Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The 10 Best Literary Critics

the final day of the year, the New York Times ran a special issue of its book review that featured six literary critics explaining what they believe literary criticism is. Two of the essays are downright rousing — Sam Anderson’s, on the role of the critic in an age of media upheaval, and Elif Batuman’s, on the need for criticism of even the best, most unassailable texts. But I’m biased, since those are two of my favorite critics.
Slate also fixed a spotlight on good criticism when it stated, for the record, that the new critic at the Times is doing a damn fine job. The examples they cite — of Dwight Garner’s hilarious-but-respectful takedowns of recent books — show exactly why today’s best criticism is so exciting. (Garner is the chap who gave us this memorable line about graphic novels.)
All of which raises the question: who else is kicking ass at literary criticism right now? The answer is terribly subjective — there’s even an award for literary criticism at Electric Literature, where the winners change every month. But here are my picks.
James Wood
Obviously. The king of literary criticism sits on his throne at the New Yorker and issues detailed, precise readings in support of his decree that realism is the sine qua non of literature. In the past we have obsessed over his almighty judgments. 1 2
Sam Anderson
An omnivorous reader who brings a lot of humor and humility to what are, at bottom, very spot-on critiques. 1 2
Elif Batuman
This gawky student of Russian literature reflects on the personal aspects of classic works, reinvigorating the notion of what a critic should be. 1
Zadie Smith
She put Netherland up against Remainder for an instant-classic fight; seems determined to outgrow her debut novel and become the best Anglophile critic of her generation. 1
Daniel Mendelsohn
An expert in Classics, he demonstrates how ancient Greece and Rome texts are surprisingly alive and flourishing today. Best review of the movie 300 ever. 1 2
Caleb Crain
An expert in early American history, he gives the Daniel Mendelsohn treatment to Redcoats and Manifest Destiny and Moby Dick. 1
Luc Sante
Another expert who sees the influence of his subjects all around us, he loves rock music, New York City, and forgotten things. 1
Eliot Weinberger
An absolute original (by way of near-plagiarism) he arranges seemingly random, stunning facts in such a way that they constitute gem-like stories of their own. 1
Maria Bustillos
Interested in anything that catches her attention, from Oscar Wilde to Ben Stiller, she seems stubbornly, charmingly unaware of how thorough and unique her readings are. 1 2
Dwight Garner

Monday, December 23, 2013

Book review by Ivana Vlajkovic : Cool Water May Just Break Your Heart

Dianne Warren, accomplished fiction writer and playwright born in Ottawa, was awarded the prestigious Governor General’s Literary Award for her first full-length novel, Cool Water. The novel offers an intimate, one-day portrait of a small Saskatchewan town. The first vignette tells of an epic one-hundred-mile horserace in the town of Juliet’s cowboy past, and then the rest of the chapters follow a cast of characters through one night and day, ending with the second night. The style is sparse and hyper-realistic, and Warren’s Juliet rings as true as Laurence’s Manawaka or Munro’s Hanratty, full of small, mundane details that reveal poignant truths.
The novel details a day in the life of a cast of characters whose lives are intertwined and intermingled, demonstrating the interconnectivity of small-town life and suggesting the interconnectivity of all lives, even those outside the town of Juliet, like the “government officials and environmentalists and representatives of the oil and gas companies” who are all “terrifyingly good at talking” or the “people in Ottawa and Toronto” who might one day have to “pay five dollars for a loaf of bread,” which might, just might make “the politicians . . . come to their senses.” As this day unfolds—Lee out riding a found horse echoing the epic ride that the novel opens with; Vikki and her six children driving from the farm to spend the day in town, even when there are farm chores to be done; Blaine, her husband, working on a road crew and dreaming of Justine the young girl studying engineering at university; Marian and Willard, the brother- and sister-in-law who have lived together for nine years, keeping their growing affection secret from one another; Karla spending her birthday alone, stood up again by her on-again-off-again fiancé, Dale; Lynn worrying about her husband Hank and the name and phone number of an unknown woman written on a scrap of paper in his pocket; Norval and Lila worrying about their pregnant eighteen-year-old daughter; and Joni the stranger who loses her horse and leaves her name and number with Hank—we begin to get a picture of the connected nature of simple lives being lived. And it is in the interconnectivity that the novel encourages the reader to recognize the profundity of human existence.
Every undergraduate writing course begins with some version of the advice to “show not tell,” and Warren is a master of showing. She does not browbeat or bully her readers, but rather lures and lulls us in with her deceptively simple turns of phrase. With an uncomplicated and understated style, Warren creates people so real and rich in seemingly ordinary detail that we barely notice that the simplicity covers a depth of character that is at once both stunning and heart wrenching. In 1954, the American writer Ernest Hemingway was quoted in reference to his novel The Old Man and the Sea as saying: “I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things. The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true.” It is this “truer than true” in the everyday that Warren captures so powerfully.
By comparing Warren’s writing to that of canonical greats such as Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, and Ernest Hemingway, I mean not to gush and offer exaggerated praise, but rather to suggest that Cool Water is a work of fiction that can and will stand the proverbial test of time. It is a work that should be taught and retaught, discussed, and rediscussed. Quite simply it is a work of breath-taking simplicity and breath-taking beauty that may just break your heart.

