1. According to the dust jacket copy of the first edition of
Beautiful Losers (which Cohen had a hand in writing), this
novel is "a wild and alarming journey through the landscape of the
soul" of an elderly Montréal scholar in the 1960s who tries to heal
his loneliness and despair by finding living answers to
the two great questions that open the book: "Catherine Tekakwitha,
who are you?" and "Can I love you in my own way?" Why is he
obsessed with Catherine Tekakwitha, an Iroquois girl whom the
Jesuits converted in the seventeenth century, and the first Indian
maiden to take an Oath of Virginity? Why does she inspire his love?
Why does he connect and muddle her up with his own dead wife,
Edith, who is an almost wholly sexual creature?
2. The "old scholar" and "well-known folklorist" who is the
unnamed narrator of Book I of the novel claims that "I am going to
show you everything happening." To do this, Leonard Cohen
combines a variety of narrative forms - monologues, letters,
journals, grammar books, advertisements, catalogues, footnotes -
and conflicting styles - history, poetry, drama, dreams, montage.
This both dazzles and confuses the reader. Does technical
virtuosity succeed in making this book all the things that the
original dust jacket claims it is: "a love story, a psalm, a Black
Mass, a monument, a satire, a prayer, a shriek, a road map through
the wilderness, a joke, a tasteless affront, an hallucination, a
bore, an irrelevant display of diseased virtuosity, a Jesuitical
tract, an Orange sneer, a scatological Lutheran extravagance, in
short, a disagreeable religious epic of incomparable beauty"? Can
any one book be all these things for one reader?
3. As a love triangle, Beautiful Losers is the tale of
an unnamed Jewish scholar, his wife Edith, and their friend and
lover F., a Québécois MP who engages in anarchist activities on
behalf of the separatist cause. The novel is divided into three
Books: the Jewish scholar's history of their relationships, F.'s
long letter to his friend, and "Beautiful Losers," an epilogue in
the third person. Thus, both the male characters and the author's
mouthpiece get to have their say while Edith remains silent. What
does this silence say about her place in a story that involves
another very powerful woman? Do the ways in which Edith and
Catherine Tekakwitha are treated reflect the position of women in
history at the middle of the twentieth century?
4. In traditional storytelling, names are used to define
character. What purpose is served by not naming the central male
characters? What is the point of not naming the vanishing tribe to
which Edith belongs? What is the point of Edith's name? Who or what
does the initial F. suggest?
5. Conventionally, plot develops over the course of a book but
all the key events of Beautiful Losers are stated in the
first few pages: the deaths of Edith and F., the beatification of
Catherine Tekakwitha, the narrator's character and task. How does
Cohen use three different narrative voices to explore the
relationships of four characters to each other? How does Cohen
capture both the narrator's various disorders and F.'s celebration
6. The basic situation - the conflict between F. and the
narrator - expands outward rather than progresses onward in order
to incorporate more and more of the imagined and less and less of
the real. Do the characters' private beliefs make them greater than
the world they inhabit? Do their beliefs finally distance them from
their own bodies? Is this why both Edith and F. die?
7. The relationships of each character to the others is set out
in terms of teacher and pupil, master and disciple, but the roles
transfer back and forth in both predictable and unpredictable ways.
Is F. speaking as teacher or student or both, for himself or for
all of them when he says, "Hysteria is my classroom"?
8. In what ways does sharing their experiences of Edith as a
lover bring the two men together? In what ways does it drive them
apart? In what ways does it damage Edith?
9. The narrator is troubled by his inability to say what he most
wants to say. His history of the A--------s, the vanishing Indian
tribe, is sidetracked by his own fears, frustrations, and sadness.
In 1970, in one of the earliest and best essays written about
Beautiful Losers, Michael Ondaatje wrote of the narrator
that "his mind is locked by a kaopectate of formal history, of
poetic art, of the strict rules of courtly love." Is constipation
the only parallel Cohen draws between the narrator's physical and
mental states? If not, then what are some of the others? Are we
left to decide for ourselves whether the narrator is frozen by
grief or paralyzed by madness?
10. Book I is chock-a-block with clippings, advertisements,
comics, odd facts, epigrams, reminiscences, interpretations of pop
culture, which are at odds with the history the narrator is trying
to write. The images are hilarious and the writing is wild and much
of it is easily enjoyed just for itself. But what does all this
contribute to Cohen's larger purpose, the narrator's quest for
11. What is a saint? Cohen has his narrator answer, "a saint is
someone who has achieved a remote human possibility.… I think it
has something to do with the energy of love." What are the remote
human possibilities that F., Edith, and Catherine Tekakwitha seek
to achieve? Can they be stated systematically or can they only be
suggested? What does it mean when it's said that a saint travels
through the world like "an escaped ski"?
12. After the doubts, qualms, worries, reservations, fears,
suspicions, uncertainties, attacks, tirades, invective,
denunciations, rants, and harangues of the narrator, there's a
significant change of style in Book II. F. is a flamboyant,
exuberant, fanatical, mad, bullying, politically charged sensualist
who wants to break down all the limitations that thwart the
narrator in his quest for sainthood. By reconstructing the story of
Edith's death in ways that destroy the narrator's physical and
mental constipation, F. makes it possible for him (and us) to see
Catherine Tekakwitha in new ways. What does F. show us about
Catherine in his lucid account of her final four years that was
missing from the narrator's version of her?
13. Despite his embrace of anarchy and hysteria, F. is obsessed
by systems, especially world systems such as Christianity. He says,
"Jesus probably designed his system so that it would fail in the
hands of other men." Is this, as F. suggests, the way "the greatest
creators… guarantee… their own originality"?
14. The System Theatre is the site of many of the key scenes in
the book. It is a place where systems break down, starting with its
own neon sign which flashes "stem Theatre, stem Theatre." "Stem,"
as Stephen Scobie (an astute commentator on all things Cohen) has
pointed out, is the last word of Cohen's other novel, The
Favourite Game, and reappears in his songs and poems. When
systems break down and rational structures disintegrate, does the
stem represent the possibility for growth that appears? What is the
stem that Cohen's characters find within what remains of the native
religious traditions of the Mohawk after its system has been
destroyed by the Catholic Church?
15. It can be argued that the sex scene in the hotel room in
Argentina is the key that finally and fully unlocks both the
transcendental meaning and the low comedy of the book. This parody
of an orgy is bizarre, wildly incongruous, silly, uproarious,
side-splitting, weighty, intense, extreme, and sincere. Why doesn't
the scene end when the Danish Vibrator is unplugged? Has it become
eternal? Has Edith made a sympathetic gesture to Hitler before
revealing herself as Isis? Who is Isis? What does it mean for Edith
to be Isis rather than some other goddess?
16. Given the narrator's deep distrust of the Catholic Church
for its puritanical inability to accept native sexuality, why is
the end of the book "rented" to the Jesuits?
17. In Book III, all individuality is lost and the narrative
becomes impersonal. Why does the beautiful loser transcend himself
only at the moment he loses everything? Is this the only way to
18. Beautiful Losers can be read allegorically as a
political fable. Hugh MacLennan's "two solitudes" are replaced by
two solitary madmen who keep jerking each other around until the
beautiful woman who is meant to unite them is utterly lost through
too much history on one side and too much transcendence on the
other. As a fable, it's an absolutely brutal satire that offers a
clearer view of the peculiarities of Canadian repressiveness than
anything else written in English in that period: the English are
unresponsive to the French but the French are merciless to the
Iroquois and the Jews don't do themselves any good. Does its
political satire still find its mark forty years later?