A classic, according to Italo Calvino, is ‘a book that has never finished saying what it has to say’. I have read Sylvia by Leonard Michaels four or five times and I still don’t feel that I’ve got to the bottom of it. First published in 1992, it is a novel disguised as a memoir, or a memoir disguised as a novel, based on the author’s first marriage, to Sylvia Bloch – a love affair that began in Greenwich Village in 1960. Short enough to read in a morning, it travels from the couple’s first meeting to the relationship’s wretched conclusion, in an apparently straightforward fashion. Some of its attractions are obvious: it is a period piece evoking the ‘weird delirium’ of bohemian New York in the early 1960s, as well as a love story. It has the appeal of autobiographical fiction in the Knausgaard style – the voice that echoes a real personality, the persuasive detail, the absence of hackneyed narrative convention – while sparing us the endless sentences describing the hero’s method of eating cornflakes. But, ultimately, there’s something quite mysterious about Sylvia, something harder to assess and explain. Michaels achieves a series of delicate balancing acts – between raw emotion and artful construction, between confession and concealment, between the calm precision of good reportage and the epiphanic particularity of poetry – that make this small book strangely fascinating.
When Michaels died in 2003, he had been out of fashion, and mostly out of print, for years. He wrote relatively little, usually terse, seething short stories or autobiographical fragments, and he never published a large, imposing novel. Since his death he has been partially rehabilitated: his stories and essays have been reissued in the US, and a band of dedicated admirers have queued up to argue that he was an unjustly neglected genius, meriting posthumous elevation to the pantheon of Jewish American writers. He was born in New York in 1933, and grew up on the Lower East Side. His parents, eulogised in his autobiographical essays, were Jewish immigrants from Poland. His father, Leon Michaels, a barber, was universally liked, inflexibly principled and ‘slightly more than five feet tall’. His mother, Anna Czeskies, was beautiful and even shorter. She learned English by doing her son’s homework with him; Michaels spoke only Yiddish until he was five. Events in Europe imparted a ‘sense of ubiquitous savagery’ to his childhood, second-hand but palpable. His maternal grandfather, grandmother and aunt were ‘buried in a pit’ after the Germans captured Brest-Litovsk: ‘As my mother sat in the living room at night, waiting for my father to come home from work, she sometimes cried. This was my personal experience of the Holocaust, in a three-room apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, amid claw-footed furniture covered by plastic to protect the fabric.’
Michaels went to New York University in 1949. After ducking in and out of academia for a few years, and a precarious spell writing in New York – the period described in Sylvia – in 1969 he joined the English faculty at Berkeley, where he would stay until he retired. His own essays, and his friends’ biographical sketches, describe a sickly, worried boy who turned into an attractive, argumentative man. He was married four times, and fell out with plenty of people, but he also inspired fierce loyalty. As Phillip Lopate remembers,
He could be, as they say, ‘difficult’… He was a handsome, moody, casually erudite man who strutted (he loved Latin music, the sensual art of its dance movements) and brooded (he had a touch of the obsessive about him, and seemed to go around sniffing hostility in the air). On the other hand, he was one of the kindest, shrewdest men I’ve ever known.
His stories are, in his words, ‘usually about urban types and the psychological violence they inflict on one another’. They feature intellectual New Yorkers with baroque sex lives, countercultural sympathies and a susceptibility to various kinds of rage. In his first collection, Going Places (1969), a recurring authorial surrogate, Phillip Liebowitz, outlines a credo of sorts to a woman he meets at an orgy: ‘I’m aware that the couple is a lousy idea. I read books. I go to the flicks. I’m hip. I live in New York.’ I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (1975) was in a similar vein, though even more fragmented and experimental. Postmodernist where its predecessor was modernist, it contained autobiographical sketches, stories made up of lists, and collages of mini-essays on literary and historical subjects.
The stories showed that Michaels was a brilliant and original stylist. But his talent was of a cranky, uneven, occasionally pretentious kind. His work has always divided opinion. For every Susan Sontag hailing him as ‘the most exciting new American writer to appear in years’, there was an Irving Howe slapping him down: ‘Reading this collection prompts one to wish that Leonard Michaels had never heard of alienation, sentiment of being, nihilism.’ Formally daring, with flashes of aphoristic brilliance, his stories are never boring. Some of the images are hard to forget, like this description of an owl’s call heard by a child at a summer camp: ‘I’d never before heard that sound, the sound of darkness, blooming, opening inside you like a mouth.’ But there is something artificial and unconvincing about many of the stories. They are bizarrely violent, in a way that seems unexplained. Women are assaulted by gangs of boys, or raped with ‘insane and exotic cruelty’. Taxi drivers are beaten and left for dead. Talmudic scholars fall down the stairs and die. Most of all, couples fight, cheat and savage each other. Michaels wrote that Isaac Babel was the writer who influenced him ‘more than any other’. And in his stories it sometimes seems as if the violence of Odessa’s underworld, or Cossack cavalrymen on the rampage, has been imported incongruously into a world of drug-addled graduate students having difficult relationships and rowing about Hamlet.
