Novelising a Song: Samantha Harvey's Dear Thief and Leonard Cohen
How does Dear Thief build its atmosphere through Leonard Cohen's music?
As many reviewers of Samantha Harvey’s brilliant Dear Thief have long pointed out, the form of the novel is inspired by Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and in fact contains several references to it. Claire Kilroy in a Guardian review writes: “In the voice of a middle-aged woman looking back over her marriage, Harvey has struck gold. [...] Why is this voice so evocative, I found myself wondering. Why is it (literally, as it happens) striking a chord? The answer is Leonard Cohen.”
Dear Thief is a long letter written by an unnamed woman, addressed to her long-time friend, nicknamed Butterfly, and is a meditation on their troubled friendship and the affair Butterfly had with Nicolas, the narrator’s husband. In an interview with Salon, Harvey explains that she “loved playing with the form, and I’m sure that the fact that the Cohen song is a letter is really what drew me to that song as opposed to any other because I loved the sense of – actually a monologue, but an exchange between two people that everyone else is shut out of.” However, to any reader who is intimately familiar with Cohen’s body of work, it will become apparent from the very first few pages that Dear Thief is not merely inspired by “Famous Blue Raincoat” – it is not an adaptation or a cover of that one song, but it’s a literary expression of several Leonard Cohen songs that dominate Harvey’s language from time to time but are always there as a thematic undercurrent that carries the entire book. Which songs work their way into the novel, and what role do they play in its literary depth?
Let’s start with the obvious: “Famous Blue Raincoat” is about an affair – signed by Cohen himself (though by his admission the story is fictional and the raincoat is actually an article of clothing that belonged to him and not to the thief), it is addressed to the man who had an affair with his wife/girlfriend Jane. The names are different, but the rest is identical in Dear Thief. Both letters are being written at “four in the morning, the end of December,” and employ a resigned, almost peaceful tone instead of rage against the intruder. The “thief” in both cases has gone to live in the desert, there’s a lock of hair involved, Cohen’s line “the last time we saw you” becomes “when we saw you last” in the novel, but this is all on a surface level.
The first reference to the song (and I’ll grant that it’s my own interpretation and not as explicit as the aforementioned nods to the song) comes in the very first line of the book: “In answer to a question you asked me a long time ago, I have, yes, seen through what you called the gauze of this life.” This is a crucial piece of information that is repeated throughout the book: the fuel of Butterfly’s escapist engine is this transcendentalist desire to peek behind this gauze at some higher truth. Consider this along with the fact that the only line of Cohen’s song that doesn’t get a direct reference is “Did you ever go clear?” That line becomes “Did you ever see through the gauze of this life?” – the cadence is the same, and the meaning is nigh there. “Going clear” is a term used in the Church of Scientology (where Cohen used to go briefly in the late 60s and early 70s because he had heard it was a “good place to meet women”) to signify some sort of acceptance of a higher truth, of a deeper meaning beyond trauma. Butterfly is not involved with Scientology, but she is always rigorously studying the Upanishads, supposedly in search of a way to see through the gauze.
Where Cohen’s intention for writing this letter is stated in the beginning – “I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better” – Dear Thief’s narrator is initially, and for most of the letter, trying to understand what it is that drives her urge to write to Butterfly, and in this process she engages in an ever-growing practice of imagining Butterfly’s life based on the very minimal information she has. She builds her a house in the desert, a small shed with only the very basic utilities, and imagines Butterfly reading the letter she hasn’t sent yet. In this process, Butterfly becomes more and more fictional, a figment of the most unreliable narrator who has become almost entirely uninterested in seeing if “she’s better,” and has already imagined Butterfly reaching for that elusive feeling she had been looking for:
The repeated light imagery brings to mind two Leonard Cohen songs. The first contains one of his most recognisable quotes: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in” from “Anthem.” The second song, which is more fitting with the beginning of this paragraph, is “Waiting For The Miracle,” where he sings:
Not only does that last line make it in the book, but the whole sentiment of the stanza informs the way the narrator thinks of Butterfly – almost like a dream where you see people you haven’t spoken to in years, except the narrator is conscious of artificially constructing a Butterfly that is almost entirely removed from reality and does not exist as a person in herself, but is rather a tool for the sake of this letter, and only serves the narrator’s needs of coming to terms with the past.
There are more Cohen songs referenced in the book, like “I’m Your Man,” which is included entirely incidentally and doesn’t seem to fulfil any literary purpose, except to reinforce the underlying atmospheric quality that Cohen’s music brings to the book. His line “Oh but a man never got a woman back, not by begging on his knees” is casually referenced by the narrator in an encounter with Yannis, her closest friend in the present, who is having marital problems of his own:
Similarly, there are references to other songs like “Bird On A Wire,” “Avalanche,” “First We Take Manhattan” and “Chelsea Hotel #2,” with the last one being particularly covert as it refers to the story behind the song rather than lyrics themselves (video of Cohen narrating that story below).
This one paragraph is heavy with references (and yes, maybe I’m reading too much into it, so look at the evidence and decide for yourself), from the Cohen-Joplin encounter in an elevator, to the poem/sketch Cohen published in his collection The Book of Longing, to this quote in a Rolling Stone interview about his time living at the Chelsea Hotel:
Rather than eploying some sort of postmodernist pastiche/collage technique, Harvey has absorbed the spirit of Cohen’s words (for he is the one telling the stories) into the fabric of Butterfly’s character. The question she is always asked by the narrator, in different iterations of Cohen’s “Did you ever go clear?”, is in turn answered through more Cohen references.
As with “Chelsea Hotel #2,” this next and final song is referenced in the book carefully, almost secretly: “The Stranger Song” from Cohen’s 1967 debut Songs of Leonard Cohen, which appears here and there in the novel from page 155 to page 168 (in my edition). The most explicit reference is in that last page:
In those thirteen pages, the word “shelter” comes up over and over again, as it does in the song, and while the narrator often goes into abstract thoughts about letting people in – your house, your life – it is always clear that she is referring to the years when she and her husband hosted a broke and tired Butterfly, and these pages follow a brief conversation the couple had about Butterfly’s heroin addiction. “The Stranger Song” is rather about an addiction to gambling, addressed to someone who has given shelter to many men who swore off the habit only to return to it eventually; the kind of person who always keeps in their “wallet an old schedule of trains” and is always leaving, like Butterfly.
So, what does this whole thing amount to? Some of the references are so obscure that no one else has written about them and I imagine most people reading Dear Thief are not aware of those lyrics inhabiting the space beneath the words on the pages of their copies (and I’ll concede that some references might be just me making connections where none are intended, but, you know, welcome to the uncertain world of literary analysis and interpretation). I think that the overt references, especially to “Famous Blue Raincoat,” are there to bring about something familiar – a song that already has a history and a recognisable tone. Dear Thief builds on this, pulling more songs from Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre into its fabric, weaving a musical cradle for its characters to lie on. Whether you realise it or not, the atmosphere of Dear Thief started developing in the mid-60s. This is by no means intended to take away from Harvey's absolutely masterful writing; on the contrary, this innovative kind of intertextuality just further proves her literary skills. The novel has such richness and depth hidden in it that bringing all this music to the foreground truly comprises an enhanced reading experience. So with that in mind, here is another "A Novel Soundtrack" post as a bonus.
BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.