Sunday, December 22, 2013


by Tanja Cvetkovic



Advice to My Friends (1985) is the collection of eight sequences of ‘continuing’ poems. It’s a kind of a poetic journey on which the poet sets his readers on his own quest for the other. Having been privileged to take a short route from “Advice to My Friends” and “Mile Zero” through “Letters to Salonika”, “Delphi: Commentary”, “Postcards from China”, “The Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof”, to “Sounding the Name”, and “The Poet’s Mother”, the reader is imaginatively involved in the process of  discovery of the meaning of the poems.

 Many poems mark a continuation of what has gone before or are part of the texts to come. “Mile Zero”  becomes a response to the poem “The Criminal Intensities of Love as Paradise”, “Delphi:Commentary”  is juxtaposed to Pausanias’ texts or fragments by Sir James Frazer. Shirley Neuman explains that “in the continuing poem, each sequence becomes a part of the intertext of each new sequence; each new sequence re-reads the poems already written”.1 One poem speaks to another, one text to the next. The poems influence each other and become each other’s intertext.

“Advice to My Friends” is different from other sequences of poems because it uses the sonnet sequence as the poetic form. As Jones argues “the sonnet sequence is here ‘pastiched’, transformed into a collection of postmodern ‘piecemeal’ sonnets, that patch together various discourses, playing with the very idea of the sonnet as a ‘fixed form’ and the lyric as a monologue”.2 Moreover, the poem is written in the tradition of epithalamium celebrating the marriage of two Canadian icons: painter Emily Carr and hockey player Howie Morenz.

The central poem that focuses on the marriage of Emily and Howie is “the bridegroom rises to speak”. The epithalamium of this match is celebrated through their unique painterly and hockey talents in the next poem:

…has about it the air


of a painting of a forest exploding into light,

or of a hockey game, under the lights, exploding.

but the dance, the dance is the first decoding.3


The wedding guests include Roy Kiyooka who gives away to Emily and Howie


an escape plan as a gift. It is a collage

of 1,243 pages, in code, with maps and diagrams,4

and Michael Ondaatje who is the wedding photographer and who explains that this match is not a standard one:

This will not be, Mr. Ondaatje explains,

your standard epithalamium. He is taking

pictures, both in colors and black and white.5

“Mile Zero” is a narrative account of the poet’s journey “through western Canada in the dead of six nights”.6 The poem becomes a response to the question about the origin of language and the process of signification raised in “The Criminal Intensities of Love As Paradise”. The poem has a very specific form. Neuman notices that “’Mile Zero’ is a series of disjunctive forms, narrative and ‘post-surreal’ poetics, passages from the unrealized possibilities for the poem, footnotes (that which is separated from the main text because it is, in content or form, disjunct from as well as related to it)”.7  The poem becomes the process of”the writing of the poem”8  and many possible lost texts on the side become intertexts of  the poem. The intertext at the end of the poem reads:

the story of the poem


the poem of the story


What Kroetsch writes and what the reader imaginatively constructs is the poem in the process of becoming.

