Clouds of piety surrounded Matt Cohen in the last months of his life, but he wasn't having any of it. He wasn't impressed when his fellow writers in Toronto began speaking of him in hushed and admiring tones after they heard the news of his terminal lung cancer. In October, 1999, the Harbourfront Festival gave him its annual prize, and His Excellency John Ralston Saul made the presentation, calling Cohen "one of our seminal, contemporary writers" and "an intellectual in the real sense of the word, as it would have been understood, for example, in Vienna at the turn of the century."
There was much more, including great reviews for his novel, Elizabeth and After, but this wave of anxious appreciation didn't distract Cohen from his final project, a work of revenge called Typing: A Life in 26 Keys, published last week.
A generous reader will ascribe the book's faults to his haste. One can only weep at the thought of a 56-year-old writer desperately trying to leave a record of his times. But, having wept, we are left with the book, issued by a responsible publisher, Random House. It's obvious that the editors should have given Cohen more help; his narrative is so poorly organized that we frequently can't tell when key events are happening, and there are errors that could have been easily corrected. For instance, Cohen twice calls Jack McClelland a fighter pilot; McClelland was the skipper of a torpedo boat in the war, a fact that appears in Who's Who.
Cohen died in December, and his death gives the bizarre accusations in his book the authority of the grave, as a dead man's last printed words. It seems rather a mean little trick, this hate letter from the Beyond. On the other hand, it's a unique document: How many writers have left us such a precise settling of scores? And it has a theme: Because Canadian literature was hostile to people like him, Cohen never received his due.
He quotes Kafka's reluctance to express the absurdity of his situation because it would place him outside German literature, his problem being "not a German but a Jewish one." Matt Cohen remarks: "How familiar such complaints sound to a Canadian writer whose origin or sensibility lies outside the Canadian cultural mainstream." Over the years, he gradually realized that "if one is not writing books that represent the white, conservative, middle-class and Protestant values of the literary establishment, one is forever destined to be seen by that establishment, in terms of the recognition, rewards and prizes it has to offer, as unimportant and marginal ..." Being a Jew, he felt like the wrong person in the wrong place.
But it happens that when he started his career, the leading figures in Canadian literature included Mordecai Richler, Leonard Cohen and Irving Layton, none of them a notorious Protestant; the year before Matt Cohen's first book appeared, the Governor General's judges awarded the fiction prize to Richler and the poetry prize to Leonard Cohen. (For that matter, Morley Callaghan, the most revered Toronto writer at that time, was no Protestant either.)
When Typing deals with themes in literature, Cohen's ideas grow even more dubious. "Davies, Findley, Laurence, Atwood, Alice Munro ... gained ... a dominant place in the Canadian public imagination. All of them were writing out of a conservative, small-town, restrained, Protestant tradition ..."
A misrepresentation as wild as that could only be the product of wilful paranoia. Davies, Findley and Atwood, all city dwellers, all Toronto-centric, can't conceivably be called "small-town," nor is "restrained" a word anyone would apply to their stories and attitudes.
Cohen names specific enemies, including Robert Weaver of CBC Radio and The Tamarack Review, William French, who was for many years the books columnist of The Globe and Mail -- and me, in an earlier life as editor of Saturday Night and columnist for The Toronto Star. He describes "two of the guardians of Toronto's closed literary gates: Robert Fulford and Robert Weaver ... the kingpins of an empire that included Saturday Night magazine, CBC Radio's Anthology series ... [and] ... The Tamarack Review." His dating is vague, but he seems to be discussing the early 1970s. Weaver, French and I were what he calls "a terrifying triumvirate" with "the exclusive power to make or break a writer's reputation."
We all declined to adopt "the untrammelled hedonism of the '60s ... [and] ... appeared to be quite happy as 1950s reactionaries." (He sees the 1960s populated exclusively by hedonists and reactionaries.) Worse, it appeared to him that we were conspiring to preserve our vast power by reaching unanimous decisions: "Like a triumvirate of Roman consuls, they occupied the tribunal whenever a new writer was so foolish as to enter the ring. Thumbs down and the foolish aspirant was reduced to an instant remainder ..."
Everybody knows that denying you're a member of the Establishment only proves that you're at the centre of it, so I won't claim to have been powerless. But the notion of three such natural competitors conspiring in their judgments could come only from someone who didn't take the trouble to read what we were writing. The idea of closed literary gates is even more preposterous. We were in different ways pathetically eager to grasp at whatever straws of talent came our way, and if anything we were too quick to praise or publish it.
Cohen complains that I "refrained from mentioning Korsoniloff," his first novel. It was a very short book that I couldn't finish; in fact, I could hardly start it, because I had no idea what it was about. This should not have surprised Cohen, who says in Typing that he didn't like it either, even at the time. He calls it a "disaster," and comments that it "only avoided the appearance of being ridiculously shallow by being, instead, incomprehensible." One would logically expect gratitude for ignoring it. But apparently he wanted reviewers to discover talent that wasn't there just because this particular non-talent belonged to him.
His principal complaint about Weaver is even odder. He says Weaver often chose to broadcast the most boring stories Cohen submitted to him. He never answers the obvious question: Why in the world was he offering to the CBC material that he himself considered boring?
Much of Typing will remain mysterious. Cohen says that when he was 45 years old, well-known and much-published, he felt like a hockey player who had always been on the verge of a great season but now found that his knees were giving out. At 45! (Davies was 57 when Fifth Business established him as a novelist.)
How did Cohen convince himself, against all the evidence, that he was rejected? From his beginnings as a writer he was adopted by those who were powerful or soon would be. In 1967 the renowned philosopher George Grant saw his promise and hired him at McMaster University, but Cohen discounts that because Grant was "a kind of cult leader who demanded perfect faith and perfect fidelity." His first publisher was the House of Anansi, where his colleagues included Margaret Atwood and Dennis Lee; after accepting one book, Lee rejected another, an editorial decision that Cohen saw as "a deliberate and malicious betrayal."
But soon he was publishing with the most eminent firm, McClelland and Stewart; later, with Knopf Canada. The universities of Alberta and Western Ontario made him writer-in-residence for a year each, and the University of Victoria made him a visiting professor. His peers elected him head of the Writers' Union. The Canada Council gave him two senior arts fellowships. He was three times a finalist for the Governor General's Award for fiction and he won it the third time, accepting it just two weeks before he died.
Many writers will see this as an enviable record; many more will consider it beyond their dreams. Why, then, does he write as if he had been forced to observe the party of Canadian literature through the window with his face pressed against the glass?
Perhaps, in thinking about his career, he was a prisoner of fashion. We have so long been accustomed to the whine of "the cultural community" that we would be astonished and incredulous if a novelist claimed to have been generously treated. And remember, Matt Cohen was a graduate student in the mid-1960s. That was the moment when university students, a privileged class since the Middle Ages, began seeing themselves as the slaves of governments and corporations. Cohen took this nonsense seriously, and he must have carried the same wretched baggage with him into his career.
He was altogether wrong, but it did him no harm. This is the era of the victim, and outsiders have the best chance of a sympathetic hearing; if you aren't a loser, it's best to pretend you are. Perhaps that's the value of Typing, as a souvenir of the distorted attitudes to culture that were shared by some of the most articulate people among us, late in the 20th century.