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Letter to a dying muse

Statesman News Service |

On 11 November 2016, Leonard Cohen died, aged 82, something
he had been ready to do for a while. Back in July, he wrote a touching final letter
to his muse, lover and friend, Marianne Ihlen, upon hearing that she was dying,
telling her that “we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I
think I will follow you very soon”.

Cohen met Ihlen on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s
and though he would go on to have several other relationships that would bring
him children and grandchildren, she stayed in his heart. Ihlen’s close friend,
Jan Christian Mollestad, recalled that after contacting Cohen “it took only two
hours and in came this beautiful letter from Leonard to Marianne. We brought it
to her the next day and she was fully conscious and she was so happy that he
had already written something for her”.

Detailing the contents of the letter, she told Canadian
radio station CBC, “It said, ‘Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are
really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you
very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your
hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for
your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that
because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good
journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.’”

Mollestad said that when he read out the line “stretch out
your hand”, Ihlen did indeed stretch out hers. “Only two days later she lost
consciousness and slipped into death,” Mollestad added. “I wrote a letter back
to Leonard saying that in her final moments I hummed Bird on a Wire because
that was the song she felt closest to. And then I kissed her on the head, said
‘So long, Marianne,’ and left the room.”

So Long, Marianne was the name of a 1967 song Cohen wrote
about her. Ihlen also inspired the likes of Bird on a Wire after the pair had
met on the island of Hydra in the 1960s and became romantically intertwined.
Mollestad said, “When Marianne came to Hydra after giving birth in Norway, her
husband (a famous Norwegian writer), was not there. There was only one shop in
town. And she came in there with her little basket, with her little baby and
she was crying to this Greek lady. And then in the doorway, she was just seeing
the silhouette, was a man who was calling to her and said, ‘I know that you’re
Marianne, and I know what’s happened, come out in the sun and have a glass of
wine.’ And that was Leonard and he took such good care of her.”

An official statement on Cohen’s Facebook page paid tribute
to the “prolific visionary” without revealing the Canadian singer’s cause of
death. But in one of his final interviews, the “godfather of gloom” spoke about
the preparations he had undertaken to ensure the well-being of his loved ones in
anticipation of his passing. As a celebrated musician famed for the sense of
melancholy he would weave throughout his songs, he spoke calmly and with
lucidity about death during a talks with the New Yorker. “I am ready to die,”
he said. “I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.

“At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are
not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your
house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels.”

His concerns were about tying up his financial affairs to
ensure his family security once he had gone. A celebrated musician whose
melancholy lyrics affected listeners across the world, his song Hallelujah was
re-recorded hundreds of times. He had the ability to speak to people about
their deepest emotions, conveying feelings they would often find hard to
express in his poetry and his music. Mild-mannered and gruffly spoken, he
delivered quotes demonstrating a shrewd insight and an unmatched understanding
of life and love that would come to define him.

A late starter compared to his contemporaries, he didn’t
become a household name until he was in his 30s, explaining the simple life he
lived after this. He was already set in his ways by this point, he said,
“attracted to the voluptuousness of austerity”, and couldn’t live the lavish
lifestyle those enjoying a similar level of success did, as a result. Never
married, his seminal work was inspired by Ihlen.

“I’ve had a family to support, so there’s no sense of virtue
attached to it,” he said. “I’ve never sold widely enough to be able to relax
about money. I had two kids and their mother to support and my own life. So
there was never an option of cutting out. Now it’s a habit. And there’s the
element of time, which is powerful, with its incentive to finish up. Now I
haven’t gotten near finishing up. I’ve finished up a few things. I don’t know
how many other things I’ll be able to get to.”

An artist above all else, his son, Adam, said his father
worked even in the final hours of his death. His insight on a variety of issues
can be gleaned from the following:

On music: “A song that is useful, that touches somebody,
must be measured by that utility alone.” New York Times, 1995.

On death: “At a certain point, if you still have your
marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance
to put your house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an
analgesic on all levels.” New Yorker, 2015.

On transforming pain into work: “A cry of pain in itself is
just that. It can affect you or you can turn away from it. But a piece of work
that treats the experience that produced the cry of pain is a different matter
altogether. The cry is transformed, alchemised, by the work, by a certain
objectivity that doesn’t surrender the emotion but gives it form. That’s the
difference between life and art.” The Guardian, 1976.

On becoming a musician: “My life was filled with great
disorder, with chaos, and I achieved a little discipline there. So I decided to
return to music.” Time Magazine.

On pessimism: “I don’t consider myself a pessimist at all. I
think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel
completely soaked to the skin.” Daily Telegraph, 1993.

On living simply: “I have always been attracted to the
voluptuousness of austerity. I never chose the style of my life because it
hurt. It was on the contrary. I feel most comfortable and most abundant when
things are very simple and I know where everything is and there’s nothing
around that I don’t need.” Vicki Gabereau, 1984.

On marriage: “I think marriage is the hottest furnace of the
spirit today. Much more difficult than solitude, much more challenging for
people who want to work on themselves. It’s a situation in which there are no
alibis, excruciating most of the time… 
but it’s only in this situation that any kind of work can be done.”
Harvey Kubernik, 1975.RIP, Leonard Cohen.

— By Clarisse Loughrey and Christopher Hooton

The independent