Most of the poems in Advice to My Friends can be read as Kroetsch’s exploration of the relationship between place/landscape and language, the relationship of place/home and self, the quest for the female figure who is either his lover or his mother, the quest for the other. The poems are the exploration of the other, or as one of the reviewers puts it: “Advice to My Friends  is a collection of poems written for and about the other, about the self’s need for and discovery of that other.”10

 “Mile Zero” is also about the connection between place and self, the quest for the self  west based on his famous pun: “oust/or quest or”.11 In the central poem of the sequence “Descent, as Usual, into Hell”, the  Orphic motifs are anticipated by the author  persona’s descent into Hell and the search for Eurydice, stressing his quest for the other. In the next poem “Awake, Awakening” the author refers to the deferral of the quest’s fulfillment:

wrong or alone

we live, in delay’s body


bone, altering



after the word (after

which there can be no after)12

His desire for origins conveyed by words: “first, archaic/be, become”13 speak of both his quest for the origin of language and self and place since for Kroetsch self is defined in relation to place through narrative. In Kroetsch’s poetry, the search for the origin of language is a substitute for his search for home and a lover. When he can’t find  true home where he could feel comfortable, he turns to language as a home, or a poem and poetry that he creates as a way of self –recognition and self-definition.

In “Letters to Salonika” the poet expresses the inadequacy of language and a poem as home. He does not feel at home in his apartment in Winnipeg while his wife is in Greece visiting her prior home. The poet’s desire for a secure home and woman bring about pain and loneliness:

… You on your quest, me

here at home. I’ve burned up half our woodpile. Loneliness

and a fire. Loneliness is a fire. …

Language, too, gone back to its corner.14

However, while “trying to fill my emptiness with words”,15 he concludes that “I want/ no words, tonight/ dream your lovers”,16 anticipating that the poet can find comfort only with his wife and a real home. The absence of his wife is linked to the absence of his mother or his great-grandmother in the next poems.

In the absence of his beloved, the poet sets out on a journey to China in “The Postcards from China”, while the  longing for the absent other, now in the form of his mother, comes to its full light in the poem “Sounding the Name”.

In “Delphi:Commentary”, the poet is in Greece with his two daughters. The whole poem is based on three intertexts: Pausanias’ Description of Greece, James Frazer’s texts and “The Eggplant Poems” which are scattered throughout the poem and for which “we have no reliable text”.17 We can only guess if the poem really exists. The poem is written in two columns where Pausanias’ and Frazer’s fragments are embedded in the Eggplant fragments. Neuman explains the specific structure: “In yet another doubling, the two sets of (inter)text and commentary – Pausanias and Frazer on one hand, ‘The Eggplant Poems’ and the journey of the poet and his daughters on the other – become intertext of Delphi: the site/the poem”.18 Thus Delphi functions as both the poem and the site where the poet encounters his father’s ghost through whom the oracle poses questions:

What are you doing here?

Did I teach you nothing?19

“The Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof” finds the poet in Germany where he tries to find the signs of his great-grandmother though his search fails. While he remains lost in the Frankfurt Main Station, he meets his double who points him the right way. The obsession with the absent female figure as an agent of pain and an object of desire starts from “Seed Catalogue” or “The Ledger” where he associates the idea of his mother or his great-grandmother with fear and desire.

Advice to My Friends concludes with the poem “The Poet’s Mother”. The poem relates the poet’s writing, sexual desire and the memory of his mother.

I have sought my mother

on the shores of a dozen islands


I have sought my mother

inside the covers

of ten thousand books.


I have sought my mother

in the bars of a hundred cities.20

The repetition of the phrase “I have sought” emphasizes the poet’s continual quest for his mother and his home, and since the quest is marked by deferral of fulfillment, the poet has no choice but to continue his journey.

In this collection of poems, Kroetsch really surprises us with his skillful manipulation of literary conventions, with new experimental form of his poems, and the new context in which he deals with his old but still new idea of the quest for the other. What would then be Kroetsch’s advice to his friends? It is his writing that celebrates ambiguity and contradiction, the merging and still the opposition of fiction and reality, the marriage of opposites as Emily and Howie’s marriage is, for between giving advice to his friends and publishing the collection of poems Advice to My Friends we can never  be sure what his real intention was.


1 Shirley Neuman. “Figuring the Reader, Figuring the Self in Field Notes: ‘Double or Noting’”. Open Letter  5 8-9 (Summer-Fall 1984): 186.

2 Manina Jones. “Advice Like Snow: Advice to My Friends and the Lay of the Land”. Open Letter.  9 5-6 (Spring-Summer 1996): 70.

