Monsieur Cohen

An appreciation of the late Matt Cohen

First published in Uncommon Ground, 2002

“Le Grand Hôtel des Principautés Unies!”

I had just met Matt Cohen and asked him where he was staying.

“On the rue de Vaugirard?”

His face fell a little, the lines in his cheeks deepening almost imperceptibly.

“I heard it’s noisy there,” I continued, not understanding. “Is it okay?”

The response came immediately. “Ask me again.”

“Ask you what?”

“Where I’m staying?”

I looked at him, the famous writer, and obliged. “Where are you staying, Matt?”

“Le Grand Hôtel des Principautés Unies!”

My face must have been blank. “Ask me again,” he said, patiently.

“Where are you staying?”

“Le Grand Hôtel des Principautés Unies.”

This time I smiled too. What a ridiculous thing to say. No wonder he liked staying there.

Matt seemed to be always coming through Paris, delighted and slightly deflated. Ever tentative, he would nonetheless stretch out his arms and embrace the place, sardonically, as if it were, as indeed it was, an elaborate entertainment. Show him a Parisian archetype, the surly penguin of a waiter slamming down a cold coffee ten minutes late, and Matt would tut-tut theatrically, “Et pourquoi se presser?” then chase away an imaginary fly with his slim, graceful fingers. The taxi driver who refused us at the Bastille at two in the morning because going our way would not take him homeward? “C’est normal, c’est pas la bonne direction,” Matt muttered in mock resignation as we walked on through the darkened streets.

In front of a beefcake display in a pharmacy window: “Et la crème anti-connerie, ça existe?”

I never found out when Matt learned to speak French. Perhaps he always knew. But in the years I knew him he learned to think French, in its strengths and weaknesses, its commonplaces and absurdities. We met, through friends, at the Village Voice bookstore in the rue Princesse in the mid-1980s. I’d been living around the corner for years; he’d just given a reading that night. Another author was there, wearing a cape and looking very grand. Matt leaned over his glasses, mischievous, alive, bored. That evening I was reluctant to tell him that after reading his story “The Sins of Tomás Benares,” I’d had an erotic dream about sleeping with an aunt to whom I had never knowingly been attracted. To my embarrassment, I’d had the dream three nights in a row. Reading brought me pleasure, but rarely in my sleep. I would realize only later that being reluctant to tell Matt such a story was foolish in the extreme. He worked and lived in a casually fearless manner, unimpressed by convention and respectability – and by pecking orders, awards and appearances. Caustic demystification was one of his many conversational idioms. Don’t worry about fitting in, Matt’s example showed, you never will. And why should anyone bother? Matt worked very hard – he was always, unbelievably, finishing yet another new novel or collection of stories – and he seemed unconcerned about how his work was received, and by whom. He gave encouragement to me, a nervous novice, but rarely failed to underline the utter absence of glamour in a writing life. Matt’s work was powerful enough to insinuate itself into dreams; his speech, his critical honesty, blunt enough to shatter them.

But why did he come to Paris so often? Because he was a francophile? Because it was not Toronto? Because it was slightly ridiculous? Because it gave him so much material? He invariably showed up in town in a frayed old bomber jacket, like some Allied agent dropped into occupied France. He was always on reconnaissance missions, as were many of his characters. In the middle novels and stories they are usually intelligent people, often screwed up, always teetering on the edge of defeat, with Paris drifting through their lives, comically or tragically. The city can be the site of anguish past – Melanie of Emotional Arithmetic, for example. Or the setting for incompetence present, like the touching buffoons of Café Le Dog. Or any number of variations on a theme. The grey metropolis on the Seine may be monochrome, but its people are not. Not surprisingly, given his work, Matt was sensitive to many sides of the city; he needed little prompting to defend it, just as little to attack it.

Unlike so many other foreigners who tarry in Paris, he had no use for either the rosy literary postcard or the facile foodie love letter that passes for knowledge of the place. Praise France’s self-image as the homeland of human rights, and a pointed evocation of the country’s anti-Semitism would be Matt’s response. Attack the philistinism of the Paris magazine stand, and risk hearing how the French still had a respect for the printed word that no longer obtained across the Atlantic. When he and his family moved to France, in the first of several one-year stays, he already knew the name of Mitterrand’s mistress, the location of the Drancy transport camp, the persistence of the Joan of Arc complex.

Which is not to say that Matt then wandered off into the desert of explaining France to the outside world. Nonfiction didn’t interest him. His advice on the news and arts stories I wrote from Paris was deliberately absurd. “Just say the fellow wanted to poison his brothers and sisters, but failed,” he’d say of some public figure I was profiling. “So he became a dog thief, then decided to run for political office.” My private life received similar treatment: “Marry the girl, then move to the Ariège and start a llama farm. She’ll begin seeing the local priest and you can learn to play the recorder.” It became a conversational tic between us. I would admit to my latest logjam – being stuck in a story, a relationship, a translation – and Matt would spin a preposterous scenario to “solve” the problem, the point of the whole exercise being the spontaneous generation of narrative. That, in a way, was how he saw Paris – a compendium of narratives, inexhaustible, sad, funny and, ultimately, stories from a land of the other.

“I can see why you write fiction,” I said rather obviously one evening, after hearing how I had stuffed somebody in the trunk of a Renault, then wheeled the car into the Canal Saint-Martin.

The next time we met Matt made me a present of the collected stories of William Trevor.

“The thing about French publishing houses is that they’re sexy,” Matt remarked after coming from his publisher’s offices. “There are women everywhere. They’re young, they’re all in short skirts, they wear perfume. They kiss and smoke a lot. They cross their legs.”

His voice trailed off, bewildered and amused. The Café de la Mairie, on the Place Saint-Sulpice, seemed ideal for such extracurricular musings. It was, at the time, a place full of publishing types, publicists and beautiful shoppers. It was also near Le Grand Hôtel des Principautés Unies. Matt and his wife, Patsy Aldana, had recently helped me out of the ghetto of journalism, introducing me to a publisher who offered a contract for my first book project. Their kindness marked them as distinctly not Parisian.

“Do you think you’ll ever get married? Have children?” he asked.

The question came out of the blue. And it was so shockingly straightforward, so unadorned by any playfulness.

“I… I never really thought about it.”

“Do you want another drink?”

Several years later, when the time came – the child, not the drink – I was having a protracted reunion dinner alone with Matt when, back in my apartment, my wife’s waters prematurely broke. I wobbled home very late to a dashed-off note instructing me to get to the hospital, bub. Matt had spent much of the meal allaying my terrors at the prospect of a fatherhood that I believed was impending rather than arriving. He had changed my perception of Paris, my career path, my attitude toward writing. Why shouldn’t he do the same with the next big thing?

“It’s wonderful, when children are small they believe anything you tell them,” he’d said approvingly. “Anything!” Much later, I told him that when my wife had called some French friends on that memorable night and explained the situation, they thought she was talking about the plumbing.

It seems to me now that that story could have been made up in a café by Matt. He would be sitting, looking at the passing parade, spinning a tale that involved mishap and misunderstanding, a story that was comic and desperate and believable all at the same time. Or perhaps he would be demolishing an illusion with a quick, sublimely sarcastic remark, or demolishing himself with a well-aimed dart of self-deprecation. The matter of life was serious – Matt was a generous and caring man – but as for the manner of its telling, everything was permitted. I see him in a café, perfectly at home.