Making It New

Beautiful Losers

by Leonard Cohen
Viking, 256 pp., $5.75


by Julio Cortázar, translated by Gregory Rabassa
Pantheon, 564 pp., $6.95

Mr. Cohen, Señor Cortázar, and Mr. Burroughs all write about loneliness, and all employ an idiom which, though they use it with individual voices, could be said to be common to them. Here are three quotations which should be more illuminating than columns of discussion:

(i) The Leader of the Pack lies mangled under his Honda in a wreck of job prospects, the ghostly Negro fullback floats down the wintry gridiron into Law School prizes, and the lucky football you autographed takes pictures of the moon. Oh, my poor Top Ten, longing to perish in popularity. I have forgotten my radio, so you languish with the other zombies in my memory, you whose only honor is hara-kiri with the blunt edge of returned identification bracelets, my weary Top Ten hoping to be forgotten like escaped balloons and kites, like theater stubs, like dry ball pens, like old batteries, like coiled sardine keys, like bent aluminum partitioned eaten tv dinner plates—I hoard you like the stuff of my chronic disease. (Cohen)

(ii) Yes, but who will cure us of the dull fire, the colorless fire that at nightfall runs along the Rue de la Huchette, emerging from the crumbling doorways, from the little entranceways, of the imageless fire that licks the stones and lies in wait in doorways, how shall we cleanse ourselves of the sweet burning that comes after, that nests in us forever allied with time and memory, with sticky things that hold us here on this side, and which will burn sweetly in us until we have been left in ashes. How much better, then, to make a pact with cats and mosses, strike up friendship right away with hoarse-voiced concierges, with the pale and suffering creatures who wait in windows and toy with a dry branch. (Cortázar)

(iii) Martin he calls himself but once in the London YMCA on Tottenham Court (never made out there)—Once on Dean Street in Soho—No it wasn’t Dean Street that was someone else looked like Bradley—It was on some back time street, silent pockets of Mexico City—(half orange with red pepper in the sun)—and the weakness hit me and I leaned against a wall and the white spot never washed out of my glen plaid coat—Carried that wall with me to a town in Ecuador can’t remember the name, remember the towns all around but not that one where time slipped on the beach—sand winds across the blood—half a cup of water and Martin looked at the guide or was it the other, the Aussie, the Canadian, the South African who is sometimes there when the water is given out and always there when the water gives out. (Burroughs)

ALL THREE PASSAGES, it will be seen, employ a loose-knit, evocative rhetoric whose object is to present the surrealist landscape of the inner mind, that state of consciousness which is felt to be “real” because it lies below the reach of reason and conscious choice. Literature has always taken this to be one of its functions, but nowadays there is a powerful lobby of novelists, and theorists of the novel, who believe that this is the only task worth attempting; if they looked at, say, Dickens’s Edwin Drood, they would be disappointed to find that it did not continue throughout in the vein of its opening paragraph. This is a failure of nerve. The French “New Novelists,” for instance, and the even more despondent “New New Novelists,” strike one as resembling not artists but sailors, who, convinced that their ship is hopelessly unseaworthy, are busily drilling out rivets to sink the vessel as soon as possible and thus be rid of the whole miserable business.

Obviously nineteenth-century rationalistic humanism has been shot to pieces, but even allowing for this a great deal of modern fiction is anomalous; the people who write it don’t live up (or down?) to it; they act within a framework, they make decisions, they hold past events in memory and future events in expectation, they have habits and associations. Even those writers whose sole message is that any attempt at verbal communication is defeated by the nature of language itself, would be annoyed if their books didn’t sell. Victorian novelists who bowed to the prudery of their age by refusing to mention the physical details of life, and by writing sometimes as if human beings had no instinctual and physical functions, were condemned by subsequent generations as liars and poltroons. How will our writers be judged? Is not their prudery as great? Do they not censor out the whole rational and moral side of man’s life while fully acknowledging it as soon as they get up from their typewriters?

