by T.F. Rigelhof
The Globe and Mail, January 22, 2000
Canada has a great coming-of-age novel all its own.
The trouble is, hardly anyone's ever heard of it.
Is there any Canadian novel as compelling and as good at capturing youthful anxieties as J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye ? Absolutely, at least as far as some college students I taught last semester are concerned. Their choice? Leonard Cohen's first novel, The Favourite Game.
Although Beautiful Losers generally gets the critical acclaim, I've long regarded The Favourite Game as one of the 10 best Canadian novels of the 20th century, but I didn't tell my students this when I assigned it. I told them it's set in the same part of Westmount as our college, and that they might find it interesting to see how Montreal looked and felt to people growing up here in the 1950s, the world their fathers and mothers rebelled against in the 1960s and 1970s.
Everyone in my class of 43 had heard of Leonard Cohen, but they knew him as a singer-songwriter. Only a couple were aware that he'd penned two novels. After reading The Favourite Game, they were astonished that no one had ever told them about it. And in class discussions,they spotted right away the parallels between it and Catcher in the Rye, Albert Camus's The Outsider and, most perceptively, the Sam Mendes film American Beauty.
The Favourite Game opens with the line, "Breavman knows a girl named Shell whose ears were pierced so she could wear the long filigree earrings." Like Suzanne in the Leonard Cohen song, Shell has touched a young man's body with her mind, but she wants to stake a claim to more than his flesh. Breavman is creating a Song of Songs to her glory superimposed on a lament over his inability to renounce his Jewish soul to her gentile body. The novel is steeped in biblical consciousness. Breavman is simultaneously a priest in Babylonian exile mourning the loss of King Solomon's glories and King David revelling carnally in the delights of a multitude of women, including this beguiling foreigner.
Alternately depressed about the past that perished with his father's death and manic about all the young women he wants to bed, Breavman's story brims with the delightful incongruities and twisted harmonies of American Beauty. Like Lester in Mendes's movie, Breavman strives for distance from himself but can't help constantly imploding. He is both a self-mocking hero and a self-inflated villain in a story that has many orgasms but no climax. The effect is nearly as cinematic as American Beauty.
There are very good reasons why my students had never heard of The Favourite Game. In 1966, at the age of 32, Cohen reinvented himself as a singer-songwriter because he couldn't make a living as a poet and novelist in Canada. Seven years earlier, Cohen had been awarded a $2,000 Canada Council grant. He used it to live cheaply in London and even more cheaply on the Greek island of Hydra while working on the novel, then titled Beauty at Close Quarters. But when he returned to Canada in November, 1960, it was rejected by McClelland & Stewart. Jack McClelland objected to Cohen writing prose. He found the novel tedious, egotistical, disgusting and morbid in its preoccupation with sex. McClelland worried about the autobiographical content and suggested radical revisions without guaranteeing publication once those changes were made.
Cohen signed contracts with English and American publishers, who wanted a shorter version, so he cut the book in half. He wrote Irving Layton, "anyone with an ear will know I've torn apart orchestras to arrive at my straight, melodic line."
The Favourite Game was published in England in October, 1963, and in New York in September, 1964, and sold about 1,000 copies in all. But it was available in Canada only as an English import until McClelland & Stewart published a New Canadian Library paperback edition in 1970. Periodically, the novel gets a new commentary and cover design. The current edition features three mismatched typefaces and a tiny reproduction of a large Graham Coughtry oil painting on the cover. Inside there is an afterword by Paul Quarrington in which he, implausibly, impersonates Northrop Frye.
It seems utterly negligent that a quality trade paperback isn't available and that the uncut Beauty at Close Quarters has never been published. Wouldn't it be fitting and courageous for M & S to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Jack McClelland's rejection of the original manuscript by offering a bold new edition according to Cohen's own specifications?
It's long overdue.