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The Irresponsibility of Feelings: Reading Leonard Michaels

The Collected StoriesThe Collected Stories by Leonard Michaels

Reviewed by Wyatt Mason
Harper's Magazine

During the summer of 2001, a New York editor asked me which contemporary American writer I most admired. I replied, "Leonard Michaels." After a pause, he posed another question, albeit one that already contained its answer: "Hasn't his star fallen?"

Initially struck by what I saw as the coldness of the remark, I would have been foolish to maintain that this editor had been anything other than correct. After all, when Michaels's first three books appeared, they launched his reputation as one of his generation's most gifted writers. His first book, Going Places (1969), a collection of stories, was a finalist for the National Book Award; I Would Have Saved Them if I Could (1975), a second story collection, was named one of the six outstanding works of fiction that year by the New York Times; and The Men's Club (1981), Michaels's first novel, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and became a Hollywood film. But a publicist seeking to showcase comparable highlights from the next two decades of Michaels's literary life would be faced with quite a task. Although Michaels continued to publish essays and stories, they came less regularly, tending to appear in journals with limited audiences; although he continued to publish books, no longer were they issued by a prestigious New York publishing house but rather by a tiny not-for-profit press. And of the books themselves, they seemed simultaneously to slim in size and fatten with material previously in print, earning notices that were remarkable mostly for their savagery. The falling trajectory of Michaels's star seemed inarguable indeed, an apparent exhaustion of resources as common in the arts as it is in life. With most of his books out of print by the time he died of cancer, at seventy, in 2003, it was as though Michaels had been doubly erased.

Now, however, as Michaels's original publisher has just begun reissuing his out-of-print work while bringing uncollected material to light, the injustice of such a foreclosure becomes uncomfortably apparent. For if his public fate, which is to say his commercial one, could not be disputed, his private fate, which is to say his artistic one, cannot be denied: it turns out that Leonard Michaels completed his finest work late in life. To read through The Collected Stories, a new omnibus volume, is to see that the author's five decades of short fiction argue effortlessly for a place beside the work of America's paragons of the story form.

The collection begins with the thirteen stories of Going Places, which were written during the 1960s. It isn't difficult to see why they brought attention to their young author, for the prose of these stories vibrates with inventiveness. A woman has a voice that "flew around like pots and pans." Another's hair is "thick, red, bulging around her ears like meat." A man is so eager to leave a hospital that he rushes "into the dark as if pursued by dogs." A woman walking home finds a group of children "jammed together on the stoop; tiers of heads made one central head, and the wings rested along the banisters: a raggedy monster of boys studying her approach." A Turkish college student taking an American girl on a date "picked her up at her dormitory, took her to a movie, and later, in his borrowed Chevrolet, drove her into the countryside and with heavy, crocodilean sentences communicated his agony amid the alien corn."

The resourcefulness of these metaphors offers a coherent vision of the world: Michaels connects the benign (children, a woman's hair, a voice) to the menacing (monsters, meat, pots and pans). In part, such connections are metaphysical: violence, they suggest, lurks in the commonest things. But such connections are strategic too. Long before the reader knows what will happen in a given story, Michaels's language lays a foundation for what unfolds. The boys on the stoop, for instance, are given as "a raggedy monster" to provide not merely a striking image but a telling one: acting as a single body, the monster will, by story's end, attack. And the Turk's sentences are "heavy, crocodilean" not only because they lumber but also because they contain words destined to sink, like hidden teeth, into the American girl.

