Back in early 1970, during my last official undergraduate semester of college, I read Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers (1966) for a class. "Religion in the Contemporary Novel," or something like that. I had only six months or so earlier become really acquainted with his music, by way of the album Songs From A Room. I had heard a bit of his stuff before, including and especially "Suzanne," and didn't especially care for it. Songs From A Room changed that, and by the time I read the novel I was a fan, and had hopes for the book.
The hopes were disappointed. The book seemed more or less insane, and I couldn't make much sense of it. I have no memory of anything I might have learned or said in classroom discussions of it, if there were any. I soon forgot it, except that I remembered a really deranged scene involving what we would now call a "sex toy" that had a mind of its own.
Recently, writing about that period of my life for the memoir-ish-sort-of-thing I'm writing, and maybe also prompted by Cohen's recent death, I decided to read Beautiful Losers again and see if the experience of forty-five years or so, as well as a deep love of Cohen's musical work over the period, would help me make more sense of the book, and perhaps appreciate it.
Well, no, not really. I have a better sense now of what Cohen was about, and in a very very broad sort of way what the book is about. But it still seems fairly deranged, and I still don't understand it very well. Anyone familiar with his songs is aware of the way he weaves together the spiritual and the erotic. In this novel he takes that extremes: it is saturated with fairly detailed and often unpleasant descriptions of sex, or maybe I should say descriptions of unpleasant sex, such as the sex toy scene I mentioned above. And its spirituality is focused on the extreme penances of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, with a number of digressions about the tortures perpetrated by the Indians on their own and on missionaries like St. Jean de Brébeuf. There are some beautiful passages, and beautiful or clever sentences in the midst of the craziness. There is a profusion of imagery and obscure pronouncements that made me think of the songs Bob Dylan was writing at the time: it may be profound or it may just be a kind of surrealism that is sometimes vivid and powerful but not necessarily intelligible. I didn't spend a great deal of time trying to understand it. I'd say he had great potential as a novelist and writer of prose generally. But I really can't recommend this book.
There's not a very clear story involved, but such as it is it involves an old scholar with an obsessive interest in certain Indian tribes and in St. Kateri, his friend and lover F. (male), and his wife Edith, who is also sexually involved with F. (whether that involvement is also romantic in any normal sense is a little unclear). It is a very weird triangle. F. exercises some sort of psychological power over both the scholar and Edith, and is somehow training or educating the scholar in some sort of psychological or spiritual discipline, something which savors of the notion that seemed to turn up a lot in the '60s, that something like salvation can be obtained by obliterating reason and surrendering to the extremes of experience. Or perhaps F. is just pushing him around. To tell the truth, as with the cryptic flights, I can't be bothered trying to figure it out.
But let me quote a passage which will prove that Cohen really could write. This is the closing paragraph of the book, but it doesn't give away anything. For much of the book, the scholar is writing the deaths of F. and Edith. For another large part, F. is speaking through a letter which he left behind. On the basis of the last sentence, this seems to be the voice of F.
Poor men, poor men, such as we, they've gone and fled. I will plead from electrical tower. I will plead from turret of plane. He will uncover His face. He will not leave me alone. I will spread His name in Parliament. I will welcome his silence in pain. I have come through the fire of family and love. I smoke with my darling, I sleep with my friend. We talk of the poor men, broken and fled. Alone with the radio I lift up my hands. Welcome to you who read me today. Welcome to you who put my heart down. Welcome to you, darling and friend, who miss me forever in your trip to the end.
Oh, and I have to note that this made me laugh. F. and the scholar are passing through a separatist rally in Montreal:
--This is an ugly crowd, F. Let's walk faster.
--No, it is a beautiful crowd.
--Because they think they are Negroes, and that is the best feeling a man can have in this century.
Last Fairhope Film Festival movie: L'attesa, English title The Wait. I will tell you right off that I did not understand it, assuming that there is some large Idea there to be understood. It stars Juliette Binoche, and it has now been almost twenty-five years since she appeared in Blue. She's now middle-aged, and I will also tell you that to me many women are at their most beautiful in middle age; what they have lost in youthful bloom they've gained in depth. It also stars a beautiful young woman, Lou de Laâge.
The basic story is slight, and simple. Anna, played by Binoche, has just lost her son, Giuseppe, in some sort of accident (the film is set in Sicily and Anna is a French expatriate--I think). Giuseppe had a girlfriend, Jeanne, who had been invited to visit the family over the Easter weekend. No one has told Jeanne of Giuseppe's death, and she arrives expecting him to be there. At first Anna doesn't have the heart to tell her. Then Anna finds that she cannot tell her at all. Days pass. Still Jeanne asks about Giuseppe, and still Anna avoids telling her the truth, though it slowly begins to slip out.
There's really not a great deal more to it than that. From my point of view the fact that these events occur during Holy Week seems as though it must be significant in some way, but I'm at a loss as to exactly how. A strange and very picturesque Sicilian procession, which I think but am not sure occurs on Holy Saturday, provides some striking imagery but again I'm not sure what its significance is. It may be that the director just liked the imagery.
Anyway, I would recommend this if only for its visual richness, of which you can get a taste in the trailer.
Maybe it's just my somewhat pedantic urge for precision and accuracy in language, but the admonition to "Make a difference!", unqualified, drives me a bit crazy. Similarly with the politician's call for "change," unqualified. Donald Trump is making a difference, and introducing change. I always want to point out that one could make a difference by, for instance, blowing up the Wallace Tunnel in Mobile, which would put a big crimp in Interstate 10 traffic (even more if one also blew up the Bankhead Tunnel). But as a rule the people who use these phrases have in mind a very specific sort of difference and sort of change that they want, and not others. They did not, for instance, have in mind the substantial difference Donald Trump is making; in fact they are wailing over it. I mention this because the choir at our parish church often sings a "worship song" which is mainly the repetition of the words "Go make a difference." Ambiguous advice at best.
I still can't read the words "President Trump" without laughing a little.
Several book reviews by people who read and comment here have appeared in the past week or so:
At The University Bookman, Rob Grano reviews The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland by John Lewis-Stempel.
And Craig Burrell has done something unusual: read all of Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.
Mean old meanie Kevin Williamson (National Review) on the self-styled "Resistance" to Trump:
This isn’t Nazi Germany, none of you ladies and gentlemen in the pink hats is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the history books will not tell of acts of courage at the Battle of Soy Latte.