Leonard: A Memoir

Leonard Cohen was my mentor, my encourager and one of my favorite heroes. 

I met him when I first came to Hydra, a rock island in the Aegean where, because it bakes in the sun without much relief from trees, summer seems even hotter than in the rest of Greece.

Like others in the foreign community I hung out at Bill’s, a bar run by a public-school educated Englishman who, though he was a friend of Leonard’s, and though, as I later learned, Leonard had financed the enterprise (“I’ll go down to Bill’s Bar, / I can still make it that far”), didn’t care for his lugubrious music. Bill was a Django-Fred Astaire guy, and played Leonard Cohen tapes only when Leonard was around.

Like so many other young writers, I gave Leonard something of mine to read. He accepted it graciously, and I supposed that was the end of it, but he came in a few days later and said, “I read your piece—which I fully intended to ignore—and got so involved that I couldn’t leave it to take a piss, and I really had to piss!”

What a charmer. The island opened its arms to me, I spent more and more time on it, and lived there for a few years. Eventually I ran out of money and moved into Athens to teach at the American College, but that’s another story. For me Hydra represents Paradise, not least because it was a sexual romp. Those were days before the new diseases, and the new Victorianism, and it was copulation on an Olympic scale. One did stretching exercises between encounters, and had (as the Americans say) “multiple” partners each day.

Ah, yes.
A no-car island
And of course, Leonard was the poet of the orgiastic. His achievement, in so much of his work, is to treat bare lust with wistful tenderness.

We took ourselves to someone’s bed,
And there we fell together.
Quick as dogs, and truly dead were we—
And free as running water…
The way it’s got to be, my lover.

Having so many ladies raises the problem how to say good-bye, his central theme. He remarks in The Favourite Game that John Donne’s poem of farewell, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” is the very essence of poetry. “Hey, that’s no way to say good-bye.” Leonard said a lot of them. For him it was a sin not to:

But I lingered on her thighs a fatal moment.
I kissed her lips as though I hungered still.
My falsity, it stung me like a hornet.
The poison sank and it paralyzed my will.

—“will” in the Elizabethan sense, as in “willy,” as in Will shaking his big spear.

One late night at Bill’s he told me the story of “What Does a Woman Want,” which I have tried to reproduce here as closely as possible in his style of phrasing.

I went to see him when he was preparing to leave the island in his costume of choice at the time, dark gray suit, T-shirt and black cowboy boots. The suit had suffered some stains and he was touching it up with Magic Marker. “They’ll never get me,” he said, giving me his wicked smile.
Marianne bathing on The Rock
Shall I tell you what he was? He was gorgeous. (See Gorgeousness.) Not that he thought so. One of his poems speaks of hours in the mirror. “You hide your double chin, even from yourself.” At his tryst with Janis Joplin,

You told me again you preferred handsome men
but for me you would make an exception.
And clenching your fist for the ones like us
who are oppressed by the figures of beauty,
you fixed yourself, you said, "Well never mind,
we are ugly but we have the music."

But he was an undaunted man of action. That’s one reason he admired Hemingway:

The judges said you missed it by a fraction.
Rise up and brace yourself for the attack.
The dreamers ride against the men of action.
Oh, see the men of action falling back.

I love Hemingway too (see Hemingway for Wimps), and Leonard, and action, but my own models were dreamers like Fellini (see Fellini), Robbe-Grillet and Bunuel, not to mention Shakespeare, in whose sea we all swim—adapted, of course, to my musical-comedy mind. I'm too impressionable to have any state of mind for more than a few minutes, but that's my default setting.

Leonard constantly assured me I was going to “hit” (I’m still waiting, Leonard), and I wish I could claim him as an influence. But we were playing different games, and he didn’t altogether approve of mine, which involved frivolity and laughter and je-m'en-foutisme. Though he could be extremely funny himself, in person and in print (Beautiful Losers is a great comic novel), he had a grain of seriousness in him that looked askance at the purely comic.

