Poet, novelist and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen has died at the age of 82. In his native city, the Montreal Gazette has invoked the words of Evelyn Waugh in a memorial article:
Evelyn Waugh once said at a certain point in his life every writer has to decide whether he is going to be an esthete or a prophet. Go down the list of your favourite writers or musicians and you can put them quite nicely into one of those two slots — they are either someone who luxuriates in artistic production, or is using the art as a means of political, moral or spiritual transcendence. Bowie and Prince, each in his own way, were two of the greatest esthetes the world has ever seen. Dylan, of course, is the arch prophet. Then there is Leonard Cohen, who fused the esthetic and the prophetic in a way almost no one has ever done before, or perhaps ever will again.
The statement attributed to Waugh in the article is not quite as it was written. It comes from his 1946 article for Life magazine entitled “Fan-Fare” (reprinted in Essays, Articles and Reviews, p. 301, and A Little Order, p. 29):
Most European writers suffer a climacteric at the age 40. Youthful volubility carries them only so far. After that they either become prophets or hacks or aesthetes. (American writers, I think, all become hacks.) I am no prophet and, I hope, no hack.
As recounted in Cohen’s obituary in the New York Times, he began his artistic career as a poet and novelist. His two early novels The Favorite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966) were well received by the critics but relatively unremunerative. Before he reached 40, he had drifted into songwriting and then singer-songwriting where he found greater success. But he never flirted with hackdom. It is a pity, however, that he dropped novel writing altogether because his early works were in the comic satirical tradition of Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Kingsley Amis and others of that earlier generation. But then, many of his songs were in that same tradition, and we can be grateful for that.