A Portrait of Leonard Cohen as a Young Artist

A Portrait of Leonard Cohen as a Young Artist

A Portrait of Leonard Cohen as a Young Artist

A posthumous collection of early fiction, A Ballet of Lepers, chronicles how, in fits and starts, the singer came to understand the art of storytelling.


One legend about Leonard Cohen goes like this: It’s the early 1970s, and the Canadian musician and poet is performing in Jerusalem. As was his custom at the time, he and his band are on a tremendous amount of mescaline. He feels self-conscious and fears the music isn’t reaching its full potential. Standing before the microphone, he confesses his doubts to the audience and offers a refund. “You know, some nights one is raised off the ground,” he says, “and some nights you just can’t get off the ground.” He takes a break backstage, where he is struck by a sudden impulse: He needs a shave. Standing before the mirror, he takes a razor to his face and begins the process with irrepressible joy, then performs the rest of the set, rejuvenated and with a slight razor burn. (This scene was caught on tape by Tony Palmer for his 1974 documentary, Bird on a Wire.)

A similar revelation occurs in “The Shaving Ritual,” a story included in A Ballet of Lepers, a new collection of Cohen’s previously unreleased fiction written between 1956 and 1961. A cluster of stories, “The Shaving Ritual” among them, are devoted to chronicling an American couple called the Eumers—rhymes with “tumor,” Cohen reminds us more than once—whose mercurial relationship is a screen for Cohen to project images of the misery and banality inherent to marriage. In these early stories, his aspiration toward universal relatability and common experience seems almost lifted from a sitcom. (“This is T.S. Elliot writing a script for All in the Family,” an interviewer once said of his poems. “Well, I like All in the Family,” Cohen responded.)

In “The Shaving Ritual,” Mrs. Eumer suspects that her husband has developed an attraction to her body hair, and so she begins shaving often and conspicuously, eventually demanding that he do the same. What begins as a torturous dynamic eventually turns ecstatic, as they stand in the shower laughing and making love, nicking each other with razors. Soon their love is reborn. This is a common trajectory in these early Cohen stories, in which he blends romance and violence, resentment and devotion, attraction and humiliation. As a writer, his fixation remained on love’s double edge, the way intimacy might curdle into despair.

Reading these stories now, it’s easy to take note of Cohen’s familiar themes, how they developed and dominated his work in music, poetry, and prose for years to come. In 1967, 11 years after writing the earliest piece in this collection, he would issue his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, at the age of 33. Despite the focus he placed on his poetry and fiction during the preceding decades, that record introduced the Cohen who now exists in the greater cultural consciousness: the deep, patient voice reciting psalm-like observations about love and loss. The role of a songwriter suited him—as he learned almost immediately upon moving to New York in the 1960s, where Judy Collins quickly turned his “Suzanne” into a folk standard. But it took him a while to get there.

Like a lot of formative works from major artists finding their muse, this collection is most compelling for its biographical insights. There are brief moments when you can hear Cohen’s voice lift from the page, where you sense a personal breakthrough he couldn’t yet identify. The pieces in A Ballet of Lepers—which include the brief titular novella, along with 15 short stories and a stage play—came during a transitional period in his career. His earliest work was more sedate, often concerning Judaism and romantic love, while his later work carried a significantly darker tone, more experimental, sometimes verging on antagonistic.

By the time he shifted his attention to songwriting, Cohen had amassed a small but diverse body of work that had attracted positive attention—the poet Irving Layton was an early supporter and mentor—and warranted criticism. As Dagmar de Venster wrote in a 1972 essay, “Do you have an orifice and a pair of breasts? These are the essential if not sole requirements for a female character in a Leonard Cohen novel.”

Eventually, Cohen found a more nuanced voice as a musician than he ever did as an author. In his songs, he was a strict formalist: Even when incorporating epic lengths or abstract narratives, he abided by meter and rhyme, concision and specificity, simple melodies and sparse atmospheres. Within these boundaries, he developed a sense of wisdom—a way of framing our most complicated questions to remind us of their timelessness and beauty. In his prose, however, Cohen would flail, wander, and work against his strengths. These are tendencies endemic to young artists, searching for ways to transcend, and the bleak, desperate stories here provide a crucial glimpse into the journey he would spend the rest of his life pursuing.

