HomeUKA Ballet of Lepers by Leonard Cohen review – violent literary beginnings

A Ballet of Lepers by Leonard Cohen review – violent literary beginnings

Long before he wrote Famous Blue Raincoat or Last Year’s Man, Leonard Cohen already knew – with painful exactness – who he wanted to be. In a short story dating from 1957, collected here for the first time, he details his 13-year-old self’s “heroic vision” of a charismatic future persona: “I was a man in the middle-twenties, raincoated, battered hat pulled low above intense eyes, a history of injustice in his heart, a face too noble for revenge, walking the night along some wet boulevard, followed by the sympathy of countless audiences.”

Swap in “mid-70s”, take off the raincoat to reveal the natty suit beneath, transport the life-bruised man from wet boulevard to centre stage, and behold the Cohen I saw perform in 2008, everything the 13-year-old Leonard might have wished for.

A Ballet of Lepers is Cohen’s rediscovered first novel (at 112 pages, it’s more a novella), accompanied by 16 short stories. Ranging from an unvarnished journal entry to an intergalactic Twilight Zone episode, they come across as an endearingly ragtag bunch of tryouts. For the Cohen obsessive, there are fascinating glimpses into his self-fashioning. On almost every page, you can find an image that later blossomed in one of his songs. A jazz hipster character remarks: “You’re the one to talk, poet man, with your slim obscure volumes, thick as a forest, with breasts and thighs.”

There are characteristic one-liners: “One thing is sure: I know how to relax in a bathtub.” And almost all the stories feature a Cohen alter ego having romantic trouble. In her biography, I’m Your Man, Sylvie Simmons describes these fictions beautifully as “stacked up like mirror-lined Leonard Cohen dolls reflecting, and deflecting, ad infinitum”. The best of them, a trio anatomising the small, perverse life of one Mister Euemer, escapes this hell of self-reflection. Here, the straining after an existential profile lets up and Cohen writes more like a Montréal Maupassant: twisty but deeply affecting.

If there’s a central theme to this period in Cohen’s work, then it’s violence – physical and emotional violence, but more specifically violence against women. And it is the arrival of a master of violence that kicks off the action of A Ballet of Lepers. Like most of the short stories, it’s set in mid-1950s Montréal. The first sentence recalls the opening of Albert Camus’ L’Étranger. Camus has “Today, mother died.” Cohen has “My grandfather came to live with me.” But even more than his existentialist contemporaries, Cohen seems to be riffing on Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (“I am a sick man … I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man”). Ugliness abounds, from the deliberately grotesque title onwards: ugly emotions, ugly actions.

Before the grandfather has even left the train station, he has beaten a policeman to the floor. “He danced around the body, waving his cane like a banner, spitting as he danced on the suffering, speechless man.” Later, mulling this over, the narrator says: “I was not disgusted. Actually, I laughed with a kind of admiration.” And that admiration for violence only grows. But in order to be acted upon, it needs a victim. One is duly located: Cagely, the baggage clerk from whom the narrator tries to reclaim his grandfather’s lost suitcase, whose ugliness marks him as impure. (The narrator quotes biblical precedent in Leviticus: “and the plague in sight be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is a plague of leprosy: and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean”.)

Running in parallel to the narrator’s stalking of Cagely, and his aping of his grandfather, is his fraught coupling and uncoupling with his lover, Marylin. Her rhapsodic speeches lift the novel out of realism and into allegory. “Tonight,” she says, “you are my ardent lover … I wouldn’t have traded this for the ravages of the loveliest swan.” In this allegory, Marylin is Beauty, Cagely is Impurity, the grandfather is Violence, and the narrator – a more confused figure – is Love or Art or Postwar Jewish Masculinity.

At its worst, A Ballet of Lepers is bitter and portentous. The desired persona speaks louder than the actual man. “It happened, that is all, it happened just as Buchenwald happened, and Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz, and it will happen again … we will say that it is the plan of a madman … but the madman is ourselves, the violent plans … they are all our own and we are not mad, we are crying for purity and love.”

This is the narrator’s existential justification of the previous scene, in which, while breaking off his engagement to Marylin, he beats her:

I struck her face. Her body began to writhe and tremble in an orgy of pain and sexual intoxication.

“Beat me,” she pleaded.

I beat her, and I beat her, with my fists and my arms, with my head and knees. Suddenly, the door opened and my grandfather was beside me and he was beating her too and she did not resist, I do not think that she resisted, she urged us to continue, pleading with us not to stop …

The novel climaxes with three major plot reversals, all of which serve to destroy the narrator’s trust in violence. In the first, the narrator crashes in on the grandfather as he beats their landlady with his cane. Rather than join in, as invited (“I help you with Marylin, remember?”), the narrator turns his violence on his master. “I threw my fist into his enraged face and then into his stomach.”

In a Cohen song, we would tolerate and perhaps even enjoy this, because there would be a killer tune, and the voice delivering the beating would sound like that of a world expert on compassion. Stripped of the troubadour’s glamour, it appears – as Cohen clearly intended – far more ugly than the hapless Cagely. But it’s the taint of bitterness that is most offputting. In order to become the truly heroic man I saw in 2008, Cohen had first of all to win the love of those countless audiences, and then overcome his need for it. Here are his first, fascinating struggles to repulse and to endear.

Toby Litt’s A Writer’s Diary is appearing daily on Substack, and will be published by Galley Beggar in January 2023. A Ballet of Lepers by Leonard Cohen is published by Canongate (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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