Years ago, while riding my bike along College Street, I spotted Matt Cohen standing on the corner with a stroller. He bolted across the intersection and raced up Robert Street. I was amazed. There was the enigmatic, distant Author with whom I'd studied Creative Writing at York University¨cutting loose. I peddled on up to him and called, "Hey, Matt."
Cohen halted, instantly becoming Professor Cohen, and turned, indignant, it seemed, that I had caught him in a candid moment.
Typing: A Life in 26 Keys (Random, 248 pages, $32.95 cloth, ISBN: 0679310509), which Cohen completed two weeks before he died of lung cancer, gives insight into why Cohen would guard his professorial persona. Typing is an unflinching memoir of a writer who wrestled with self-doubt.
Cohen offers fond portraits of such literary figures as his mentor, George Grant, and Margaret Lawrence. Others, Robert Fulford in particular, are skewered, as is the current state of the Canadian book industry. But this is nothing compared to Cohen's relentless criticism of his own work. He states that his first novel, Korsoniloff (1969), "avoided the appearance of being ridiculously shallow by being, instead, incomprehensible." Of Elizabeth and AfterÚ the 1999 winner of the Governor General's Award for Fiction, Cohen states: it was "one novel I wanted to throw out,... which only my editor saved from oblivion, and though in the long run it will probably find that very destination, it seems to have been my most successful novel." But Cohen did defend his work when he felt it was unjustly judged. Though Canada had "definitively roasted" The Spanish Doctor, in Holland, it was critically and commercially successful and considered "a literary work with its own formal originality that approached the medieval period in an entirely unique way."
Most literary memoirs are of limited value to anyone but fans and academics. Typing is an exception. Though Cohen's story should provide inspiration to readers of any profession struggling with self-confidence, young artists in particular will find Cohen's perseverance encouraging. Against the wishes of his father, who once said, "I used to write plays in University, then I grew up", Cohen pursued a Bachelor of Arts degree. Against his natural tendency to indolence, Cohen adopted and adhered to a disciplined writing routine. Against his fear of the "uncomfortable reality of [his] limitations", he continually pushed to reinvent the form and scope of his fictions. Against his own doubts, Cohen produced twenty-five published works, not counting his translations, journalism and editorial work. Instructors of Creative Writing would serve their students well by adding Typing to their list of required reading.
For most of his career, Cohen felt that he had neither the capacity to write, nor the life to justify an autobiographical work. But after his brother's death, when "the world of books had come to seem entirely artificial and contrived, and... couldn't touch or contain what I was going through", he inadvertently approached that genre. Of the work that would eventually become his final completed novel, Last Seen, Cohen said, "For most of its writing I had no intention of publishing it, even when I finally admitted to myself that this pile of pages was actually a book-in-progress, I still didn't care what people would think of it or how it would be received. I wrote it because I was a writer and that was what I did when something happened: I wrote." ˛