Clos­ing Lines

A post­hu­mous col­lec­tion re­veals Leonard Co­hen at his most in­ti­mate

The Walrus - - CON­TENTS - by Charles Fo­ran

Clos­ing Lines A post­hu­mous col­lec­tion re­veals Leonard Co­hen at his most in­ti­mate

You are ex­ecu­tor of the es­tate of a prom­i­nent au­thor, lately de­ceased. The death may have been sud­den or the re­sult of a slow de­cline. The au­thor might have re­cently pub­lished new work or might have fallen silent years ago. Ei­ther way, as ex­ecu­tor an es­sen­tial early task is to check hard drives, desk draw­ers, and banker boxes for un­fin­ished writ­ing. If you had been close to the de­parted, you might have a hunch about what you will find. So be­gin the de­ci­sions about the post­hu­mous work. What should the writer’s last words be? To com­pli­cate mat­ters, what if the work un­earthed is in­com­plete or per­haps not very good? Lit­er­ary his­tory of­fers plenty of prece­dents, none con­clu­sive. While J.D. Salinger’s son and widow con­tinue to ex­ert strict con­trol over what is ru­moured to be a vault of manuscripts, Ernest Hem­ing­way’s es­tate has al­ways seemed un­trou­bled about re­leas­ing in­fe­rior, par­tial books by Papa. And what if the de­ceased was spec­tac­u­larly mis­taken about their own lit­er­ary worth? As ex­ecu­tor to Franz Kafka, Max Brod de­fied his dy­ing friend’s ex­plicit in­struc­tions that his un­pub­lished writ­ings be de­stroyed. Thanks to Brod, we have The Trial and The Cas­tle — and the twen­ti­eth cen­tury was given a mir­ror to look at it­self. Leonard Co­hen is the rare ex­am­ple of a ma­jor artist who man­aged his own lit­er­ary exit. The Flame: Po­ems and Se­lec­tions from Note­books, pub­lished this Oc­to­ber, re­turns Co­hen to print al­most two years af­ter his death, at age eighty-two, on Novem­ber 7, 2016. Edited by aca­demics Robert Faggen and Alexandra Pleshoy­ano, the book is a mashup of three projects. The first are sixty-three new po­ems se­lected by Co­hen him­self in his fi­nal months but com­posed over a pe­riod of decades. The sec­ond sec­tion of­fers the orig­i­nal po­ems that Co­hen adapted into song lyrics for his last four al­bums. As the edi­tors say, care­ful read­ers will likely note dif­fer­ences be­tween the var­i­ous ver­sions. The third part, “Se­lec­tions from The Note­books,” is taken from an epic never-be­fore pub­lished project — a life­long stream of con­scious­ness that is com­posed of po­ems and sketches, in­clud­ing mul­ti­ple wry self-por­traits. It was an un­der­tak­ing with no nat­u­ral bound­aries or shape, aside from the one ar­ti­fi­cially im­posed, iron­i­cally enough, by death. Tak­ing up about 100 pages of The Flame, “The Note­books,” will, for many, be the nat­u­ral cen­tre of at­ten­tion. When an au­thor’s dy­ing di­rec­tives are un­clear or nonex­is­tent, as they often can be, lit­er­ary ex­ecu­tors are forced to make tough calls. Not here. The Flame is the book Co­hen wanted to leave be­hind, and his es­tate has hon­oured that wish. But, less than a month be­fore he died, Co­hen re­leased what is ar­guably his mu­si­cal will and tes­ta­ment, his four­teenth al­bum, You Want It Darker. That he was also, around the same time, ac­tively as­sem­bling what turned out to be a post­hu­mous book presents us with the dilemma of two very dif­fer­ent fi­nal acts need­ing con­sid­er­a­tion. Which has the bet­ter claim on our at­ten­tion?

Over the course of a long and sin­gu­lar ca­reer, Leonard Co­hen pur­sued var­i­ous out­lets for his cre­ativ­ity, usu­ally all at once. A poet, nov­el­ist, vis­ual artist, song­writer, and con­cert per­former, he only re­ally

Here is the river that Leonard Co­hen’s vol­canic cre­ativ­ity and res­o­lute dis­ci­pline helped re­plen­ish most days of his life.

dropped fic­tion from the mix. Even there, he did so af­ter publishing two nov­els in the 1960s, The Favourite Game and Beau­ti­ful Losers, both scan­dals in their age and in­flu­en­tial af­ter­wards. Dur­ing one ex­tended pe­riod, Co­hen, also a Zen Bud­dhist monk, with­drew for five years to a monastery in Cal­i­for­nia. Shortly there­after, in his early seven­ties, he em­barked on a now leg­endary five-year, 387-con­cert tour of, more or less, the planet. The man had en­ergy and dis­ci­pline aplenty. We didn’t, it turns out, know the half of it. As well as the above, Leonard Co­hen, we learn in an ed­i­to­rial note to The Flame, kept a jour­nal from his teenage years right up un­til the last day of his life. Three thousand pages in all, much of it po­ems and draw­ings, laid out in his ele­gant script. In a sep­a­rate fore­word to The Flame, his son, the mu­si­cian Adam Co­hen, re­lays how es­sen­tial this project was to his fa­ther. “By the early 1990s,” Adam Co­hen writes, “there were stor­age lock­ers filled with boxes of his note­books, note­books con­tain­ing a life of ded­i­ca­tion to the thing that de­fined the man. Writ­ing,” he adds, “was his rea­son for be­ing.” By Adam’s ac­count, “The Note­books” sound like a diary, one of the least fraught post­hu­mous lit­er­ary forms. Promis­ing the pri­vate in­di­vid­ual in real time, they often end up authen­tic and rev­e­la­tory in ways that fi­nal nov­els and po­etry col­lec­tions are not. The most cel­e­brated lit­er­ary diarist of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, Anaïs Nin, used her late vol­umes to fill in de­tails about her life, right up to the end, long af­ter her fic­tion had fal­tered. Also, ad­ver­tised as “life” rather than “art,” diaries are not sub­jected to the same com­par­isons with lit­er­ary work. But “The Note­books” aren’t a diary or jour­nal. Based on the sam­ple in The Flame, they are the phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of a life­long aes­thetic regime from an artist who had to write and draw the way the rest of us have to eat and sleep. An artist, too, who prac­tised his craft con­stantly, com­pul­sively, and who ac­tu­ally had lit­tle in­ter­est in re­veal­ing his pri­vate life, even to his pri­vate self. At a glance, “The Note­books” seem mostly about form, about in­sist­ing on the nec­es­sary self-con­trol and con­cen­tra­tion as a poet. They are about be­ing in the mo­ment and about just be­ing. They are Zen. For this rea­son, per­haps, Co­hen did not care much about chronol­ogy. “The Note­books” con­tain no bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tails; po­ems sim­ply line up against each other, dis­solve one to the next, with­out con­text or a time­line. Faggen and Pleshoy­ano ex­plain the rea­sons for this: “Leonard would often work on the same note­books over many years with var­i­ous coloured inks show­ing the dif­fer­ent en­tries.” He also num­bered the vol­umes “in a sys­tem we do not un­der­stand.” Co­hen did oc­ca­sion­ally as­sign a poem a date or ref­er­ence a city where he was per­form­ing. The self-por­traits along the mar­gins were also fre­quently dated. Based on th­ese hints, much of the se­lected ma­te­rial is from the 2000s. Po­ems in “The Note­books” retell dreams and el­lip­ti­cal sto­ries and re­hearse lines and jokes that even­tu­ally ended up in songs or pub­lished po­ems. Co­hen was talk­ing to him­self, for sure, ex­press­ing weari­ness at the same old per­son­al­ity ticks and tricks, and yearn­ing for re­lease: “I call out your name,” one poem de­clares, “and I ask to be done / with this bur­den of heart / with this pride of de­spair.” Women fig­ure promi­nently through­out— de­sire and se­duc­tion re­mained at the fore­front of his daily de­lib­er­a­tions — as do God and mor­tal­ity. In fact, women, God, and mor­tal­ity are bun­dled: “there was so lit­tle to say / all my proph­e­sies / were com­ing true / I was old / my work was done / Then you be­gan / To un­dress for me / On Skype / And I had to think / About my life again.”

