Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Review of I’m Your Man, a biography of Leonard Cohen, by Sylvie Simmons

I picked up Sylvia Simmons’ I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen because, frankly, I didn’t really know much about Cohen, although many of my poet friends love him and I thought it was time that I learned something about him. So , being a junkie for artist biographies, I thought I would find out a little bit more about this poet, songwriter, and musician.

However, it seems that Simmons book is not for the casual reader. Rather, this ambitious books attempts to cover his entire life in great depth, sparing no detail. And that is the book’s problem as well: it tries to do too much.

I put the book down and picked it back up again several times, thinking that maybe I just had too much on my plate and was impatient to get through it. Try though I may, my impatience with the book did not ever fully vanish.

The book starts off with his upbringing in a Jewish part of Montreal where Cohen started writing and gained some early fame as a writer. This is difficult terrain for any biographer, as it is necessary to give some background into the artist to tell where he came from. It is the rare biographer who manages to make this material interesting. Simmon’s problem isn’t that this material isn’t interesting, but she lingers on it longer than she should. There is much in Cohen’s future that the reader is anxious to get to, and as with any biography, although that material is important, it is not the main event.

I think it might be because Sylvie Simmons has thrown every single detail she apparently came across into the bio, no matter how small and only tangentially related to the narrative. Also, she appears to have places where she has interviewed friends and associates and she loses sight of the focus of the interview. For example, Along with this comes a tendency to repeat details, such as her emphasis that Leonard was not the depressed kind of poet that repelled people, but rather was always funny and kept his depressions to himself (or poured them into his songs.)

All of these things seem like an interruption. So for a reader like me, who doesn’t know much about Cohen and so isn’t in to all of those kinds of details, it can become tedious. It seems like this is a biography more for the die-hard Leonard Cohen fans or for obsessive-compulsives who are into minutiae.

A lot of this information could have been put into appendices and footnotes so that it is there, but it doesn’t bog down the main narrative.

The switches in voice also take some getting used to. We are used to those kinds of abrupt switches in fiction, but we still are not accustomed to it in biographies and other works of non-fiction. This feels like Simmons’ attempts to play with narrative and in doing so, you risk turning off a certain number of readers. As I got more involved in the narrative, these became less bothersome to me, but they also were just less frequent as the book continues.
Along the same lines, there were some odd descriptive phrases. For example:
Although it might not have won an arm-wrestling contest with Greenwich Village, the Montreal folk music scene was thriving.

Again, these attempts to transform the genre of musical biographies are hit and miss. Sometimes they work and sometimes they are puzzling and inadequate and distract from the subject.

This brings us to another aspect of the biography. It is trying to do a little too much. At times it goes back and forth between an ethnography, a cultural history, a personal biography of the artist, and a work of literary criticism as well as of music criticism. To write any one or two of these successfully is hard enough. To try to do all of these at once, switching back and forth between the necessary voices and tones in this book makes it unwieldy to say the least.

Just as bad art is instructive, so is bad writing. This is not a bad biography, but it is distracting enough in the writing of it that it draws more attention to the wizard behind the (biographer’s) curtain that it does to the artist himself in places.

An example of really stellar writing is the chapter A Long time Shaving. This chapter is engaging because you can see Simmons’ own facility in talking about the novel Beatufiul Lovers and her own engagement with other biographers and critics in talking about the book. It is really in the literary/music criticism that Simmons shines.

This book probably speaks to the conditions of publishing today, too, with its greater emphasis in putting out more books with fewer editors. With some editing a paring down and some rearranging to put the less critical details into footnotes and appendices, this ambitious biography could really sing.

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