Leonard Cohen music would seem to be an acquired taste. A weekend in 1970 at a mate’s beach house in Barwon Heads listening to his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen left me cold, but by the time the kids were teenagers we played Leonard Cohen cassettes all the time on long trips, and I’ve since been to a couple of concerts. So yes, belatedly, I’m a fan.
Cohen (1934-2016) apparently took up song-writing/singing in the late seventies because he wasn’t making a living as a novelist/poet. Beautiful Losers (1966) was his second novel, written while he was living in Hydra (on arrival, Cohen boarded for a while with Charmian Clift and George Johnson, before buying his own house). In researching this, I read that his famous song (aren’t they all) Bird on a Wire was also written in Hydra after the advent of electricity on the island brought electricity wires past his bedroom window.
His writing is probably also an acquired taste, and is variously described as post-modern and experimental. Cohen is a decade too young to be considered a member of the Beat Generation (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs etc.) but they were probably an influence, and Wikipedia says, ‘During the 1960s, he was a fringe figure in Andy Warhol‘s “Factory” crowd,’ maybe after this novel was written, but it gives an idea of where his head was at. A blurb mentions James Joyce and Henry Miller, but that would be a given for any serious writer of Cohen’s generation, and doesn’t mean he should be considered alongside them.
The story of the novel is of the narrator dealing with the deaths of Edith, his young wife, and of F., his lifelong best friend (who was both his lover and, as it turns out, his wife’s lover), while researching the life Catherine Tekakwitha (1656-1680?), a Christian, native American, Mohawk of the A—– tribe at the time of the French occupation of Quebec.
Some of the, thankfully short, chapters are prayers, like this …
O God, Your Morning Is Perfect. People Are Alive In Your World. I Can Hear The Little Children In The Elevator. The Airplane Is Flying Through The Original Blue Air. Mouths Are Eating Breakfast. The Radio Is Filled With Electricity. The Trees Are Excellent. You Are Listening To The Voices Of The Faithless Who Tarry On The Bridge Of Spikes….
Others are rehashings of his conversations with F.:
– Did she like it?
– Yes, she liked it. How anxious you are to be deceived!
– F., I could kill you for what you’ve done. Courts would forgive me.
– You’ve done enough killing for one night.
– Get off our bed! Our bed! This was our bed!
Catherine’s story proceeds in fits and starts, transcribed from missionary documents, or straight from the inside of his head:
– Your toes are cold, Catherine. I’ll have to rub them between my palms.
– Yes! …
The priest breathed heavily on her tiny brown toes. What a lovely little cushion her big toe had. The bottoms of her five toes looked like the faces of small children sleeping tucked up under a blanket up to their chins. He started to kiss them goodnight.
F. is an archetype of male success: he manipulates markets to achieve wealth; he follows up the ads on the backs of boyhood comics and develops a Charles Atlas body; he is a member of parliament. Every woman he wants, he has. Even when he is dead, all his possessions bequeathed to ‘I’, he is mysterious and powerful, a martyr of the separatist movement maybe.
The stories of Catherine Tekakwitha, a virgin in the midst of the orgies of her people and the depredations of the Jesuits, and Edith, the lover, separately, of two men, converge. The second half of the book degenerates into an account of the beatification of Catherine through extreme mortification of the flesh; degenerates as F. degenerates and dies “in a padded cell, his brain rotted from too much dirty sex”; becomes a letter written by F. while having sex with a nurse, an account of the act of terrorism – blowing up a statue of Queen Victoria – that got him committed, and of the last four years of the life of St Catherine.
I was your adventure and you were my adventure. I was your journey and you were my journey, and Edith was our holy star. This letter rises out of our love like the sparks between dueling swords …
Soap made from human fat, and a waiter who by implication is Hitler – “spent some time before the full-length mirror playing with his mustache and slanting his hair across his forehead in just the way he liked” – make a regrettable appearance, as does an old man having/wanting sex with boys (William Burroughs, or at least the characters in his books, was likewise fond of sex with “rent boys”. Back then before it ‘became’ paedophilia).
The novel ends with “Book III, Beautiful Losers, An epilogue in the third person” which one might hope makes sense of what has preceded. It doesn’t.
Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers, first pub. 1966. This ed. Text Publishing, 2006
My brother in law, coincidentally, has sent me a link to a recording of a song he wrote in tribute to Cohen: So Long Leonard (words: W. Green/music: A. Luke) by Allan Luke, Americana music from Saint Lucia, Qld, AU on ReverbNation (here).
I put up lots of photos of Hydra, including Leonard Cohen’s house and the cafe where he first met Clift and Johnson, on Facebook, although they’re back a bit in the feed by now.