Photos: The Greek island of Hydra, which held a special place in the heart of iconic musician and poet, Leonard Cohen. Cohen bought a 19th century stone house on Hydra, a 90-minute hydrofoil ride from Athens, in the early 1960s, a time when the island was a haven for bohemian artists. (Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images); Inset: Cohen, circa 1967, with his staple notebook, pen, and package of cigarettes. (Photo: Jack Robinson/Getty Images)
‘A Ballet of Lepers’: Michael Posner on Leonard Cohen’s Posthumous Novel and Writing a Biography about the Canadian Icon
In a Q&A, the Toronto journalist talks about why the troubadour never married and whether he saw himself as a singer, songwriter or poet / BY Rosemary Counter / November 17th, 2022
Upon the fanfare-filled publication of The Favourite Game in 1963, Leonard Cohen unabashedly told reporters it wasn’t his first foray into fiction. “He called it ‘a third novel masquerading as a first novel’ – meaning there were predecessors,” says Michael Posner, whose third volume of a trilogy, Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: That’s How the Light Gets In, comes out Dec. 6.
Six years after the famed troubador’s death, the once-rejected novel was finally released into the world on Oct. 11. A Ballet of Lepers is a vivid, haunting, experimental and quintessentially Cohen-esque novella, penned somewhere between 1956 and 1961, which tells the story of an unnamed mid-life bachelor who moves his violent grandfather into his Montreal boarding house. The novella is followed by 15 short stories and a radio play, all uniquely distinct, except for some form of Cohen alter ego in each one. Each piece was plucked with precision from the archives at the University of Toronto by Cohen scholar Alexandra Pleshoyano, who edited them with a modern eye and much care, and compiled them into Cohen’s second posthumous work.
The other, The Flame, a collection of poems, lyrics and sketches, was published in 2019 to mixed reviews. It had “a little of everything for Cohen fans and nothing for anyone else,” a New York Times reviewer wrote in a scathing take on the “monotonous scribbles of the moody undergraduate.” Whether Cohen was a genius or a neophyte in whatever medium he chose – fiction, poetry, art or music – is a sentiment that always followed him. “Leonard, we know you’re great,” the head of Columbia Records, Walter Yetnikoff, famously quipped in 1984, when considering Cohen’s seventh studio album, Various Positions, which includes his masterpiece “Hallelujah.” “But we don’t know if you’re any good.” Yetnikoff initially decided not to release it in the U.S.
Readers shouldn’t expect to finish this book with any clarity into the ultimately unknowable artist, which is kind of the point. “There’s something totally ineffable about Cohen, but it just contributes to our fascination with him,” says Posner, a Toronto-based writer. He argues that, when it comes to posthumous publications, maybe harsh criticism isn’t fair since the author never signed off on the work. “There will always be people who ask if Leonard Cohen himself would have given his blessing to publish this book,” says Posner. “We’ll never know.” Cohen was a notoriously slow writer and meticulous about every word, which makes peeking at a raw draft even more alluring. “With Cohen, there are always areas of ambiguity, so we can just add this book to the list.”
How perfectly poetic that Cohen is long gone and yet still with us, a dichotomy he would have appreciated. “Cohen was so interested in an orchestration of opposites,” Posner says, citing popular works like Beautiful Losers and Parasites of Heaven. “He uses contradiction and paradox, right there in the title, and Ballet of Lepers is no different.” As always, complex and contradictory themes like love, longing, rejection, demons and desire are woven throughout, and only time will tell if his 60-year-old writings will resonate today.
For the record, Columbia did release Various Positions in 1990 in the U.S., and “Hallelujah” is now one of the most covered and beloved tunes of the past century. The deceptively simple song took seven years and 180 verses until Cohen got it just right.
On Dec. 6, biographer Michael Posner will publish the third volume of his trilogy, Leonard Cohen, Untold Stories: That’s How the Light Gets In. The first volume, The Early Years, was published in 2020, while the second, From This Broken Hill, came out last year. In a Q&A with the Toronto journalist, we explore all things Cohen: the man, the book A Ballet of Lepers, and whether Cohen would be thrilled or dismayed that his first novel was being published 50 years after he wrote it.
Rosemary Counter: Congrats on the book! Is this definitely the last one? Are you all Cohen-ed out yet?
Michael Posner: Yes, yes, this is it. It’s actually one really big book, I’d say, but this is the end. As to whether I’ve had enough, yes and no. I do have another Cohen project in mind, but I’m not sure if I can pull it off. We’ll see.
RC: Have you always been a huge fan of Cohen’s?
MP: No, not necessarily. I was and am a fan, but not a rabid one. I’m more interested in his life as a journalistic exercise. This book begins in ’86, when Jennifer Warnes is putting out a cover of “Famous Blue Raincoat,” which re-popularizes Cohen. He’s in a romance with Rebecca De Mornay, who he’d eventually get engaged to, for four or five years, but ultimately decides he can’t get married. Instead, he goes to India, loses all his money and his manager is accused of stealing five million dollars. Cohen therefore has to go back on the road, and makes it all back and more. Then just as he’s finally riding high, he’s diagnosed with leukemia.
RC: Why do you think a man who loves women so much never got married?
MP: Now that’s a question. There are women in his life who’d say he didn’t really love women; he idolized women and objectified them and made them his muses. But he couldn’t live with a woman. He felt domesticity to be vulgar; the notion of getting groceries or taking the garbage out just destroyed romance and eroticism for him. He tried to get around this. By the time he’s with Anjani Thomas, he buys her a house two blocks away from his.
RC: Let me guess. That didn’t work either?
MP: The relationship lasted from 2001 to 2008, I think, so maybe it worked for a while. Well into his older age, Leonard’s libido was very strong. He loved to seduce, and not just sexually with women, with men, too, and artists of all kinds. He was very generous to other people, with his time, money and attention, which is great unless you’re the girlfriend, I suppose.
RC: It seems Cohen couldn’t even commit to his art. Do you think he identified more as a writer or a poet or a singer?
MP: I don’t think he could have chosen if he tried. You could argue it’s all poetry in one form or another, but I also came across times when he really denigrated poetry. He once told a backup singer that he hated poetry, then he’d go to the bookstore and buy 50 books of poetry. I came across these inconsistencies a lot. There is something ineffable about Cohen that I think contributes to our collective fascination with Cohen. He can feel contradictory sometimes, but I think he was able to see that things weren’t ever one or the other, but both at the same time.
RC: I was about to ask if he’d love or hate the publication A Ballet of Lepers, but now I think I know the answer.
MP: There will always be people who ask if Leonard Cohen himself would have given his blessing to publish this book. We’ll never know. I suspect that question will be asked, and probably should be asked. Maybe he would have loved it, maybe not. Cohen was notoriously particular and he was so careful not to publish anything that he didn’t really approve of. At the same time, I know that Leonard thought it was pretty good and the estate is banking on his opinion.
A version the article on “Ballet of Lepers” appeared in the Oct/Nov 2022 issue of Zoomer magazine with the headline ‘Origin Story’, p. 58.