Friday, 11 June 2010

Leonard Cohen: Beautiful Losers

If Leonard Cohen had not been born with a perverse genius for words and a voice like a noir prophet, he would probably be just a dirty old man.

As it is, though, well, he’s Leonard Cohen, and if that doesn’t mean anything to you there are records you must listen to and words you must transcribe until there are corners of your mind full of god, sex, death and sadness, and obscure, melancholy jokes about all of the above. He’s a bit special like that. He writes hymns that are to both gods and bodies, and they resonate with loss and hope. He gets in your head, with all the warmth and darkness of a midnight walk in summer. He’s what Nick Cave wants to be when he grows up. He what we should all want to be when we grow up, only most of us will never grow up that far.

But I’ve never known how to write about music, so I’m going to talk about this novel instead.

It’s weird.

The end.

Okay, in more detail, Beautiful Losers is a wild, bizarre, occasionally brilliant, often baffling post-modern novel of identity, whether sexual, religious, national or individual.

The nameless narrator is a scholar, obsessed with his research on a vanished Native American tribe, the A, and the saint Catherine Tekakwitha, who fascinates him as much spiritually and sexually as she does historically. The first part of the novel is the narrator’s reflections on his research, which becomes mingled with  ponderings on his own life, particularly his dead wife Edith (one of the few remaining A) and his old friend, F.

Both Edith and F are dead, Edith after a grotesque suicide and F after the long encroachment of syphilitic madness. Both haunt the narrator's thoughts, and their loss turns him inwards, driving him into isolation and insanity. They are both characters by whom the narrator defines himself, and you can see F as entirely imaginery, or as part of the narrator, as they adopt one another’s styles and preoccupations. This becomes more apparent in the second part of the book, which takes the form of a long, rambling, possibly confessional and possibly insane, letter from F to the narrator. F is a manipulative, powerful figure with violent and extravagant sexual and political ambitions, and he changes the narrator and Edith, building them into shapes that please him, even as he destroys them. His letter explains this, but as a self-pitying justification, not an apology. F is compelling but brutal and unpleasant, and that might be what tempts me towards seeing him as a personification of parts of the narrator's mind that are both physically beautiful and psychologically ugly. 

Not that the narrator himself is much better, as the brief third part of the book shows. Titled 'An epilogue in the third person', it at last shows how the world sees the narrator: a lonely, filthy old man ensconced in a tree-house with his obsessions. Then in a series of beautiful passages, reality breaks down, leaving you with a lingering sense of having missed something. 

Or something like that, anyway. More significant than any attempt to explain the plot is that this is an arcane reflection on sex and god, like a scrambled mess or mass of all the words and themes that would later end up in songs.

There are some glorious magic realist segments where historical descriptions of Catherine Tekakwitha’s life blend into miracle and fable, and similar bizarre scenes where recollections of real life become twisted by fantasy. The modern and the historical mingle playfully, and the prose flits between the humorous and the marvellous, just like the songs. In these moments you see the classic Cohen theme that there is no hard separation between the spiritual and the earthy/earthly. His God is one of sex and the imagination, not one of doctrine and fury.

Similarly, sex is presented as a joyous mixture of the magnificent and the ridiculous. The frequent, explicit scenes of sex are happy to be both erotic and frankly silly, with absurd, comical onomatopoeia and sudden leaps in and out of different styles and scenes. Sex leads to Edith, who is more or less a victim of the perceptions and desires of the two male characters, and since we only see her through their gaze and their narration she is either a type of Catherine Tekakwitha and/or the A (to the narrator) or a lusty sex object (to F). Her suicide is mysterious to the narrators, but feels much clearer to the reader: her objectification leaves her without an independent identity. Perhaps this is something that the men recognise once she is gone, and that partly explains their shared descents into monologues and madness?

Anyway, as is so often the case, Leonard Cohen himself puts it best:
“This is a difficult book, even in English, if it is taken too seriously. May I suggest that you skip over the parts you don't like? Dip into it here and there. Perhaps there will be a passage, or even a page, that resonates with your curiosity. After a while, if you are sufficiently bored or unemployed, you may want to read it from cover to cover. In any case, I thank you for your interest in this odd collection of jazz riffs, pop-art jokes, religious kitsch and muffled prayer æ an interest which indicates, to my thinking, a rather reckless, though very touching, generosity on your part. 
Beautiful Losers was written outside, on a table set among the rocks, weeds and daisies, behind my house on Hydra, an island in the Aegean Sea. I lived there many years ago. It was a blazing hot summer. I never covered my head. What you have in your hands is more of a sunstroke than a book.”

This is all true. It’s a post-modern, stereotypically 1960s stream of thoughts, some of which are beautiful and profound, some of which are filthy and hilarious, some of which are dull and nonsensical. There is not so much a plot or a story as a series of vignettes and linguistic experiments.

If you like that sort of thing, you’ll love this. If you think it sounds like a pretentious, self-indulgent wreck of a novel, you shouldn’t go anywhere near it. I fall somewhere in between, sometimes thinking it remarkable and sometimes thinking it interminable. While I feel unsatisfied by reading it straight through as a novel, I am sure that there are certain scenes and thoughts that will haunt me, and really that’s what you want from this kind of writing.

Basically, though, I’ll stick with the records. 

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