In his final months, Matt Cohen embraced as many extremes as one of the beleaguered, life-loving characters in his own novels. Diagnosed last spring with lung cancer, he kept on writing, and last month won the prestigious $10,000 Governor General's Award for his novel Elizabeth and After. The presentation was made in a moving ceremony at Ottawa's Government House, where Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson, a longtime friend, broke with precedent by publicly embracing him. Clearly showing the effects of chemotherapy, Cohen, 56, joked in his acceptance speech that it would have been nice to win when he was "younger and hairier."
Only 16 days after his triumph in Ottawa, Cohen died last week in his Toronto home. In many ways a writer's writer - versatile, craft-conscious and technically daring - he was an extremely popular figure in Canada's literary community. The novelist Graeme Gibson, who with his partner, Margaret Atwood, were close friends of Cohen's, remarks that "he left some very important books, which are going to last. There's no question he leaves a very big hole." Another friend, author John Ralston Saul, laments the loss of Cohen's "formidable intelligence. He played a critical role, not just as a writer, but as a public participant in our country's attempts to think about itself, to imagine itself."
Born in Montreal and raised in Kingston, Ont., Cohen published his first novel, Korsoniloff, in 1969, when he was 26. It sold only a few hundred copies, but it marked the beginning of Cohen's long, tenacious climb towards national recognition. Over the next three decades, he would publish nearly 30 books, including novels, short-story collections, poetry, children's books and translations of French-Canadian literature. His first major breakthrough came in 1974, when his novel The Disinherited was widely praised by reviewers. It launched what would ultimately become known as "the Salem quartet" - four linked novels set in fictional Salem county, situated somewhere north of Kingston.
Cohen loved that rough but dramatic landscape on the edge of the Canadian Shield. He owned a getaway cabin set on 177 acres of rock outcrop and bush, and would take long walks with his dog while sorting out the problems posed by his latest book. "There was something about that country that spoke to him," remarks Greg Hollingshead, the Alberta-based novelist who, like many other writers, launched his own career with Cohen's encouragement. "It grounded his essentially intellectual style in something much more emotionally felt."
In fact, Cohen was a complex figure - an urban Jewish intellectual with deep roots in the land; a Canadian cultural nationalist whose books sold well in Holland and France; a prickly individualist who fought hard for the Public Lending Right - which ensured that writers were paid each time their books were borrowed from a public library. Gibson remarks that Cohen was one of the funniest men he's ever known: "He could, when he got a riff going, reduce a table of people to helpless laughter." The wiry author was also a dedicated basketball player, recalled in his Toronto pickup league as a terrier on the court. Says fellow player Hamish Cameron: "He had this astonishing and infuriating floating hook shot."
At the end, Cohen was surrounded by his family: his wife, publisher Patsy Aldana, their two children, Daniel, 17, and Madeleine, 13, and his two stepchildren, Seth, 26, and Carlotta, 30. Ironically, just three years before, Cohen had published Last Seen, his masterful, tragicomic account of two brothers - one of whom succumbs to cancer. Based on the death of his own younger brother in 1992, the book shows Cohen at his best - treating life's hardest passages with a light, buoyant touch while still honouring their importance. By all accounts, he approached his own illness the same way. "To see him in these last six months or so was extraordinary," remarks Hollingshead, "you had a sense of yes, this is how to do it: this is how to face death with grace."
Maclean's December 13, 1999