Saturday, November 26, 2016

10th Canadian Challenge - 9th Review - Beautiful Losers

News of Leonard Cohen's death made me regret not seeing him on his last (or even second-last) tour.  A friend of mine did go and said that it was an extended concert and Cohen was a very generous performer.  Fortunately, the Live in Dublin CD set does a pretty good job representing what this tour was like for those in attendance.

I decided to revisit his most famous novel, Beautiful Losers.  I vaguely remembered reading it many years ago, but it didn't really stick with me.  Having reread it, I think the reason it didn't stick is there is essentially no plot at all in the book.  This is a very stylized examination of a strange and unhealthy love triangle between the unnamed narrator, his wife Edith and F., with three or four pages of actual "plot" filled out with pages upon pages of digressions about Catherine (or Kateri) Tekakwitha, a Mohawk saint from the 17th Century who ended up dying near Montreal.  Wikipedia has a fair bit about her short life, almost all of which was relayed in Beautiful Losers.

Maybe it is unfair asking what a novel is supposed to be about or, essentially, why did the author bother to write it, but this issue does come up with highly experimental novels.  Why did Cohen bother to write this novel about sexual deviance and then bring in Quebec nationalism and the pages upon pages about Tekakwitha?  It seems an intentional linkage between the separatism of the day (marked by the rise of the FLQ) and the madness of F., the narrator's friend/foil,* which seems a strange position to take for someone from Montreal, particularly one who had friends in the independence movement.  (I've spent a bit of time delving into the subject and Cohen doesn't seem to have ever committed to or condemned the idea of an independent Quebec.  This may or may not reflect his dual outsider status in Quebec as an Anglophone and a Jew.)  Or maybe Cohen was commenting upon the role of the Catholic church in Quebec (just as MacLennan had done in Two Solitudes) and the subtext was that Quebec still wasn't ready for independence until it had finally broken free from the church.  In any event, it isn't at all clear what Cohen is going for here.

I'm not sure I was ever shocked by the sex scenes in the novel, but there are a lot of them.  I was honestly fairly bored the second time around, though in the second section there was an overheated (yet somewhat amusing) description of a Danish vibrator that seemed to have escaped from Burroughs's Naked Lunch. I'll be honest and say that this really isn't a novel that has aged particularly well, and if you don't like lurid sex scenes then this is definitely a novel to avoid.  I suspect I would have enjoyed The Favourite Game (Cohen's first, less experimental novel) more, but I will have to wait a while to find out.

One thing that is worth retaining from the novel is the example of how one person can have a Svengali-like hold on another, in this case F. has a tight grip on the narrator (often literally as well as figuratively).  This could be a general charismatic charm that affects a number of people (to some extent we see this in Dostoevsky's Demons where Stepan Trofimovich is almost as popular as Richard the Lion-Hearted and also there is a bit of charismatic manipulation going on in Bell's Waiting for the End of the World) or a more intimate bond between outsiders.  Sexual attraction is more often implied than made explicit, as it is here.  Novels written from the perspective of a disciple of an unsung genius definitely fall into this category.  I'm having a little trouble coming up with some off the top of my head, but Wilhelm Foldal in Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman sort of fits the bill.  In some cases, this connection goes too far and inverts itself and becomes a passionate hatred, which is seen in Kroetsch's The Studhorse Man.  The bond between the narrator and F. becomes so intense that Edith more or less drops out of the novel and is far from a fully-realized character.  (In fact, we learn she dies in an elevator accident only a few pages in, but almost the entire novel is told through flashbacks, so being dead is actually not a hindrance.)

Edit (12/26):  I debated setting up a separate review for Stranger Music, which is large volume of selected poems and song lyrics.  However, I found that I really didn't care for the poems, and it's quite difficult to review song lyrics when they are just printed on the page (they still are quite brilliant as songs).  In the end, I only liked a small handful of poems from Flowers for Hitler and none from the other collections.  So I'll just pass over this book in relative silence.

* There is almost the same weird vibe between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski explored in My Best Fiend, though the connection in Beautiful Losers is explicitly sexual as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment