JUNE 9, 2014
We met when we were almost young
Deep in the green lilac park.
You held on to me like I was a crucifix
as we went kneeling through the dark.
— Leonard Cohen
IF A CRITIC is meant to analyze a book on its own terms, what is she to do with a book unsure what its terms are? Such is the case with So Long, Marianne: A Love Story, about the woman who inspired the famous Leonard Cohen song of the same name.
This slim account, by Norwegian radio journalist Kari Hesthamar (translated by Helle V. Goldman), straddles two competing missions, which emerge early on in the form of blunt foreshadowing. During World War II, Marianne Ihlen, Hesthamar’s protagonist, lived with her grandmother in the Norwegian countryside, which was safer than her parents’ home in Oslo. “‘I see and I know,’ says her grandmother. ‘You will meet a man who speaks with a golden tongue.’” That would be two men, actually: Cohen and, before him, the Norwegian writer Axel Jensen, with whom Ihlen had a short-lived marriage and a son. Mission one is to tell about those golden-tongued men themselves, as understood by their one-time lover.
Further down on the same page, Hesthamar introduces her second objective. “When she was younger she read about Genghis Khan whenever she had a free moment,” she writes of Ihlen.
She had daydreamed about the ruthless Mongolian conqueror who ruled a kingdom stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea. […] In her reverie, Marianne wore fluttering, brightly coloured garments and sat on horseback by the side of Genghis Khan, more than seven hundred years ago.
She still dreams that a handsome man will come and wrest her out of her ennui. Marianne closes her eyes and yearns. Yearns to be conquered and carried away.
The second subject, then, is Marianne, herself: a lost girl, searching for salvation in a handsome man in lieu of finding it in herself.
“[W]hile the novelist, when casting about for a hero or a heroine, has all of human nature to choose from,” Janet Malcolm writes in The Journalist and the Murderer,
the journalist must limit his protagonists to a small group of people of a certain rare, exhibitionistic, self-fabulizing nature, who have already done the work on themselves that the novelist does on his imaginary characters — who, in short, present themselves as ready-made literary figures.
But if the potential protagonist is dull and unoriginal, advises Malcolm, best to “flee […] and hope that a more suitable subject will turn up soon.”
Throughout So Long, Marianne, our would-be heroine does not come across as a suitable subject. It is not that she has a dull personality; rather, she has little personality at all. She is beautiful, yes. (Though for all Hesthamar’s proclamations to this effect, we do not get a precise or satisfying description; we do, however, get photographs.) But what’s underneath? Hesthamar doesn’t seem to know, and that’s because Ihlen doesn’t know, herself. She grasps on to these two men, obsessively and desperately, as the solution to her own emptiness. “Marianne was in love, but being with Axel also made her insecure. They were so dissimilar; he was intense and loquacious, Marianne mild and unassuming.” In an attempt to give her a personal foundation, Jensen — who, it should be noted, comes across as mentally unstable — gives her books he hopes will help “show her the way to her inner self.” But at 22, three years after first meeting him, Ihlen is still “afraid of being alone, always apprehensive that he would abandon her because she wasn’t interesting enough for him.” Jensen proposes they move away together, and Ihlen — who “thought that Axel could make her complete and fill the longing in her” — accepts: “He was her Genghis Khan.” They decide to move to the Greek island of Hydra; then, Jensen changes his mind and says he’s going to the island with somebody else; then he re-chooses Ihlen. She re-accepts.
On Hydra, Hesthamar tells us, “Marianne was satisfied with being the muse who sat at Axel’s feet while he created.” But, Hesthamar adds, in comparison,
She couldn’t help feeling inferior because she didn’t stand on her own feet creatively or economically. The “only” thing that Axel asked of her was that she find her own place in the world and, as he put it, become a complete human being. That was easier said than done. Why did she never feel that she was good enough as she was?
What person who has yet to “find her own place in the world” does feel good enough — or, put more precisely, content?
After one year, Jensen leaves Ihlen for another woman; eventually, though, she takes him back and marries him, and bears him a son. Shortly thereafter, however, he leaves her for the last time. At that point, halfway through the book, Ihlen meets another man who will ostensibly supply her with personhood: Leonard Cohen. Cohen is calm and steady where Jensen was unpredictable and rash, and as their life falls into a routine on the island, Ihlen feels more secure. But as Cohen’s career heats up, Hesthamar writes, Ihlen “couldn’t shake her unease about the future and the fate of her relationship.”
[Leonard] couldn’t make any promises to her and didn’t want to get married. Marianne didn’t believe marriage was the solution for them, but she was also afraid that, once again, she would be left on her own. Another concern for her was that having a child rendered her less free to follow Leonard on his travels.
And: “Again, she found herself unable to say what she truly wanted, which was to be wherever he was. […] Up to now she’d gone wherever love led her.” Finally, after various separations and reunions and moves between Montreal, Norway, and Hydra (with and without each other), Leonard decides to commit himself to his career. “Leonard is in the process of setting himself free,” Hesthamar explains. “The letter he writes to Marianne echoes what Axel used to tell her when they were first together: he will lend a hand, but Marianne must help herself.”
