Hydra and the Bananas of Leonard Cohen: A Search for Serenity in the Sun

by Roger Green
ISBN: 0465027598

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A Review of: Hydra and the Bananas of Leonard Cohen: A search for serenity in the sun
by Todd Swift

Recently, the Guardian's Friday Review featured "Cohen at 70" on its cover. His handsome face, peering out from under severely-cropped greying hair, was at it again: appearing haunted and bemused simultaneously. These periodic Cohen sightings so dear to the international press (timed these days to coincide with album releases-such as the new one Dear Heather) now have a tipping point: the absurd moment when Rufus Wainwright is trotted out, to proclaim: "I really believe he is the greatest living poet on earth."
Wainwright is a very talented musician, but he is not a very good poetry reader. For if he was, he would soon recognize that, while Leonard Cohen is one of the most charismatic, intriguing, capable and witty poets that Montreal has produced in the last forty-five years or so-he is not a major world poet of our time. Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, or John Ashbery could be intelligibly described as the English-speaking world's "greatest living" poets without language's knickers becoming too twisted for wear.
Cohen is, of course, a beloved national Canadian icon, a brilliant song-writer, an infamous "ladies man" and something of a myth on the small and culturally significant Greek island of Hydra, a few hours by fast hydrofoil from Athens. It is at this point that we come to Cohen's second greatest living fan (Wainwright is clearly number one), the minor British poet, and retired Oxford professor, Roger Green.
Green, a self-confessed recovered alcoholic and lover of puns, has produced, in his Hydra and the Bananas of Leonard Cohen the notebooks of a truly beautiful loser. Surely, it has to win a prize for being perhaps the most unlikely addition to the Cohen hagiographic literature. For, somewhat refreshingly, Green only stumbles across Cohen's music (by way of a tape-that nearly forgotten relic of the last millennium) at the age of 57. He is no lifelong Cohen addict, one of those gloomy types who sit in bistros on Boulevard Saint-Laurent with Leonard on the brain. Instead, he is an accidental Cohenist. There is something appropriately Zen about it all.
Green, as fate would have it, has a modest flat overlooking the raised garden of "L.C.'s" house (which he bought in 1960 for "$1,500" and where some of his key writing was done). Cohen is long gone (in the manner of Godot, he barely exists in this text, except as a resonant absence) but Suzanne (not the one from the song, as Green rather cruelly observes, but another one) and a particularly erotic set of banana trees linger. After writing a donnishly clever satire of the famous song "Suzanne", Green sings it at his favourite Hydra restaurant on his birthday, only to find the "other" Suzanne in the audience; she is not amused.
What then follows is a bookish salmagundi-a Robbe-Grillet anti-novel (he made a film on the island in which Green was a drunken extra)-and something of a tour-de-force of learned silliness. Green, purposefully avoiding the Internet or the Encyclopaedia Britannica, sets out to learn everything he can about Cohen, and bananas, and poetry. He then proceeds to write it all down, so that we have to read it.
Green is aided in his quest by friends who send him letters, references to faded newspaper clippings found on the island, local gossip, and Cohen's ex-hippy house-sitters (Suzanne away), who actually invite the "voyeur" in, plying him with haiku.
Green, self-consciously setting out to one-up "The Waste Land"'s end notes, gives us footnotes and asides a mile a minute as if he were some sort of hip young New York postmodernist and not, instead, an aging man filling a dying summer with "fun" derived from reading, writing, music and the pleasures of the chase.
No one who reads this book intending to learn anything "new" about Cohen will be entirely satisfied. Much of what Green gleans is inaccurate hearsay, as he would be the first to admit, but his growing appreciation for his absent neighbour's lyrical genius-he begins the book thinking him a basically washed-up 60s pop star with a small following in Greece-becomes unexpectedly moving.
In his labyrinthine journey towards joy in late life, Green has achieved something almost as good as a new song by L.C.: a new book about him that, because it is erudite, sincere and singularly eccentric, is ultimately all the more illuminating in what isn't said, and isn't insisted upon. Perhaps fittingly, on this reviewer's recent visit to Hydra, the banana trees had been torn down. R.G.'s wild greenery remains.

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