Michaels's language is precisely tuned to the violent key in which these early stories play out. Again and again in Going Places, characters effectively drop to all fours and, like wild animals, tear one another to pieces. In "Crossbones," a young couple, Myron and Sarah, are said to be "ravenous for intimacy." Living together in their small apartment, they find that conversation only leads them to quarrel endlessly. Hurtful things are said. It is not long before "the simple air of their two-room apartment . . . seemed too thick to breathe, or to see through to one another." Such a condition is familiar; what Michaels makes of it, however, is not. One day, pressed for time, Sarah's father expected any moment for a visit, she busily irons:

Sarah slammed and smeared the iron down the board as if increasingly sealed in the momentum of brute work, and then, standing behind her, lighting a cigarette, Myron was whispering as if to himself that she must hurry and she was turning from the board and in the same motion hurled the iron, lunging after it with nails and teeth before it exploded against the wall and Myron, instantly, hideously understood that the iron, had it struck him, had to burn his flesh and break his bones, flew to meet her with a scream and fists banging her mouth as they locked, winding, fusing to one convulsive beast reeling off walls, tables, and chairs, with ashtrays, books, lamps shooting away with pieces of themselves, and he punched out three of her teeth and strangled her until she dissolved in his hands.

Ordinary domestic contretemps explode into uncommon violence. Michaels is careful to root us in the real with lucid description ("slammed and smeared" gives a vivid picture of an iron's weight and motion) and prosaic detail ("lighting a cigarette") before the iron is hurled. The iron exploding against the wall could serve as a potent symbol of devastated domesticity in a more conventional writer's hands -- think of the shattered inkwell that detonates at the end of Paula Fox's Desperate Characters -- but Michaels lets the iron go, as it were, to give us "nails and teeth," "a scream and fists," an escalation that takes us to the point not of foiled domesticity but of failed humanity.

The trapped, the beaten, the forsaken, the lost: literature serves such communities as few other agencies do. Michaels's particular contribution, in his first book, was to erect a memorial not so much to citizens of these populations as to the intensity of their feelings -- of their disconnection from others and from self, of, as Michaels would say in an essay thirty years later, "the way men and women seem unable to live with or without each other." This pure expression of intense feeling was both the collection's signal strength and its greatest weakness: the depth of Michaels's prose -- so adept at transforming the writhing of his characters, their inarticulate agonies, into the metaphors of their author -- outpaced the depth of his characters and, therefore, the emotional depth to which a reader could descend.

I Would Have Saved Them if I Could -- the second section of The Collected Stories -- addressed this shortfall. Written during the 1970s, its bustling variety of forms suggested an author in search of -- and uncertain of -- the best means to his storytelling ends. Thus the book includes a Barthelmic glimpse at the death of Trotsky and another at the life of Byron; a range of narrative collages, some essayistic, some reportorial. But the biggest change of approach was in Michaels's switch from writing mostly in the third person in Going Places to mostly in the first person in I Would Have Saved Them if I Could. The story "In the Fifties," for example, features a largely affectless first-person narrator who splices matter-of-fact vignettes in the manner of a newsreel ("I witnessed an abortion"; "I wrote literary essays in the turgid, tumescent manner of darkest Blackmur"; "I knew a professor of English who wrote impassioned sonnets in honor of Henry Ford") together with unsentimental reports of human suffering ("A lot of young, gifted people I knew in the fifties killed themselves. Only a few of them continue walking around"). Although the new directness of this voice, a stripping away of the metaphorical in favor of the literal, represented an explicit change in Michaels's method, "In the Fifties" was a performance no less carefully staged than the stories of Going Places: it gestured toward emotion more than it evoked it.

Nevertheless, another of the collection's first-person narrations suggested that Michaels was working toward stories that could be both stylistically direct and emotionally resonant. In the well-known story "Murderers," emotion is not pointed to but portrayed. Four boys ascend to a Manhattan rooftop, crossing "a ledge six inches wide" to reach a ladder that leads up to a water tank, "which caught the afternoon sun." The slanting roof of the tank offers a tempting view: a panorama of New York City, yes, but also a perspective that "could not be improved" on an apartment belonging to a young rabbi and his wife. "The blinds were up and curtains pulled," and through the windows the boys can watch the young couple dancing, naked, to big band music and then having sex:

For a while I watched them. Then I gazed beyond into shimmering nullity, gray, blue, and green murmuring over rooftops and towers. I had watched them before. I could tantalize myself with this brief ocular perversion, the general cleansing nihil of a view. . . . I didn't even have to look at the rabbi and his wife. After all, how many times had we dissolved stickball games when the rabbi came home? How many times had we risked shameful discovery, scrambling up the ladder, exposed to their windows -- if they looked. We risked life itself to achieve this eminence.

