September 2009

J.W. McCormack

nonfiction

The Essays of Leonard Michaels

About a quarter of the way into The Essays of Leonard Michaels, readers may begin to wonder if they're hearing an echo. In an essay about love and holding one's tongue, we're quoted a line of Kafka's where the Bohemian confesses to being puzzled by a ponderous map of Vienna since "you only need one room." The late Leonard Michaels was the least long-winded of writers, so the piece is soon over and we're five pages into "I'm Having Trouble With my Relationship" when we come upon the quotation a second time. This time he elaborates:

The incomprehensible city is "relationship," or what you have with everyone in the abstract and lonely vastness of our social reality. The room, all one needs, is romance love, passionate intimacy, the unsophisticated irrational thing you have with someone; or what has long been considered a form of madness, if not the universal demonic of contemporary vision.

So Kafka's room appears twice, both times opposite Marlon Brando, who emerges from the fleshy insularity of "Last Tango In Paris" to croak that, "Everything outside this room is bullshit." The Biblical story of Tamar and Judah is accorded its own essay, only to crop up in a previously unpublished piece about metaphorical sex that departs from Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. The "vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X" of Wallace Stevens is tapped to stand in, first, for inchoate feeling and, later, for death. Nabokov's aural diagram of a Gogol story ("la, la, do, la la la") reappears, as does another line by Kafka ("A cage went in search of a bird.") and, of all things, the Frog Prince.

What are we to make of these recurrences? The present selection, by the author's widow Katharine Ogden Michaels, consists of both memoir and critical essays written throughout his career. There's My Yiddish, which, along with the late Nachman Stories included in 2008's The Collected Stories, attests that Michaels was coming to a peerless understanding of diaspora-as-tragicomedy at the time of his death in 2003. Also, the memoir Kishkas is about the unpleasant (though not wholly unpleasant) experience of adapting his novel The Men's Club into the 1986 box office bomb. Still, the same two dozen or so names -- Kafka, Blake, Byron and so on -- keep floating into the frame like leaves in a pond. A cast emerges, a hidden population intermingling within the essays; Michaels' chattering pantheon, delivering up the shards of story in which the writer of delicacy catches his reflection. In Nietzsche he has his critic, in Augustine his mystic, Marx his philosopher, Blake his "great storyteller," Miles Davis his muse and in Sartre the villain who "universalizes murder" and "schleps intimations of brutality toward love as sadomasochism."

Then, there is this word: "pathetic," which has a curious life both in and under Michaels' work. It makes one of many appearances in a meditation on Edward Hopper called The Nothing That Isn't There where it describes "a banal insistence on wholeness." This is one hint toward how this chorus of fragments may be understood. Another comes in Writing About Myself, where he observes of Montaigne, "he seems to discover himself inadvertently, which is to say only that your radically personal identity, with or without your consent, is made evident in your writing." Michaels gives us a page of his journal:

Birdcalls wake me, a sound like names, like the trees repeating themselves
in the dawn mist, each holding its place, awaiting recognition, like names.

What he does not say in the entry (but does in this essay) is that when these words were written, he was lying next to his much-younger girlfriend in a windowless shed in Hawaii, cogent that she was about to leave him, hearing the cough of a man with AIDS in the adjacent room. Then he says: "I was struck by the repetition of things and by the pathos there is in the way individual being is always emerging and calling its name as if to distinguish itself amid the mindless proliferation and density of life in general." In Bad Blood Michaels performs a similarly adept reconstruction of Samuel Beckett's First Love: watching a woman first encountered on his father's grave undress, the narrator notices her "squint." Says Michaels: "Death, Silence, Love, and Holes begin to slither among words like blood among cells, quickening them. In a word Beckett squints at the world."

"Wherof we cannot speak, silence discovers a word." The forceful, osmotic, revealing metaphor (those bleats of "individual being") that circles, in its course, toward reality by, or despite, the author's intent has always been a presence in Michael's best work, from the "Crocodilean sentences" that presage sexual violence in the early Manikin to the slave girl his mathematician-hero Nachman imagines stripping from his rival in The Penultimate Conjecture. If some of Michaels' subjects in this collection -- Hopper, Saul Bellow, the movies Gilda and Eyes Wide Shut -- initially seem limpid, it's worth realizing that the art that attracted Michaels was that which, after Hegel, was able to speak without annihilating its interiority. "The problem of novelists, in this age of multitudinous blah blah," says Michaels, "is how to keep their labors from devolving into talk, regardless of their subject, but especially when the subject is love."

Story -- exact, multifarious and bearing the God-prints of its author -- was Michaels' touchtone, along with silence, a bulwark against "the mumbling of depersonalized millions." His mind fixed on "what cannot be said," Leonard remembered what words were for even as "talk" became the literary norm and stacked his shadows with a precision that delineated the world and himself, in love, within it. Now that he is no longer, we are left with the rare body of work in which -- as resounding answer to the once-common complaint (extant on Wikipedia at the time of this writing) that Leonard Michaels was not prolific enough to court popularity -- not a word was wasted. The room is enough.

The Essays of Leonard Michaels
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374148805
224 Pages

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