Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Fisher Library

The University of Toronto's Fisher Library is the final resting place of Leonard Cohen's manuscripts. As I happened to be in Toronto overnight last month, I decided to pay a visit to the collection on a rainy Thursday afternoon - which happened to be the only day the library remains open until 8 pm. Because of other appointments I had less than four hours to spend, but it was a start.

I was particularly interested in Cohen's early work. There were several boxes of unpublished writing, so I asked for the first three -- someone had been there ahead of me and they were already sitting on the trolley. Each was filled with folders usually consisting of a few pages -- sometimes many pages -- of manuscripts which either he or someone else had typed on "corraseable bond." Look that up if you don't know what it is -- when I was a creative writing student in the late sixties our professor recommended it to us. It freed us from sticky Taperaser and bottles of White-Out, those other tools of the trade. Leonard's early manuscripts are all neatly typed on this brittle pink-beige paper, using the same pica typeface, and much of the writing (as one might expect) is sophomoric - after all, he was a sophomore then -- and some of it is downright boring. In fact, for the first couple of hours, I struggled to stay awake. I had not been expecting that.

There were short stories. Not many. Neatly typed and formatted for submission to magazines like, let's say, The New Yorker or the Saturday Evening Post. Some title pages had his mother's address on Belmont Avenue in the top left-hand corner. Others were sent from a room on Stanley Street, just down the hill from McGill. I'm guessing Leonard rented a room downtown not just to write in, but also to entertain ladies, pursuing a career according to the guidelines laid out by Writers Digest for hardworking hacks in the 1950s. This was the era when writers all hankered after the kind of sudden, miraculous fame that was awarded to J.D. Salinger for his first novel Catcher in the Rye. It certainly beat going into the family clothing business.

Leonard's early plots are not lacking in Jewish angst. A young man is trying to get laid, and with the help of a more experienced friend, hires a call girl.The twist at the end, such as it is: on their first date he asks her to marry him, stealing her from the older man who brings them together -- .

Another story is set on a street in Westmount and concerns a naive teenage boy and the mysterious girl down the street who plays the recorder -- he calls it a "wooden-flute" which angers her so much she cracks him on the head with it. Although she's clearly a controlling bitch, even a budding sadist, he feels drawn to her garage, where he and a friend are controlled and punished by Recorder-Girl. This story feels autobiographical, like an attempt to fictionalize dull reality, but it peters out before going anywhere.

A third story was set in a boathouse in the Laurentians, and involved some voyeurism -- as the young Jewish protagonist attempts to entertain a French Canadian couple who are camping nearby, and ends up competing unsuccessfully with the man who is charming and handsome but as they"re speaking English, the Leonard-like character has a certain advantage. Wistfully he watches from a distance as the boy and girl embrace in their tent with the light on, casting shadows that make him feel envious and alone.

By the time I'd finished these three stories I was beginning to feel Leonard's life-long  battle with depression as if it were my own. The boredom and pointlessness were more than I'd bargained for. No wonder publishers rejected these stories which (to be honest) showed little sign of talent or creative imagination. The thought of young Leonard renting a downtown room for the purpose of  hammering out these turkeys made me feel faint. Stifled and conventional at an age most of us associate with risk and rebelliousness, he sought vicarious thrills in midnight strolls down Boulevard St-Antoine, peering into downtown windows.

Older women show up here and there in these vignettes -- that's what these were, rather than stories. In another, a young man is living at home with his mother and elderly grandfather who suffers from dementia, pees on the floor, and needs round the clock nursing care - apparently money is lacking and the narrator feels pervasive hopelessness in the face of a situation that offers no escape but death.

I got the sense that, while still an undergraduate, Leonard often felt helpless and trapped. But he kept on writing, because it offered a way out. He also wrote poems at that age, a few strong ones. The first to get published was the hair-raising "A Hallowe'en Poem" which describes a group of children who are sacrificing birds and small animals in their quiet suburban backyards -- it was published and drew a letter of praise from the rabbi of Hillel House. I'll get back to that theme - sacrifice - later because it's repeated.

Ballet of Lepers, his first (unpublished) novel, fills several folders in the collection and partly woke me from my stupour in the library. Rambling and unstructured, it provides surrealistic and violent glimpses into the mind of a disturbed young man who is losing his innocence. The characters include an old man modelled on Leonard's grandfather, and the young hero who is having an affair with the wife of one of his professors. There's plenty of desensitization, boredom and cruelty -- in fact these are major themes of the young Cohen's fiction. A hated and worshipped mother looms in the background, like the executioner of dreams.

