Tuesday July 7th, 2009

The Wild Moralist

The Essays of Leonard Michaels by Leonard Michaels
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pp., $26.00

After the publication of his first collection of stories, Going Places, in 1969, Leonard Michaels was hailed as a brilliant new star in American letters. But for the remainder of his career he felt slighted by the sly whispers — and sometimes, the loud broadsheet cries — of East Coast literary cognoscenti, some of whom he suspected of applying personal antipathy, and many of whom marked him as a writer who had failed to rise to his potential.

Since Michaels’ death in 2003 (at age seventy, from complications of lymphoma), his reputation has undergone rehabilitation. Beginning with the publication of The Collected Stories (2007), his short fiction has earned widespread praise from a new generation of critics, and there has been a concerted effort to bolster his name by a number of highly regarded colleagues (Diane Johnson and Mary Gaitskill, to name two). In arts and letters, Michaels’ story is a sadly familiar one — damned with indifference while alive, properly appreciated after death.

The Collected Stories offer proof that more than East Coast bias or personal vendettas were to blame for the diminished critical reception of Michaels’ later work. The stories in his first two volumes, Going Places and I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (1975), are his best. In 1981, Michaels published The Men’s Club, a novel about a group of men in Berkeley who form a support group to talk about, and try to understand, their relationships with women. Reaction was decidedly mixed, many critics viewing the effort as confirmation of a fading talent. The novel was later made into a wildly unsuccessful film, scripted by Michaels himself, and the process, recounted in his essay “Kishkas,” derailed his writing career for years.

The most powerful work to emerge from Michaels’ time in the critical wilderness is Sylvia (1991), an account of his stormy first marriage. Sylvia Bloch, his troubled young wife, committed suicide during a time when Michaels, visiting from out of state, had arrived seeking a divorce. Michaels has described the slender book as “a memoir in story form.” Writing about Sylvia’s suicide may have freed him to write his best work again — notably, a series of stories about Nachman, an aging and bewildered mathematician of small genius living in Los Angeles. Individual stories were completed, but the entire series went unfinished due to Michaels’ unexpected death. Like Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, the Nachman stories represent the great “what if” of Michaels’ career. The stories are his best fiction in more than two decades, and feature a radical shift in style. Gone is the angular fury of his more youthful prose, replaced by a mordant grace that reflects a hard-earned wisdom.

The Essays of Leonard Michaels forms a neat bookend to The Collected Stories. The essays are thin but deep. Few pass the ten-page mark, and many are half that. While a couple have the dry specificity of lectures — exactly what they were conceived as — the majority offer wise tutorial on the art of reading and insight into Michaels’ preoccupations as a writer, notably what he describes as “the eternally mysterious relation of sound and sense.”

Michaels’ early fiction, in particular, constituted a violent attack on language. It sounds as new and shocking today as it did when it was first published. From “City Boy”:

We were on the living room floor and she repeated, “Phillip, this is crazy.” Her crinoline broke under us like cinders. Furniture loomed all around. — settee, chairs, a table with a lamp. Pictures were cloudy blotches drifting above. But no lights, no things to look at, no eyes in her head. She was underneath me and warm. The rug was warm, soft as mud, deep. Her crinoline cracked like sticks. Our naked bellies clapped  together. Air fired out like farts. I took it as applause. The chandelier clicked. The clock ticked as if to split its glass. “Phillip,” she said, “This is crazy.”

Michaels was the son of Polish immigrants, and spoke only Yiddish until he was five years old. In the essay “To Feel These Things,” he describes learning English mostly through his neighbor, Lynn Nations, a blonde Texan who was married to a Jew, Arthur Kleinman:

To her, my Yiddish was hilarious. “Arthur, did you hear what he called the telephone wire? A shtrik. No wonder he’s afraid of it.”

Arthur, fluent in Yiddish, looked at me in astonishment. “Das iz nisht a shtrik. Das iz a telephone vyeh.” I see his Slavic face leaning down, thick in nose and lip, winking at me, compromising English and Yiddish to assure me that meaning is greater than words.

Throughout these essays, Michaels instructs us to pay attention to the way in which words convey meaning not just through sound, but the shapes they form on the page. To do this, he returns throughout to the same few lofty sources: Kafka, Wittgenstein, Spinoza and the poet Wallace Stevens. Early in the book, he provides a careful reading of Biblical stories. The collection is divided into two sections, critical essays and autobiographical essays, with room left for overlap. (“On Love,” for example, appears in the critical section, but is nothing if not personal — and quite beautiful.) Michaels revisits his favorite themes from a variety of angles. Thus, his take on Edward Hopper, and his reverence for Hopper’s painting, New York Movie:

Hopper was fascinated by what isn’t available to our senses. In his mysterious paintings, he makes felt what isn’t there, the nothing, the nothing that isn’t there.

