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In Memoriam: Matt Cohen (1942-99)

I first met Matt Cohen in the General Office of the University of Alberta English Department in September 1975. He was wearing a red-plaid flannel shirt, faded jeans, and heavy-soled brown shoes--not the accepted mode of attire around the Department in those days. But he was the Writer in Residence, U of A's first, had just published a major novel of the land, The Disinherited, and was assumed, I think, to be in costume. But he always dressed that way, more or less, and I remember him insisting he had to leave one early relationship because she wouldn't let him wear jeans.

We were both in Edmonton for the first time, thrown together by the shock. Six months earlier, in the British Library, trying to catch up on Canadian Literature because I had to teach it, I'd been bowled over by Columbus and the Fat Lady, and now here was the author. In gratitude I lent him my Robert Crumb collection, and he came to my class on The Disinherited and explained how he wrote novels by first deciding on the kinds of words he wanted in them. Which is probably, he added, a terrible way to write novels.

At the beginning of May we drove back to Ontario together. Matt had just bought a truck with a rebuilt engine and felt we should go easy on it. We talked for five days.

As soon as I got out of the truck I started writing short stories, and over the next six years Matt was often their first reader. At the end of a letter he'd scrawl, "Send more stories." Later, when I'd fumble out a contorted apology cum thank you for still another letter of reference, he'd say "Don't think about it" and change the subject. He was direct and he was generous and he was kind.

As many in the Union can testify, he was also politically astute, perhaps one of our two or three most effective Chairs ever, with a delicate sense of how people are likely to respond when money or power is at stake (badly). Matt became Chair because he knew he could get us PLR. He went in and did it, period.

The astuteness made him a good one to go to for advice concerning the strange worlds of publishing and the media. "OK," he'd say. "Here's what I think you should do." When the problem was more immediate, such as how to extract the most fun from the next three hours, he'd say, "OK. I, have a plan." That's how I remember him best. "OK. I [pause] have a plan." That and the way, after launching one of his (in Dennis Lee's words) Rube Goldberg contraptions of an argument, idea-riffs that could run anywhere from twenty seconds to twenty minutes, high-wire bricolages of insight and nutty fantasy, he would look at you through those thick glasses with his lips pressed together, inhaling sharply and happily through his nose in the full glory of his outrageous invention, and there would be such pleasure in his eyes that you could only assent to it all.

I won't try to expand here on Dennis's beautiful articulation in his eulogy of the apparent contradictions that were Matt Cohen, except to add one more, and that is that Matt may have been a little like Trudeau in being smarter and faster than anybody else in the room--a man with a fine, sharp, lightning mind and a tongue as quick--but I was always struck by how intelligent, yes, but also gentle and unassuming so many of his good friends were. It's not a contradiction really, because Matt's sharpness was not just cleverness but real intelligence, by which I mean it was informed by genuine humility and genuine compassion. For the same reason, I think, Matt was a world-class gossip, but the motives he enjoyed ascribing to people were so grotesquely base that, like cartoon characters, his subjects always popped back up in his affections unscathed, ready for new outlandish scenarios. Is The Road Runner even capable of holding a grudge?

For a good decade or more, from the early eighties to the mid-nineties, until Last Seen, Matt received little serious attention in this country. The critical climate, with its usual perversity, turned against him. At a friend's launch in the early nineties a young woman asked him what he did. "I write books," he said. "That must be very nice for you," she replied. It wasn't very nice at all, of course, it was very difficult, and Patsy and the four children they raised together were his rock during those years. Matt once interviewed Hugh Garner, a man he admired for trying to survive as a professional fiction writer in this country at a time when it hardly seemed possible. Matt especially appreciated the title of Garner's memoir, which he considered perfect for the life of a writer: One Damn Thing After Another.

But Last Seen changed that, and in my own view Elizabeth and After is in many ways an even better book. When I called him in May to tell him that, he told me the cough he'd had since January was lung cancer. In March I'd stayed with him for a night in an apartment in Paris he was using. It was a small space, across the road from Pere Lachaise Cemetery, shabby 1940s-U.S.--something straight out of the mind of Robert Crumb, whose apartment in fact it was. In the morning I dozed after I first woke up, on a mattress on the floor in the living area. When I finally roused myself and looked through the door into the tiny bedroom, Matt was sitting fully dressed on the end of his bed, waiting for me to open my eyes. "It's late," he said.

As I sat down to write this, the first words that came automatically to mind were "Dear Matt." This loss is going to take a long time to sink in.

 

------"In Memoriam: Matt Cohen (1942-99)," The Writers Union of Canada Newsletter (February 2000), p. 6. Reprinted, revised, in The Canadian Forum, 78:888 (May 2000), p. 31.