Audrey Thomas isn’t the only Canadian writer to have spent time in Greece. I almost called today’s post “resurrection man” because he resurrected his career, but I didn’t because something else I’m working on makes it quite clear that resurrection man is not a flattering thing to call someone. As anyone who reads the papers already knows, Leonard Cohen came out of retirement because his savings had disappeared. Once he started writing songs and touring again, he found that he was enjoying himself. Okay, so maybe his voice is not what it was, but there is something pleasurable about having these late gifts from someone who had absented himself from our lives.
The title of this post is the last line of a poem that appears at the front of Cohen’s 1963 novel, dedicated to his mother: The Favourite Game. The poem is from his collection, The Spice Box of Earth.
There is a lot of information to be had about Cohen the songster, so I thought I’d look at The Favourite Game, which is about Lawrence Breavman, who grows up in Montreal, wandering its parks and streets at night when a young man. The book opens with musings on scars, making it more poetry than narrative: “A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh.” But there is narrative, leading us on to the death of his father, a playmate called Lisa, his friend Krantz, what Breavman does to their maid Heather. He works at a children’s summer camp in Quebec. Names of women pile up with the fragments or short chapters: Bertha, Tamara, Norma, and Shell, who begins and ends the book. After he graduates and publishes a small book, he muses, “Canadians are desperate for a Keats.” (p. 101) He meets Shell in New York. After publishing his book of Montreal sketches, he escapes to New York City:
“He was relieved that it wasn’t his city and he didn’t have to record its ugly magnificence. He walked on whatever streets he wanted and he didn’t have to put their names in stories. New York had already been sung. And by great voices. This freed him to stare and taste at will.”-Leonard Cohen, The Favourite Game, NCL 1973 (original 1963), p. 120.
There it is, one of the reasons writers leave home — to be freed.
There is also much information available about Cohen’s early life, and someone has compiled and added to it already. That’s right, the book you’ve bought someone for Christmas: I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons.
In Montreal, Cohen studied at McGill University, where he started writing poetry and also wrote fiction. Then he made his way to London, and in 1960, went from London to Hydra, a Greek island that was already home to writers and artists. I think we might be visiting Leonard Cohen again in these pages.
What other Canadian writers spent time in Greece?
- This Guardian article, “Hydra: a pilgrimage to Leonard Cohen’s Greek Island Retreat,” (2016) has some great photos of Leonard Cohen and Hydra.
- Excellent biographical note on Cohen’s literary career at Thomas Fischer Archives, and a peek into the Cohen trove with some pictures, including a rejection letter, in Toronto Life (22 November 2016).
- “You have to be very charitable to reviewers,” said Cohen in a 1963 CBC interview, on the mixed reviews of The Favourite Game. (CBC Archives).
- The Favourite Game film of 2003.
- Rolling Stone‘s excerpt of The Holy and the Broken (2012) by Alan Light, on the writing of “Hallelujah.”
- CBC Memorial Tribute to Leonard Cohen, Tower of Song.
Header photo of Hydra in 1960: Bjørn Glorvigen / Riksarkivet (National Archives of Norway) from Oslo, Norway, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons.