Catherine Tekakwitha, who are you?
In Montréal spring is like an autopsy. Everyone wants to see the inside of the frozen mammoth. Girls rip off their sleeves and the flesh is sweet and white, like wood under green bark. From the streets a sexual manifesto rises like an inflating tire, "The winter has not killed us again!"
Welcome to you who read me today. Welcome to you who put my heart down. Welcome to you, darling and friend, who miss me forever in your trip to the end.
Frenzied thoughts prove enduring
I have no idea why this supposed novel is so popular. I can see how its liberal use of the crudest four-letter words—presented not with shocking effect but as mundane, even romantic, language—might appeal in the striving-to-be-liberated sixties and seventies, but I can't imagine how this makes any waves in these more jaded times.
The chaotic stream-of-consciousness style, the relentless poetic qualities of the language and the experimentalism of its format—with prayers, advertising, pages of capitalized words and other bizarre content—would all seem to add up to something that might catch the fancy of the avant-garde set and maybe spread to the public intrigued by Cohen's mysterious persona at one time but become an embarrassing relic within a couple of decades.
The main three characters are involved in an odd ménage à trois, always an attention-getter, but most of what they do is report their research into a seventeenth-century Iroquois maiden who became a Catholic saint. The most vivid imagery is reserved for the tortures of priests and self-flagellation of the devout. All in all, hardly what you'd expect to be continuing popular fare.
But Beautiful Losers has sold nearly a million copies and continues to be in demand today. Its critical acclaim has never been higher.
Like I said, I don't get it. Personally, in my second reading of the novel I had to skim over many pages which seemed too self-indulgent or obscurely personal. Sophomoric. Boring, even. Then I'd hit some viciously funny stuff or some brilliantly crafted paragraphs that would remind me what a real talent was at work here.
Calling this an example of "stream of consciousness" is incorrect. I don't think Cohen is really trying to transcribe anyone's thoughts as they occur. It's more like free association. Free association in prose by a poet whose mind is at all times charged with the strangest assortment of ideas. More like Jack Kerouac or the Beat poets maybe, but not really like anyone else.
When a translation of Beautiful Losers was being published in China in 2000 (I can't imagine what such a translation would be like, nor what the Chinese would make of it), Cohen wrote a letter to his fans there in which he thanked them for being interested in the "frenzied thoughts of my youth". He also wrote:
This is a difficult book, even in English, if it is taken too seriously. May I suggest that you skip over the parts you don't like? Dip into it here and there. Perhaps there will be a passage, or even a page, that resonates with your curiosity. After a while, if you are sufficiently bored or unemployed, you may want to read it from cover to cover. In any case, I thank you for your interest in this odd collection of jazz riffs, pop-art jokes, religious kitsch and muffled prayer....
Beautiful Losers was written outside, on a table set among the rocks, weeds and daisies, behind my house on Hydra, an island in the Aegean Sea. I lived there many years ago. It was a blazing hot summer. I never covered my head. What you have in your hands is more of a sunstroke than a book.
Now that's good writing. Explains a lot too.
Not much of a novel. But an experience.