Translate

Google+ Followers

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Various Positions - Ira Nadel

Various Positions: A Life of Leonard CohenVarious Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen by Ira B. Nadel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I am finally getting around to reading this biography which I was asked to review when it first came out in 1996. At the time I was distracted by several factual errors that jumped out at me when I started reading it -- and which caused me to doubt the value of the whole book. I felt it was a staid rehashing of the already well-known (at least to me) facts of Leonard's career and life, by someone who didn't really "get" him, i.e. Nadel did a workmanly job of presenting the material, often without comment, as if he neither particularly liked nor disliked his subject. This time around, I'm impressed mainly by the quantity of his research, e.g. his quoting from Cohen's letters during his the early part of his career when he was struggling to make a name for himself and carve out a position in Canadian literature. In retrospect, his efforts to be taken seriously as a novelist and poet seem almost futile, given the hidden background, and what he was up against. I still see Cohen as a serious writer, whose novels and poems can be read as a multi-faceted assault on the society he had grown up in - but were marred by a kind of narcissistic self-obsession that was probably a cover for some real wounds that few could have fathomed back then.

I've written my own memoir of Cohen: The Man Next Door (available at Lulu.com). It deals with some of my own experiences with Cohen, on the streets of Montreal as I was coming of age, and later on Hydra and Mount Baldy as I got drawn deeper into the mystery religion that he seemed to embody. Since it ends on a bizarre note, I'm now the process of adding more chapters that are based on later realizations, some of which I've been posting at my blog (http://lunamoth1.blogspot.ca) since Leonard's death last November.

Re: Various Positions: one thing that makes it stand out is the raw objectivity some readers complain about. In particular, the chapters about life on Hydra, and Cohen's letters to friends and publishers, reveal sides of him that would shock a lot of his current fans and devotees. I think they probably shocked even Ira Nadel, who serves them up without comment. In fact, the young Cohen was often an obnoxious, self-obsessed megalomaniac who took drugs to deal with his frustrated ambitions. Nadel's biography at least makes it clear why Cohen was both envied and disliked in Canada: he was a braggart addicted to self-aggrandizing hyperbole. Somehow, Europeans were able to overlook this and focus on his songs, some of which were major works of art.

A whole fetishistic cult has lately grown up around him that is often based on trivia, and borders on sanctification -- especially at sites like Cohencentric.com where you can waste hours browsing through old photos, napkins and witty remarks to visited journalists. No singer has ever been more interviewed in his lifetime, and since his death no detail about Cohen's life is too boring to share with his legions of would-be lovers who never had the opportunity in real life to get to know him. But the real Cohen was a puzzle.

He also left behind an unfinished career as a writer -- choosing to reinvent himself in New York, London and Paris, where he could hide behind his image as a sophisticated, likeable iconoclast.

It's the Canadian chapters that are painful to read. I believe Cohen had a message for Canada that he found too overwhelming - which is one reason he had to write Beautiful Losers while high on amphetamines. I don't think anyone ever really penetrated to the core of his fiction, what it was actually about, what it was a screen for - not even Cohen himself. Canadian critics like Northrop Frye liked to suppress the ugly truths in the early poems and novels, calling them 'mythopeic' when in fact they were often closer to straight reportage about a country that was harbouring Nazis and engaging in secret genocide. Those were the real, deep reasons Leonard Cohen felt driven to write -- but Canada didn't really want that kind of writer.

I have to thank Ira Nadel for bringing some of the guck to the surface. In a few years, Cohen's handlers will probably have managed to bury most of it - and with it, the true story of Canada.





View all my reviews

No comments: