Every possible life charmed, doomed, or both of a Don Juan of 1970s New York, is captured, in its every conceivable inflection, in Marvin Cohen’s comic episodic novel Women, and Tom Gervasi. The philanderer at the heart of the novel is hopelessly, effortlessly, universally, even fatally attractive to women. His oversized invulnerability is both monstrous and very recognizably human. Gervasi is a kind of necessary mythic extrapolation of the ego, an imaginary counterweight to the reality of self-loss, a King Midas whose limitless power is his own undoing, and who is ultimately shown, through Cohen’s Cubist technique of exhaustively presenting every perspective on his character, to exist in a kind of Hell of spiritual isolation and inability to love. As always, Cohen writes with a vigorous wit; his poetic dialect reforges the English language into utterly original, surprising and delightful forms. Written in the late ’70s and never before published, this novel is one of a pair with Inside the World: As Al Lehman (published simultaneously), Cohen’s novel about a “non-Don Juan.”
Al Lehman is a bourgeois Everyman, whose true nature is mysterious, radically unformed, incomplete, and frustrated, even as the quotidian circumstances of his life are drearily grounded in a fixed temporal reality. In this episodic novel, comic and philosophical, written in the late ’70s in Cohen’s highly idiosyncratic and extraordinarily poetic language, different aspects of Lehman’s quest to exist in the scope of finitude, in the belly of a universe that does not fully nourish him, but is the source of all nourishment, are brilliantly distilled.
Inside the World, As Al Lehman is a companion novel to Women, and Tom Gervasi, whose central figure could be Lehman’s wish-fulfilling dream projection: a Don Juan who exists in a world of limitless physical and emotional gratification. Taken together, the two novels comprise a kind of comedic Either/Or in which are explored a wide range of the merits and dismerits of the real and ideal.
When asked by a friend why he recently he had been writing only poetry, Marvin Cohen, octogenarian author of many novels, stories, essays and plays, quipped that he had “run out of prose.” It would be as apt to say that, in these delightfully carefree rhymed homilies about the irreducible vagaries of life, death, and evolution, he has leapt off the ground, into the air.
“Cohen is a superfan, and he has written an intellectual manual for his co-religionists. They know who they are and they will cherish this manual. But anyone who has spent a soft, green afternoon, his shirt open at the throat to the sun, the whistles and chatter of the infield drifting up to the edge of his mind, watching, absorbing, taking in a baseball game, will cherish it.”
From the introduction by Jim Bouton, former Major League pitcher and author of the 1970 bestseller Ball Four.
Originally published in 1974 as Baseball the Beautiful: Decoding the Diamond, Cohen explains that the original publisher took the liberty of changing the book’s now-restored title “for commercial feasibility and to bring in the lumbering lowbrow audience.” This new edition contains a later essay that did not appear in the original, and the author has also written a new foreword.
“Probably the most sympathetic book ever written about the game.”
New York Post
“Cohen’s essays on the sport never become trapped in sentimentality or overblown analysis as pleasing as a perfect game with two out in the ninth.”
“Cohen approaches baseball as the artist does a great work of art it contains, for him, the metaphysical, the holy, the myth, that which lives beyond us, love. Seeing baseball as the supreme art, we are drawn into the book, and close to whatever art we are involved in, close to life.”
“Unlike any book on baseball that you have ever read.”
50th-anniversary edition of Cohen’s debut fiction. Not quite a novel, the book is best described as a series of humorous philosophical dialogues between the narrator and his “other” self, touching on a vast array of subjects such as birth, love, art, nature, religion, death, and everything in between.
A mere 1,500 hardcover copies of The Self-Devoted Friend were printed in London by publisher Rapp & Carroll Limited in 1967, 750 of which were imported by New Directions Publishing for distribution in the United States. According to Cohen, New Directions publisher James Laughlin explained his decision behind the very limited edition by saying it was “only for the happy few.” Despite its overwhelmingly positive critical reception, no further copies of the book were ever produced. Completely reformatted, this new paperback edition contains the full text of the original and the author has also written a new brief introduction.
“When I was an unpublished writer 55 years ago, I lived in the same crummy tenement as Marvin Cohen in New York, and got to know him and his extraordinary writing. To me he was the Beckett of Avenue B funnier, more accessible, but just as determined to show us the world in a new way. Cohen is the chronicler of frustration, and The Self-Devoted Friend is just one of his masterpieces.”
“It is rare these days perhaps, any days to come across a work that not only reveals a striking, fresh talent, but stands outside current literary preoccupations. What Mr. Cohen has is his own: a joy in language, and an eye, at once innocent and shrewd, for the paradoxes inherent in the human condition. He puts both language and people through their paces, stands them on their heads, and hugs them to his heart in what amounts as a tour de force of serio-comedy, a sort of superb clowning in which pathos and absurdity intertwine as they do in a Charlie Chaplin film.”
Alice S. Morris, The New York Times Book Review
“Cohen surrealistically juxtaposes ideas, seeks irrational and fantastic links, but for the high purposes of verbal comedy and linguistic entertainment.”
