Tuesday, January 22, 2019

a news service

MAN OF DISAPPOINTMENT: MATT COHEN’S TYPING

Typing begins with Matt Cohen portraying himself "as the anti-heroic buffoon stumbling through the lives of [his] betters." The "betters" in this memoir are George Grant, Dennis Lee, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Robert Fulford, Anna Porter, Robert Weaver, Jack McClelland and a host of other prominent Canadian literary figures. Cohen himself appears as a sort of literary Gulliver, washing up on the shores of one publishing house after another with a bulky and much scribbled-over manuscript under his arm. Invariably he is met by a solicitous editor, usually female, who calms his fears that his manuscript is really shit, and that he might not be welcome because his last publication bombed. This editor flatters and cajoles – mothers – Cohen into producing a publishable novel.

Here are the main events in Cohen’s literary life: ambitious to write a classic that will also make money, he
*gets into the University of Toronto "due to falling standards and grade inflation".
*gets to switch from science (where his father wants him) to arts (where he wants to be so he can concentrate on writing) because his professor Marcus Long, author of the first-year Philosophy textbook, is so drunk he doesn’t recognize Cohen.
*gets, because of "the sudden expansion of graduate students to provide enough professors to cope with the rising tide of baby boomers," a scholarship to do his M.A. in political science.
*meets George Grant, whom he much admires, and cultivates Grant’s friendship by pretending to be a rebellious New Left noble savage, while feeling that Grant’s hope for a revolution is both silly and a contradiction of the fatalism expressed in Lament for a Nation.
*gets sex, too, by pretending to believe in the revolution.
*becomes writer-in-residence at Rochdale College, even though he has published nothing. Meets Stan Bevington, Rochdale’s official printer and one of the founders of Coach House Press, and Dennis Lee, Rochdale’s "resource person" and one of the founders of House of Anansi Press.
*gets, through Grant, a job teaching religion at McMaster University, and, since he doesn’t understand the subject and is not interested in learning it, scams the job by getting the students to do the lecturing and set the exam.
*does not, however, turn his salary over to his students, to pay them for teaching themselves, but saves it so he can finally cut loose and spend a year writing a novel. Grant gets him out of his contract with McMaster and lets him use the family cabin in Nova Scotia.
*shows his novel to Dennis Lee who, riding a wave of new enthusiasm for what Cohen calls "the Canadian Literature thing," holds his nose and publishes it. Cohen agrees with Lee about the novel, Korsoniloff, "which had only avoided the appearance of being shallow by being, instead, incomprehensible."
*starts on another manuscript and meets Anna Szigethy (soon to be Anna Porter), editor for Jack McClelland. Anna says, "I really think we might be able to make something out of this." Cohen replies, "Something you could publish?" Porter says, "That’s what we do here." The "fragmented, psychedelic" manuscript of Johnny Crackle Sings is subsequently published by Canada’s largest press.
*repeats this same process, with a dozen or so more manuscripts, in connection with other female editors at other publishing houses, right up to Diane Martin (Knopf) who gets him through Last Seen and Elizabeth and After. En route, Cohen takes side-trips into journalism, meeting people like Robert Fulford, who sends him to interview writers like Morley Callaghan and Margaret Laurence. Laurence, drunk it seems, phones him after the interview to tell him that the voices of her characters came to her from God. With Callaghan, the only questions Cohen can think of amount to "How does it feel to have once been up there with Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and now to be unknown and in Canada?" Because he’s afraid that Callaghan will punch him, as he once punched Hemingway, Cohen doesn’t risk this question directly.

All of this is funny and has a satirical edge, which is sharpened by the eighteenth-century gloss that Cohen adds to his chapter heads, viz: Anansi Days – drugs and politics exhaust themselves in writing, and then the move to the country gives me something to write about (but is it me? do I care?)." This self-depreciating humour and satire, and the deft portrayal of major literary characters, made Typing popular with critics. Also, for them it was a welcome change. In his novels, Cohen presents his characters as tragic or at least heroic, when it has always seemed to most critics that they are too self-involved to be capable of choice and therefore of meaningful action. Typing vindicated the critics’ view that Cohen could’ve benefited from a comic perspective.

However, as Typing comes up to the present, the worm turns, and the humour becomes bitter. This happens in the last chapter, "Last Seen and After," with its gloss stating that "personal necessity is personal this time . . . accumulated effect of all these deaths including possibly the deaths of my ideas about writing and of self." In this chapter, Cohen decides that he is not a buffoon after all but a hero, or at least a victim. He turns from Gulliver into Ulysses, a man of disappointment, who feels he has been kept from his Penelope, which is literary greatness, by his publishers and editors.

