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Beautiful Losers

Leonard Cohen is known today primarily as a songwriter and poet, and most notably as the writer of the song Hallelujah, which was made famous when it was covered by Jeff Buckley. Before his career in music, though, Cohen tried his hand at novels. Beautiful Losers is the second (and thus far, last) novel he ever wrote, before he turned his attention to his music career and became the songwriter he is today.  

Introduction To Beautiful Losers

Beautiful Losers is a 1966 stream of consciousness novel by French Canadian writer and future singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. Divided into three books, the novel explores topics like radicalism, suicide, drugs abuse, sexual deviancy, and other taboo topics that were risqué for its time. 

In the first book, "The History of Them All," a nameless folklorist becomes obsessed with Catherine Tekakwitha, a saint-like character of the Iroquois Native Canadian tribe who lived three centuries beforehand. Sloth-ridden and sex-obsessed, his real life has spiraled into disarray following the suicide of his wife, Edith, and the death of his friend/male lover, known simply as "F." The two deceased had also had an affair with one another. F. was a radical Quebec nationalist who drug those around him into extreme behavior, and he gradually lost his mind as syphilis took hold. 

In book two, "A Long Letter from F.," the radical has been institutionalized for bombing a statue. In letters to the folklorist, he tells of his sexcapades with Edith, herself a descendant of the Iroquois tribe. He also reveals that his comrades from the Free Quebec movement will soon break him out of the asylum.

The book concludes with "An Epilogue in the Third Person," where F. is a sexually depraved transient who morphs into a projection screen just as a gang of roughnecks close in on him. The novel wraps with a prayer to Tekakwitha from the folklorist.

Themes Of Beautiful Losers

Through the concerns of the three main characters in Beautiful Losers, issues of class conflict are touched upon in every direction. The Iroquois are oppressed by the French Canadians, who are in turn oppressed by Anglo Canadians. Quebec struggles for its own identity but Canada as a whole is unable to emerge from the shadow of the United States.

F. and the folklorist grew up in a Montreal orphanage, but while the latter character takes the existential route and immerses himself in society's victims, F. attempts to overcome his victimhood; first by adopting a Charles Axis bodybuilding regimen—a spoof on 60s-era Charles Atlas ads—and second by joining the Free Quebec movement, in which he ultimately emerges as a leading figure.

Background On Leonard Cohen

Beautiful Losers was Cohen's second and last novel before he switched careers to become a fulltime musician. It was written between 1964 and 1965 during a speed-fueled fasting phase on the Greek Isle of Hydra. His work schedule was erratic during this period, and Cohen's drug use and malnutrition—including 10 straight days without food—caused his weight to drop to 118 lbs. He also suffered hallucinations that no doubt inspired some of the novel's disjointed structure and heavy use of metaphors. At the time he believed that drugs and a lack of food were fuel for the creative mind, though he later admitted that amphetamines and depression were a dangerous mix. 

Despite a well-publicized release, Beautiful Losers was panned by critics and sold poorly during its initial pressing. Though not a big seller in its own time, the novel grew in popularity as Cohen gained fame as a recording artists, and it has since gained canonical prestige as a definitive work of Canadian postmodernism.

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