The New Statesman (London)
“Marvin Cohen’s wacky humor has something of Thurber, something of Steinberg, Buster Keaton, the surrealists, the pataphysicians. The Self-Devoted Friend is a book that should be read immediately by all who gladly recognize themselves to be half crazy.”
“Such discontinuous fictions as Finnegans Wake or Naked Lunch or Marvin Cohen’s The Self-Devoted Friend would store more suitably than nineteenth-century novels.”
Richard Kostelanetz, Works
This new paperback edition has been completely reformatted and contains the full text of the original novel published in 1976. In addition, it includes the transcript of the 23-minute December 24, 1976 Reader's Almanac interview with Marvin Cohen conducted by Walter James Miller courtesy of New York Public Radio (WNYC 93.9 FM), as well as a new brief introduction by the author.
“Like something out of the brain of a poetic trash compactor fed on ten years’ accumulation of The New York Review of Books and As the World Turns. Cohen is bewitched by the novelty of the novel. He uses plot and language not to tell a story, but to discover and utilize all the lavish possibilities and pleasures these provide. This book is a writer’s lark, yet also a benign ramble through the Disneyland of a literary man’s literature.”
Ron Whyte, Soho Weekly News
“[Cohen] has put his sophisticated hand into the wiring of the language and twisted it impishly. ... The reward for your attention is that you hear a new voice and a new kind of surreal music.”
Raymond Sokolov, The New York Times Book Review
“An appeal that lingers beyond the final page. ... A brilliantly interpretive mind.”
This anthology collects the following volumes of Cohen’s short fiction: The Monday Rhetoric of the Love Club and Other Parables, Fables at Life’s Expense, The Inconvenience of Living, How the Snake Emerged from the Bamboo Pole but Man Emerged from Both, and Aesthetics in Life and Art. It also includes approximately 40 pages of new work.
“With sage and quiet humor Cohen whittles at the ludicrous dimensions of human folly and cuts us to the quick with his fables, parables, dialogues, and other delightful departures from the conventions of fiction It’s always a pleasure to come across Cohen in a magazine piece; here, too, he again proves to be an antidote to the inconvenience of living.”
“The narrator in Cohen’s typical fable purposely locks himself into a logic that must lead to frustration and failure. Instead of despairing, however, he then revels in the irony of the situation and finds consolation in the triumph of art (the fable) over life. He reaches rare and dizzying heights of metaphorical perfection in describing paradoxical emotional states. For serious collections of contemporary experimental fiction.”
“Verbal and situational fun. Attractive comic fantasia. Cohen writes in a style that pulses with energy.”
“Marvin Cohen is a virtual original. He is at his best in his dialogues, excellent theater of the absurd zany, witty, progressing by disrupting and revealing pun to open up new areas of insight. There is an exuberance about his work which shows in his delight of words: many phrases are sheer delight. Cohen is also a satirist of thrust, touching upon many matters sex, love, religion but some of his most moving pieces deal with loneliness. Even here, however, his vitality and vigor encompass the emptiness of his subject and enable us to see the human situation in context. He is never dwarfed by his material, nor does he sentimentalize it. His touch illuminates and moves on. Perhaps this book will create for him the following he deserves.”
“His stories are bursting with inventiveness, and have a way of posing awkward questions this, when most of the world’s story writers are content with dry observations, or mere character assassination.”
The Times Literary Supplement (London)
“Cohen thinks all our lives shade very close to surrealism and, set down, his observations are often wildly funny. Add his wonderful facility with words and you have one of the most delightful books of the season.”
Based on two unpublished episodic novels by Marvin Cohen, (Women, and Tom Gervasi and Inside the World: As Al Lehman), The Don Juan and the Non-Don Juan was was first performed at the New York Shakespeare Festival as part of the Poets at the Public Series. Staged readings featured Richard Dreyfuss, Keith Carradine, Mimi Kennedy, Wallace Shawn, and Jill Eikenberry, with a full production in London.
“Two different separate men who never even heard of each other are alternately displayed as having to do in comparative parallel contrast of ways with, in various forms, women. One of the men is the latest in the line of the Don Juans, from the lengthy literary tradition as depicted by Byron, Shaw, Moliere, and Mozart/Da Ponte. The other man would also like to be a Don Juan: his attempts on that score demonstrate that he’s not.
“Among the hordes of women encountered by these unmutual men are an office secretary who gets one of them fired; a nunhood-renouncing nun; a monthly duo named May and June; a rich gangster’s smitten wife; a flowery trio named Iris, Rose, & Lila; women at parties; women at dinners; women in bed; women in the rain.
“Plenty of conflicts abound. To settle one of them, God puts in a majesterial appearance.
“At the end of this theater presentation, there’s no loss of conclusions that an audience member may (or for that matter may not) arrive at. Among the theatrical approaches to the Don Juan legend or the failure thereof, the comic gets treatment. Other devices help out, just in case.”