On the poetry of Wallace Stevens, in the same essay:

Of the sea, Stevens writes, “Like a body wholly body, fluttering / its empty sleeves.” “Wholly” puns on “holy.” He is saying thus, in accord with the greatest philosopher, that God is immanent, and whatever is isn’t all there is, for there is everywhere only the weight and particular density of ubiquitous nothingness. The nothing that is not always there.

A student of philosophy, Michaels attempted to reconcile that discipline with poetry. In “Bad Blood,” citing Wittgenstein’s famous counsel that “Whereof we cannot speak, we must be silent,” Michaels argues that the only things worth saying cannot be said. The purpose of great art is to try to find ways to say them anyway.

In her introduction, Katherine Ogden Michaels, Michaels’ widow, notes that these essays were written over a period of thirty years, but more than half were produced in the last eight years of his life. A striking aspect of Michaels’ early stories is their frank treatment of sex and their absorption in contemporary life, and so at first glance, it might seem a little strange to find evidence of Michaels sounding like a crotchety old man of letters:

“In your face,” we say, and “I want it now.” We rap, we shriek in the raving crowd, and wear clothing big enough to hold two or three people, and walk about wearing earphones, or talking into cell phones, lest we feel alone. There are no philosophers. In Hopper’s day we wore tight clothing and held each other close, saying nothing, dancing slowly, shuffling a few inches this way and that, feeling possessed, possessed by feeling. People preferred feeling to sex.

But whether he’s writing about the painted portraits of Max Beckmann, Nabokov’s Lolita, or Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Michaels is concerned with the same ideas — the power of metaphor, the essential value of the implicit over the explicit, the necessity of cultivating imagination — and he always had something of the moralist in him, even in his wildest stories. In an essay titled “The Zipper,” he recalls his youthful crush on Rita Hayworth, inspired by the movie Gilda. He’s also writing about how that film made him aware of “the nothing that isn’t there” in subtle ways that have been abandoned by most art:

I didn’t have to watch [actor George] Macready actually do anything [to Hayworth’s character], not that it would have been possible to film Macready in bed, doing things to Rita Hayworth, without destroying the movie. The remake of Gilda will, of course, show Macready doing everything, but it must be remembered that Gilda was released when feelings — like clothing styles, popular dances, car designs – were appreciated differently from today. . . . Techniques of suggestion were cultivated – the zipper, for example — and less was more except in regard to words. There were long scenes brilliant with words. We didn’t so much use our eye, like roots digging into visible physical bodies for the nourishment of meanest sensation. The ear, more sensuous than sensual, received the interior life of people, as opposed to what is sucked up by the salacious eyeball.

Like the prize fighter whose big punch never left him, the fine, gleaming edge of Michaels’ prose never went dull. There is a short tribute to his father collected here (simply called “My Father”) that is pitch perfect, as fine an example of its genre — an overcrowded genre at that — as you are likely to read. In a few quick sentences, Michaels captures the raw energy and exuberance of being young in New York City, heading out for weekend adventure:

One Friday night, I was walking to the subway on Madison Street. My winter coat was open, flying with my stride. I wore a white shirt and a sharp red tie. I’d combed my hair in the style of the day, a glorious pompadour fixed and sealed with Vaseline. I was nineteen-years-old terrific. The night was cold, but I was hot. The wind was strong. My hair was stronger.

His father was a Polish Jew. Michaels was American through and through. Full of adrenaline on his way to the subway station, he runs into his father, returning from a long day at the barbershop: “His coat was buttoned to his chin, his hat pulled down to protect his eyes. He stopped. I saw him study me, his creation.” The narrative slows. The roar of the city falls quiet, so you can almost hear the opposing heartbeats of father and son, standing in the dark beneath the Manhattan Bridge:

He said, “Button your coat. Everybody doesn’t have to see your tie.”

I buttoned my coat.

“Why don’t you wear a hat?”

I sighed. “I’m all right.”

“You need a haircut. You look like a bum.”

“I’ll come to the barbershop tomorrow.”

He nodded, as if to say “Good night” and “What’s the use.” He was on his way home to dinner, to sleep. He’d worked all day. I was on my way to sexual adventure. Then he asked, “Do you need money?”


“Here,” he said, pulling coins from his coat pocket. “For the subway. Take.”

He gave.

I took.

The scene is an example of one of art’s other great consolations: The ability to repay the debt that cannot be repaid.

John Davidson is a freelance writer and critic. Originally from Manchester, England, he currently lives in Austin, Texas.

Books mentioned in this review:

The Essays of Leonard Michaels
The Collected Stories of Leonard Michaels
The Men’s Club