Leonard Cohen’s A Ballet of Lepers review – allusions to immortality | Short stories

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Jhis collection of early Leonard Cohen fiction – a short story and 15 short stories, plus a play script – was written between 1956 and 1961, before Cohen really considered himself a songwriter or performer. He only released his first record in 1967, when he was 33 years old. Most of the tracks could be classified as unreleased youth, except, of course, the composer of Famous Blue Raincoat and Hallelujah was never quite young and carefree.

The title track, written when Cohen was 22 and a graduate student in law at McGill University in Montreal, justifies the decision to bring these things to light and not just for the insights it offers into the artist. that Cohen was to become. The short story is a bizarre confessional — it’s hard to imagine Cohen writing anything other than in the first person — involving a young office worker, his occasional lover Marylin, and the old Jewish “Grampa” who arrives unannounced to share his room. apartment in Montreal. It has a subliminal rhyme that, one might say, sets the gritty tone of speech for the next 60 years: “My grandfather came to live with me. There was nowhere for him to go. What had happened to his children? Death, decadence, exile, I don’t know. My own parents died of pain. But I mustn’t be too sullen at first, or you’ll leave me, and that’s, I guess, what I dread the most. Who would start a story if they knew it would end with a climbing chariot or a cross?

As always in Cohen’s work, this inherited sense of anxiety, tragedy and religious sentiment – ​​his uncle was the unofficial chief rabbi of Montreal, his maternal grandfather a famous rabbinical scholar – comes face to face with a dark spirit and to the intoxicating, unsettling freedoms of the sexual revolution to come. Marylin, the name itself a harbinger, fits the archetype of many of the author’s later muses, idealized, inaccessible and ultimately rejected. The comedy of their initial couplings, in which she is both his addiction and his torment and their pillow talk sometimes takes on the cadences of the Song of Songs, may sound like early Philip Roth. Their affair, however, is quashed by the presence of grandfather, spitting, shitting, swearing, and beating with his cane, in whose company Cohen’s narrator loses his own inhibition and begins to match his guest in violence and breaking. taboos.

What follows is a curious and compulsive examination of the limits of honesty and cruelty. Taking the example of his grandfather, the narrator becomes briefly and disturbingly sadistic towards a stranger, then towards his lover and his landlady; a sort of bohemian Canadian Raskolnikov. Cohen made four complete drafts of the book before abandoning it. You can see why the short story – poetically shrewd and quite psychologically unbalanced – never found a publisher in the mid-1950s, but also why Cohen considered it a more interesting book than his later more conventional novels, favorite game and handsome losersnearly a decade later.

This trajectory could also be traced in the stories that follow in this collection. Some were written in Montreal, others after Cohen had moved to the island of Hydra in Greece. There are familiar refrains, connection and lack of connection, intimacy and all of its detailed annoyances. One story concerns the complicated effects of a wife’s leg shaving ritual on her husband’s libido. Here’s an exchange from One Week is Very Long that could serve to sum up the Montreal years: “She closed her eyes against her arm, ‘Oh, it’s been a great week.’ He said, ‘You are beautiful.’ She said, ‘Are we ever going to do this again?’ “Maybe you’re too beautiful,” he said, because he didn’t want to say anything else.

At the same time as he was writing these stories, Cohen was also writing poetry, with greater success, including, after his time in Greece, some of the lyrics – Suzanne and Sisters of Mercy – which would appear on his debut album. To read the latest stories here is to see his attention drift away from the form; what he calls his “heart of a jukebox” was already somewhere else.

A ballet of lepers by Leonard Cohen is published by Canongate (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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