Whence the seriousness? For one thing this Orthodox Jewish boy had fallen in love with the Catholicism of his beloved Montreal, all those plastic virgins on taxi dashboards. Saint Catherine is the main east-west street there, and Beautiful Losers is about the Indian saint we suppose it's named after, Kateri Tekakwitha, and the Jesuits. “Homage to the Jesuits” he says, and their “thirst for souls.”

This was Leonard’s thirst too. World domination was his passion. He wanted all the women, all the fans. He idolized Jesus for that reason, and he idolized Hitler. Oh, yeah. His early book of poems, Flowers for Hitler, goes some way to humanize the Führer. And when the lovers in Beautiful Losers go to Rio, they find him in their beach hotel working as a waiter.

(Which reminds me, his favorite actor was Dirk Bogarde. One thinks of The Night Porter.)

“I was born with the gift of a golden voice.” He’s not talking about his voice voice, though well he might—it’s a superb instrument. He’s talking about his power as a poet. “My voice,” he says in one of his poems, “is in you like a hook.”

A mutual friend met him walking down Fifth Avenue just after the Wall came down, and said, “Isn’t it great?” “My song did it,” said Leonard. He took Berlin.

On the island, though, he was sweet, modest, polite. Good manners were his style.
Donkeyshit Lane, coming down from Leonard's place: "Our steps will always rhyme."
The second source of his seriousness was his scholarly, almost his rabbinical Jewishness. For a brief time he was an Israeli soldier, and saw action. He shocked me, and I let him know it, when he spoke in favor of vengeful bloodletting in Lebanon. Never fond of Islam, he yet had a grudging respect for the Muslim habit of covering women up. “They know that’s all we think about.”

In a late poem he speaks to himself (he’s always speaking to himself) of an insect on his table: “It pleased you not to want to want to kill it.” The “pleased you” is self-mocking; the usual thing is to crush the little fuckers. But then we hear God talking: You are the insect, “so busy in the light of my eyes,” and the “pleased you” resounds as a prayer—May it please you, my Lord—to himself.

He has a wonderful way of pivoting on a word like that:

Thanks for the trouble you took
From her eyes.

His album title, Various Positions (I saw it for the first time in a Tel Aviv shop window) made me laugh out loud.

The third source of his seriousness was depression, which plagued him all his life, for which he was on prescription drugs, and which was the source of some of his best work. “Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows.” He could get way down.
With Suzanne, not the one in the song, but the mother of his children. L suspected she had family in the Jewish mafia, which tickled him.
When I showed him Mortal Coil, he didn’t entirely approve of a book that made fun of death and the dead. “I understand the position,” he allowed—but then came up with a line from near the end of the book (he always read them through, bless him) that amused him: “Don’t worry about photographs of yourself. You don’t look like that.” This matched his taste for directness and simplicity.

He told me once that the ten commandments as they’re written in Deuteronomy have nothing of the formal Thou-shalt-not about them, but are simple colloquial speech: Don’t do that. This is how you reach people, with simple language and simple experiences—sex, God, doing the dishes. Leonard used his intellectual gifts to be pop culture. Beautiful Losers is a submission to pop culture as a spiritual discipline, Ray Charles running his fingers down a cosmic keyboard at the climax.

Leonard wanted to reach everybody. He wanted, as who does not, to be God—and was determined to make good on it. What state of mind is a man in who names his son Adam?

(When his kids came to visit, he was helpless with them. He gave Adam, who was then a scrappy twelve-year-old, Mortal Coil, presumably to keep him occupied. “I like the ‘jokers,’” Adam told me—the name my undertaker calls the corpses. Lorca, two years younger, threw tantrums and threatened to kill herself—not because of my book. Leonard approached her with desperate caution: “Hi, darling!”)

He consulted a fortune-teller once, a palmist, who told him he was going to lose all his money. Here Leonard did influence me: he went into detail about the experience—inking the palms, recording the experience—that I used in The President’s Palm Reader. Decades later Leonard did lose all his money; his assistant in LA cleaned out his bank account and absconded—who knows where she is now?—forcing him to go on tour again. “It would be funny,” he said, “if it happened to somebody else.”

The palmist told him, “You will always be moving between the monastery and the brothel,” and yes, from beginning to end, that was Leonard. In The Favourite Game his teenage alter ego, on discovering sex, looks down from Westmount at the morning city and wonders why anybody’s going to work.
My street
In a poem of later years he declares in prose that the image of a naked woman appears to the average middle-aged man every fifteen seconds. “Where did you get that?” I said. “From Masters and Johnson.” Nietzsche, the Bible, Masters and Johnson—and much more, of course, but these were on his mind.

And he was the hero of the sexual impulse right down to the end: “I was just a tourist in your bed, looking at the view.” What are we going to do without him to defend us against the new puritanism?

We stayed in touch via the posts and film reviews I email to my list of people.

Blog is great.
Just wanted to join the applause.

About Woman in Gold and Helen Mirren’s Body:

Great work, bro
The whole 9 yards
L

Last I heard from him, he said (in verse form, naturally):

the old vehicle has sprung a few leaks
in and out of the shop these days
not much use on the road

That was June last year. I checked in a few weeks ago and didn’t get an answer. Now I know why.

He won some prizes. The Governor General’s Award he didn’t accept. To my private relief he wasn’t offered the Nobel for Literature, which is a guarantee of mediocrity—and perhaps also a consolation prize. Faulkner won because he just wasn’t Joyce. (The poor judges, what would they have done if they’d had to read Joyce? Faulkner they had in translation, but how do you translate Joyce?) Beckett won because he just wasn’t Kafka. And Dylan won because he just wasn’t Leonard.

His best friend on Hydra was George L, who looked like the president of the world. First time I met him I said, “So, George, what do you do?” He said, “Well, Bob, I don’t do anything.” Hah! I loved him. I wrote a roman-à-clef about him, and about the island (here it is), in which he’s murdered. Somebody came across him reading it in a café. He said, “I’m trying to find out how I die.” Now he knows—he’s gone too. His daughter’s an actress, though, and I’m making a movie with her.

Let me finish with a long-ago poem I wrote about Leonard:

Here is my plaster statue
Of Leonard Conen,
Best thing groanin.
His spirit is off
Being true to itself
Or possibly trying to renew itself
While here in the silence
I bow my head in homage
To what I have briefly become
To see if I could use,
And muse.

Monkish whorer
I loved your contradictions.
So purely you burn
For fifteen-old girls
(How can I live in the world with your exploits?),
So neatly fold yourself
Into your disciplines.
Everything is a discipline,
It's tiresome
And I don't care for purity.

Doubting psalmist,
Failed saint,
Rabbinical Jesuit
Hearing your own confession
(There can little interfere
Between your mouth and your ear),
Behind each a clinical depression.
Fearer and trembler,
Comforter of puberty,
The bride still unravished,
The song less new.

Hitler groupie
(Who else believed you?),
Israeli warrior,
Meditator,
Partisan hater,
Priest of pop liturgy
Praying for power and
The Arab veil,
The preferred fate for your sister.
Chemistry-set tradition-monger,
Star without capped teeth.
Interesting, if fetal.

Aspirant slave
Who would bribe exaltation,
The soul's, the body's,
With prostration—
It falls off me.

I prefer not to grovel
Unless at gunpoint
Or its equivalent.
No doubt I'll learn.

Retreat meanwhile
To an uncandled niche
In the cathedral,
Bleed in the dark
Like my mother,
Quietly reproach my arrogance
When some whim
Brings me in
From the glaring street
For cool incensed air
And a friendly ceiling,
A ten-minute tourist of your pain.

(For more such in-depth literary criticism, see Nobody Left to Read.)

Leaonard's response to the poem was to lend me money. Which I never repaid. I hope he’s someplace where he doesn’t need it.

Pleasure in Paris

We Anglo-Saxons have no cuisine but meat and potatoes. Cowboy food. Our one culinary contribution—and it’s not a bad one—is fish and chips. But how much fish and chips can you eat?

So when an Anglo gets to Paris, he trembles. (I cannot speak for the stronger sex.) Of course Greece has spoiled me for good. The olive oil. (I put olive oil on everything; I put it on French fries.) The garlic. The roast brains and kidneys, topped of course with olive oil. And the fruit, my God, the fruit—two meals of it a day.
Right now it’s fig season. Figs don’t travel, so you can’t have them unless you’re here. Royal figs, native to Attica and the islands, are unknown even in Thessaloniki, and are an ecstasy on a par with the stronger drugs. Almost certainly they were the forbidden fruit of Paradise; you can’t eat them without feeling guilty.
But occasionally one must interrupt one pleasure for another, and go to Paris. Which I did yesterday—in in the morning, out in the evening, scooting past potential bomb sites—for a meeting. And it was sort of a relief: from hundred-degree Athens to seventy-degree Paris. Heat is my proper habitat, but a change is nice. From sun to a dark sky: it kept threatening to rain, but it didn’t. And a chance to wear my jacket!
Before the meeting I found myself in the magnificent Place de Rio de Janeiro and succumbed to the urge to have something at the Valois, across from an entrance to the Parc Monceau. Vistas of pleasure all around. What other city has such harmonious buildings on a human scale? Venice, I guess.

Congratulating myself (as when do I not?), I partook of a foie gras de canard mi-cuit with quince and pimento—exquisite! un-uneatable!—a brioche pur beurre and a glass of white Bourdin Samur 2014 (big deal).
From the Pont des Arts: Le Seine et moi, L'Institut et moi, le Louvre et moi. "Moi, moi, moi"! Ah, oui.
Then the meeting. Then the stroll along the Seine. I don’t feel like I’ve really been to Paris without the stroll along the Seine. Then to Les Deux Magots in Saint-Germain-des-Prés to rub elbows with the ghosts of Hemingway et al (see Hemingway for Wimps) and finish lunch.
Since last I was here they have renamed the adjacent pavement La Place Sartre-Beauvoir. We have come from the upscale to the boho. Here gather the extravagantly garbed, the extensively tattooed, and bored middle-aged intellectual women with loose wind-blown gray hair and jeans. (See In Praise of Older Women.) The Quartier has heroically resisted gentrification, and offers a sidewalk show of shabby artiness worthy of the struggling Wagner, the broken Wilde, les clubs de bebop. One feels at home, but not young. (How could one?)
Ah, but the food! Les Deux Magots comes across with millefeuille de tomates et chevre frais—disks of tomato, fortified by their own skins, in alternate layers with disks of chevre, very agreeable—as a prelude to magret à l'orange, orange duck breast (we started with duck; let’s stay with duck), the purée maison (mashed potatoes with a great deal of butter) and two glasses of Bourgogne Petit Chablis, big deal, but they pour you a full one at Les Deux Magots, which is a mark of royalty. It was a gorgeous experience. (See Gorgeousness.)

In both cases the waiters were sweethearts. On the other hand, when your waiter goes off duty and his replacement hovers over you, you can get something more predictable. (See The Marquis de Sade, Father of Modern France.)
All too soon it was back to airplane food. "Just coffee, thanks. All right, I’ll have a little of that wine. OK, what is that, cream cheese? Dark bread? OK, dark bread. You know, you’re a good-looking girl. Do you act? No, you should act. I’m a filmmaker. Here’s my card. Take a look at my site and email me."

