Cohen biography puts author in the spotlight

by Gavin Wilson
Staff writer

When English Prof. Ira Nadel met Leonard Cohen, the poet, novelist and songwriter's first words were, "Let's have lunch."

It wasn't surprising, considering Nadel had arrived in Cohen's Los Angeles home with B.C. smoked salmon, Montreal smoked meat and a bottle of Chateau La Tour '84.

Nadel knew Cohen preferred the '82, but at $300 a bottle, he could be forgiven for economizing. The effort paid off, anyway. Cohen said he would co-operate with Nadel in writing his biography.

"I was very fortunate. He gave me access to unpublished materials, journals, letters and song lyrics," says Nadel, who interviewed Cohen 18 times and visited old haunts in Montreal, New York, Nashville and the Greek island of Hydra.

Writing Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen, was one thing; Nadel wasn't fully prepared for what followed.

Although he has been a book critic for CBC Radio for many years, Nadel had never himself been swept up into the world of the trade book.

"I learned a great deal," he says. "I have a lot of respect for trade publishers, but they treat books as if they were commodities like umbrellas or chairs."

First there was the book tour -- an endless series of readings in mall bookstores raising his voice over the eruptions of steam from nearby espresso machines. And then there were the media appearances.

Something bothered Nadel about the CNN interviewer. His professional manner was belied by his appearance. He looked as if he had just come from the gym.

Nadel asked how much of the 20-minute interview would be aired. The interviewer shrugged. "About 40 seconds," he said. Just enough for a shot of the book cover and a sound bite from the author.

Another leg of the tour took Nadel to Beverly Hills High School, where he was interviewed in a state-of-the-art studio by the former librarian of Beverly Hills. His cable TV show reaches 1.3 million viewers.

Nadel was then whisked to another interview shot in the living room of the host's Beverly Hills home. In her living room she had interviewed the likes of Toni Morrison, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. Neil Simon ambled in through her kitchen as Nadel was preparing to leave.

"You meet all kinds of amazing people walking through the kitchens of Beverly Hills," Nadel says.

Other interviewers were so fanatical about Cohen that they'd not only read Nadel's book from cover to cover, but gave him lists of questions and errors they'd found.

This cult surrounding Cohen could lead to problems, as it did with some reviewers, Nadel says, "because my view of Leonard Cohen doesn't match their view of Leonard Cohen."

Although generally pleased with the book's reception and the tremendous amount of publicity it's received both in Canada and the United States, Nadel feels that some do not understand the nature of biography.

As the author of Biography: Fiction, Fact and Form, Nadel has given the genre a great deal of thought.

"A biography is not a life; it is a narrative. It has a narrator, a constructed beginning, heroes, anti-heroes and a strong sense of audience. It is not literary criticism and not the place to discuss themes and metaphors in Beautiful Losers," Nadel says.

"A biography should tell you who a person is, rather than what they've accomplished."

One of the reasons Nadel wrote Various Positions was to clarify the myths and reality surrounding the 62-year-old Cohen. A respected figure in Canadian literature -- he declined the Governor General's award for poetry in 1969 -- Cohen later rose to international fame as a recording artist.