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.