A Cohen classic


Full of sexy sexy poetry (Campus Reads)

Joel Blechinger

Long before Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” became to go-to song for “meaningful” moments in film and TV he was a struggling writer just trying to make a living. His first novel, The Favorite Game, was published three years before Cohen would reinvent himself as a singer-songwriter.

The history of The Favorite Game’s production is complicated. The novel was first written sometime after 1959, when Cohen received a $2000 Canada Council grant at the age of 24. The original manuscript of the novel was titled Beauty at Close Quarters, and was received poorly after Canadian published magnate Jack McClelland objected to what he viewed as the novel’s egotistical preoccupation with sex.

Cohen then reluctantly gutted nearly half of the book, and it was eventually published to dismal sales. There has never been an uncut edition of Beauty at Close Quarters, which is astonishing given the career that its creator went on to have.

I first read The Favorite Game in a post high-school haze. I lounged in beds, hammocks, and on grassy slopes as I read the story of Lawrence Breavman – a young Jewish boy living in the Westmount area of Montreal and struggling with love, sex, spirituality, history, and modernity. The novel’s prose style is undeniably the work of a poet. There is an arresting image or phrase on every page, such as when Breavman writes poetry to his lover Shell, writing: “Beneath my hands / your small breasts / are the upturned bellies / of breathing fallen sparrows.”

The novel is technically a bildungsroman; like Dickens’ David Copperfield, it’s a novel of a young man’s growth and education. Within that, the novel can be seen also as a künstlerroman: a work that specifically portrays the development of an artist. Debate has risen over how much of Cohen can be read into the character of Breavman, as their shared early history is nearly identical.

Of Cohen’s two novels, The Favorite Game is often overlooked in the shadow of the darker, more experimental Beautiful Losers (1966). Personally, I’m too weak of heart to tackle the jarring Beautiful Losers in its entirety, and it was The Favorite Game that helped me understand why youth still walk the streets of Montreal with the undying hope of meeting Leonard Cohen, the great bohemian. 

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