Leonard Cohen is a distinguishable creature. Both his poetic style and voice are immediately recognizable. As a writer, his verse freely explores the mysteries of sex, impresses war and passion into the flesh, and makes holy catharsis out of mercy and humiliation. His voice, the trademark husk, fits his themes like a glove. Listening to him feels like a charcoal rubbing from the ocean floor. That voice, much like the troubles of the unredeemed flesh of which he writes, is constantly seeking release into the light. As a rabid Cohen devotee, I was thrilled when I heard that a new collection of his previously unpublished prose was coming out in October, and with such a perfect title: A Ballet of Lepers. But, as someone with so much to say about Cohen’s singular poetry and singing, I found myself skeptical of this dance. What could Cohen offer now that he is voiceless and verseless?
A Ballet of Lepers, a brief novel, only makes up the first section of this new collection, which is otherwise composed of various short stories. The collection forms a strange coda to Cohen’s life and career: it’s all early prose from his late teens and early twenties. This phenomenon is not unique to Cohen, but the posthumous demand for “new” work generates an industrial lust for juvenilia. With the author or artist not around to generate more work, these posthumous early writings give us the unearthed roots of trees whose bark and branches we know.
Cohen’s novel is not as entrancing as his songs and poems. It follows the story of a young man in Montreal working an inane job for which he has no passion. He lives in a small apartment alone except when his lover Marylin is over for the night. One day, he gets a call notifying him that his grandfather is on his way to Montreal, and wouldn’t he please take him in. Our narrator did not even know he had a living grandfather. The old man turns out to be incredibly violent: he beats a police officer nearly to death in the train station and pisses on the street before collapsing into the narrator’s bed. Our narrator is enraptured by his new inheritance of cruelty. As Cohen would put it in “You Want It Darker,” the title track from his last album before his death in 2016: “I didn’t know I had permission/to murder and to maim.”
Our narrator takes on the cruelty of his grandfather; he begins to harass and humiliate one of his younger coworkers. One day, he stops showing up to work. Instead, he stalks a hare-lipped baggage attendant from the train station, who becomes his “victim.” Our narrator bullies, beats, and harasses the attendant. In one scene, he catches the attendant masturbating in the train station bathroom. All along, our narrator quotes scripture and religious doctrine to justify his cruelty. Ultimately, the narrator begins to sleep with the attendant’s wife, and loses his nerve right before revealing himself to the victim, at which point he is beaten fiercely by both the man and his wife. Oh. And the old man is not actually his grandfather.
The novel hinges on somewhat clunky twists and plot machinations. Part of Cohen’s gift is his ability to make you shade out a story with only vividly vague intimations. The novel form is ill-adapted to such a poetic mind, and this one seems hindered by Cohen’s attempts to fulfill the silly strictures of “plot.” But as a tool for tracing the arc of his career, this novel is everything. From the title, we can glean his lifelong obsession with the beauty of the outcast, the sullied flesh, the artistry of power and the power of artistry to divinely redeem the sick and the sinners. Beyond the title, the troubled plot often foreshadows some of Cohen’s later themes. The justification of cruelty as a cleansing move toward purity both for the victim has echoes in “You Want It Darker;” the idea of gratefulness in humiliation, in “Famous Blue Raincoat,” a beautiful Cohen song about the satisfaction his wife received at the hands of another man. But most of all, A Ballet of Lepers is a vindication of the power of storytelling. The narrator is convinced by a story that this old man is his grandfather. He makes himself the protagonist of a powerless life by turning his stalking and his violence into a story. And when the pretenses fail, it is because the stories have fallen apart.
Cohen’s subtle optimism, too, is signaled in A Ballet of Lepers. Despite the harrowing plot, and the images of heartbreak, war, longing, and darkness for which Cohen is known, there is always a thread of light. There is always a way for the dangerous stories we tell ourselves to fall apart. As he sang in “Anthem,” “there is a crack, a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.” I like to imagine, when I am walking and listening to Leonard Cohen on a bright fall day, that the sun is but that crackful of light, seeping in to show me the dancing lepers.