Page 58 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 51

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Son o f a Smaller Hero
, Cohen’s first novel,
The Favourite
(1963), traces its protagonist’s coming of age — in this
case Lawrence B reavman , an au tob iog raph ica l a rtis t.
Breavman’s sexual initiation involves Lisa, one of his girlfriends
who participates in a game called the Soldier and the Whore.
And Cohen is concerned with undoing the ritualistic game by
subverting authority or by transcending it lyrically, as in the
final favourite game played in the snow of Montreal. One child
spins another who lands flat in the snow, then walks away leav­
ing a corporal imprint.
These games of the alienated artist trying to make his mark
on the landscape contrast with his family’s religious ritual: “In
the most solemn or joyous part of the ritual Breavman knew
the whole procedure could revert in a second to desolation.
The cantor, the rabbi, the chosen laymen stood before the open
Ark, cradling the Torah scrolls.. . . He couldn’t be part of their
brotherhood but he wanted to be among them” (p. 119). In
limbo between nobody and Everyman, reversion and subver­
sion, this angry young man leaves Montreal for New York, tak­
ing sidetrips to the Laurentians, the Townships, and the slums
to discover his Canadian-Jewish identity. Breavman identifies
with the ambiguous tragedy of a blind Samson leaning against
the temple pillars, he uses Yiddish expressions, breaks into ha-
sidic dances, sings socialist folk songs, and experiences the
Purgatorio of a brass foundry in Montreal before entering the
melting pot of New York.
From this tragicomic vision, Cohen turns to a more mythical
and historical subject in his second novel,
Beautiful Losers
whose title underlines the conflicts of Canadian-Jewish identity.
In this postmodern experiment, he combines historical fact and
fantasy, with the native Indian displacing the Jew as an example
of the social outcast. Cohen invents the New Jew, a kind of
postmodern Everyman.
In a prose poem of the same period (infused with the spirit
of the Sixties), “Lines From My Grandfather’s Journal,” Cohen
agonizes over his position as a skeptical yet romantic outsider
looking for some form of affiliation with his heritage. “Doubting
everything that I was made to write. My dictionaries groaning
with lies. Driven back to Genesis. Doubting where every word
began. What saint had shifted a meaning to illustrate a parable.
Even beyond Genesis, until I stood outside my community, like