3 Robert Kroetsch. Advice to My Friends. (Don Mills, Ontario: Stoddart Publishing Co. Limited, 1985).



6 Ibid.

7 Shirley Neuman. “Figuring the Reader, Figuring the Self in Field Notes: ‘Double or Noting’”. Open Letter  5 8-9 (Summer-Fall 1984): 185.

8 Ibid.

9 Robert Kroetsch. Advice to My Friends. (Don Mills, Ontario: Stoddart Publishing Co. Limited, 1985).

10 Paul H. Jartarson. “Discourse of the Other”. Canadian Literature. 115 (Winter 1987): 138.

11 Robert Kroetsch. Advice to My Friends. (Don Mills, Ontario: Stoddart Publishing Co. Limited, 1985).

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.



17 Shirley Neuman. “Figuring the Reader, Figuring the Self in Field Notes: ‘Double or Noting’”. Open Letter  5 8-9 (Summer-Fall 1984): 187.

18 Ibid.

19 Robert Kroetsch. Advice to My Friends. (Don Mills, Ontario: Stoddart Publishing Co. Limited, 1985).

20 Ibid.








Author: Tanja Cvetkovic




Field Notes, Robert Kroetsch’s collected poetry, was published originally by the title Field Notes: Collected Poems (1981), gathering his long poems between 1973 and 1981. The same year the book was published as Field Notes: A Continuing Poem 1-8 (1981) and later as Completed Field Notes: The Long Poems of Robert Kroetsch (1989).

In Kroetsch’s poetics, a poem is a field where the poet and the reader are involved in an archaeological game. In the open field  the combination of multiple possibilities comes into play while the poet and the reader perform an archaeological dig under the layers of different meanings. Kroetsch creates a godgame situation in which the poet and the reader as players are caught in an infinite number of poetic possibilities. This is the way literature functions for him.

This must be one of the functions of art: to put us into situations where we apprehend the rules only up to a point. […] We are all in games where we can’t quite perceive the rules. We are in the godgame situation; this is central to my view of the importance of fiction. And yet it would be an error to perceive the differences between life and art, just as it would be an error not to see that they are the same.1

Both in life and art, man is in a godgame situation. Being part of the game whose rules he doesn’t know well, his sole purpose is that of survival. It’s like a game of chess in the open field.

Kroetsch’s godgame situation is based on search. In his long poems, the poet searches for a home, an authentic voice, his ancestors, the past. Stone Hammer Poem,  which serves as the prologue to the volume, begins the search for the original place and home. The poet associates his memories of the past to the stone and explores different meanings the object of meditation induces. The first story of the stone hammer continues into another The Ledger  where the poet relates his reflections of the ledger to a sense of place again while exploring the past of his ancestors. The poet tries to order different possibilities he encounters while rendering the meaning of the ledger. What actually happens is that: “You must see/ the confusion again.”2 The poet becomes “wildly disorderly,”3 while trying to restore everything in order.  “The chaos     again/ the original forest”4 lead the poet to another story.  In the next poem Seed Catalogue,  the poet asks: “How do you grow a poet?” or “How do you make poetry?”

Seed Catalogue  is about the creation of a poem and the garden through the processes of erasure and negation. The poem also rewrites one of the most popular North American myths, the story of prairie as garden. The garden is both the literal garden and the metaphorical garden, the field of his poem, where the prairie poet continues his search for his home place, a new poetic form and a new language expression.

Kroetsch’s poet is the Sad Phoenician whose sadness reflects the condition of Canadian writing at that time, characterized by belatedness, and who tries to establish himself anew as a poet. Kroetsch establishes a relation between the Phoenician’s sadness and the condition of Canadian writing:

The sadness is one of the basic sounds of Canadian writing. We experience the sadness of arriving late, and with that comes our recurring need to recover a beginning. You see, like the Americans, we see ourselves as new people, but we don’t believe what we see.5

His tendency to free the poet’s word from different cultural inheritances is embodied in the character of the Sad Phoenician. He is the Sad Phoenician of Love and on the surface the poem is a long dramatic monologue about his misadventures as a lover.

The Sad Phoenician is structured vertically by way of the alphabet and horizontally by a pattern of opposition between “and” and “but” which bring about the dynamic flow of the poem. By excluding a dialectic binary opposition between the “and” and “but”, Kroetsch assumes a dialogic relation between the conjunction and the disjunction.

