Cohen, Leonard

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Last Updated on September 2, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1834

Cohen, Leonard 1934–

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Cohen is a Canadian poet, novelist, songwriter, and singer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

The Favorite Game …, written by a young Montreal poet, Leonard Cohen, is doubly familiar because in addition to describing the position of a young Jew in his native but forever-alien land (French-Canadian Montreal), the author has obviously drawn on the available wealth of sad-young-men literature of the West. Goethe's Werther, Turgenev's "superfluous man," Flaubert's Frédéric Moreau, and all the hordes of lost youths of our own country described by such writers as Anderson, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe have contributed their tradition and their peculiar nostalgic bouquet to The Favorite Game. Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise is most strongly evoked here, because of the journal-style, the poetry fillers, and the emphasis on adolescent love.

But Cohen goes much farther than Fitzgerald or the other American writers in pointing up the painful constrictions of the callow hero's attitudes toward people and places. Where, for example, Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise reveals through his troubled questings the complexities of an era (America from the turn of the century to the end of the first world war), the sociological nuances of a particular social class (the eastern Catholic aristocracy), and the emotional makeup of a sensitive youth learning about women, Cohen's Lawrence Breavman reveals only a set of rudimentary responses, despite the fact that he is a successful poet. He hates his wealthy, sanctimonious uncles, can't stand his nagging, neurotic mother, is attached to his boyhood chum Krantz, and lusts insatiably after every available female….

The Favorite Game, which ends with Breavman wandering aimlessly around Montreal without money, women, or plans for the future, presents Breavman's taking Martin under his wing and defending him against the outside world, as the high point of his career. With the compassion of Philip Roth in Letting Go (1962), an intricate study of parent-children relationships, Cohen has given his itinerant, fatuous and self-alienated young poet a moment of greatness.

Samuel I. Bellman, in Congress Bi-Weekly, December 30, 1963, pp. 12, 17.

[The] pop art which most moves Cohen and provides not the subject so much as the mythology which informs his work is not films and television, but comic books and pop music. Superman and Ray Charles inhabit his imagination…. And he is quite properly, therefore, a successful writer of pop songs …, in addition to being a poet and novelist. As a matter of fact, I find his song lyrics (in "Suzanne," for instance, and especially "The Sisters of Mercy") more valid than his book-poetry, because the former have found contemporary occasions which justify their pathos and sentimentality, whereas the latter seem moved merely by nostalgia for certain lapsed Romantic styles. He works, at any rate, not in the middlebrow arena of Richler, in which pop and avant-garde are felt as complementary threats, but the new post-Modernist world in which the old distinctions between low and high art, mass culture and belles-lettres have lapsed completely—and it is therefore, blessedly impossible to be either alienated or outrageous. Vision replaces satire in that world, which aims at transforming consciousness rather than reforming manners….

Cohen does not make dirty jokes at all, certainly not dirty jokes at the expense of what is advanced or experimental, but tries instead to blur the boundaries between the clean and the dirty, even as he has those between serious art and popular entertainment. Or, perhaps, the former is only a particular case of the latter since it is the end of "porn" as an underground, secretly relished genre which books like Beautiful Losers threaten. For it is to a place before or beyond...

(The entire section contains 1834 words.)

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