By Nathan Goldman
- Oct. 7, 2022
A BALLET OF LEPERS: A Novel and Stories, by Leonard Cohen
In 1963, four years before his first album, a promising young poetnamed Leonard Cohen released his debut novel, “The Favorite Game.” Jack McClelland, the Canadian publisher who’d enthusiastically issued Cohen’s second poetry collection, “The Spice-Box of Earth,” initially declined to put out the evocative yet disorderly bildungsroman; he felt it was marred by the egotism of a “first novel.” Cohen responded that the book was actually “a third novel disguised as a first”; though he hadn’t published them, by then he had already begun “Famous Havana Diary,” which he would never finish, and completed “A Ballet of Lepers,” which he once said was “probably a better novel” than “The Favorite Game.” But despite Cohen’s best efforts, it never appeared during his lifetime.
Six years after his death, this work is the centerpiece of a new collection of juvenilia compiled by the scholar Alexandra Pleshoyano, who also co-edited Cohen’s previous posthumous book, “The Flame.” “A Ballet of Lepers” sets the longer title piece alongside 15 short stories and one radio playscript, all written between 1956 and 1960, when Cohen was in his 20s. These early experiments are the most minor of Cohen’s minor fictional oeuvre. Fleetingly brilliant, they find him circling the subjects that would occupy him all his life — sex, violence, sacredness and the ecstatic moments when all of the above become indistinguishable — but struggling to find the fullest expression of his aesthetic.
“A Ballet of Lepers,” a grim fable with shades of Poe and Dostoyevsky, follows a 35-year-old bookkeeper living alone in a rented room in Montreal who is called upon to care for a grandfather he has never met. When the narrator witnesses this feeble newfound patriarch attacking a police officer at a train station, the display unleashes an amorphous, long-harbored fury. Soon the grandson finds himself threatening an irritating co-worker, manipulating his lover and instigating a campaign of cruelty against an unsuspecting baggage clerk. For the narrator, consumed by a desperate sense of destiny, brutality itself becomes a source of meaning. He associates his petty barbarity with world-historical horrors — “it happened,” he muses, “just as Buchenwald happened, and Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz” — even as it fills him with an unsettling affection for humanity. “We will say that it is the plan of a madman, the idea of a madman; but the madman is ourselves.”
While the novel is stirring in its almost mythological simplicity, compelling in its portrait of deranged rapture, intelligently attuned to the seductions and self-delusions of false transcendence, it is also structurally clumsy, hindered by a climactic twist and mechanically staged stock characters. The women, especially — the narrator’s severe landlady, his naïve lover, Marylin, and the baggage clerk’s conniving adulteress wife — are underimagined, often collapsing into tiresome archetypes.
These same flaws afflict the more mature “The Favorite Game” (Cohen’s own ranking notwithstanding) and its 1966 follow-up, “Beautiful Losers,” as well as the short fiction collected in “A Ballet of Lepers.” But unlike the early novel, many of these stories are built around striking images of frailty and desire. In “Polly,” two 11-year-olds rendezvous in a dark garage while a friend plays the recorder, unwittingly providing the soundtrack to their ambling intimacy; in “A Week Is a Very Long Time,” which bears a distinct resemblance to a passage in “The Favorite Game,” two lovers witness the slaying of a cat from a hotel window. These scenes express the same subtle sense for life that animates songs like “Chelsea Hotel #2” or “Hallelujah.” In his lyrics, Cohen took the melodrama and solipsism that plagued his prose and alchemized them into something more moving and mysterious.
Once he turned to songwriting, Cohen set fiction aside. Perhaps it was a purely strategic decision, or maybe he ultimately understood that it was not his form. If the pieces gathered in “A Ballet of Lepers” testify to this, they nonetheless offer nascent glimmers of his inimitable artistic vision: intimate yet aloof, trembling with weakness even as it aches toward wisdom.