It’s as if a university professor, on retirement, were to blame the university for enticing him away from his true vocation – writing novels, maybe. Or as if a parent on his death bed were to inform his family that he sacrificed his genius – as a novelist maybe – for them. Like all such people, Cohen made his own choices. In fact, Cohen portrays himself as extremely protective of his freedom to go his own way. And if he regretted his choices he benefited hugely from them, enjoying, as he admits, a "great" life. He was able to spend his life doing what he says he wanted to do, writing about whatever interested him at the time. And by mid-career he was taking in enough in royalties to support a wife and kids, to spend years travelling, to live for half of his last decade in France, where he wanted to be.

"Some people have all the luck," Cohen says ironically, correctly estimating how readers will take his complaints. However, Cohen feels that his complaints are nonetheless legitimate because his wasn’t just the usual struggle of genius to rise above the infinite distractions (like the needs to eat and breed) of life. Cohen is a special case because his genius was essentially Jewish; he was struggling against racial prejudice.

This revelation occurred to him after he learned that he had serious cancer and began on his memoirs. "One very important thing had changed," Cohen says about his decision to write Typing, "my view of my own past." Cohen’s new view is that he is like Kafka, a cosmopolitan Jew trapped in a "white, conservative, middle-class Protestant" ethos. His writings would never acquire a large audience unless he got adopted as a mascot by the mainstream literary community. But he would be adopted only if he adapted, or allowed editors to adapt, his writings so they would sell to the mainstream audience. Cohen quotes Kafka’s complaints about his "absurd situation," and says "How familiar such complaints sound to a Canadian writer whose origin or sensibility lies outside the Canadian cultural mainstream . . . one is forever destined to be seen by that establishment, in terms of the recognition, rewards and prizes it has to offer, as unimportant and marginal – at best a friendly mascot from another planet, to be accepted only if he is willing, in turn, to accept and serve the established order."

This establishment, according to Cohen, demands that Canadian literature explore and celebrate rural life, which is a kind of museum diorama of Canada’s lost past, that it reflect the class interests "that can be distilled from a careful reading of British Literature 100," and that it help in transforming Canada’s culture "into a mosaic of ethnic folk dances to be celebrated by a few people with long memories after they’ve had a few drinks." The establishment also thinks that the "golden lode" of literature is "the detailing of domestic life."

I’ll leave it to others to determine the implications of this to our sense of what Cohen thought of Canadian culture in general or of other Canadian writers. For example, is Cohen thinking of Carol Shields, Alice Munro, John Metcalf, Guy Vanderhaeghe (in his earlier books), and Mavis Gallant as writers mistakenly involved in the detailing of domestic life?

The implications of Cohen’s new view to the writing life described in Typing are serious. The new view casts a shadow over the previous chapters of the book, making the gloss, especially, much more ominous. One implication is that all those powerful and motherly editors, from Margaret Atwood through Anna Porter and Louise Dennys to Diane Martin, were offering their (figuratively speaking) tits to Cohen only because they wanted to castrate him. A second implication is that all those literary figures, like Dennis Lee, George Grant and Atwood with (the plot thickens) her "genius for understanding and crystallizing the public mood," who obviously liked Cohen, didn’t really think of him as a friend at all but as a "mascot." A third is that all successful Canadian writers "whose origin or sensibility lies outside the Canadian cultural mainstream," like, one presumes, Richler or Mistry (origin) or Davies or Findley (sensibility), must be traitors who have accepted the established order and adapted their writing in order to achieve a big audience.

And then there are the implications of Cohen’s new view to our reading of his books. Did Cohen refuse to "accept and serve the accepted order" – as indicated by his presence on the mid-list in Canada as opposed to his popularity (in translation) in Europe? In other words, did he finally come to the conclusion that his works are classics, like Kafka’s? Or did he accept and serve, as indicated by the ‘great" life he had, his publications enabling him to dedicate himself to writing and travel, to enjoy a fulfilling marriage, and to raise fantastic kids? In this case, did he finally feel that all of his books are suspect, every one of them in some way and to some degree debilitated by his misguided and ultimately futile attempt to move from margin to mainstream? Or did he compromise, sacrificing some books (like the Salem trilogy) on the altar of the mainstream (celebrate the rural) and achieving immortality with others (Spanish Doctor, Nadine, and Emotional Arithmetic, that bombed in Canada) because they came from the margin, "a fine place from which to . . . explore the venial sins of greed, ambition, envy, lust, pride etc., which are after all the golden lode of all great literature?"

