A Ballet of Lepers: A Novel and Stories by Leonard Cohen

Imagine you are a young Canadian writer in your 20s in the mid-to-late 1950s. Howl became legal in ’57, Lady Chatterley’s Lover in ’60. You want to write about sex, but how? For whom?

You will soon be lifted into lofty matters, into the upper reaches of consciousness, but matters of the flesh will always matter. You will drop acid, study Indian philosophy, go clear with Scientology, and eventually become an ordained Buddhist monk, but you’re not there yet.

You will call yourself the “little Jew who wrote the Bible,” and your name is Leonard Cohen, and you have a mountain to climb before you learn six flamenco chords on guitar and write “Suzanne.” You will eventually make your way to the minor fall and major lift of “Hallelujah,” and reach everyone. But not yet.

Everyone was uplifted by “Hallelujah,” but you also wrote “Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-On” on an album produced by Phil Spector. Years later, in a recitation to stadiums all over the world, these lines of sanctified sleaze would move the masses: “Our perfect porn aristocrat / So elegant and cheap / I’m old, but I’m still into that / A thousand kisses deep.”

Filthy Ideas

“There are no dirty words,” Cohen once told a recording engineer. Enlightened, but are there filthy ideas? His novella, A Ballet of Lepers, is so rancid—flagrantly, deliberately—it almost seemed like an experiment in how dark his muse could take him.

It opens with an average young man (his name is never revealed) with an average girlfriend named Marylin (he prefers her sister) and a steady sex life, until he learns that his grandfather will be moving in. This might have been an impediment, but the old man, from the Old World with broken but lucid English, brings something out in our narrator. Something sinister, freaky, indefensible.

Marylin, who becomes engaged to the narrator, opines, sweetly, “We’ll make a lie of all the sad poems of betrayal and death.” Those sad poems would be no lie for Leonard Cohen. He would later call an album Songs of Love and Hate, and sing of catching the darkness. In the songs, in the later poetry and prose, there was also beauty and transcendence, too, but he hadn’t gotten there yet.

In a curatorial note at the end, we are told that A Ballet of Lepers was written between 1956 and 1957, when Cohen was in his early 20s, spending an unhappy year in grad school for English at Columbia, which he would describe as “passion without flesh” and “love without climax.”

You can tell. Some of the language, even used ironically, was a preview of his verse and his life. “You are my lover,” says Marylin. “I have always wanted a lover.” Ten years later, Cohen made a leap. Always wanting a lover was pedestrian. His Suzanne has always been your lover. “I have stood beside your sleeping body so many times,” he says to Marylin, not really meaning it. But Joni Mitchell wrote a song about Cohen staying up all night to watch her sleep. I asked Cohen if this was true. “Sure,” he said. “Great-looking girl.”

Leonard Cohen’s A Ballet of Lepers is so rancid—flagrantly, deliberately—it almost seemed like an experiment in how dark his muse could take him.

As soon as the grandfather enters the narrator’s life, you are in the mind of a psychopath. He beats and taunts his meek and deformed co-worker like Meursault killing an Arab—Camus was a Cohen exemplar—and embarks on an affair with the poor man’s wife just so he can catch them in the act.

At this point, imagine this book reaching a publisher’s desk in 1957. Now imagine it making the rounds with the New York publishers in 2022. Yes, this is being published by Grove, but as juvenilia of someone who became regarded as one of the most important songwriters of the past century. Imagine it by an unknown. A Ballet of Lepers was too degenerate for its time, but it’s hard to imagine it surfacing now. Howl and Lady Chatterley’s Lover can be legally purchased now, but be careful teaching them on a college campus.

“And remember when I moved in you / The holy dove was moving, too / And every breath we drew was Hallelujah.” By the time Leonard Cohen wrote these lines, he could be frank about the body while also wanting it to be exalted. Mixing the sacred and the profane and everything in between, he became our John Donne.

He hadn’t gotten there yet in A Ballet of Lepers, but the integrity of the language is solid throughout. Canadians are supposed to be polite—not here—yet the Leonard Cohen I encountered in person the year before his death was the personification of grace. He had a lot to get out of his system first. This naughty boy was also a crazy kid with a dream.

“You want it darker, we kill the flame,” he told us at the end. “We are sinking, sinking to rest finally and it has been a long, long fall,” says the narrator in the end of A Ballet of Lepers. This was the beginning of Leonard Cohen catching the darkness. The minor fall and major lift awaited.

David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He writes about music and is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. You can read his Substack here