Surreal Genius: Why Onetime Literary Hotshot Marvin Cohen Deserves Another Look


Marvin Cohen always defied convention. He was a Brooklyn kid who rooted for the hated Yankees over the Dodgers. He never graduated college. He liked to wear a shirt that, in the estimation of one profiler, “had at least eight dinners on it.”

Of his writing, an interviewer once said: “Not even Sam Beckett can outdo Marvin Cohen in that telling sentence in which the character first constructs an idea and then dismantles it.” But while he was once a friend of Ted Hughes and Francis Bacon, and admired by the poet and mystic Thomas Merton, Cohen doesn’t write much these days.

Don’t take that to mean he doesn’t want to. “I’ve had a lot of fun trying and also a lot of heartbreak: not getting published, not getting somebody who could really publish me all the time as I write, the way Philip Roth got,” Cohen says.

At 85, Cohen is two years Roth’s senior, and he’s not on anyone’s shortlist to win the Nobel Prize. But if awards and recognition have eluded him over the decades, satisfaction can be taken in the fact that arguably no one in the past century has crafted an English sentence quite like Cohen. A surrealist short-story writer, novelist, dramatist, and poet whom the Guardian once likened to both Kafka and James Thurber, Cohen followed few rules beyond sticking periods at the end of his sentences. Original is an adjective that’s been overused enough to lose most of its punch — rest assured that Cohen is one of the rare people who warrants the description fully.

His nine books fell out of print, victims of poor sales and a reading public that prefers its fiction to go down easy. But a Scottish press, Verbivoracious, recently published How to Outthink a Wall, an anthology of his short fiction — and this fall Tough Poets Press is reissuing Others, Including Morstive Sternbump forty years after it was first published.

“He was totally unique and like nothing I had ever read before,” says Tough Poets founder Rick Schober. “It was funny and it was a challenge to read, a creative challenge, like somebody who does jigsaw puzzles but with words.”

Others — a metafiction that traces a peculiar orbit of New Yorkers including a foul-smelling mayor addicted to taking baths, a depressive writer who can’t stop eating, and a bearded malcontent  obsessed with bearing a son — makes a mockery of social mores, human instinct, and the English language itself. It’s occasionally confusing and often funny, psychedelia without the drugs and exclamation points. There is no typical locution, but here’s how a candidate for political office describes himself and his city: “I campaign to please everybody, with promises too ideal to keep, ideals of illusionary promise, while the city grinds on, like a prehistoric mammal surviving through zoos of the present day, creeping loudly into the future, rebuilt continually, cosmopolitan even to its new set of false teeth, a metropolis on four legs, six of which are limping simultaneously, the other eight dormant for the time being, while twelve feed needy relief on crutches, vomiting taxes all the while, and no St. George to slay it.”

“I like odd things that are semi-realistic and that have a kind of curveball catch to it,” Cohen says, explaining his style. “So that it’s ambiguous, ambivalent; you can read a few things in a sentence at the same time. It’s not just a journalistic, flat literal sentence, not like The girl went to the tree and picked a pear. Some kind of irony should be welded into it.”

Cohen’s own life seems spun from his fiction. Born in 1931 and partially deaf since childhood, Cohen couldn’t hear well enough to complete the language requirements in college. Having briefly studied art at Cooper Union before dropping out, he settled eventually in Greenwich Village. Cohen worked countless odd jobs — he was a mink farmer, a merchant seaman, and a postal messenger, just to name a few — and read and wrote in his spare time. “In those days,” he says, “it was easier than today to get informal jobs as well as informal apartments.” He fed himself at art gallery openings and took pride in crashing literary parties. He bought his clothes from thrift stores and once claimed never to have owned a wristwatch.

Taken with Dada and the European surrealists, Cohen made his debut in a 1960 anthology known as The Beat Scene, appearing alongside Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Seven years later, he published his first novel, The Self-Devoted Friend, to critical acclaim. The New York Times called it a “tour de force of serio-comedy.”

Meanwhile, he was teaching creative writing at City College, Long Island University, and the New School. Cohen describes himself as a lonely person who wanted to make friends, and by the 1960s he was a man about town, spending Augusts in London house-sitting for the wealthy. It was there that he befriended the Plath family, including Hughes.

“I had free range and use of a telephone in London. So I had lots of London friends,” Cohen recalls. “It was a nice social life. I was treated very well in London, being an American published author.”

He published fiction regularly throughout the 1970s and wrote a metaphysical appreciation of his favorite sport. The book, Baseball the Beautiful, featured an introduction by Jim Bouton, the Yankee pitcher and author of the groundbreaking tell-all Ball Four. But by the 1980s, publishers were less interested in an author as genre-defying as Cohen. He struggled to publish and turned to the theater, staging a series of plays throughout the decade. Readings featured actors such as Wallace Shawn, Richard Dreyfuss, and Jill Eikenberry.

Cohen hasn’t published anything new since the end of the Reagan era, though he would like to. Living with his wife, a retired paperbacks editor, on the East Side of Manhattan, he may be the only 85-year-old regularly playing softball in America, let alone New York City. (Not knowing his literary pedigree, I’d played with Cohen in Central Park a few times. Well over six feet tall, he still plays a respectable first base and makes contact with the ball when he bats.) Tough Poets Press is looking to republish Cohen’s favorite book, The Self-Devoted Friend, next year.

“I play ball and daydream and go about things,” he says. “Now I’m comfortable, I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to hustle, and the day is mine.”