Apart from some reviews of Typing in Jewish periodicals, where Cohen’s new view of himself as a victim was taken seriously (the book won the 2001 Jewish Book Award for Memoir), critics and commentators in general – most members of these two groups also being friends – glossed over Cohen’s new view. And they completely ignored its implications. Probably they were embarrassed for him. He was, after all, ill when he wrote the book and pretty certain that he was soon to die. He may have been frightened. Certainly he admits throughout the book that he was usually disappointed in the reception of his novels, and always looked to the next one to be a hit. Now there could be no next one. It would be natural that he would try to argue his way to fame, or to justify his failure to achieve his great ambitions by claiming victim status.

Natural, but unfortunate. Cohen must’ve known that he could not be both a hero (a genius) and a victim. Ulysses, unlike Gulliver, never acknowledges defeat. And Cohen must also have known that the facts – those that he recounts in Typing and those to be derived from other sources – are against him. Cohen had ample encouragement from his friends, publishers, editors, and critics to write to please himself. Anna Porter told him to "write something that reveals more about yourself. Your books are always so distant. Why don’t you write something about being Jewish?" And Jack McClelland, in a letter published in his biography Jack, said "Concern yourself only with the concerns of a creative literary artist . . . . If you become widely admired by the handful of serious critics (as opposed to book reviewers), the market will eventually develop. It is a slow route but it is the only way it comes." It doesn’t matter that McClelland was probably just telling Cohen to stop his annoying whining about the lack of publicity and royalties; the fact is that the so-called establishment was aware of the dangers of going commercial and was, formally at least, urging Cohen to avoid them.

I suspect that future critics, like present ones, will ignore the implications of Typing. Their concern will be its status and the extent to which its revelations can help in estimating Cohen’s status. Regarding this latter concern, I doubt critics will decide, on the basis of Typing, that the Salem trilogy, for example, was written because Cohen’s powerful editors preferred him to celebrate the rural (though Porter did ask for Flowers of Darkness, and probably regretted it), or because Cohen was making a conscious appeal to the Canadian mainstream. They will believe rather what Cohen says early in Typing, that he fell in love with the country around Kingston, and the history he saw there. Or they will see, as George Woodcock saw, the influence (perhaps the overpowering influence) of Faulkner. They will ignore the gloss: "Is it really me and do I care?" They will not believe that Cohen felt this way when he wrote these novels, especially when he wrote The Sweet Second Summer of Kitty Malone. To believe that would be to write them off as valueless.

I believe that what really damaged Cohen’s writing was not his confusion about what and how to write. All writers experience this confusion. Cohen’s problem was his tendency to write, as Faulkner put it, "of the glands." What do we read, mainly, in Cohen’s novels? Repetitive and lengthy monologues on what it is like to drink excessively, or be horny, or be different. And repetitive action generated by blind self-absorption. Cohen’s characters cannot break free of themselves to attempt even those goals that they themselves have set, to relate to those people that they claim to love. They are seen, most characteristically, staring into mirrors, as if the usually hurried process of waking up in the morning and having a shave or applying lipstick has prolonged itself for them into an entire day and then a lifetime. They cannot act, because they cannot make choices. They can be, and once in awhile are, comic, but most of the time Cohen’s characters regard their own images lovingly, seriously, interestedly, and endlessly, and Cohen’s plots, finally, cast these narcissistic characters in a romantic rather than tragic light.

Faulkner wanted writing that was "of the heart." He wanted the writer to leave "no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice." Note the differences between this list and Cohen’s "greed, ambition, envy, lust, and pride." Faulkner goes on to say that when a writer writes of the glands, "he labours under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion."

My theory about Typing is that it grew out of older manuscript fragments resurrected later – after Cohen found out about his cancer and decided to write his memoirs. He mentions that he took a few stabs at autobiographical writing in the comic vein before he started Typing, but always ended up throwing these efforts out. This is doubtful, as Cohen shows when he describes his working habits. Cohen never threw out any of the products of his "compulsive logorrhoea." He filed them and invariably went back to them. The older fragments were of the heart; the last chapter, along with the shadow it throws over the earlier chapters, is from the glands. Cohen felt like a victim and wrote like one. His last words are a whine.

Cohen had big ambitions and made a serious bid to achieve them. If none of his books are classics, it’s not because he was a victim of the system, but because he wasn’t smart enough, and because he died too young, before he got smart. And there’s still a chance that some of his books, like The Sweet Second Summer of Kitty Malone and Elizabeth and After, will remain in print and get the continued attention of what McClelland called "serious critics." These books could finally achieve the status of classics. Meanwhile, it’s clear that Cohen had a great literary life. One of the best. He had good friends. His publishers, editors and critics, while a touch indulgent, served him well. He was lucky.

2902 w. October 5th, 2002

Post tags:
John Harris

John Harris

John Harris is the author of 'Small Rain," "Other Art" and "Tungsten John." He lives in Prince George, B.C.

More from John Harris: