In Praise of Leonard Cohen, Great Novelist

“It is kind of an intelligent Naked Lunch,” was how one Dallas Times Herald writer described Leonard Cohen’s 1966 novel Beautiful Losers, an interesting and somewhat auspicious comparison when you consider how controversial Burroughs’ book — published less than a decade earlier in 1959 — was. According to critic Robert Fulford, Cohen wrote what he considered “the most revolting book ever written in Canada,” a criticism that certainly didn’t help the book’s poor sales. Cohen was a celebrated poet in his home country of Canada, but was living off his inheritance on a Greek island in the Saronic Gulf upon the book’s release.

Eventually, of course, Cohen would have more success as a singer-songwriter, his records would lead fans of his music to seek out his book, and Beautiful Losers is still available on bookstore shelves to this day. His literary merit is threatened by the sheer weight of the his career as the composer of songs like “Suzanne” and “Hallelujah,” songs that I cite when trying to explain to people why I think Cohen is a more interesting, and possibly better, songwriter than Bob Dylan (an opinion more often than not met by, “You’re fucking crazy”).

And yeah, maybe I am a bit off my rocker for making that comparison, because Dylan is Bob Dylan, and Cohen, undoubtedly one of the most beloved singer-songwriters who also happens to be a well-respected poet, doesn’t have a Blonde on Blonde in his discography, and doesn’t tend to get the Voice of a Generation tag added to his name — but Bob Dylan never wrote a really good novel.

Beautiful Losers is an ambitious book that is at some points frustrating and overindulgent, but that’s also what makes it great. The plot, really everything you would expect from a guy like Cohen, involves a handful of dead people (an unnamed Canadian folklorist, his wife who committed suicide, his mystical Quebecois separatist best friend, and a 17th-century native American saint), sex, revolution, mysticism, and other topics native to Cohen’s songs.

As a fan of his music before his writing, I admit that, yeah, I read Beautiful Losers because I figured that the guy who wrote some of the greatest lyrics I’ve ever heard couldn’t possibly produce a terrible book. And I was right: his novel works alongside other postmodern 1960s books by Thomas Pynchon, and especially Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Nog; the stuff I’d been devouring around the same time as I picked up Cohen’s contribution. Reading it again years later, it isn’t necessarily on the same level as a book like The Crying of Lot 49, but Beautiful Losers is something different; something special and strange that often flirts with Magical Realism, it occupies its own unique space in literature: a novel, written by a poet-turned-musician who eventually became much better known for his songs. But it is also good enough to deserve consideration on its own merits, rather than as a simple side project of Leonard Cohen, singer-songwriter.