Discussion of author’s portfolio musicians Review of anthology Review of literary fiction

Stomach-turning: A Ballet of Lepers, by Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen, the famous musician, poet and lyricist, wrote the stories collected in A Ballet of Lepers in his young days, between 1956 and 1961. He wrote it before his career in music, before the tender beauty of Suzanne, Hallelujah, Take This Waltz, So long, Marianne and A Thousand Kisses Deep. He wrote it when he still wanted to be a Fiction writer. Thank goodness he gave up on that, and stuck to writing music and lyrics, because this is the least enjoyable thing I’ve read in a month of Sundays. It’s nasty and leaves a bad taste that I wish I can get rid of. I actually had to put the book aside for a while when I was reading the first story, a very short novel called A Ballet of Lepers.

A Ballet of Lepers – A Novel and Stories, by Leonard Cohen (Literary Fiction; Publisher: ‎ Canongate Books; Main edition Oct. 11, 2022; hardcover; 272 pages)

I hope that Cohen had a wild imagination because if this type of thing was rooted in his past then, O.M.G., I hope he had good psychiatrists. As a reader, I can only judge what’s on the page. One cannot ask him where those characters and events came from, because he died in 2016, aged 82.

The mini novel and the 16 short stories in the anthology clearly show that this is a writer who can competently employ a wide range of writing styles and voices, from the first person voice of a psychopath, to a creepy child, to a religious maniac. Even in the story A Ballet of Lepers, one can see his talent for playing with words and his skill in using metaphor and poetic devices.

Nevertheless, there is something distinctly off about all of the stories. They are like Stephen King short stories, but without the clinical detachment – or distancing – and classic Horror and Mystery structure and devices. As a result, the “ugh” element in the stories pop up unexpectedly and unpleasantly.

Leonard Cohen (photo by Lorca Cohen from the New York Times)


Some nasty stuff

A Ballet of Lepers, the story for which the collection is named, is about a man who seems quite ordinary but then goes on a streak of harassment, bullying and cruelty. When he brings into his home an old man whom he thinks is his grandfather, he adopts a hateful alter-ego. The old man is insane and violent, attacking and swearing at people who mean him no harm. It’s as though the arrival of the old man unleashes an evil force in the narrator, and events go from uncomfortable to terrible.

Shortly after picking up the old man from the station, this happens (note that Cohen did not use many commas):

“Then my grandfather stepped up to the policeman and with a great pah, spit into his face. The old man doubled up with laughter. A good many in the crowd chuckled. I was electrified. What followed happened so quickly that it stunned everyone. For a second, the policeman did not move, his face white with rage then he seized my grandfather by the lapels and shook him violently up and down shouting something I could not make out. My grandfather did not stop laughing, he was enjoying himself immensely and began jumping up and down following the policeman’s motions. I was about to intervene in this absurd dance when suddenly my grandfather jumped a step backward and holding his cane in both hands brought it down with a loud crack on the temple of the policeman.”

A Ballet of Lepers, by Leonard Cohen, pp. 19 – 20, A Ballet of Lepers

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

This is the start of the descent into madness for the narrator. I did not think that the old man was mad or senile – I think that, in the moments when he had outbursts, he was simply being his normal vile self. Most people will not admit that very elderly people are often unpleasant to deal with. Most would never talk about the unmentionable things the elderly do once they cease to be bothered by social conventions. Cohen describes this explicitly.

We might, in our angrier moments, have thought of doing something to a person we dislike or someone who has hurt us. Unless we are criminal or mentally unbalanced, it goes no further than thoughts. But Cohen’s characters go way over those limits – way over. To my mind, mental anguish, or the need for love, are not adequate motivations for the the actions of the characters, which is what makes them particularly nasty.

“Can I smile now? Can I review this story and sadly smile on the frailties of man? Can I whisper with sweet remorse, ‘O World, O Death?’ I can, damn me, I can: because it happened to me; I committed the little cruelties and violence and I know myself, and I know that I am not evil; therefore, what is there to do but smile sweetly, sadly, or weep with some beloved, hold her desperately and tenderly? We are not mad, we are human and we want to love, and someone must forgive us for the paths we take to love, for the paths are many and dark and we are ardent and cruel in our journey…”

A Ballet of Lepers, by Leonard Cohen, pp. 82-83, A Ballet of Lepers

Photo by Lukas Rychvalsky on Pexels.com

Informative, not enjoyable

I did not enjoy reading this anthology. The first part, the short novel, ruined it for me. However, it was an education to find out what Cohen was capable of conjuring up before he delivered the romantic, tender and thoughtful melodies and lyrics of his later songs.

Same as with a good actor portraying a bad person in a convincing way, one must not confuse the person with the role, nor the author with the characters. Still, when even the harmless-sounding scenario of a flute-playing teenager and her music-loving friends, in the story Polly, reveals a perverted streak, you can only hope that the author’s voice is very weak and that all this comes from skill, not experience.

One last quote – verbatim, as it appears in the book:

"after that i took care of them all by myself       three times they tried to get away but i found them and put them in a bigger box    once when i was putting some food in the box they tried to stick something into my tentacle     so I stung them dead                 never mind said daddy we have lots more in the museum..." 

A Ballet of Lepers, by Leonard Cohen, p. 237, ive had lots of pets

Photo by Mariano Ruffa on Pexels.com

You got that? There’s much more along the same lines in the book. Before you read it, consider whether it’s worth your time and attention.

%d bloggers like this: