salient feature is a congenitally disfigured lip, which becomes a mark of Cain, both condemnation and protection, 'lest anyone finding him should kill him'. In a particularly shocking scene, the narrator returns home to find the place in uproar, his grandfather furiously belabouring the unresisting body of the landlady. Violence has become the elixir that makes men whose senses are deadened, even those in their senescence, feel most alive.

In enumerating the characteristic themes of this early work, Pleshoyano squeamishly avoids invoking the story's most obvious theme of all, a sensual preoccupation with cruelty and its connection with — and ultimately substitution for — sex. The humiliation the narrator visits on Cagely eventually rebounds on him, which offers a moral transcendence to match the poetic kind, but at the cost of any real physical connection between people. At the end, he has lost everyone — Marylin, the grandfather, Cagely and his wife — apart from the traumatised landlady, but there is no tangible feeling of regret, only a sudden frustrated desire to have another go at actual sex, instead of the inhumane parody of it. The ugliness of these themes would be explored in further grotesque detail in Beautiful Losers.

Despite the indications of his developing lyrical gift, this youthful writing represents a very different Leonard Cohen to the easily wounded, acutely reflective voice of the songs, and the avuncular, grey-suited figure who could still enchant live audiences with becoming modesty in his late seventies. The depiction of women passively accepting, even enjoying, acts of physical brutality will keep this collection off any university literature syllabus. What the writing suggests, though, is that, if his themes had been less trite and lurid, less enamoured with a young masturbator's thrill at conjuring up a philosophy of the Sadeian boudoir, more emotionally mature, Cohen would have been an accomplished prose writer. His poetry often has a flabby, hit-and-miss quality that can seem intellectually inert, even while juggling dextrously with startling images. Eventually, somebody suggested he look at transforming the more obviously lyrical pieces into song. One of these opens the first album, released at the Christmas end of 1967: 'Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river. . .’ And then one of the finest bodies of work in the popular tradition begins truly to crystallise.

Stuart Walton is the author of An Excursion through Chaos; In the Realm of the Senses; A Natural History of Human Emotions; Introducing Theodor Adorno; Intoxicology; and a novel, The First Day in Paradise.