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 of anarchy?
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 sainthood?
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 escape history?
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?