Game of Thrones and the News

“Two dangers constantly threaten the world: order and disorder.”—Paul Valéry

I am lying on a Greek beach. Well, not on the beach—on a chaise longue shaded by an umbrella—the lazy lap of the waves in my ears as I play with my iPad. A waitress hangs her cleavage in my face and sets down my champagne cocktail. I ignore her.
Google News. The usual carnage in Syria. The usual carnage in America. North Korea is being a nuisance. Turkey, just over the horizon, is being a nuisance. 

I scroll down to “Entertainment” to see what the rabblement are watching and am again annoyed by headlines about something called Game of Thrones. What the hell is Game of Thrones? Enough’s enough—I decide to find out for myself, click links and read up.
Gazing out to sea
Apparently it’s a television series. Remember television? It's a medium my snobbery prevents me from enjoying. I haven’t seen a TV commercial for decades, which does wonders for one's quality of life. I tap to YouTube and turn the tablet landscape-wise to watch some excerpts.

My waitress, barefoot and bikini-bottomed in deference to the heat, hovers. Her thighs, at eye-level, draw my glance, but now she leans over and peers at the little screen, imposing her upper chest into my personal space, her shoulders ignoring me, to shade the iPad with her hand.
It seems to be a fantasy about our murderous and warlike Nordic past (I’m glad that's over)—everybody’s white, and cold—aimed at post-pubescent girls. The only character who lasts longer than a season is a teenager with a rather dangerous, not entirely reliable dragon, which nevertheless rescues the kid when she’s about to be tortured or flayed. 

My waitress abandons all semblance of professional neutrality, gets on the cot with me and steadies the hand in which I hold the device. 
But fantasy on TV? Television, as Warhol said, is reality. Movies are fantasy. People in movies live in the present tense, as in dreams. People in reality live in the past and the future—we have no contact with the present, unless we're having sex, or dying.

Game of Thrones, however, does combine the classic TV genres of soap opera, game show—guess who survives this week!—and news report: coups, court intrigues, hostages, beheadings. There are lots of beheadings; it’s very topical—and a good way to teach the young. For what is TV but a babysitter? “The young,” as Salvador Dalí said, “are completely stupid.”
My waitress thumps on my sternum with her fist to apprise me that I am zipping too quickly past the zombie warriors. But I have now discovered that this spectacle is based on a series of books, and disoblige her by clicking to Amazon to read a little of the text:

“You could taste it; a nervous tension that came perilously close to fear.” Of course the great Russians weren’t prose stylists either, and that didn’t vitiate their impact.

But here we have the supernatural—it goes with this kind of writing—sort of thing you get with J.K. Rowling and company. One senses what they’re trying for but the language closes it off. It’s because you don’t know what they’re talking about that there’s a feeling of comfort. Nothing can happen to you. Kind of a safe-space. Busloads of Brits ride around London with the book in their hands, condescending connoisseurs of the cute.
I actually read in the New York Times a public official’s opinion that the State Department should have a blueprint for “nation-building,” handy to superimpose on whatever country they happen to be destroying. You too can be an obese red-neck evangelist with Disney-World culture and a concealed weapon. Sign here.

My waitress, bored by my literary endeavors, gives up on back-seat tablet watching and, with an air of having been seduced into intimacy, caresses my chest. I suppose she'll expect a tip.

Returning to Google News I read about a guy in Argentina who shot his parents in the head, had sex with the corpses, cut them into pieces—I’m not making this up—and fed them to the dog. Which is more amusing than the dragon.

From this distraction I raise my head at the sound of shouts. A rubber raft full of refugees is approaching the beach! I wade in, drink in hand, to greet them but they file past, barely looking at me. “Where’s Germany?” they say. I can only wave vaguely toward it and watch them head off, craning as if to see it.
In such a light the phrase “game of thrones” acquires richer meaning, n’est-ce pas? As with the Chicanos in the US, so with the Arabs in Europe: they’ve been here before, and they’re back. 

I trudge ashore to my chaise and, as they disappear into the distance, recline next to my waitress, who has taken charge of the iPad. To forestall my interference she slips her hand under my waistband while she watches Game of Thrones.