The Sad Phoenician is a trader with words. The poem is pretty much about language, the recording of language, and the correspondence of the word as image and sound, the way we perceive language. The alphabet in the poem gives the readers “an exact and illogical way of perception”6 and this kind of contradiction puts the language of  the poem in a kind of “a condition of civil unrest”.7 The Sad Phoenician is not concerned with the making of letters though; he is rather more concerned “with loading the words with more and more layers of meaning, all that punning”.8

The contradiction of perception makes the sad Phoenician live by resistance. He speaks against the order as “the poet must resist the poem”.9  The Sad Phoenician is mistreated and rejected by women, has a solace consolation of writing and playing with words on the field page. As a poet, he is made of words; he has no past and no future, and lives in the –ing mode: “what do you do in life: I ing”.10 The –ing form indicates indefiniteness, the poet’s compulsion to go on with writing with the endless play of signs, sounds, words.

The Sad Phoenician is continued into another long poem The Silent Poet. The silent poet’s poem is the poem “that doesn’t say what it might say, but says it anyway without words”.11 The poet, the Sad Phoenician, explores the idea of the impossibility to find right words to express his feelings:

I do have feelings, just because I’m a poet doesn’t mean

I have no feelings of my own, poets are human; I am, you

might say, a kind of Phoenician, with reference, that is,

to my trading in language, even in, to stretch a point,

ha, my being at sea.12

But instead of describing the Sad Phoenician, in the first part of The Silent Poem, the poet describes his double Eric the Red, the discoverer of Greenland, who is transformed in the text as Earache the Red. Earache asks the poet to write a line of poetry for him. As his name suggests, listening does not come natural to him and he starts covering the poet’s silence. Again the emphasis is on the importance of listening to the poem and even the poet’s silence speaks of  the efforts by the readers  to create the meaning of the poem.

The Winnipeg Zoo gives an image of a poet who is tired and exhausted of searching for a home, a poem, expressing the difficulties of writing and storytelling. The poet is on the verge of giving up is job, but still feels the responsibility he has for the survival of our stories:

I am here, it is quiet, I am exhausted from

moving, we must take care of our stories

we must take care of our stories, I am ex-

hausted from moving, it is quiet, I am here.13  

The Winnipeg Zoo  is a poem about the woman who takes her lovers to the Winnipeg Zoo but nobody sees them go out. The stories are dark, criminal stories, without an ending; they are the stories about everyday life.

The same idea of poetry, of taking everyday life and transfiguring it into extraordinary experience, with a more meditative type of writing, appears in  Sketches of a Lemon  and The Criminal Intensities of Love as Paradise.

Field Notes  feature a poem as an open field in which the fusion of opposites and different possibilities takes place. In his poetry, Kroetsch renders his search for an authentic voice grounded in place and a radical concern with literary form itself. Voice is a distinctive feature of Kroetsch’s writing as well as the endless search for the right word. The book closes with the invocation of voice:

The closed eye

listen &

O nesting tongue

hatch the world.14

The poems making up Field Notes are considered “a continuing poems” pointing to the author’s need to keep writing and foregrounding the idea that it is a work in progress completed in the collection published in 1989 as Completed Field Notes.


1 Shirley Neuman and Robert Wilson. Labyrinths of  Voice: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch.(Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1982): 68.

2 Robert Kroetsch.  Field Notes: 1-8, A Continuing Poem. (Don Mills: General Publishing Co., 1981).

3 Eli Mandel. “Preface”. in Field Notes: 1-8, A Continuing Poem. (Don Mills: General Publishing Co., 1981).

4 Robert Kroetsch.  Field Notes: 1-8, A Continuing Poem. (Don Mills: General Publishing Co., 1981).

5 Smaro Kamboureli. “A Poet Out of Love: An Interview with Robert Kroetsch on the Sad Phoenician”. Open Letter 5: 8-9 (Summer-Fall 1984): 49.

6 Ibid., 47.

7 Ibid.

8Ibid., 48.

9 Robert Kroetsch.  Field Notes: 1-8, A Continuing Poem. (Don Mills: General Publishing Co., 1981).

10 Ibid.

11 Kristjana Gunnars. “Meditation on a Snowy Morning: A Conversation with Robert Kroetsch. Prairie Fire 8.4 (1987-88): 56.

