Matt Cohen, novelist, short story writer, poet, author of children’s books (born 30 December 1942 in Kingston, ON; died 2 December 1999 in Toronto, ON). Winner of the Governor General’s Award and a founding member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, Matt Cohen was a prolific and acclaimed writer, the author of more than 20 works of fiction.
Education and Career
Raised and educated in Ottawa, Cohen received a BA (1964) and an MA in political science (1965) from the University of Toronto. Though he had yet to publish anything, he became a writer in residence at Rochdale College in Toronto in 1968, where he met Stan Bevington, one of the founders of Coach House Press, and the poet Dennis Lee, one of the founders of House of Anansi Press. Through his friendship with philosopher George Grant, Cohen was hired by McMaster University as a professor of religion, a position he left early in order to write full time.
Cohen’s first books, Korsoniloff (1969) and Johnny Crackle Sings (1971), are experimental novellas that examine the inner alienation and divided selves of their eccentric protagonists.
Although they are somewhat uneven, the works introduce themes that recur throughout Cohen's fiction: the uneasy feeling of existing unhappily between two worlds, and the constant interpenetration of past and present. His first novel, The Disinherited (1974), set on a farm in the fictional community of Salem in southeastern Ontario, is a powerful family saga. It dramatizes the conflict between an older generation firmly rooted in the mythic reality of the soil and the younger one, willingly exiled from the land, but disinherited and rootless. The work was followed by three other novels set in Salem and the decaying farms of the once-prosperous Ontario countryside:The Colours of War (1977),The Sweet Second Summer of Kitty Malone (1979) and Flowers of Darkness (1981), a novel that takes on gothic proportions as human desire is transmuted into puritanical sin.
Wooden Hunters (1975), on the other hand, is set on an unnamed island off the coast of British Columbia, where various characters who have lost or forsaken their pasts converge in a beautiful natural setting that provides a poignant contrast to episodes of human violence.
In The Spanish Doctor (1984), a historical novel set in 15th-century Europe, a pioneer doctor is imperilled by both his quest for scientific truth and his Jewishness. The relationship between science and religion is also explored in Nadine (1986). Cohen's works also include Emotional Arithmetic (1990), Freud: The Paris Notebooks (1990–91), The Bookseller (1993) and Last Seen (1996). In his final and most successful novel, Elizabeth and After (1999), a man returns after many years to his small-town Ontario home to see his daughter and remembers the alcohol and violence that ended his marriage. The novel won the 1999 Governor General's Award for fiction.
Cohen also published several collections of short stories, two volumes of poetry, Peach Melba (1974) and In Search of Leonardo (1986), and two books for young adults, Too Bad Galahad (1972) and The Leaves of Louise (1978).
In addition, under the closely guarded pseudonym “Teddy Jam,” Cohen wrote 10 books for children, including Night Cars (1987), Doctor Kiss Says Yes (1991), The Year of Fire (1993), The Charlotte Stories (1994) and Jacob’s Big Sisters (1996).
Written during the final months of his life, Cohen’s memoir Typing: A Life in 26 Keys (2000) was published posthumously.