Beautiful Losers Summary

Leonard Cohen

Beautiful Losers

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Beautiful Losers Summary

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Beautiful Losers is the second and final novel by singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, published in 1966. He wrote two novels before he began his music career. It is a postmodern fiction novel and one of the early examples of postmodernism in Canadian literature. While it was critical and commercially unsuccessful during its initial publishing, it gained popularity after Cohen’s music career began to flourish. The novel is maximalist in its approach, incorporating many literary devices and broaching a wide range of subjects including 1960s counter-culture, mysticism, and sexuality. The style is stream-of-consciousness, nonlinear, and there is no distinct timeline that connects the narrative. It is important to grasp the style and perspective of the novel, as past and present constantly blur, and memories are unreliable.

The novel focuses on the three members of a love triangle. It is divided into three books: book 1 is narrated by a white, male, English-speaking folklorist and scholar. He is unnamed, and is thus often referred to by critics as “I.”. Book 2 is in letter format from the perspective of “F.,” writing in response to I.’s narration. Book 3 is written in third person, showing I. and F. as older men.

Book 1, titled “The History of Them All,” begins with I.’s obsession with a 17th-century Mohawk, Iroquois and catholic-converted woman named Catherine Tekakwitha. Catherine experiences a rift between her physical self and spiritual self. As she is further convinced of this rift, she self-harms and punishes her body. The other two narrators share his obsession, implicitly linking them. Through study, he falls in love with the idea of her, wishing he could be with her. He finds deep spirituality in his desire for her, reaching out across time. Throughout this section and the other two books, the history of her tribe and her life are intertwined with the three lovers’ own lives. I. is also studying a First Nations tribe called the A—–s, of which very little remain – his wife Edith is the last of her people.

I. is living in Montreal, suffering from great loss at the time of his narration. His wife Edith dies in a freak elevator accident that is implied to be a suicide. His male lover, F., the voice of Book 2, has also passed away at this time. I. finds out that Edith and F. were also sleeping together for a long time. I. is severely depressed, physically constipated, agoraphobic, refuses to bathe, and is driven to repeatedly masturbate.

I. narrates how, after his wife dies, F. puts him through a series of emotional and sexual trials. They are linked through their childhoods, as both came of age in a Jesuit orphanage in Montreal. F. convinces I. to join his nationalistic Québécois movement. He also recalls F.’s plan to blow up a statue while Elizabeth II is visiting Canada. I. eventually leaves his apartment and further studies Catherine Tekakwitha in a tree house. He loses himself in study, falling further into depression.

Book 2, titled “A Long Letter,” picks up F.’s narration in letter format, writing from an asylum after following through with his bombing plan. He is writing to I. to explain himself, as well as fill in details to the reader that I.’s prospective cannot account for. F. also uses the letter as a way to push I. into the sexual and spiritual liberation the defines the culture at the time. F. comes off as controlling and manipulative, but sees himself as a spiritual explorer, unlocking secrets of the body and spirit.

F. is seeking to achieve what he describes as a spiritual, perfect orgasm, something he believes to be transcendent. This involves combining sex with holy objects and ritual. He believes the only way his goal will be reached is through sleeping with Edith. One night, they almost achieve this transcendence, using a baptism ritual as their conduit. F. also takes a portion of the letter to complete Catherine Tekakwitha’s story, describing her death. After she dies, a miracle occurs: her skin turns bright white and glows. The church preparing for her funeral are in awe. F. comments on this event, historically dubbed as a miracle, as a symbol of racism and prejudice, describing how their religion is fixated on whiteness.

Book 3, the final section, is titled “An Epilogue in the Third Person.” It checks in with F. in his old age. F. is now a pedophile and child molester. One incident describes his encounter with a young boy, who wishes to hear stories about tribes of the past. It is revealed that F. has previously molested him, and the boy has recently spoken with the police. He flees. In a surreal scene, while hitchhiking, F. is picked up by a woman and asked to perform oral sex on her. The novel ends with F. at an arcade, who is recognized. Police go to arrest him, but before they can, he magically morphs into a theater screen for projecting films. This ambiguous ending is followed by an appeal to look to Catherine Tekakwitha as a spiritual and political figure.

In Beautiful Losers, in addition to pleasure and emotion, sex is equivalent to spiritual transcendence. This is set against the backdrop of 1960s Canada, which is experiencing social, cultural, and political upheaval. The inclusion of Catherine Tekakwitha connects the spiritual and corporeal themes of the novel, a means to comment on religion, race, politics, and sexual freedom. Cohen’s depiction of race is layered. He depicts the First Nations peoples as being an oppressed population by Canada, but simultaneously sees French-Canadians in a similar way, while still calling attention to French-Canadians as complicit in oppression. Thus, French-Canadians are simultaneously oppressors and oppressed. Ultimately, I. and F. come to represent these opposite sides, as I. empathizes with the oppressed, whereas F. seeks to assertively overcome his status through politics.