Uncommon Ground: A Celebration of Matt Cohen
Edited by Graeme Gibson, Wayne Grady, Dennis Lee and Priscila Uppal
Knopf Canada, 2002
Typing: A Life in 26 Keys
by Matt Cohen
Vintage Canada, 2001
Reviewed by Michael Bryson
Earlier this year Knopf Canada published Uncommon Ground: A Celebration of Matt Cohen,
a collection of memories and essays about Matt Cohen. Now, I've never
read anything by Matt Cohen, but I did meet him once when he was
writer-in-residence at the Metro Toronto Reference Library and I was an
unpublished fiction writer looking for some advice. This was about 1998,
a year before he won the Governor General's Award for his novel Elizabeth
and After. And a year before he died.
I had been to see over a half dozen
writers-in-residence over the years, looking for advice from people more
advanced in the craft. Of all the people I'd asked for advice, Matt
Cohen was the least helpful and the least friendly. It made me wonder if
he was the most honest. (Maybe everyone else was just being encouraging
because that was part of their job....) He came across as if he wasn't
interested in meeting people, or at least in meeting me. I told him I
had some publishing credits in little magazines, and he said,
"Well, it looks like you've had some success." He didn't seem
to know what to tell me, and I left him feeling befuddled.
After I finished Uncommon Ground, I had a
similar feeling. Just who was Matt Cohen? It seems from the
memories recorded in Uncommon Ground that he was many things to
many people. A difficult person to get to know. An iconoclast. A loner.
A contrarian. A self-hating Jew.
That last description is one Cohen gave himself in his
memoir Typing: A Life in 26 Keys. The memoir is referenced all
through Uncommon Ground. It is a touchstone for many of the
writers, as if it demanded a response. Many of Cohen's friends were
apparently shocked by the bitter voice Cohen chose for his memoir (he
wrote it in the last months of his life as he was dying of cancer).
Robert Fulford reviewed Typing when it first came out and called
it "a hate letter from the beyond." In his contribution to Uncommon
Ground, David Homel says Cohen finally came clean in Typing,
saying publicly for the first time what they had said to themselves
privately many times: Canadian literary culture is anti-Semitic.
Well, hi ho. That is certainly a grand claim. It was
one of the reasons why after finishing Uncommon Ground I went
back to the bookstore for Typing. I needed more information. I
wanted to get Cohen's side of the story. Does he say Canadian literary
culture is anti-Semitic? Not really. What he does do is make some swipes
in that direction:
Many of those writers now considered to be our
greatest - Robertson Davies, Timothy Findley, Margaret Lawrence,
Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro - gained unprecedented audiences, sales,
international recognition, and most of all a dominant place in the
Canadian public imagination. All of them were writing out of a
conservative, small-town, restrained, Protestant tradition that found
a tremendous echo of self-recognition across the country (p157-8).
The implication in the above quotation is that Matt
Cohen is not included in the list of Canadian greats. Canadian
literature found a way to exclude him. He was Jewish. Being Jewish,
Cohen was - in his own words - "a person in exile from
nowhere." The Canadian public imagination could not find a way to
(A question: Margaret Atwood is "small
It should be noted, of course, that Cohen's list fails
to include Mordecai Richler, Irving Layton, and Leonard Cohen, all
Jewish, all Canlit icons. Also, others have noted the conservative
tastes of the Canadian book-buying public without playing the race card.
Furthermore, Uncommon Ground makes clear that throughout his
career Cohen had many admirers. He made his living from writing (no
small feat). His talent did not go unrecognized. He won the GG, for g-d's
sakes! (Plus much of his oeuvre was conservative, small-town, and
Ah, well. It seems Matt Cohen was a complicated person
full of contradiction. These are often fine attributes in a writer. If
they make for a difficult biographic summary, so be it. The work lives
on, demanding reading, demanding interpretation. And it is here that Uncommon
Ground proves to be an invaluable resource. In Uncommon Ground,
the many lives of Matt Cohen live a comfortable co-existence. Greg
Hollingshead extols Cohen's common touch for the common people. Margaret
Atwood notes the continuity of Cohen's engagement with magic realism.
The clips of interviews with Cohen show his engagement with his own
mythologizing - and his trickster side. In one interview he says he
writes while high on drugs. In another interview he says he made all of
After reading that, one turns to the memoir not sure
what to believe. Typing provides insight into the writing life.
It also provides images of the Toronto literary scene from the heady
days of emerging Canlit in the late-1960s to a portrait of a bizarre
meeting with a booze-soaked Jack McClelland. McClelland asks him to go
"back to the well one more time" and churn out another book
about small town Ontario. Cohen claims he often made up the narratives
of his novels on his way to the publisher's office to ask for his next
What is not included in Typing is Cohen's
career as Teddy Jam, the author of numerous books for children. Uncommon
Ground "outs" Cohen as Teddy Jam, confirming what was
apparently a widely held secret. (Teddy Jam? Sorry, I've never heard of
him....) Typing is a circumspect account of Cohen's "life in
26 keys"; it's also often very funny, as Cohen's black humour
punctuates almost every page. It made me wish I could have gotten to
know him, but Uncommon Ground convinced me he was unknowable. As
every life is, quite possibly.
Live the mystery, the mystics say. Cohen certainly did
is the publisher/editor of The Danforth Review.