Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen


322 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-394-22413-2
DDC C811'.54




Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

Sarah Robertson is an associate editor of the Canadian Book Review


Various Positions is a good example of how the two chief advantages of
authorized biography—cooperative sources and an abundance of
material—can become disadvantages. Ira Nadel’s chronicle of Leonard
Cohen’s life—from his comfortable Westmount childhood, through his
early days as a struggling poet and conflicted bourgeois/bohemian, to
his second career as a songwriter and performer—is meticulous only in
those areas that threaten no damage to what he describes, late in the
book, as Cohen’s “self-protective nature.”

To illustrate the skewed emphasis that informs this biography, Nadel is
happy to tell us what Cohen scrawled on the back of his 1950–51
Student Council card, but resolutely stingy about imparting the details
of his subject’s relationship with Marianne Ihlen; we learn only that
it was an “attachment ... both consuming and destroying”—period.
The presence of Cohen’s two children by Suzanne Elrod in this
biography does not extend beyond a few references. Meriting far more
attention than Cohen’s human attachments are his complicated
relationships with Judaism and Zen Buddhism.

There is something of the poseur about Cohen that Nadel, as authorized
biographer, is understandably reluctant to confront. Cohen’s
affectations are certainly conveyed, through both his words and his
actions (his visit to Israel at the time of the Yom Kippur War moved him
to comment that “war is wonderful ... It’s one of the few times
people can act their best. It’s so economical in terms of gesture and
motion”), but they are not used by his biographer as a basis

for character analysis. What little such analysis there is in this
trivia-laden book is expressed largely through the reduction of
Cohen’s life into simplistic dichotomies of the
life-vs.-art/Zen-vs.-passion variety.

The extent to which Various Positions is the product of collusion
between biographer and subject is impossible to know. Given that Nadel
and Cohen reviewed the manuscript together, some collusion, whether
conscious or unconscious, was no doubt inevitable. “Don’t let the
facts get in the way of the truth,” Cohen once advised his biographer.
Sadly, Nadel did, though perhaps not in the sense Cohen intended.


Nadel, Ira Bruce., “Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 14, 2024,