Here is childhood as idyll, recalled by the narrator in maturity. The risk of discovery -- the risk to life -- is not yet real to these boys, for "how many times" had they made the climb unscathed, their attention delivering them effortlessly, safely, across the void? To achieve such "eminence" -- the word's literal and figurative meanings ringing at the tail of Michaels's phrase like a bell -- the narrator and his friends need only climb, sit, see. The ease with which such heights are attained, though, is soon lost. One boy slips, falls from the roof of the tank: "[his] ring hooked a nailhead and the ring and ring finger remained. The hand, the arm, the rest of him, were gone." Childhood disappears with him: the boys are caught by the young rabbi, sent to a camp in New Jersey where the counselors are "introspective men," veterans of World War II recently returned:

Whatever you said to them they seemed to be thinking of something else, even when they answered. But step out of line and a plastic lanyard whistled burning notice across your ass.

At night, lying in the bunkhouse, I listened to owls. I'd never before heard that sound, the sound of darkness, blooming, opening inside you like a mouth.

Whereas the characters in Michaels's first collection weren't able to articulate their rage, here the narrator, like many in I Would Have Saved Them if I Could, is granted the power to speak for himself. Whereas the counselors express themselves through violence rather than words ("burning notice across your ass"), the narrator, who relates this story as an adult, is able, with that distance, to reflect upon his past and give voice to his plight.

First-person narration, with the apparent ease of access it gives to a character's thoughts and feelings, is tricky precisely for that ease: one can talk at some length without saying very much. Michaels's first novel, The Men's Club, was a torrent of talk, full of monologues by seven men who gather one night in a Berkeley home to discuss their intimate lives. A very funny book and for Michaels his first commercial success, it is not without its limitations: the cast is pure commedia dell'arte -- the lawyer, the psychotherapist, the professor -- characters who entertain but have features, not faces.

As if in acknowledgment of this shortcoming, Michaels, a dozen years after the novel's original appearance, published The Men's Club: An Expanded Edition (which will be reissued next year). Containing a preface "written" by one of the book's seven speakers, Harold Canterbury, it points to Michaels's dissatisfaction over his novel's want of a deeper engagement with character. "When Michaels published my words," Canterbury writes, "he stole my life. It is a kind of murder."

The character Harold Canterbury -- and I don't mean me -- is like a weirdo on a TV talk show who tells you, with all the sincerity of a drugstore Christmas card, that he had sex with his hamster, loaded up on Halcion, got drunk, and set fire to his mom. That is nothing like me. . . . At the club meeting, I was distressed because my wife had left me. My mouth opened and the words flew into the night like a flock of bats.

Now when Canterbury opens his mouth, out flies a sound that a reader of the original version of The Men's Club would not have heard: a deeper voice, as if made by those owls in the dark from Michaels's earlier story. Canterbury, a lawyer and a Christian, recounts the loneliness he felt upon his wife's departure: "A person needs to be touched by someone other than himself." Through his church, Canterbury found a wife, a bride flown in from Japan. What could play out as comedy -- mail-order bride, after all -- becomes a moment of great tenderness. "Almost all my free time is now spent at home with Kiko, studying Japanese," he writes at the preface's close. "We sit together at the kitchen table, and she helps me perfect the sounds":

Her least glance in my direction is as intimate as a song. When she plays the koto, I listen for hours. . . . The koto has thirteen strings and it makes me think of Christ and his disciples. Each note is poignant and seems to express the pain of a human life. The notes are strangely spaced, like the distance between people who never quite reach one another. You can't tap your foot to the beat. Her songs come from an ancient world. I find them hypnotic. They tell of the sorrow and silence that is shared by people in love.