As well, there are po­ems as gor­geous as this Song of Songs–in­fused en­try: Beau­ti­ful are the nights in Canaan How long will you live in my heart, O home­land Sleep my dar­ling girl A girl is ex­pect­ing her lover She lies in bed lis­ten­ing to the train Given Co­hen’s need to re­vise his po­ems and lyrics, often for years and years be­fore be­ing sat­is­fied, it is un­set­tling to read raw frag­ments com­posed, ap­par­ently, on ho­tel sta­tionery and cock­tail nap­kins. Ad­di­tion­ally, there is the awk­ward­ness of ed­i­to­rial in­tru­sions where his ac­tual hand­writ­ing can’t be de­ci­phered. Bring­ing into pub­lic light what was de­signed to be use­ful in pri­vate shade is tricky. If this sam­ple rep­re­sents barely 5 per­cent of the to­tal ex­ist­ing con­tent, what do his ex­ecu­tors have on their hands? Go­ing by The Flame, it is likely noth­ing easy to frame or present as, in and of it­self, a nat­u­ral next lit­er­ary step. As raw re­source, those 3,000 pages could be­come the foun­da­tion for a strik­ingly orig­i­nal bi­og­ra­phy, the au­thor­ship al­most shared be­tween sub­ject and bi­og­ra­pher. If pre­sented to the pub­lic as tac­tile art, the note­books them­selves, in par­tic­u­lar the draw­ings, might also make for a com­pelling mu­seum or gallery show. That, or Co­hen’s keep­ers could opt to do noth­ing fur­ther with “The Note­books.” Here is the river that his vol­canic cre­ativ­ity and res­o­lute dis­ci­pline helped re­plen­ish most days of his life. Step­ping into the cur­rent for just a few pages is likely enough for all but the most ar­dent of fans.

The muted artis­tic suc­cess of The Flame need not carry the bur­den some­times placed on post­hu­mous work—of be­ing the au­thor’s legacy claim. Hap­pily, Co­hen has a whole other clear path to eter­nity. It is hard to imag­ine a time when peo­ple won’t be lis­ten­ing to his songs, es­pe­cially those from You Want It Darker, a record made while he was gravely ill—mul­ti­ple spine frac­tures left him im­mo­bile and in pain — and re­leased seven­teen days be­fore his death. Plenty of at­ten­tion has been paid to the qual­ity of the nine songs on Co­hen’s last record and to the tim­ing of the al­bum. Less re­marked on has been the mu­si­cal arc of You Want It Darker. Though som­bre and hushed, the al­bum is ac­tu­ally all lift and open­ing out, as though recorded not in his liv­ing room in Los An­ge­les — as was the case — but be­tween earth and sky. The first and fi­nal tracks out­line this mys­te­ri­ous space. As noted by Pico Iyer in this mag­a­zine, on the ti­tle song, Co­hen sings Kad­dish for him­self, backed by the litur­gi­cal group from the West­mount syn­a­gogue of his Mon­treal youth. “Hi­neni, Hi­neni,” he chants with the choir—he­brew for “here I am.” And then, in case it isn’t clear in which di­rec­tion his spirit is bound: “I’m ready, my Lord.” The fi­nal track of­fers a string quar­tet reprise of “Treaty,” the al­bum’s melodic jewel. Stripped of lyrics and rid­ing the sonic wave of strings, the melody soars. When Co­hen’s voice reap­pears in the clos­ing sec­onds, a loop of the last stanza of the sung ver­sion, he sud­denly feels far away. Far away and not com­ing back—at least not “in the hu­man frame,” as he says else­where. Is this what de­par­ture, and death, sound like? To a de­gree and on a level far deeper than in The Flame— the po­ems cover al­most a half cen­tury and the book only of­fers a tiny coda of last-days lit­er­ary Co­hen— You Want It Darker con­tains pre­cisely what one dreams of find­ing in a late work: an ac­count of a great artist’s leave tak­ing, writ­ten or com­posed from astride the grave. “You lose your grip,” he sang on “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” a song from 2001, “and then you slip / into the mas­ter­piece.” By be­ing so res­o­lute and fo­cused at the very close of his days, Leonard Co­hen achieved two things: a mas­ter­piece about the mas­ter­piece he had been pre­par­ing to meet and how it might feel, mu­si­cally at least, to slip into it. That’s a per­fect way to say goodbye.

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