Review A Ballet of Lepers by Leonard Cohen – violent literary debut | Fiction
Long before writing Famous Blue Raincoat or Last Year’s Man, Leonard Cohen already knew – with painful accuracy – who he wanted to be. In a short story from 1957, collected here for the first time, he details his 13-year-old “heroic vision” of a charismatic future character: low above intense eyes, a story of injustice in his heart, a face too noble for revenge, walking at night along a wet boulevard, followed by the sympathy of countless audiences.
Swap to ‘mid-70s’, take off the raincoat to reveal the sleek suit underneath, transport the life-scarred man from the wet boulevard to center stage, and here’s the Cohen I saw perform in 2008 , everything Leonard, 13, could have wished for.
A ballet of lepers is Cohen’s first novel rediscovered (at 112 pages, it’s more of a short story), accompanied by 16 short stories. Ranging from an unvarnished diary entry to an intergalactic episode of Twilight Zone, they come across as an endearing and motley bunch of essays. For the Cohen obsessive, there are fascinating insights into how he shapes himself. On almost every page you can find a picture that later blossomed into one of his songs. A jazz hipster character remarks: “It’s you who speaks, poet man, with your thin and dark volumes, thick as a forest, with breasts and thighs.
There are characteristic one-liners: “One thing is certain: I know how to relax in a bathtub.” And almost every story features a Cohen alter ego with romantic issues. In her biography, I’m Your Man, Sylvie Simmons beautifully describes these fictions as “stacked like Leonard Cohen dolls lined with infinitely reflecting and deviating mirrors.” The best of them, a trio anatomizing the perverse little life of a certain Mister Euemer, escapes this hell of introspection. Here, the effort after an existential profile subsides and Cohen writes more like a Montreal Maupassant: meandering but deeply moving.
If there is a central theme of this period in Cohen’s work, it is violence – physical and emotional violence, but more specifically violence against women. And it is the arrival of a master of violence that launches the action of A Leprosy Ballet. Like most short stories, it is set in the mid-1950s in Montreal. The first sentence recalls the opening of The Stranger by Albert Camus. Camus has “Today, mom is dead”. Cohen said “My grandfather came to live with me.” But even more than his existentialist contemporaries, Cohen seems to riff on Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground (“I’m sick…I’m an angry man. I’m an unattractive man”). Ugliness abounds, right from the deliberately grotesque title: ugly emotions, ugly actions.
Before the grandfather even left the station, he beat a policeman to the ground. “He danced around the body, waving his cane like a banner, spitting as he danced over the ailing, speechless man.” Later, reflecting on this, the narrator says, “I wasn’t disgusted. In fact, I laughed with a kind of admiration. And this admiration for violence only grows. But to act, he needs a victim. One is well located: Cagely, the porter from whom the narrator tries to recover his grandfather’s lost suitcase, whose ugliness marks him as impure. (The narrator cites a biblical precedent in Leviticus: “And the visible wound is deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is a leprosy plague: and the priest shall look upon him, and pronounce him unclean.”)
Along with the narrator’s stalking of Cagely and his grandfather’s monkey is his difficult coupling and uncoupling with his lover, Marylin. His rhapsodic speeches lift the novel out of realism and into allegory. “Tonight,” she said, “you are my ardent lover…I wouldn’t have traded that for the ravages of the most beautiful of swans.” 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 post-war Jewish masculinity.
At worst, A Ballet of Lepers is bitter and prodigious. The desired character speaks louder than the real man. “It happened, that’s all, it happened like it happened in Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz, and it will happen again… let’s say it’s a madman’s plan … but the madman is ourselves, the violent plans… they are all ours and we are not mad, we cry for purity and love.
This is the existential justification of the narrator of the previous scene, in which, while breaking off his engagement with Marylin, he beats her:
I punched his face. Her body began to twist and quiver 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 my knees. Suddenly the door opened and my grandfather was next to me and he was beating her too and she didn’t resist, I don’t think she resisted, she urged us to continue, begging us not to stop…
The novel culminates with three major plot inversions, all of which serve to destroy the narrator’s faith in violence. In the first, the narrator crashes into the grandfather as he beats their landlady with his cane. Rather than participating, as a guest (“I help you with Marylin, remember?”), the narrator turns his violence against his master. “I threw my fist into his enraged face, then into his stomach.”
In a Cohen song, we would tolerate and maybe even appreciate that, because there would be a killer air to it, and the voice delivering the blows would sound like that of a world expert on compassion. Stripped of troubadour glamour, he comes across – as Cohen clearly intended – far uglier than the hapless Cagely. But it’s the tinge of bitterness that’s most off-putting. To become the truly heroic man I saw in 2008, Cohen had to first win the love of those countless audiences and then overcome his need for love. Here are his first fascinating fights to push back and make love.