canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

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Matt Cohen, but I did meet him once when he was writer-in-residence at the Metro Toronto Reference Library and I was an unpublished fiction writer looking for some advice.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 accommodate him.

(A question: Margaret Atwood is "small town"?)

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 restrained....)

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 that up.

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 cash advance.

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 that.

Michael Bryson is the publisher/editor of The Danforth Review.







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