How Much Remains?

Books

By Gregory Beyer

Published July 29, 2009, issue of August 07, 2009.
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The Essays of Leonard Michaels
By Leonard Michaels
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 204 pages, $26.

Writers’ careers are stories in themselves; sad, strange or thrilling ones may even eclipse the writing that made them worth telling in the first place. The story that has crystallized around Leonard Michaels bears repeating because “The Essays of Leonard Michaels” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) completes his original publisher’s reissue of much of the material that was out of print at the time of Michaels’s death, in 2003. As a result we have access to the contents of a vault that, even while Michaels was still living and writing, seemed prematurely sealed.

According to the oft-repeated version, Michaels, born in 1933 to Polish-Jewish immigrants on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, established his reputation with two story collections, 1969’s “Going Places” and 1975’s “I Would Have Saved Them If I Could,” and never regained his early peak. Decades later, Michaels wrote of the devastating results of the Hollywood adaptation of his 1981 novel “The Men’s Club,” and admitted elsewhere, “I feel very much out of fashion, since it is now common for writers to be more than usually present, even outrageously present, in their writing, whether or not they are writing about themselves.” Though these effects sprung from events only indirectly related to his own work, it was hard not to detect a shrug of resignation, as if Michaels, ever the close reader, suspected that the story of his career indeed described the slow dissipation of early promise.

“The Essays of Leonard Michaels” collects pieces that span Michaels’s career, though nearly half were written in the final eight years of his life. Published mostly in literary journals, and later reprinted or reworked in the essay collections “To Feel These Things” and “Shuffle,” they are divided into two sections, critical and autobiographical, though Katharine Ogden Michaels — the book’s editor, and Michaels’s fourth wife — notes that “many of the pieces straddle these distinctions, blurring the boundaries between criticism and memoir and even, in a few cases, between essay and fiction.” They depict Michaels, as the editor puts it, “caught in conversation with the people, artists, thinkers, and works that he loved the most.”

One of Michaels’s finest essays describes a visit to an Italian church, where he views an unknown artist’s huge crucifixion painting that brings him overwhelming and uncomplicated joy. His response to the joy, however, presents a dilemma. “Great art made me happy, albeit anxious,” Michaels writes. “Nothing could be simpler than what I felt in the church in Arezzo. I thought maybe it was too simple, too childlike, a kind of unbecoming innocence. This giddiness, this delicious fear, demands resistance, self-criticism, doubt. I must think, think, think until I understand it, master it, and it is dead. I couldn’t think. There was no use trying.”

Aside from being an oasis of accessibility in the densely academic foliage of Michaels’s critical writings, this essay, titled “Anonymous,” brilliantly articulates Michaels’s central conflict as a critical essayist. (Curiously, or perhaps tellingly, it was included in advance copies but not in the published volume.) More than anything, the collection’s critical essays show Michaels experiencing art, fearlessly and passionately engaging it, yet the effect is paradoxical; the immediacy, engagement and joy Michaels describes are suffocated by analysis so heavy-handed and grave (“think, think, think”) as to render the writing, too often, dead on arrival.

For all Michaels’s insistence on close engagement with language, his relationship to his readers is generally one of professorial distance. While we trust the story of his reaction to the Arezzo crucifix, we must be shown the textual evidence that fuels Michaels’s critical conclusions. Michaels characterizes one essay as a “sentence museum,” encouraging this expectation, as well as the idea of himself as a guide. In that essay, “Legible Death,” he gives a very physical reading of Wittgenstein’s sentence, “My only difficulty is an (sic) — enormous — difficulty of expression.” Of this sentence, Michaels writes:

His reasons are implicit in many other sentences, but this one is dramatically revealing. ‘Enormous’ swells in the middle and hangs by its dashes, and the word ‘difficulty’ is repeated on the left and right of the dashes like arms. Between them the body, ‘enormous,’ pulls ponderously down. The problematic passion is within Wittgenstein, it seems, not history. He sounds lonely, crucified by his mind.

We almost can see the professor, who we suspect is brilliant, pacing at the front of the classroom, emitting sparks of ideas deeply felt but, we also suspect, not really worked out. The paragraph sounds like it says a lot but doesn’t really say anything, a venerable combination that has set generations of undergraduate heads nodding blankly.

The autobiographical essays, on the other hand, are beautifully clear and alive; here is Michaels the natural, free of strained and scholarly laboriousness. In one of the book’s loveliest moments, Michaels recalls his first encounter with the professor who later will become his graduate school mentor: It is 1953, and Michaels, living with his parents during the college summer vacation, attends a night class at New York University. Michaels enters the crowded classroom with the belief that his love for books, having no practical value, is “self-indulgent and immoral,” and he listens, enraptured, as the professor reads aloud from Henry James. “Warren’s voice and manner and posture and cane insisted that we believe and that we exult in the belief,” Michaels writes. “It is no exaggeration when I say that, for the first time in years, I felt it was all right not to be in medical school. In a sense I felt saved.”

Michaels spoke only Yiddish until he was 5 years old, and some of his best writing was about his youth on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. With uncompromising and unsentimental directness, he recalls learning of a Brest-Litovsk pogrom in which his grandfather is beaten unconscious and thrown into a cellar after stepping outside to get the emigration papers that will enable him and his family to follow his daughter, Michaels’s mother, to America. “I heard the story around the time children hear fairy tales,” Michaels writes. “Once upon a time my grandfather was walking in the street….” Later, Michaels describes his understanding of the ubiquity of antisemitism: “Eventually, I figured it was bad for Jews the way it is said to be raining. I didn’t know what it was, only that it was worse than Hitler, older, absolutely unreasonable, strong, able to do things like fix the plumbing and paint the walls. It was like animals and trees, what lives outside, more physical than a person, though it appeared in persons.”

For all the shortcomings of the critical writings, their intersections with the autobiographical essays prove the collection’s ultimate fulfillment. Michaels’s various youthful awakenings — linguistic, familial, moral — clearly shaped the writer he would become, one determined to treat words almost as living things, out of respect for their possibilities of expression and also their potential for corruption (he notes the mistranslation of a biblical passage that led to the belief that Jews have horns). The essays trace Michaels’s passage from a young speaker of Yiddish, “the language of children wandering for a thousand years in a nightmare, assimilating languages to no avail,” to the maturity of a writer passionate for not only language’s music, but also its capacity for historical reflection and moral yearning. Exactly how Yiddish underlies his written English mystifies Michaels, marking, as it does, the crossroads of his Nazi-murdered Polish relatives’ silenced voices and his own agonized uncertainty over how to properly mourn their deaths. His willingness to linger there yields this collection’s finest writing.

“I’ve lost too much of my Yiddish to know exactly how much remains,” Michaels writes. “Something remains…. If it speaks in my sentences, it isn’t I, let alone me, who speaks.”

Gregory Beyer has written for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Brooklyn.


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