Irving Layton: “Do you know what the problem with Leonard Cohen is?”

Irving Layton asked and answered this question at a Nov 1995 dinner party held by a McGill University English professor for a few of his graduate students at which Layton was “the main attraction.” According to the account in Balanced on Wooden Stilts and Dancing: What Irving Layton Taught Me about Leonard Cohen by Kevin Flynn (Essays on Canadian Writing; Winter 1999, Issue 69), the tone of the evening had been set by the news that Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated after a peace rally earlier that day. As the evening progressed, Layton became more animated as he told stories about rescuing a drunken Dylan Thomas from a bar and playing a handball match with Louis Dudek “to determine who was the greater poet.” Finally the discussion turned to Leonard Cohen with the students asking Layton’s opinion about his poetry and his decision to turn to music. Then, Flynn reports

It was at this point that Layton asked us his question: “Do you know what the problem with Leonard Cohen is?” Silence. Seven people hanging on every word waiting for the other shoe to drop. It did.

“Leonard Cohen is a narcissist who hates himself.” He didn’t say anything else. He didn’t have to. On a day bled dry of joy by the death of Rabin, Irving Layton grabbed hold of the night and poured life into it as no one else could. .

And there is a followup. The following excerpt is from Exile on Main Street by Brett Grainger (Elm Street: Nov 2001)

I seize the moment to bring up an observation attributed to Irving Layton, his longtime avuncular drinking buddy. Once at a dinner party in Montreal, I say, Layton asked, “Do you know what the problem with Leonard Cohen is?” His answer? “Leonard Cohen is a narcissist who hates himself.” Cohen laughs at the bon mot. “That’s good,” he says. “But I think Irving may have been talking about himself there.”