All three books from which I have quoted deal with loneliness and displacement. Modern literature is very strong on isolation, even when it is making strenuous efforts towards oneness, as in Lawrence, or accepting the need for lonely heroism in the face of death, as in Hemingway. All these three writers are connoisseurs of loneliness and apartness. Señor Cortázar’s characters are lonely because they have opted out of an oppressively conventional milieu; Mr. Burroughs explores the loneliness of the mentally and physically sick; Mr. Cohen has seized on the ultimate loneliness, that of the man born into emptiness, isolated by both history and geography, longing for contact but wandering in a world where the very idea of contact has vanished: So he deserves to be discussed first, for “the lieutenant must be saved before the ancient.”

BEAUTIFUL LOSERS is, in some obvious respects, a book fathered by Herzog. The central character is an ageing Canadian scholar from Montreal in a desperate mess, his life running down, hanging on to life with everything he has and fearing that at any moment he will be swept off the earth’s crust into the frozen darkness of interstellar space. He expresses himself in frantic hyperbole, since in his lonely world there is no social tone, no day-to-day communication, any longer available. The book falls into three parts: first a long reminiscence by the scholar, then a long letter addressed to him by a dead friend, then a fevered and not fully intelligible last sequence in which the hero meets a gruesome end; this last scene is like a nightmare film-sequence, and exemplifies the now universal vogue of what the French call le camera-stylo (film directors using the cinema as a literary instrument, writers using literature as a cinematic instrument, mutual aid between Tweedledum and Tweedledee).

As his life runs down, the old scholar (he doesn’t seem to have a name) goes back obsessively over the three things in his life that were real because they promised a living tie with some other human being. One was his friendship with a man called F. (again the influence of the “New” Novelists, who, taking a cue from Kafka, dislike giving anyone a full name because a name ties him to a consecutive life), his Indian wife Edith (who is given a name, but on the other hand isn’t given a voice—early on in the book we are told that she has been squashed by an elevator which came down on her while she was taking a nap, or perhaps sulking, at the bottom of the shaft); the third is his romantic involvement with Canadian history, particularly as it is focussed in his passion for the memory of a seventeenth-century Indian girl, Catherine Tekakwitha, who was canonized for her fervent co-operation with the Jesuits.

Worn down by fatigue and loneliness, finally smashed by grief, the scholar’s mind revolves all these things in a confusion which indicates the onset of death. Chunks of authentic-sounding documentation about Catherine Tekakwitha, memories of his agonized attempts to move into close union with F. by homosexual means, regret that his determined coupling with Edith never quite brought them close enough, fragments of contemporary politics, are flung at the reader in a thick, pelting shower, and from it emerges both a personal tragedy and a judgment on Canadian life. The seventeenth-century Indian girl underwent hideous penances which tortured her flesh to achieve union with the European God; Edith, who remains permanently just out of reach, is hungrily pursued by sex, for the only union modern man recognizes is a union of the flesh. It doesn’t work, any more than the self-torture of Catherine Tekakwitha “worked.” There is a frightful scene in which Edith and F., adulterously holed up in an hotel room, submit to the omnivorous sexual embraces of a machine called the Danish Vibrator, which, finally leaving them both exhausted, smashes through the hotel window and walks off into the Atlantic. Edith is crushed by the lift. The Jesuits murdered aboriginal Canada with religion, we do it with machines. The Danish Vibrator in the hotel bedroom parallels the penitential lash on the freezing banks of the St. Lawrence river. As the hero says, “Why do I have to explore the pock marks on Catherine Tekakwitha’s face with a moon missile?” Mr. Cohen has a real theme, the frightening vacuum of modern Canada and the Canadian’s uncertainty as to who he is and where his allegiances lie, both historically and in the present. The more’s the pity that his complete assent to the contemporary modes of scrambled exposition and rhetorical free-association should make his very solid book seem like a flood of froth. I hope it will be widely read in spite of all.

SENOR CORTAZAR IS ALSO a solid writer; his earlier novel, The Winners, published in America last year originally in Argentina in 1960), showed the extent of his ambitious seriousness. A lottery has been held; by the persistence of the organizers, tickets have been sold in every social stratum of Buenos Aires and to people of every age. The prize consists of a cruise to an unspecified destination. By this somewhat creaking device, an assortment of Buenos Aires citizens are gathered in a ship; the crew behaves mysteriously; large areas of the ship are off limits; speculation, bewilderment, and resentment abound; the reader expects a large action near the end, but in fact the book peters out mildly. Fair enough; the real subject was the behavior of the passengers under stress. The book was interesting because of the wide range of characters, their depth and solidity; One had the impression that Señor Cortázar was writing about a world he knew well and viewed with considerable skepticism and wariness. Hopscotch (originally published in 1963) is completely different in everything except its length and ambition. It is, in fact, an anti-novel.

