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Contributing Editor Wyatt Mason wrote about the neglected works of author Leonard Michaels (1933–2003) in “The Irresponsibility of Feelings” in the July Harper’s. Subscribers can read his essay now; non-subscribers can read it in late July.
How did you come to Leonard Michaels?
Through good luck. I knew nothing of Michaels until 1993, when I was living in New York City. A roommate had Sylvia, Michaels’s second novel, among his books, and I was intrigued by the cover, a pencil sketch of a woman who seemed to be keening while smoking. The pencil drawing, I learned, was a self-portrait by Sylvia Bloch, Michaels’s first wife, about whom the events of the novel turn. Anyway, at 24, this book was properly devastating for me. It was about a young man my age in a marriage that one–at least I–could not fathom. A terrifying struggle, but rendered in a prose as measured as the events it described were not. I had been reading a lot of Nabokov around that time, and Michaels’s approach to style struck me as astonishing. Effect without affect was new to me. An education in every sense, that book. Storytelling with very different aesthetic concerns.
Michaels wrote (in this magazine in 1987) that “the problem of storytelling is how to make transitions into transformations.”
I think that begins to get at what he was trying to do. It sounds a bit abstract, but it’s a way of asking what separates the rote from the revelatory in fiction? Transitions–from sentence to sentence; from paragraph to paragraph; from section to section–are the connective tissue of telling a story. A storyteller, speaking to an audience, can raise and lower his or her voice, pause for emphasis, raise an eyebrow, stamp a foot–in other words, cheat.
There are endless ways of cheating on the page, often profitably, to create pace or alter mood, or, less ideally, of padding out a story with pretty writing for its own sake. There are certain dependable tropes upon which all writers rely, sometimes overly, and which wear unevenly from overuse. Ford Madox Ford liked to begin his paragraphs with “Of course . . .”; “But”; “And then . . . ” All of which are means of massaging the reader’s movement through the unfolding story, but they’re somewhat conventional, conspicuous means. I suspect that it was Michaels’s preference to attempt to avoid such conventions as much as possible. Not out of a desire for novelty so much as a wish that a story could surprise in all its elements. As a good tailor tries to hide his seams, he attempted to hide those transitional conventions.
Michaels did not, as a writer, particularly in his last decade, have the kind of vanity that needed to have his prose stroked for its fineness, and thus he avoided conspicuous effects–obvious alliteration, enormous sentences–in favor of potent images and syntactical economy. All fine prose writers are putting on a show, of course, but Michaels, as he developed, wasn’t interested in using smoke machines or lasers. His stage is austere, and the emphasis is on intelligibility over theatricality. The yield of that austerity is enormous.
What should we read first?
Readers new to Michaels, or those who knew his early work in the 1960′s and 70′s, should start with the seven stories about mathematician Raphael Nachman, completed at the end of his life, and thus found at the back of the new omnibus volume The Collected Stories. What makes these stories in large part unique is the intelligence of the central character. We are usually denied the pleasure of genuinely intelligent characters in fiction–that is to say, emotionally, morally, and rhetorically sophisticated characters. Nachman is all three, and a great deal more. He is the equal of the considerable intelligence of the author.
Who, like Michaels, deserves more attention than he or she is getting?
Guy Davenport. He was the finest American critic of the postwar era. I say this in sight of the work of Trilling, Howe, Kazin, and Wilson. Davenport is unequaled in the depth of what he draws upon across the arts, not to say the lightness of touch with which he deploys that knowledge, always to the end of revealing what a particular piece of literature does–how, and how well. He’s out of fashion, in part because he had no philosophical motives, no political aims, only aesthetic interests–very rigorous ones. He cared about how art works, and how artists, through their work, talk to each other through time. I’d start with his The Geography of the Imagination, forty essays about literature and art. Then there’s Davenport’s fiction, also too little known, and his poetry, which is very fine, particularly his long poem, Flowers and Leaves.
And I would urge everyone to read as much of the poet Frederick Seidel as they can.
More from Paul Ford:
On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.
In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A tourism company in Australia announced a service that will allow users to take the “world’s biggest selfies,” and a Texas man accidentally killed himself while trying to pose for a selfie with a handgun.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”