12 Robert Kroetsch.  Field Notes: 1-8, A Continuing Poem. (Don Mills: General Publishing Co., 1981).

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Book review by Vesna Simovic - Humilité et profanation : Au pied de la pente douce de Roger Lemelin. Lévesque

Reviewed by Vesna Simovic

Le premier roman de Roger Lemelin, Au pied de la pente douce (1944), rompt « avec le discours de l’obéissance, de la pauvreté édifiante, de l’ordre établi, annonçant de la sorte le discours émancipateur et conquérant des années soixante ». À l’instar des Plouffe (1948), il dépeint avec réalisme et humour un microcosme paroissial en quête de son identité. Illustrant une modernité québécoise en voie d’urbanisation, théâtre de l’ascendance de l’Église catholique sur la collectivité, ces deux œuvres de Roger Lemelin lui valent une reconnaissance exceptionnelle qui traverse les frontières.
Une année avant la parution de Bonheur d’occasion de Gabrielle Roy, autre texte révélateur des mœurs urbaines de la jeune génération, Au pied de la pente douce illustre pour sa part une réalité nouvelle, soit la dénonciation de l’humilité d’un certain discours catholique qu’adoptent de faux dévots « dominés par des préoccupations égoïstes ». C’est cette fausse représentation de la piété, ce semblant de vertu dont se réclament de nombreux personnages frustrés, désireux « d’accroître leur pouvoir sur la scène paroissiale », que met en relief Jacques Cardinal, professeur de littérature à l’Université de Montréal, dans son essai Humilité et profanation (2013), récemment paru chez Lévesque éditeur.
Abordant Au pied de la pente douce sous un angle d’analyse encore inexploré, Cardinal va bien au-delà de l’évocation d’une « peinture de mœurs » au ton léger et humoristique en s’intéressant à « l’ironie profanatrice » d’un texte qui dénonce à travers l’humilité chrétienne « le discours idéalisant du roman de la terre » et, par l’entremise du personnage de Jean Colin, la représentation sublimée de la souffrance et de la mort qui mènent à la transcendance. L’agonie de Jean Colin, pour ainsi dire profane puisque « au service d’aucune sublimation », illustre selon Cardinal une lucidité cruelle, un refus de « l’appel à Dieu » contraire aux principes de l’idéologie chrétienne qui appellent à la mortification, « sinon au martyre, pour éprouver [la] foi et trouver [le] salut ».
Grâce à la lecture fine et à l’écriture maîtrisée de Jacques Cardinal, l’œuvre de Roger Lemelin, quelque peu « délaissée par les chercheurs », gagne un souffle nouveau. Humilité et profanation explore avec brio une satire sociale cédant peu à peu la place au « récit-cauchemar fait d’angoisse, d’humiliations et de désespoir, envers du rêve et de l’illusion ». Un essai qui saura intéresser les lecteurs de Lemelin, au service d’un grand roman

