This month's book was The Favourite Game by Leonard Cohen. It was an excellent read, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, beginning to end.
The Favourite Game was lent to me by a friend. Before reading it, the last time I had encountered Cohen's prose writing I was probably a preteen, looking through my brother's bookshelf when I found Beautiful Losers and flipped through it. I recall being disturbed and confused by what I skimmed. I think that set me up to expect this read to be literarily challenging and disturbing. This was true at times, but it didn’t make for a worse read.
The Favourite Game is something of a bildungsroman - a coming of age novel. It's about Lawrence Breavman's life, starting with the death of his father, and ending with tours of love and lovers, and a sad but compelling segment that takes place in a Jewish summer camp. In between, we have childhood loss of innocence, hypnosis, early sexual experiences, two best friends who complete and compete with each other to take in life before them in Montreal, experiences of anti-semitism, deteriorating mental health of a parent—all wrapped in plentiful metaphor and literary devices.
Where to start?
The first note I took on the book was this:
2024-01-08, 6:54 AM - This book is poetry, not a novel!
The prose was striking. The book is plentiful in metaphor, and none of them twisted me the wrong way. Let me list just a few, from earlier in the book when I was still making note of them (whereas later I just let 'em wash over me):
- "The evening mist was piling up along the opposite shore like dunes of sand"
- "She was a spider on a field of ash"
With the poetic language, I noticed some instances of language being used to mirror the effects of the medium of film—at times the narrator describes Breavman in a very filmic way (whatever that means).
The Favourite Game is a very visual novel, but not in a densely descriptive way.
The relationship between Breavman and Krantz was fascinating. It was a unique friendship that I had not before beheld the likes of either in reality or in literature. The two seem to talk above themselves, looking down at themselves, as they experience life together. They seem to be narrating events that happen to themselves, as they unfold.
Krantz and Breavman share several beautiful moments, although their friendship does grow apart when Krantz leaves Montreal (I think, for England). I was particularly struck by a passage in the first half when the two go driving through the night—you can sense the perfection the characters experiencing their autonomy and freedom—they seem to be wrapped in a sort of liberation that evokes timelessness; Breavman wants to stay embedded and Cohen finds more poetic ways of saying it doesn’t get much better than this.
Krantz and Breavman give a sense of two people who understand each other so well that they can sit in silence, finish each other’s sentences, and narrate their unified lives.
The love story between Shell and Breavman occupies a good chunk of the novel. Some recurring themes stood out to me: a seeming fear of commitment from Breavman, Shell’s hatred of her body, and Breavman’s loving identities (The Deupty).
Let's talk about the scene in the dirty motel where Shell cleans house and how it upsets Breavman . The way Breavman knows he is put off by her actions, sulks and knows that he needs Shell to pull him back to life from the state he is in—so personal, so intimate. Is this moment a power struggle? A bid for intimacy in requiring someone to express the extent to which they know you? The way Shell knows Breavman is like a puzzle being put all together—well-fitting, clicking into place. It feels all too relatable — to sulk and desire to be known for why we sulk.
Shell’s story is told in glimpses through Breavman, pieced together not altogether chronologically. That left me curious about Shell. I felt like she was present and real in the story, but at the same time, passive in a saddening way. Perhaps I expected her to have more anger—anger at her ex-husband who failed to communicate over their intimacy challenges (the reason for which is not explicitly stated, if I remember correctly), or angry at Breavman for his flighty ways.
Is Shell preoccupied with something else? There are several instances of Shell reflecting on her body as well as Breavman noticing her difficult experiences in her relationship with her physical self. I think I wanted more from this character that Breavman departs from so abruptly.
Still, while on Breavman’s side of the relationship, I found his self-declared character The Deputy to be intriguing—he creates this part that seems capable of loving Shell in a socionormative way—which his artistic self seems to want to run away from. There seem to be various authentic parts of Breavman that conflict.
I can’t help but think about the author when reading a book. What was their life like? How did they come up with this (waves hand around)? What might be based on parts of their life, and what might be made up?
I would like to stop wondering about this. Most of the time, it’s a poor basis for comparing my own creative life and what I’ve output (or even imagined to be capable of outputting) to someone else. I also use this as a measuring stick of the character of the author, which I think is unhealthy and not exactly a good use of time.
For example, the scene in which the Breavmans’ maid, Heather, is hypnotized and compelled to touch Lawrence’s penis is disturbing enough as it is (even if Heather laughs about it slyly "chuck[es] him under the chin")—this is unreal enough that I didn’t spend too much time wondering if this happened, but still, my mind goes to these places. It mostly feels like I could be using my time more effectively.
Wikipedia tells me that the book had many autobiographical elements—and once reading that where does that leave me? Perhaps I can feel more connected with a stranger, like I’ve been let into someone’s life. Perhaps that feels more intimate—that Breavman’s experiences with a father who died when he was young, mirrors Cohen’s experience. In our bids for human connection, it makes sense to me, but this measuring-stick sort of nonsense seems trite at this point.
Time and Place
Despite being written in the 1960s, I didn’t feel that this novel was rigidly rooted in a time. The language was not difficult or more formal. It was a book about people, and I suppose people haven’t changed so much as their environs and their technology since this was written. Not sure where this observation lands me, but I wanted to note it.
As usual, I’m getting used to not being able to capture all my thoughts about a book in a few short paragraphs. I will say that this book was a good departure from my other readings. I feel like it lassoed my heart and pulled it a little closer into the world of poetry.