This vision of a character's unseen emotional life, a vision that Michaels was able to bring to bear after many years of distance, is instructive, for his final period of artistic production was marked by varied and repeated attempts to bring a greater perspective to his work. All this during the very period when public, not to say critical, perspectives on him had grown increasingly myopic.

Upon the appearance, in 1990, of Michaels's collection Shuffle, a mix of autobiographical fiction and essays, Anatole Broyard delivered a savage auto-da-fe for the New York Times that used the book as an occasion to impugn the seriousness of everything Michaels had written to date. "It's a failure of imagination, isn't it," Broyard claimed, "to write about the same thing all the time?" But it's a failure of criticism, isn't it, to ignore that most great writers are remembered for their preoccupations, for their compulsion to return, with mulish stubbornness, to the same field to see how it might be better plowed -- as any familiarity with the works of writers as varied as Jane Austen, Samuel Beckett, and Philip Roth makes clear. And Broyard's blanket condemnation of Michaels was particularly unjust given that Shuffle marked an essential moment in Michaels's output: it contained "Sylvia," the story toward which Michaels had, in some sense, been working all along.

"I waited thirty years before I wrote one word about this," Michaels told an interviewer -- "this" being his first marriage, in the early 1960s, to a woman named Sylvia Bloch. Although it is true that Michaels did not write about the marriage for many years, at least not in any literal sense, it seems that he was always writing about the marriage no matter what else he was working on. Just as "Crossbones," the story from Going Places, evoked the savage distress of a young couple "ravenous for intimacy," and Canterbury's tale from The Men's Club glimpsed the "sorrow and silence that is shared by people in love," "Sylvia" presented the ur-sorrow, the first distress. And if Michaels waited decades before he told it, once he began telling it, he stubbornly kept trying to get it right, publishing it in three different forms: first, as an essay for Vanity Fair; then, as an expanded autobiographical memoir, in Shuffle; and finally, enlarged once again in 1992, as a novel called Sylvia.

The facts do not change from version to version, but Michaels's fictional account tells them best. It is the story of a young man who, after five years of graduate studies in English, burns out and returns to New York "without a Ph.D. or any idea what I'd do, only a desire to write stories." One day, he walks into the apartment of a friend, who introduces her roommate:

She stood barefoot in the kitchen dragging a hairbrush down through her long, black, wet Asian hair. Minutes ago, apparently, she had stepped out of the shower, which was a high metal stall in the kitchen, set on a platform beside the sink. A plastic curtain kept water from splashing onto the kitchen floor. She said hello but didn't look at me. Too much engaged, tipping her head right and left, tossing the heavy black weight of hair like a shining sash. The brush swept down and ripped free until, abruptly, she quit brushing, stepped into the living room, dropped onto the couch, leaned back against the brick wall, and went totally limp. Then, from behind long black bangs, her eyes moved, looked at me. The question of what to do with my life was resolved for the next four years.

These are years during which the young man tries to write stories, with little success, and tries to make his marriage work, with even less. For it slowly becomes apparent that Sylvia is mentally ill.

Although Sylvia is, by the standard of most novels, comparatively plotless and physically slight, the breadth of its capacity to present, with precision and care, the despair of two people makes it one of the more revealing reading experiences I know. In Michaels's past memorials to couples furious with feeling, the air was "too thick to breathe, or to see through"; here, the air is no less toxic but is described with such unsentimental candor as to show how two people, briefly, often horrendously, shared their lives. And even though its title would suggest that the novel's central character is Sylvia, she remains, as she must, essentially unknowable. Michaels makes little attempt to explain her. Like the narrator, we experience Sylvia by her actions -- her violent paranoias, her jealousies, her madness -- all viewed from without, with compassion, to be sure, but absent the least understanding of why, or how, she has attained so precarious a hold on being. We also experience fear, the young man's fear of failing to comprehend his wife, and of losing a woman whom he does not yet know he has already lost.

