A book of Leonard Cohen’s famous last words

by Diana Wichtel / 06 February, 2019
Leonard Cohen. Photo/Getty Images

Leonard Cohen. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Leonard Cohen the flame book

In The Flame, Leonard Cohen reminds us of the humour beneath his melancholy.

“Google despair and melancholy,” Leonard Cohen once joked, “and my name comes up.”

He could also look on the bright side. In a New Yorker interview not long before his death in 2016, he spoke of his “predicament” – age, illness – offering a certain freedom from distraction. “You have a chance to put your house in order.”

 He was working on poems that would end up in The Flame, a collection of poetry, lyrics from his last four albums, prose and “scraps”. The book is not so much a house in order as a work in progress, a box of mementos, a bag of tricks to sort through.

It’s also a reminder that his music, in his later years a gravelly road to transcendence for even his least-religious admirers, brought him fame, but it was as a writer that he started and stopped.

“It was what he was staying alive to do, his sole breathing purpose at the end,” writes his son, Adam Cohen, in the foreword. He recalls a father always scribbling. Once, Cohen Jr was looking for tequila. “I was directed to the freezer, where I found a frosty, misplaced notebook.”

Pen-and-ink drawings, mostly unsparing self-portraits from over the years, reveal that Leonard Cohen was never really a young man. A chance to linger over his words reveals he wasn’t really that melancholy. The lyrics of Almost Like the Blues, published as a poem in the New Yorker in 2014, show his eye for the absurdity of his situation as a singer with something to say: “There’s torture and there’s killing/ And there’s all my bad reviews/ The war, the children missing/ Lord, it’s almost like the blues.”

The Flame, a title chosen by his son, sounds a little reverential. The voice captured in this terrific last volume is always on guard against that. One particularly flayed-looking portrait is captioned with this summation of Canadian humour and, possibly, the human condition: “This is no joke that’s what makes it funny.”

THE FLAME, by Leonard Cohen, (Allen & Unwin, $45)

This article was first published in the January 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

Norah Jones’s new beginning and return to New Zealand
104817 2019-04-21 00:00:00Z Music

Norah Jones’s new beginning and return to New Zeal…

by Russell Baillie

The jazz songstress is staying inspired by writing with others.

Read more
Bill Ralston: Only fundamentalist Christians should be hurt by Israel Folau
104814 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Social issues

Bill Ralston: Only fundamentalist Christians shoul…

by Bill Ralston

Israel Folau’s social-media post might condemn the Wallabies to Rugby World Cup hell, but the rest of us should ignore him.

Read more
What happens next with the Mueller report?
104863 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z World

What happens next with the Mueller report?

by Noted

Did Trump “corrupt” with intent?

Read more
The Heart Dances: Lifting the lid on the culture clash behind ‘The Piano’ ballet
104740 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Movies

The Heart Dances: Lifting the lid on the culture c…

by Russell Baillie

Documentary offers an intriguing look at the clash of artistic sensibilities behind adapting The Piano into a ballet.

Read more
How this remarkable native insect is being saved
104836 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Planet

How this remarkable native insect is being saved

by Jenny Nicholls

Principles of bird conservation are helping to save another remarkable native you’ve never heard of.

Read more
Environment Ministry 'unashamedly proud' of bleak report's honesty
104868 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Planet

Environment Ministry 'unashamedly proud' of bleak…

by RNZ

The Secretary for the Environment Vicky Robertson said she was proud of the report's honesty and it was an important stocktake for the country.

Read more
The new What We Do in the Shadows is more dad joke than demonic
104712 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Television

The new What We Do in the Shadows is more dad joke…

by Diana Wichtel

Diana Wichtel reviews a new American TV series based on the hit Kiwi comedy.

Read more
Louis & Louise is a satisfying exploration of gender and identity
104230 2019-04-19 00:00:00Z Books

Louis & Louise is a satisfying exploration of gend…

by Brigid Feehan

In her latest novel, Julie Cohen traces the parallel male and female lives of a single character.

Read more