Leonard Cohen review for JC Sept 2021
It ought to be admitted that even for the hard-core Leonard Cohen fan — among whose ranks I count myself — yet another book on an aspect of his life makes the heart sink a little.
So I approached Harry Freedman’s “Leonard Cohen, The Mystical Roots of Genius”, with some trepidation. This is not least because the author bills himself, with no sense of irony, as “Britain’s leading author of popular works of Jewish culture and history”, which did rather leave me wondering about where Simon Schama, Norman Lebrecht or Simon Sebag Montefiore come in the pecking order.
Nevertheless, The Mystical Roots of Genius turns out to be a well-nigh perfect book to read over the High Holy Days, as Freedman carefully analyses some of the choicer lyrics in Leonard Cohen’s vast back catalogue.
He doesn’t just choose the better-known songs, either. I would have expected “Who By Fire”, for example, or “Hallelujah” and “If It Be Thy Will”, songs in which Cohen appears to be directly in dialogue with the Lord. Who By Fire is, of course, Cohen’s singular reworking of the famous Unetanah Tokef prayer in the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services.
But — perhaps for copyright reasons, because Freedman was unable to access all of Cohen’s prodigious output — there are examinations of other, less well-known songs. In 1969’s Story of Isaac, for example, Cohen recreates the Akedah, or the binding of Isaac, opening with the words: “The door it opened slowly, my father he came in, I was nine years old”.
This was the great test by God of Abraham’s faith, whether he would sacrifice his son. Freedman takes us through the story and then reminds us that when God called Abraham, he replied with the word “Hineni” — meaning, here I am.
Freedman writes: “The word… is used rarely in response to a call, but when it is used it is invariably at a moment of high drama. It is a word that Leonard Cohen will make his own in his final years, one from which he will wring every last drop of emotion”. And that, of course, is an allusion to Cohen’s last album, You Want It Darker, in which the chazan and choir of Montreal’s Sha’ar Hashamayim sing the word, “Hineni”. In the same song, Cohen uses the first line of the Kaddish, “Magnified and sanctified, be Thy Holy Name”.
Freedman freely acknowledges both Christian and Buddhist influences on Cohen’s writing, though, curiously, he has nothing to say about Scientology, with which Cohen flirted for a time. The lyrics of Famous Blue Raincoat, including the phrase “Did you ever go clear”, are often cited as coming from Scientology tropes.
But the bulk of the book focuses on the biblical and Jewish influences on which Cohen drew throughout his life. Its main stepping stones — his upbringing in the heart of Montreal’s Jewish community, his Hebrew grammarian grandfather, his early poetry, and his move to the Greek island of Hydra, where he met the famous “Marianne” who inspired So Long Marianne — all these incidents are well-known and parsed to pieces by Cohen-ites.
Freedman’s take on Cohen’s unique songs and work, however, is fascinating. And I did learn one new thing which I had never known about the Blessed Leonard — the circumstances in which he wrote his first novel, The Favourite Game.
It turns out that Cohen, at the very end of 1959, had fetched up in a boarding house in Hampstead run by a “fierce and compassionate” landlady, Stella Pullman. I don’t know, and Freedman doesn’t say, if she was Jewish. What he does tell us is that “when Cohen told her he was writing a novel, she informed him that his duty was to write three pages every day and to take up the coal into the house from the cellar. She would check his work each day, and if he hadn’t taken up the coal and written his three pages he would not be allowed to stay there”.
The house, remembered Cohen, was at the corner of Gayton Road and Hampstead High Street. Certainly, it seems this is a place calling out for a Blue Plaque. I just have this vision of the 25-year-old Cohen being lovingly bullied by Mrs Pullman into buckling down to write — though what she made of The Favourite Game, which, being kind, has not stood the test of time like his songs, is anyone’s guess.
Freedman doesn’t get everything right in this book. There’s a certain amount of surmise as to what Cohen might have learned at Hebrew school in Montreal, and when he writes “as one of the few who could read Hebrew, Cohen would have been taken out of the main Jewish Studies class and put into a group to study the Torah more intensely” — well, it’s a bit of a jump to conclude definitively that “it would have been here that he had his first exposure to the sources that he would draw on many years later…”
But for the most part this is a charming and compelling walk through Leonard Cohen’s spiritual life. The back cover features an admiring quotation from the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, also a Cohen fan. He wrote: “Leonard Cohen taught us that even in the midst of darkness there is lift, in the midst of hatred there is love, with our dying breath we can still sing Hallelujah”. To which one can only reply with a heartfelt “Amen”.
Leonard Cohen, The Mystical Roots of Genius, by Harry Freedman, is published by Bloomsbury Continuum on October 28 at £18.99, to mark the fifth anniversary of Cohen’s death in 2016.