At the far end of The Collected Stories, not likely to be discovered but by an intrepid few, are seven tales written by Michaels during the last seven years of his life. Had they been published as a separate volume, they would have amounted to a book no less physically substantial than any Michaels managed to publish earlier. The final stories differ, though, in significant ways from what precedes them. Whereas Michaels's earlier collections seemed to pride themselves on the diversity of their approaches to narrative and their range of characters, these final stories are content to unfold uniformly in third-person narration, all with straightforward linear progressions of event and consequence, centering on a single character whose point of view guides everything we see and hear. But just as the yawps of feelings in Going Places did not predict the more candid articulations of I Would Have Saved Them if I Could, and just as the comedy of The Men's Club did not hint at the pathos of its revision, nor can the madness and sorrow of Sylvia prepare a reader for the character one meets in The Nachman Stories.

Raphael Nachman is a middle-aged professor of mathematics, "famous among mathematicians." Nachman works at the Institute of Mathematics in Los Angeles, happy to "sit for hours in silence, alone in his office, with only pencil and paper. Thinking" -- an activity Nachman finds no less essential to life than breathing. "Not to think would be like an astronaut separated from his rocketship, adrift in space with nowhere to go and no means of propulsion." If Michaels's earlier protagonists tended to reflect "the way men and women seem unable to live with or without each other," Nachman is a solitary being who lives contentedly alone: "He'd had girlfriends, but the idea of any passionate derangement had never appealed to him. He played the violin and he solved problems in mathematics. His need for ecstasy was abundantly satisfied. Nachman wasn't especially sensual. Two or three bites took care of hunger. The rest was nutrition."

These tendencies risk evoking a stock idea of The Mathematician -- a creature so fundamentally cerebral that interests of the body (not to say those of the heart) would remain boringly in the background. Yet Michaels uses Nachman's dependable rationality to unpredictable ends: in the seven stories in which he figures, Nachman lands in situations that disrupt "motions natural to his mind" -- that is to say, he is made to suffer the same intensity of feeling by which Michaels's other characters have been routinely beset. But whereas such conflicts were expressed externally in the earlier stories (fatal violence in "Murderers"; connubial violence in Sylvia), the conflicts of The Nachman Stories are all expressed internally, through Nachman's lucid intelligence. Michaels's seven final stories, then, are dramas of the rational under assault by the animal, misadventures that showcase Nachman's resistance to being summarily overcome by "the blur of feeling."

In the first story, "Nachman," the mathematician makes his first trip to Europe while serving as a visiting lecturer in Cracow, and he tours the city's Jewish ghetto. Sitting in a restaurant, staring at the "plain face" of his guide, he is taken aback by his sudden desire to kiss her, wondering, "Why was he thinking this way? In a city where his grandparents had been murdered, and the history of his family lost. The irresponsibility of feelings was a serious problem." That problem only intensifies when, in "The Penultimate Conjecture," Nachman attends a conference to witness the solution of a famous proof -- a proof he himself could have solved, he realizes with regret, had he been more ambitious. Reduced to an onlooker's role, he sits quietly in the dark of the hall: "The audience, submerged in silence, was like a many-eyed crocodile, the body suspended underwater, inert." We've seen the crocodile before, haven't we? Just as it did in a story from three decades earlier, the crocodile points to a predatory presence lurking beneath the waterline of our expectations, not to say those of Nachman, as he listens to the proof: "Wrong, thought Nachman. The word beat tremendously in his heart, and the desire to speak raged in his bowels against an unrelenting force of polite repression." And later still, after he is twice humiliated in "Cryptology" -- by a potential employer who flies him across the country and then doesn't show up for the job interview; by a couple who invite him to dinner and then, within his hearing, speak disparagingly about his character -- Nachman feels as though they "had taken something from him, torn a hole in his existence." Feeling hurt, feeling foolish, "Nachman walked mindlessly, block after block until, gradually, he stopped feeling devastated and, in the cool nighttime air of the city, recovered the good simplicity of being himself."