The novella that opens the collection is the main attraction—stark in its imagery but interspersed with self-conscious nods to the reader. It introduces a mid-30s bookkeeper, his grandfather, and his love interest, a half-formed character named Marilyn who has a tendency of drifting into grand, poetic monologues while having sex. (For a story by Leonard Cohen, this is kind of like Ina Garten inventing a fictional character who expresses herself most eloquently when reciting delicious recipes.) In an early sex scene, Marilyn imagines a passerby witnessing the act from the street: “That person would become immediately aroused, wouldn’t he, the way we become aroused when we read a provoking sexual description in a novel.”

And indeed, narrated in first person, “A Ballet of Lepers” often reads like an attempt by Cohen to address as directly as possible his intentions as a writer, through characters who, even at their most elaborate, are vessels for his pet subjects. It is occasionally funny and often self-aware, almost painfully so, but the novella lacks the subtlety that would soon become second nature. Painting a picture of modern life’s brutality and depravity, Cohen shows us an old man assaulting a police officer and throwing feces at a landlady, multiple women being beaten and humiliated, a man who is accosted while masturbating in a bathroom stall.

The quiet moments are what makes it stick. While the plot points can verge on the cartoonish, Cohen has a knack for keen observation and surprising renderings of human nature—quiet shifts that he can describe like weather patterns. In the scene with the old man and the police officer, Cohen’s narrator notices as the crowd’s sympathies shift between the two, depending on who appears more vulnerable and more righteous. In another story in the collection, about a young brother and sister struggling to comprehend the sudden death of their father, Cohen is able to express the compassion they feel, how children metabolize these unwieldy emotions before developing the vocabulary to express them.

This story, titled “Ceremonies,” is among the most successful, largely because of its simplicity. There is something songlike about the prose and an honesty in its questions about kindness and empathy. In addressing the irony of the funeral occurring on the same day as his sister’s birthday, Cohen’s narrator confesses as he attempts to write a birthday card, “I looked in the large dictionary for another word for happy, but I couldn’t find anything you could say on the day of a funeral.”

Such failures of communication return in nearly every story, an obsession that might have mirrored Cohen’s own struggle to find his voice. In “A Ballet of Lepers,” he gives us access to his narrator’s warring impulses—to say the right thing to his partner, but also to affirm to himself that he is often feeling exactly the opposite. When the plot becomes cruel or maudlin, Cohen lets the narrator plead with us not to judge him too harshly: a motif that can feel like a nervous tic from a writer whose internal world would soon become so vivid and real.

It does not seem a coincidence that many of the best pieces here contain narrative threads from Cohen’s own life: his close relationship with his mother, the early death of his father, the scenery and characters of downtown Montreal, his artistic aspirations leveled against an unsympathetic universe. (An afterword notes that, according to letters in Cohen’s archives, he had repeatedly submitted these pieces for publication at the time, only to be met with constant rejection.) Neither as nightmarishly inspired as 1966’s Beautiful Losers nor as quotable and profound as 1984’s Book of Mercy, the pieces in A Ballet of Lepers feel united by their imperfection: minor works from a major artist.

At the same time, part of the joy of Cohen’s art is hearing him navigate these uphill battles. Many have spoken about his enduring love for cheap Casio keyboards and his seeming disinterest in surrounding his heavenly words with music that carried the same grandeur. He was, after all, a songwriter who would write classics like “Dance Me to the End of Love” and “Tower of Song,” and then place them on a tracklist alongside something called “Jazz Police.” “If I knew where the good songs came from, I would go there more often,” he once said of his creative process. There was a feeling with Cohen that the steady work of aspiration was the point—that there always needed to be a grounding element, something to build from, on our way to triumph.

In “Polly,” another of the stronger stories here, a schoolboy is transfixed by the sound of his classmate practicing her recorder. Yet in order to hear her play, she assigns him a series of demeaning tasks—a process that eventually, inevitably, turns sexual when he invites another female classmate to endure them together. Soon the musician catches on and becomes jealous, aware of her role in the dynamic. It’s got everything important to Cohen: a messy love triangle, the redemptive power of music, the mysterious allure of young attraction, the mutual humiliation of confessing to those feelings we can’t quite bring ourselves to articulate. And if Cohen doesn’t lift you off the ground in this telling, then it remains a gift, as always, to be in his presence as he strives.

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