Leonard Cohen was mythologized as an enlightened master of verse when he died 17 days after release of his final album, You Want It Darker, whose title track contained an eerily prophetic sampling of the Kaddish prayer, which is recited collectively by mourners in synagogue.
Yet even the most inspired of writers must work tirelessly to achieve their mythological status—even if it’s been six years since they passed away.
The yearning for more Leonard was first sated with a 2018 poetry collection called The Flame, followed a year later by a posthumous album, Thanks for the Dance. October 2022 brought us A Ballet of Lepers, the first fiction published under his name since 1966’s Beautiful Losers. The collection consists of the titular novella and an additional 16 short stories, nearly all of which take place in his native Montreal. (Most were written prior to the publication of his semi-autobiographical 1963 novel, The Favourite Game.)
A Ballet of Lepers follows an unnamed narrator living in a rooming house on Stanley Street, whose long-thought-dead “grampa” comes to live with him. Feeling increasingly stifled in an ill-fated romantic affair and encouraged by his grandfather’s erratic behaviour, the narrator becomes enamoured with violence. With increasing intensity, he instigates acts of senseless aggression on those in his life, even going so far as to harass and stalk a harmless man.
The other short stories vary widely, in both subject and quality. Some are based on episodes in Cohen’s own life: “Ceremonies” is inspired by experiencing the death of his father as a youth (interestingly, this short story is nearly identical to an early chapter of The Favourite Game); “A Hundred Suits from Russia” narrates the life of a child being raised by a single mother and whose elderly Eastern European grandfather comes to live with the family. Like the main novella, the stories are at times obscene and unsettling.
A Ballet of Lepers is filled with elements whose sole purpose appears to be to shock, and comes across as work not fully realized. It is nevertheless a fascinating window into the mind of a young Leonard Cohen attempting to find his literary voice.
Some reviewers have been surprised by the disturbing elements, but the contents are far from surprising when placed in context of the author’s contemporary writings—at this time, he was far more of a wild spirit than the post-Mount Baldy, self-reflexive, fedora-and-blazer-sporting man who died at age 82 on Nov. 7, 2016.
Many critics reviled Beautiful Losers for its sexually explicit and often disturbing passages. Similarly, Cohen’s 1964 poetry book Flowers for Hitler includes detailed descriptions of violence. (Both works emerged from the same period as A Ballet of Lepers.) Pointless violence, power dynamics, and the limits of acceptable behaviour in writing long fascinated Cohen. And so did the ugliness of human barbarism for which civilization is but a thin veil. These themes would persist his whole career.
Cohen’s philosophy on society suggests that the forces of cruelty and violence are inexplicably and erotically seductive: a human impulse to control or be controlled. This is evident in his treatment of female characters across the book. In this vein, the image of the lepers is a salient metaphor throughout the work, drawing on the biblical conception of leprosy as revealing the impurity of one’s soul. We encounter several characters who behave as the biblical leper, capable of spreading their affliction of moral corruption.
So, is A Ballet of Lepers the most groundbreaking work by Leonard Cohen? Hardly. Some of the short stories seemed half-formed, and the whole volume certainly lacks the psalmist quality of his later efforts. But if we regard it as it simply is—that is, documenting the early career of a celebrated writer—then it offers a fascinating view into the seeds that would blossom into themes that defined his body of work.