Book review I'm You'r man - reviewd by Mark Harris

I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. McClelland & Stewart Ltd

Writing a life of Leonard Cohen is a thankless task. Quite simply, the man has too many fans, and each of his idolaters worships an icon a little bit different from the one adored by all the rest. For some, Westmount’s most famous poetic son is primarily a writer; for others, he is almost exclusively a singer. There are those who delight in their hero’s spiritual quest, just as there are those who vicariously get off on his seemingly endless sexual encounters. Although Cohen’s following is worldwide, expatriate Montrealers, Zen Buddhists, non-Orthodox Jews, Rue Saint-Denis intellectuals, women with high IQs and even higher romantic expectations, London music journalists, closet believers in monotheistic religions, and late night booze artists are probably the sub-categories most susceptible to the man’s unique—and uniquely seductive—charm.
Although she’s based in San Francisco, Sylvie Simmons was born in London and she makes her living as a music journalist. She also writes fiction, and her best-received previous biography was of Serge Gainsbourg, yet another exemplary song-writing Jewish hipster. With a background like that, it was inevitable that her life of Leonard would differ radically from that of, say, literary scholar Ira B. Nadel.
Differ it does, sometimes for the better, but often not. What is perhaps most surprising is that the pages Simmons devotes to the poet’s career prior to the 1967 release of Songs of Leonard Cohen are far more intriguing than the chapters that follow. Indeed, her account of the man’s early years is as insightful as it is enjoyable, even though her knowledge of that time is seriously defective, while her insight into what came after seems close to infinite.
Thus, as the book proceeds, our esteem paradoxically tends to decline. The author’s heroic attempts to come to grips with a time and place to which she can lay no personal claim (the pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec in which Leonard Cohen was raised) is all too quickly replaced by a world she knows full well, the shifting musical scenes of New York, Nashville, and Los Angeles. Simmons might not understand much about Canadian poets, but she seems intimately familiar with the resumes of just about any session musician, back-up singer, or musical arranger you might care to mention. The production of each Leonard Cohen album is explored in painstaking— at times, painful—detail, and the itinerary of every last tour is analyzed with the assiduity of a military campaign. Occasionally, the musical detail becomes so stifling one wants to exclaim (to partially paraphrase C. S. Lewis in a radically different cultural context), Oh no, not another fricking front man!
There are likewise frequent lapses in thematic continuity. The young poet was a convinced vegetarian, but the old troubadour seems to have given up on this, even though he otherwise follows spiritual disciplines that might daunt Trappists half his age. What caused this change of heart? You’re not going to find out here.
An even more vexatious problem is Simmons’s seeming disinterest in the Québécois side of Leonard Cohen. This new headache is not altogether separate from the previous one. Thus, while witness Arnold Steinberg was probably right when the said that Leonard’s French was certainly minimal in the 1950s, that most definitely is not the case now, when the aging pop star fields questions from La Presse reporters with effortless grace. Clearly, something happened in the interim—but what?
Many of the Canucks in Cohen’s past, both francophone and anglophone, are either absent from the portrait altogether or else inadequately understood. Simmons makes some effort to get Irving Layton (although not enough to realize that his once great poetry declined tragically with age), but A. M. Klein, F. R. Scott, Louis Dudek, Lewis Furey, Carole (not Carol!) Laure, Lionel Tiger, and Rufus Wainwright are, beyond their immediate narrative functions, reduced to little more than names on a page.
To be fair, Simmons does a pretty good job of describing Mountain Street’s most famous Saint Germain-des-Prés style watering hole (although she must be relying on archival sources, since le Bistro chez Lou Lou les bacchantes disappeared decades ago). When Leonard turns down the Governor General’s Award for Selected Poems, 1956-1968, we are informed, This was most unusual. Only one other winner in the past had refused the honour and its $2,500 purse—a French separatist who was making a political protest. No doubt . . . but which one? This lack of Québécois precision is fairly typical. Simmons doesn’t even seem to be aware that Cohen’s Montreal home is located in Le Plateau, reputedly the second most livable neighbourhood on earth.
As for her subject’s literary career, the author is respectful but not much more. After the publication of The Energy of Slaves, she devotes only a few more pages to her subject’s poetic and prosaic effusions. And in regard to Beautiful Losers, she clearly has no idea what to make of Cohen’s literary masterpiece. Instead, she largely focuses on its initial lack of success (yet my 1976 vintage paperback boasts of half a million copies in print).
Still, even if I’m Your Man gradually betrays its early promise as a literary biography, it never ceases to register as spritely pop journalism. Those who tend to think of Leonard Cohen as a prophet must be given pause by the knowledge that, in addition to Judaism and Zen, the man has serially embraced the tents of core Hinduism, Scientology, and even the catastrophic philosophy of Immanuel Velikovsky, a style of spiritual infidelity that eerily shadows the carnal impulse to be nobody’s man for very long. This old smoothie remains as cagey as ever in regard to his complicated relationships with his mother and other women, and it is easy to guess why his openness to all forms of religious expression is counterpointed by an equal suspicion of the more intrusive forms of psychoanalysis. Always quick with a quip, Leonard continues to play his cards close to his vest, and the wittiness of his responses tends to stifle probing inquiry (when I asked him why he thought he was the most popular singer in Poland, after a moment’s reflection, the poet replied, Over there, they have this tradition of liking ugly guys who can’t sing). This sort of gentle self-deprecation has prevented a lot of rocks from being overturned.
In Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre, the line between transcendental truthfulness and the snake oil con is often razor-thin. No doubt this is the secret of his abiding appeal. Or, as the poet warned in one of his famous lyrics, I told you when I came, I was a stranger. As the years pass, it looks increasingly as if he’ll leave as one, too