Monday, November 28

A Ballet of Lepers by Leonard Cohen review – intimations of immortality | short stories


This collection of Leonard Cohen’s early fiction – a novella and 15 short stories, plus a play script – was all written between 1956 and 1961, before Cohen really thought of himself as a songwriter or performer. He did n’t release his first record of him until 1967, when he was 33. The bulk of the pieces might be classified as unpublished juvenilelia except, of course, that the composer of Famous Blue Raincoat and Hallelujah was never wholly young and free of care.

The title piece, written when Cohen was 22 and doing postgraduate study in law at McGill University in Montreal, justifies the decision to bring these things to light and not only for the insights it offers into the artist that Cohen was to become. The novella is a strange confessional – it is hard to imagine Cohen writing in any mode other than the first person – involving a youngish office worker, his doomy occasional lover Marylin and the aged Jewish “Grampa” who unexpectedly arrives to share his one-room apartment in Montréal. It has a subliminally rhyming opening that, you might say, sets the gravelly spoken-word tone for all the 60 years to come: “My grandfather came to live with me. There was nowhere else for him to go. What had happened to his children of him? Death, decay, exile – I hardly know. My own parents died of pain. But I must not be too gloomy, at the beginning, or you will leave me and that, I suppose, is what I dread the most. Who would begin a story if he knew it were to end with a climbing chariot or a cross?”

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As ever in Cohen’s work, that inherited sense of anxiety and tragedy and religious weight of feeling – his uncle was the unofficial chief rabbi of Montreal, his maternal grandfather a famous rabbinical scholar – comes to be set against a dark wit and the intoxicating, troubling freedoms of the coming sexual revolution. Marylin, the name itself a harbinger, matches the archetype of many of the author’s subsequent muses, idealised, unattainable and finally discarded. The comedy of their initial couplings, in which she is both his addiction and his torment of him and where their pillow talk occasionally catches cadences of the Song of Solomon, can sound like early Philip Roth. Their affair, though, is undone by the presence of Grampa, spitting and shitting and cursing and hitting out with his cane, in whose demented company Cohen’s narrator loses his own inhibition and starts to match his house guest in violence and taboo-breaking.

What follows is a curious and compulsive examination of the boundaries of honesty and cruelty. Taking his grandfather’s example, the narrator becomes briefly and disturbingly sadistic towards a stranger, and then to his lover and his landlady de el; a sort of bohemian Canadian Raskolnikov. Cohen made four full drafts of the book before he gave up on it. You can see why the novella – poetically astute and quite psychologically unhinged – never found a publisher in the mid-50s, but also why Cohen considered it a more interesting book than his subsequent more conventional novels, The Favorite Game and Beautiful Losersof nearly a decade later.

That trajectory might also be traced in the stories that follow in this collection. Some were written in Montreal, later ones after Cohen had moved to Hydra island in Greece. There are familiar refrains, connection and lack of connection, intimacy and all its detailed discontents. One story is concerned with the complicated effects of a wife’s leg-shaving ritual on her husband’s libido. Here’s an exchange from A Week Is a Very Long Time that might serve to summarise the Montreal years: “She closed her eyes against his arm, ‘Oh, it’s been a beautiful week.’ He said, ‘You’re beautiful.’ She said, ‘Will we ever do this again?’ ‘Maybe you’re too beautiful,’ he said, because he didn’t want to say anything else.”

At the same time as he was writing these stories Cohen was also writing poetry, with more success, including, after his time in Greece, some of the lyrics – Suzanne and Sisters of Mercy – that would appear on his first album. Reading the final stories here is to witness his attention wandering from the form; what he calls in one of his “jukebox hearts” was already elsewhere.

A Ballet of Lepers by Leonard Cohen is published by Canongate (£20). To support the Guardian and observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


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