Ballet of Lepers is nothing like The Favourite Game -- it's more of an account of a descent into mental illness. In reality, Leonard ended up in the Allan Memorial in 1958 under the care of the notorious Dr. Cameron. You might even think this strange confessional novella was concocted for the pshrinks rather than the public - it has that feel of something written to simulate madness.

I haven't even mentioned the drafts of early poems, some of which made it into Let Us Compare Mythologies -- they also leave a strange impression, of someone trying very hard to be a poet, as if his life depended on it. Biblical and mythopoeic themes meet tales of adultery and sadomasochism.
The professor and his wife show up in several folders, including one long short story which has three pages missing from the middle - just as things were heating up in the young protagonist's secret affair.

You want it darker? The library was closing - it was ten minutes to eight as I fished out the last folder, labeled DISCARDS from The Spice-Box of Earth. About a dozen poems in all, precise, polished pieces, describing a pagan ritual on the slopes of a mountain. A little girl, nine years old, is kneeling on the path. A horned figure. And a heart being pulled from a living body. Not just one poem, but several.The images flash by as if in a nightmare, cut from the final draft. Who discarded them: Leonard or his editor? Why?

The smiling librarian took back the box and wished me good night -- he had a slight German accent. There had been no time to copy the poems, or even reread them. They seemed to describe something witnessed, not imagined -- from the time when Dr. Cameron was running amok in the corridors of the Allan Memorial, long before the true nature of his experiments on patients was known.

The missing poems were dark glimpses into the elite secret society that he had joined at McGill.  The Spice Box of Earth went on to win the 1961 Governor General's Award for poetry, without those all-important, climactic pages.

I'm on a lake in northern Ontario, the kind of place Canadians used to go to write their brooding first novels -- The blackflies are biting -- it's getting darker. I'm going inside.


Painting by David Barclay, ca. 1990
Last night was quite a night. I watched Hitchcock's "Marnie" for the first time -- it's about early childhood sexual abuse, committed by a stranger, and a young woman who can't remember what happened to her. Then this morning I dreamed about Leonard.

We were on Hydra in the heat of summer. A house on "Donkeyshit Lane", the street of stone steps downhill from Leonard's. This house was grander, like a museum, filled with gleaming marble. I'd just dragged my luggage upstairs when Leonard walked in. He looked the way he did at 45, in 1979, my first visit to the island. But emotionally, something had shifted -- he had four more decades of insight and now he was ready to be open and honest. Ready even to listen. He agreed it was time for certain secrets to come out in the open.

We were talking in fluent Greek, for some reason. I had to lean in close to catch what he was saying, expressing thoughts and feelings he never would have in English. Light poured in through  windows and doorways, as in a temple. He said he had to leave "at four o'clock" but he would be back soon. He was wearing what looked like a uniform. In real life, he often phoned and asked me over just before he left for some appointment, that he would never talk about. I would sit at the kitchen table while he shaved in the bathroom, checking himself in the mirror before putting on his hat. Back then, he would fit me into a busy schedule and this habit has followed him into the next world.

In the dream, after he left I went out on the balcony where women were hanging out coloured sheets. One of them asked me if I spoke Greek -- I said yes. She held up her two white cats and asked if I could help remove two fat tics from their bellies.

The uniform sums up Leonard better than anything. He was always, secretly, in the military. Just look at those old photos from the sixties, taken on Hydra. He had a fondness for soldierly dress casuals.

As for those poems, and the secret societies, and his McGill contacts, and all that happened before he was famous: none of it is so farfetched once you know the secret history. In fact, I've heard it all before, from witnesses. I'm guessing there are plenty of clues in the boxes at the Fisher Library, and plenty that we'll never know.

So I'm guessing he had limited choices, given the world he came from. And that when you're born into that kind of background, your fate is pre-determined by all kinds of agreements and obligations. You can walk away, but there are consequences. Or you can kill yourself, but once you've put that option aside, you have to follow orders much of the time.

Irving Layton called him a self-hating narcissist -- that was also my view. Now I think it was that or a total breakdown. "They" -- whoever they were -- his uncles, bosses, handlers, mentors -- knew how to use blackmail. I think his life was actually a series of double binds. The more miserable he was with where he ended up, the better he looked from the outside, and the more envy he attracted.

Few understood what he was up against. "They don't know who they're dealing with," was one of his phrases, along with "they'll never catch us" or "If you don't know, I can't tell you" or "Why do you hate me? I never helped you."

Or "Vengeance is Mine, saith the Lord."

Once you step into an Avalanche, there is no stepping out. And anyone in the vicinity will get buried alive as well.