Horacio Oliveira, an Argentinian in middle life, goes to Paris and slips easily into the floating life of a feckless expatriate, drifting from furnished room to room, holding long and increasingly vague conversations, his life measured out with books, records, and endlessly dissected love affairs. His mistress, La Maga, and his friends, a loose-knit group called “the Club,” appear to have more or less coherent personalities, but it is Oliveira’s ambition to fragment his personality so that he goes through life in a series of present moments which never cohere into a perceived whole. To convey his attempt to do this, Señor Cortázar has recourse to a method of writing designed to dissuade the reader, once and for all, from any attempt to add the book up; disjointed scenes, containing much the same kind of material and written in much the same manner, follow one another in a relentless procession; the interminable conversations of the Club, in which ideas are not so much discussed as washed slowly from side to side until they disintegrate, alternate with indeterminate love scenes. Finally, the impact of a definite tragic event, the death of La Maga’s child, shakes Oliveira down from his perch of non-attachment; a woman member of the Club scolds him bitterly, the meeting breaks up in disorder, he wanders into the night and is ultimately picked up by the police in company with an aged female down-and-out. He then returns to Argentina, where an old friend gets him a job in a circus. The change of scene does nothing to alter Oliveira’s determination to cast adrift from human contact as before, to float in an Empyrean of disassociation, which is conveyed in the same remorseless detail. The book ends with almost a hundred short “expendable chapters,” to be fitted in or not as the reader chooses; these are sometimes fragments of the story, scraps of dialogue, etc., and sometimes footnotes on the method of the novel provided by one Morelli, who seems to be a surrogate for the author. In the sixty-second of these fragments, Morelli thinks of a book he might one day write:

If I were to write this book, standard behavior (including the most unusual, its deluxe category) would be inexplicable by means of current instrumental psychology. The actors would appear to be unhealthy or complete idiots. Not that they would show themselves incapable of current challenges and responses: love, jealousy, pity and so on down the line, but in them something that Homosapiens keeps subliminal would laboriously open up a road as if a third eye were blinking out with effort from under a frontal bone.

This striving towards a new mode of consciousness, the real subject of the book, will be sympathetically received in Paris, where Señor Cortázar makes his home and where the mark of an “advanced” writer is his search for a pure distillation of consciousness that refuses to concur in any conventional act such as the making of moral judgments. How a life so emptied of significance can engage the interest of a reader of novels, I don’t know, but that is the sort of question one doesn’t ask. Certainly, to say that Hopscotch is monumentally boring would not be felt by its admirers as a disabling criticism, since that, among other things, is what it is evidently intended to be, and vive le sport.

MR. BURROUGHS IS ALSO a devotee of calculated meaninglessness rather like the Parisian dead-enders, but the difference between Burroughs and, say, Philippe Soller is that the American writer’s work is driven by a tangible force, namely disgust. He writes out of a deep revulsion for everything, which is one effective way of pasting up a coherent landscape. The resulting landscape doesn’t have much interest, it is true, but since we live in an age which values the extreme statement more than the true statement, Mr. Burroughs will get by. I admit I don’t know what the final “truth” is, any more than Mr. Burroughs does; all I mean is that a book like De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which is also full of images of horror and disgust (“I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles, and was laid, confounded with all unutterable abortions, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud”), strikes me as true to human nature because the horrors are shown as lying below a plank-walk of rationality, memory and custom, whereas in the vision of Burroughs there is nothing but the Nilotic mud, and I find that too selective. Admittedly there is more variety in The Soft Machine than in Naked Lunch—a journey backward in time, some flecks of social satire, an ingenious method of construction that has the book rotating around a single axis; but as a window on reality it strikes me as too resolutely boarded up. How much can you see through a knot-hole?