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Uncommon Ground:A Celebration of Matt Cohen

by Wayne Grady, et al
328 pages,
ISBN: 0676974856


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The Matt Cohen Companion
by Michael Greenstein

The U.S. has its two Roths¨Philip and Henry, the former overshadowing the latter; Canada has its two Cohens¨Leonard and Matt, the former overshadowing the latter. This, in spite of Leonard's two novels compared to Matt's more than twenty books of fiction. In his posthumously published memoir, Typing: A Life in 26 Keys, Matt Cohen complained about this neglect and the difficulties of being a Jewish writer in Canada. Uncommon Ground, a fascinating tribute to Cohen, addresses the problems outlined in Typing, adding many more keys to his life and works.

Robert Fulford has taken Cohen to task over his charge of neglect; after all, he was published by Canada's major publisher and did eventually receive the Governor General's award for fiction. With more than forty books to his credit, Cohen was quietly prolific, and the contributors to Uncommon Ground celebrate his voice from the margins. In the first essay, Wayne Grady argues for a Jewish presence in Cohen's early Salem novels about Protestant Ontario. Grady finds parallels between the dispossessed, disinherited outsiders of rural Ontario and the Jews of Europe. (According to this line of argument, Mavis Gallant would have to be considered a Jewish writer because of her obsession with dislocation and dispossession, and her creation of Jewish characters.) It is equally difficult to agree with his conclusion of "a single, continuous arc" in Cohen's work since he was always trying out new voices.

Cohen remained an outsider to the Salem tradition where Robertson Davies and Alice Munro might be considered insiders; similarly, he remained an outsider to part of the Jewish tradition celebrated by A.M. Klein and Mordecai Richler in Canada, and Bellow, Roth, and Malamud in the U.S. Little wonder, then, that he turned to European Jewish outsiders such as Joseph Roth, Walter Benjamin, and an entire Sephardic tradition.

Like Wayne Grady, Greg Hollingshead tries to reconcile Cohen's Canadian and Jewish sides. In Hollingshead's view, Cohen's "white trash" Canadian characters are "schmoes"¨ordinary, unremarkable people. Hollingshead uses the "self-hating Jew" of Typing to read through many of Cohen's novels: to observe the lives of "schmoes" in fiction through the lens of the persona of Typing is indeed uncommon foreground and background.

Monique Proulx addresses Matt as her brother and enters into a bilingual dialogue of translation with him. In a 1999 interview, they discuss the role of the outsider in Canadian literature. There are several other interviews in the book, some helpful, some not. A 1991 interview with Gerri Sinclair, has Cohen being evasive, focusing on a man who eats many apples a day. In an interview with Mervin Butovsky (1990), Cohen is more forthcoming about his Jewish heritage. He explains the problems he has meshing the English language with the ambiguities of Jewish experience. He feels more comfortable with European novels, and is puzzled by the puzzlement of Canadian critics when he shifted from the Salem novels to The Spanish Doctor. In all of these novels Cohen aims to revive forgotten mythologies.

Dennis Lee's eulogy surveys Cohen's contradictions, multiplicities, and connections to the deep rhythms of the land. Margaret Atwood places Cohen within the realm of fable rather than realism, and through Jungian analysis explores his difficulties in finding the right voice. With the confessions of Typing in hand, she positions his fifteen short stories in Columbus and the Fat Lady. Atwood insists that we have placed Cohen's fiction in the "wrong box" of realism, and should instead look to the Canadian tradition of fabulism with all of its hidden riches. Alice Munro highlights the "integrity" at the core of Cohen's fiction, focusing mainly on The Sweet Second Summer of Kitty Malone.

Critic Stan Dragland also uses the revelations in Typing to understand the short story, "Racial Memories". He traces a trajectory from Bellrock, Ontario (just north of Kingston), tackles Fulford's assessment of Typing, highlights Cohen's strained relationship with his father and his eccentric relationship to Judaism, and examines the Yiddish stylistics of "Racial Memories".

The Festschrift includes a number of contributors who are involved with children's literature where Matt Cohen uses the pseudonym Teddy Jam. There are also a number of contributors who are involved with the French side of Cohen. Daniel Poliquin believes that Cohen wanted to live as a Jewish writer exiled in France.

Most of the writers who scrutinize Cohen's Jewishness are non-Jews, so it is refreshing to read David Homel's and Martin Levin's perspectives on Jewishness. Also a translator, Homel recounts his lunch with Cohen in the south of France. They conclude that Jewish writers in Canada, like those in England, but unlike those in the States, get no recognition, despite the careers of Mordecai Richler, Leonard Cohen, and Irving Layton. Homel mentions Freud: The Paris Notebooks (1991), an impressive novella largely overlooked. An example of his European Jewish interests, the Freud book prepares, in turn, for Martin Levin's speculations on Cohen's work-in-progress, a novel on Joseph Roth. Levin demonstrates how Cohen identified with Roth, "a self-described refugee from the Ottoman Empire Ó an irrelevant royalist leftover from a civilization which had rejected him because he was Jewish." Levin astutely identifies Cohen with such European Jews as Walter Benjamin and Stefan Zweig who sought refuge in Paris as an escape from otherness. Levin further speculates on what kind of novel Cohen would have written about Roth. An intriguing excerpt from The Three Lives of Joseph Roth recurs in the first and last pages of Uncommon Ground in the form of Cohen's faded typescript of this material.

Cohen tried to bridge the gap between provincial Salem and cosmopolitan Paris. His earlier turn to Sephardic rather than Ashkenaz Jewish characters suggests further experimentation with voice and identity. The chorus in Uncommon Ground adds to the many voices of Matt Cohen, ranging from children's literature to French translation. His complaints about lack of recognition hark back to the father of Canadian-Jewish literature, A.M. Klein. Each contributor to this "celebration" has his or her own favorite work, but the Joseph Roth novel might have been his best. We will never know, but we do know Matt Cohen better thanks to Uncommon Ground. Every writer should be so lucky to be celebrated in this fashion. ˛

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