Matt Cohen – 1942-1999

I met Matt Cohen through translation, through the activities of our association to be exact. Someone at his house, his beloved Patsy I suspect, had given me his telephone number in the country, or “reality” as he called the land he owned in a small village north of Kingston. I punched the numbers with a trepidation familiar to organizers who seek out famous authors for special events. Contrary to all my expectations Matt was the exact opposite of the brooding, difficult intellectual who guards his time zealously.

Matt Cohen wrote a lot of very good literature. I don’t think he was a workaholic. It was something deeper: Matt wrote to live, Matt lived to write. At heart he was an existentialist. He seized this gift he had been granted and pushed it to the limit, no matter what the consequences. I came to understand the depth of his commitment to creation while translating into Spanish stories he and I selected to represent each phase of his literary trajectory. It was a pleasure to work with texts where structure and style are entirely transparent, texts that betray such a keen ear for the cadences of language, where characters speak so naturally, where the immense drama of our time is captured in the small details of everyday life.

Yet the true measure of Matt Cohen’s genius goes beyond elegant writing style or mastery of form. Matt’s greatest contribution was, in my opinion, his ability to use his literary talent to paint us against the backdrop of our contradictions. Through the characters that people the world of books such as The Sweet Second Summer of Kitty Malone, Emotional Arithmetic, Last Seen and Elizabeth and After, to name a few, Matt Cohen showed us who we are, a people tempted by both the acceptance and rejection of the physical and psychological space that is Canada, vast and seemingly empty, yet filled with the voices of our past and present ghosts. I don’t think Matt Cohen was a “writer’s writer.” On the contrary, I think his work will resonate long after the sound of his voice is erased from our own memories. His readers will discover that no matter what perspective he came from, whether it was from “the inside,” from the point of view of a dejected Pat Frank passing through the fictional town of Salem, or from “the outside” in the form of Avram and Gabriella in mediaeval Spain, or even Nadine as she made her way out of the Holocaust and into the Canadian social fabric, Matt was always talking about the same things. That he did so not only as a writer of adult fiction, but as Teddy Jam, the fictional Maritime author, is proof of his immense energy and versatility. Patsy told me that Matt loved being Teddy Jam. But then, there was nothing more “Matt-like” than being a fictional character himself, Matt being someone else. I suspect this is partly why Matt enjoyed being a translator too—translation being so much a vicarious way of writing.

I can’t get used to the silence of Matt’s voice. I can’t get used to the fact that he’s not here to encourage me with my writing and my translations. I console myself with the knowledge that I can always go back to his novels and short stories, to his translations of Monique Proulx and Gaétan Brulotte, and that, as the day winds down, I can read the words of Teddy Jam to my daughter in that tired moment before sleep.

Matt Cohen leaves behind his wife Patricia Aldana, his children Madeleine and Daniel, and his stepchildren Seth and Carlota.

Beatriz Zeller
(originally published in Transmission, January 2000)

Where is here?
In memory of Matt Cohen

Look here, we are
here, in a field of
grasses, in this extinct
world, where you are
no longer. Where we are
for us, but not for you.
This anabranch, where we
no longer choose: where you are
where we are not, is too vast
a thought. But, look,

here we are with these
clouds, by a river of
resurfaced muck, and this glinting
through the bare ice. Oh, Matt,
what is there more to know about
here? Always wanting for the distant glances
of our missing sibling…

© Antonino Mazza, Ottawa, December 1999-March 2000

Qu’est ici ?
En souvenir de Matt Cohen

Regarde, nous sommes
ici, dans un champ
d’herbes, dans ce monde
éteint, où tu n’es
plus. Où nous existons
pour nous, mais pas pour toi.
Ce détour, où nous ne
choisissons plus : où tu es,
où nous ne sommes pas, est trop vaste
pour voir. Mais regarde,

nous voici avec ces
nuages, près d’un fleuve de boues
resurgies, et ces lueurs
sous la glace nue. Oh, Matt,
qu’y a-t-il d’autre à savoir sur
ici ? Toujours appelant les regards distants
de ce semblable absent…

Traduit par Robert Paré, Sainte-Foy, 21 mars 2000