Nachman's awareness of "the irresponsibility of feelings"; his capacity to move from their devastation back to his better self; his imperative to speak of such things lucidly, in a voice at once skeptical and humane: these are the attributes that make Nachman a fictional creation fuller than those that preceded him in Michaels's work. But Nachman marks more than the high point in the career of a writer whose star is said to have fallen. Although no plot connects them, "The Nachman Stories" conspire to a novel of character no less successful than Pnin, Nabokov's homage to the deracinated intellectual, the proud little man set adrift in inimical waters, the solitary emigre bound to board the wrong train. For all of Pnin's charm, the pleasures provided by Nabokov's novel arise from the author's unflagging capacity to dig new pits into which his hero can fall: poor Pnin is everyone's fool and always the last to know it. Michaels's Nachman -- bumbling, solitary, and ill adapted for adventure though he is -- has no such illusions. "A fool," Nachman says of himself, "but mine own." Proud and resigned at the same time, the declaration is as much Nachman's as his creator's. Nachman may be the last man Michaels created, but Nachman was also, in many ways, the first.

Wyatt Mason is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine. He has also written for The New Yorker, The New Republic, The London Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The Nation, Slate and The New York Times Magazine. Modern Library published his translations of the works of Arthur Rimbaud, Rimbaud Complete and I Promise to be Good. His translations of Dante's Vita Nuova and Montaigne's Essais are in progress.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Vita Nuova Used Trade Paper $5.50
  2. Pnin Used Trade Paper $8.00
  3. Sylvia New Trade Paper $14.00
  4. Desperate Characters (Norton...
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  5. The Men's Club Sale Trade Paper $6.98
  6. The Collected Stories New Trade Paper $16.00

4 Responses to "The Irresponsibility of Feelings: Reading Leonard Michaels"

    cocker fab February 5th, 2010 at 6:18 am

    Great review - informative and critical with good backing for his conclusions. He made me want to get the book even though I did not like "The Men's Club" all that much when I read it. It was a disconnect with Mr. Michaels more than anything else.
    I hope that the publisher will consider putting the Nachman series out in a separate volume.

    s h a r o n February 5th, 2010 at 8:37 am

    The "I-get-it" nature of many poetry reviewers, how easily they can tell us what the poet is saying, what s/he (really) means. " 'Michaels's seven final stories, then, are dramas of the rational under assault by the animal, misadventures that showcase Nachman's resistance to being summarily overcome by "the blur of feeling.' " (In case we missed it earlier, Mason reiterates, "We've seen the crocodile before, haven't we? Just as it did in a story from three decades earlier...")

    Yes, yes. Of course. Why didn't I notice that? I meant to say so.

    s h a r o n February 5th, 2010 at 8:58 am

    How easily poetry reviewers tell us what the poet is saying, what s/he (really) means: " 'Michaels's seven final stories, then, are dramas of the rational under assault by the animal, misadventures that showcase Nachman's resistance to being summarily overcome by "the blur of feeling.' "

    In case we missed it earlier, Mason reiterates, "We've seen the crocodile before, haven't we? Just as it did in a story from three decades earlier..."

    Yes, yes. Of course. Why didn't I notice that? I meant to say so.

    MB Brooks February 7th, 2010 at 8:00 am

    The phrase "amid the alien corn" was taken from Keats. Is this an allusion or plagiarism? What's the cut-off point--five words? Six? What else has Michaels copied?
    In this digital age, I imagine we could Google our literary elders and bust them for similar instances of plagiarism and laziness. Sounds like a fun game to play in one's spare time, no?

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