Reading such a persistent account of formlessness, of a woman casting about for another person to lend her an identity, it is tempting to fall back on Malcolm’s dictum and decree that Hesthamar would have been better off finding a more dynamic protagonist. I, however, optimistically believe that anyone can be a vibrant subject. The problem, therefore, is not with Ihlen, but with the limits imposed on her story as defined by these particular relationships. That, and Hesthamar’s lack of psychological intuition about her subject’s ongoing state of mind.
If this were to be a book about a woman (a girl, really) floundering around for her identity, we would need, first, a credible account of her inner life and, second, to see her change. And Ihlen did eventuallychange! But because of Hesthamar’s commitment to setting the story within this frame, we miss this meaty part of Ihlen’s psychological journey. It is only in the epilogue that we discover that she ended up moving back to Norway with her son, getting a job, and finding a man with whom she could share an authentic partnership. In short, Marianne Ihlen grew up. But we aren’t privy to this part of her story.
We also don’t get an account of why Ihlen felt so adrift. Hesthamar’s determination to treat this as a “love story,” per the subtitle, means that she breezes past Ihlen’s formative years. We learn that her parents’ “marriage had caved in when the war came, bringing sickness and difficult financial straits,” that her father and brother both contracted tuberculosis, and that Marianne was sent to live with her grandmother. “When the war had ended and they were all reunited, the family was not what it had been. Father’s illness afflicted them all,” Hesthamar writes. “Sickness made him unstable and he flew off the handle at the slightest provocation. Marianne was increasingly wary of her authoritarian father. The smile he’d once held at the ready had been ground away by the years of war and sickness.” This is intriguing backstory, but Hesthamar gives it short shrift. We can infer that Ihlen’s relationship with her volatile and controlling father influenced her taste in men, but Hesthamar does not provide nearly enough detail or analysis to leave us with anything beyond speculation. If Ihlen is a vessel into which she hopes to pour Jensen’s and Cohen’s selves, she is also a vessel for the reader’s projections.
Hesthamar’s tone, like her psychological understanding, is not subtle. Sentences like “Setting out on the path to personal freedom is no walk in the park” are not unusual. (This could, of course, be a facet of the translation, but the ideas expressed are as blunt as the language used to express them.) Even the moments when Ihlen falls for each man are devoid of romantic crackle. Here she is, meeting Jensen at a party in Norway: “She has never met a man with so much to talk about, someone so entertaining. […] After the party breaks up, Marianne walks with light feet through the summer night. In a daze. She hasn’t understood most of what was said, but she has been borne away on a journey.” Or take her first glimpse of Cohen outside a café as she’s doing her shopping: “A man she hasn’t noticed before stands in the doorway, the sun behind him, in chinos and a shirt with rolled up sleeves. Tennis shoes and a sixpence cap.” The man invites Marianne to join his table, and she does. “[He] doesn’t say anything remarkable, but he looks at Marianne. And when their eyes meet, her entire body trembles.” Hum-dee-dum. And Hesthamar brings as little insight to the relationship’s eventual troubles as she does to its beginning. She notes that Cohen is a women-magnet, and that seeing him surrounded by admirers causes Ihlen’s insecurities to surge. “The knowledge that he was living with her — had chosen her — should have kept Marianne’s head high,” Hesthamar reasons, as if any highly insecure person ever was able to intellectualize herself out of her paranoia. The kicker, though, is that it isn’t even paranoia! Not two pages later, Hesthamar inserts a first-person admission from Cohen:
I was hungry for experience as any young writer is, and every young person. I wanted many women, many kinds of experiences, many countries, many climates, many love affairs. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was natural for me then to see life as some kind of buffet where there was a lot of different tastes.
If So Long, Marianne shortchanges its heroine, does it do justice to the famous men in her life? The portraits of Jensen and Cohen are intriguing, and the best parts of the book are excerpts from letters they wrote to Marianne, as well as a few previously unpublished Cohen poems. Here, for example, is a delicious detail from one of Cohen’s letters: “I put steel strings on my guitar, that’s like changing from underwear to armour, that’s New York City.” Or, from the volatile, unpredictable, and excitable Jensen:
He who does not create is self-contained. He encapsulates himself, congeals. What is life for an eating, shitting and sleeping animal? Life has given us a brain and senses to use for something! To create! And YOU! You can CREATE!
But the fact that this quotation works better out of context than in speaks to another problem with the book. Hesthamar’s purpose in including this letter is to substantiate that “Axel wanted Marianne to seize hold of what she dreaded and hold it up to the light” in order to “more easily achieve self-realization and liberate the powers within her.” The details she includes about Jensen’s and Cohen’s lives and work might amuse or satisfy their die-hard fans. But, for the rest of us, Hesthamar’s resolute focus on Ihlen necessarily limits the scope of her efforts.
All of us have made stupid decisions in our attempts to find ourselves, and in our attempts to find love. But given a sketch of Ihlen rather than a full-fledged character, it’s difficult to empathize; her situation seems far away, and her foibles, however human and universal, feel trivial, even silly. So Hesthamar’s original idea is not without merit, but a real payoff would have required a deeper investigation. The conceit — the story of the woman behind the song — can carry the book only so far; merely reporting on what happened between Ihlen and her men, and dropping in bits of primary source material, does not make for a nuanced or compelling narrative. It’s hard not to wonder if we would have been better off left with only the song, and all the imagination its mystery invites.