Reading A Ballet of Leperse, a previously unpublished collection of stories by Leonard Cohen, is to experience an artist’s growing pains. Written prior to his sojourn in Greece in the early 1960s, this collection of a novella and short stories provides readers with a glimpse of the author exploring themes he would continue to work on for the rest of his life.
Sex, religion, male and female relationships, and other aspects of the human condition have always been fodder for poets. While this is strictly a prose collection we can see the young Cohen experimenting with these themes. While lacking the refinement of his latter work, you could say these are like a visual artist’s preliminary sketches for an as yet to be completed work; these broad strokes give you an idea as to what he wishes to accomplish.
“A Ballet of Lepers”
“A Ballet of Lepers” is the novella which provides the collection with its name. On the surface it tells the story of a young man living in Montreal who out of the blue receives a phone call from New York City announcing that the grandfather he didn’t know was alive was being sent to him by train. When his father’s father arrives he turns out to be a troublesome and randomly violent man who disrupts Cohen’s protagonist’s life.
However, neither character is particularly likeable so we don’t have a great deal of sympathy for the young man. What is surprising is how quickly he takes in this unknown family member and how protective he becomes of him. This in spite of the grandparent being unable to speak much English and being prone to violent outbursts.
In “A Ballet of Lepers” we see the beginnings of Cohen the writer. He takes his first tentative steps in exploring the relationships between men and women and how that dynamic can change with the introduction of a third party. His lead character is involved with a woman and obviously their relationship changes when he moves his grandfather into his room.
The Short Stories
The rest of the book is taken up with a collection of short stories which continue to show us an author still very much in search of his voice. Each of the stories shows us an author experimenting with style and form as Cohen develops his means of expression.
Although Cohen is obviously more famous for his poems and his music, A Ballet of Lepers is still a fascinating collection that gives readers a glimpse into the development of a masterful writer. While these might not be the most polished of works, they are not only interesting to read in the above context, but in their own right as stories.