Necessary Ends involves two couples who tangle in a philosophical farce about love, language, sex, time, and death. A collaboration with the director James Milton, it was privately auditioned to producer Joseph Papp, with Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory, Angela Pietropinto, and Gretchen Van Riper in the four roles.
“The term ‘character’ was coined with Marvin Cohen in mind. A gentle observer of the unpredictable and slightly absurd, Marvin has a fondness for mankind that is unmistakably his own. Sometimes I think of him as a comedian-chronicler standing at the center, his head turned slightly toward your line of speaking to accomodate his hearing aid. Necessary Ends is the sum of these parts, as Marvin positions and repositions people within relationships, that ever-aimed ear to the pun and odd bits of conversation, as though he’s walking slowly through a cocktail party. The strength of his writing stems from his baroque sense of humor and his ability to see both the world and himself as wonderfully delightful miscreaants.”
Joseph Papp, Plays from the New York Shakespeare Festival
In response to a request for information regarding his life and career, the subject of this website graciously provided, in distinctive Cohen-esque fashion, the following third-person autobiography:
When Marvin Cohen was offered space for this website biography, he confessed: “I’ve risen from a lower class background to a lower class foreground.”
Described as a poet, humorist, surrealist, essayist, etc., he has published twelve books, not counting reissues. His play The Don Juan and the Non-Don Juan has been acted in by Richard Dreyfuss, Keith Carradine, and Wallace Shawn, plus actors in England, and translated for German TV. His shorter writings stories, parables, allegories, essays have appeared in more than 80 publications, including anthologies from New Directions and other major publishers, plus The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Nation, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vogue. He’s given loads of readings in New York and London, often assisted by dialogue partners who acted like actors and sometimes even were.
Despite very little college education, he taught creative writing at the New School, the City College of New York, C.W. Post of Long Island University, and Adelphi. He was never imitated by years of students, much to their credit.
Born in Brooklyn in 1931 during the recession, Cohen took art classes at Cooper Union, but oils and canvas cost too much and writing cost very little. Reduced to 35% hearing from infantile disease, he lived in a cold-water flat starting at $31 a month in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He notoriously crashed a lot of parties and receptions for extra food, drink, and free socializing not to mention flirting (harmless, of course). His odd jobs included messengering, mink farming, children’s camp counselor, market research, post office temp, proofreader, ineffectual gardener, and merchant seaman on oil tanker to Cuba; but he was fired virtually more frequently than hired, if at all possible.
His first published piece appeared in The Beat Scene (Corinth Books, 1960) alongside works by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso:
Cohen lives in New York City with his wife, a retired paperback editor. He enjoys good health and still plays softball regularly, but now is courteously run for starting at home plate, but he plays and makes errors all by himself at first base, mainly in Central Park, in all seasons on Sundays. He identifies himself as a Yankee fan in his book Baseball the Beautiful, title-changed by its first publisher from the original Baseball as Metaphysics for commercial feasibility and to bring in the lumbering lowbrow audience, but now reissued under its originally intended title.
By 2016, with the exception of The Monday Rhetoric of the Love Club and Other Parables, (New Directions), Cohen languished out of print. However, Boston-area independent publisher Tough Poets Press, Verbivoracious Press, based in Glasgow and Singapore, and most recently Sagging Meniscus Press of New Jersey, have instigated a resurgence, with the result that all his titles that appeared previously in book form have been reissued, and never-before-published work, both new and old, is now appearing at a furious rate.
From Library Journal, February 1, 1968:
“Perhaps half or a third of the books I ever read have influenced my own work; especially James Joyce, Kafka, Henry James, some of the French surrealists like Henri Michaux, William Faulkner, and the 18th-Century English prose style; many unconscious influences have been at work, too.
“My work has been influenced by such personal factors as my rather isolated Brooklyn childhood, my semi-deafness from the age of three; my interests in Major League baseball, art, and music; early abortive love life, poverty, the cosmos of New York City, travelings and tattered abundance of jobs, and idlenesses. However, my work hardly ever touches literally on events, being rather surrealistically abstract.”
“Marvin Cohen, How to Outthink a Wall: An Anthology (2016)”
Read review here.
“Book Review: Baseball as Metaphysics by Marvin Cohen” by Reuben Andrews
Read review here.
“The Drumbeat of Society: An Interview with Marvin Cohen” by Nina Buckless
Read interview here.
“Surreal Genius: Why Onetime Literary Hotshot Marvin Cohen Deserves Another Look” by Ross Barkan
Read article here.
Marvin Cohen talks about his book The Inconvenience of Living, and reads three selections: “The Inconvenience of Living,” “Quiet, Confusion at Work,” and “An Amicable Solution.”
Listen to interview here.
Marvin Cohen discusses his sixth book and first novel, Others, Including Morstive Sternbump, with host Walter James Miller.
Listen to interview here.
Header photo by Jeff Brown from his forthcoming book 57 Varieties of Marvin Cohen (Sagging Meniscus Press).
Comments, suggestions, corrections, and additions are welcome. I look forward to hearing from you. Please contact me at the email address below.
marvincohen [dot] net [AT] gmail [DOT] com