Michaels achieved his only commercial success with his sole fully fledged novel, The Men’s Club (1981), a strange, poker-faced Chaucerian portmanteau about a group of men who meet up to vent about their troubles with women. It is entertaining and at some points very funny, but has sinister undercurrents which have ensured that tags such as ‘controversial’ and ‘famously misogynistic’ have followed it around. It was made into a film, with a strong cast (Harvey Keitel, Roy Scheider, Stockard Channing), but was by all accounts awful. Michaels didn’t like it much himself, as he describes in his essay ‘Kishkas’: after he saw the rough cut, ‘disgrace, like internal bleeding, seeped into my bones and organs.’ He was also stung by the disapproval it provoked, and published little in the next decade. Shuffle (1990), a collection of essays, short pieces and semi-fictional journal entries, was panned by Anatole Broyard in the New York Times: ‘a shockingly bad book … like a man combing his hair in a bathroom mirror, and then inspecting the comb, counting the hairs’.
Yet alongside some deliriously unreadable writing, Shuffle contained two excellent autobiographical essays, and an early version of Sylvia. (Michaels was a great rewriter, and the book has a typically odd publication history: it first appeared as an essay in Vanity Fair; then as a short memoir in Shuffle; then in an amplified version, entitled Sylvia: A Novel. This is the version that has now been published in Britain for the first time, with a helpful introduction by David Lodge.) In Reality Hunger, David Shields grouped Michaels with other secular Jewish ‘laureates of the real’ who ‘tend to be better at analysing reality than recreating it’ in fiction. And certainly the documentary tendency in his later work showed him working through his material with a new-found purpose and sense of proportion. Sylvia chronicles the relationship that is clearly the original of all the warring couples in his short fiction; it is also, in the words of Michaels’s most persuasive critical cheerleader, Wyatt Mason, ‘the story towards which Michaels had, in some sense, been working all along’. It strikes a new tone in his writing – clear and direct, as if a layer of bluff and obfuscation has been removed.
‘In 1960,’ it begins, ‘after two years of graduate school at Berkeley, I returned to New York without a PhD or any idea what I’d do, only a desire to write stories.’ The unnamed narrator answers an advertisement looking for someone to take a car back to New York:
A few days later, I was driving a Cadillac convertible through mountains and prairies, going back home, an over-specialised man, 27 years old, who smoked cigarettes and could give no better account of himself than to say ‘I love to read.’ It doesn’t qualify the essential picture, but I had a lot of friends, got along with my parents, and women liked me.
Thus the protagonist of Michaels’s fiction is revealed as (like the protagonists of so much American fiction in the last seventy years) ‘an over-specialised man’, with an advanced literary education, comfortably adrift, ‘humoured by the world’. He returns to his parents’ flat, where he broods, reads the New York Times, smokes and eats their food. A week later, on a hot day, he visits his friend Naomi Kane in an old tenement on MacDougal Street, which is thronged with ‘slow, turgid crowds of sightseers’ soaking up the new ‘apocalyptic atmosphere’ of Greenwich Village. In a squalid apartment, he meets Naomi’s flatmate, Sylvia. She is brushing her hair after a shower, ‘tipping her head right and left, tossing the heavy black weight of her hair like a shining sash’. Eventually, she looks at him. ‘The question of what to do with my life was resolved for the next four years.’
The plot is simple and linear, but beautifully executed. The couple are so ‘dazed’ by each other that Naomi and her boyfriend leave them together in a park. ‘We’d become social liabilities, too stupid with feeling to be fun.’ They return to the flat and make love until nightfall. Sylvia only then mentions her boyfriend, a ‘tall, sweet, handsome’ Italian waiter who’ll be dropping by to get his swimming costume after work. She hangs it on the doorknob ‘by the jock’, then returns to bed. The narrator is horrified. After a while, they hear the man’s ‘slow trudge’: ‘His steps ended at the door, ten feet from where we lay. He didn’t knock. He’d seen his swimsuit and was contemplating it, reading its message. He’d worked all day, he’d climbed six flights of steps, and he was rewarded with this disgusting spectacle.’ He calls out for Sylvia twice, then stomps back down the stairs.
The story is made up of many small episodes like this one, miniature dramas packed with specifics, economical and often mordantly funny. The couple move to Cambridge, Massachusetts for the summer, where they are chucked out of their rented room by the landlord for having sex. (‘“You two will have to go,” he said. The command was drawn from a strange personal hell of New England propriety and constipation.’) They go back to New York. The narrator moves into the MacDougal Street flat with Sylvia, and tries to make a living by writing his stories; Sylvia returns to studying, at NYU.
The portents are never good: going to the flat together that first day, they are ‘like a couple doomed to a sacrificial assignation’. Step by step it becomes clear that Sylvia is deeply troubled. One day in Cambridge, one of her sandals breaks. Though a nail is poking into her skin, she walks home, ‘her foot slooshing in blood’. When the narrator discovers this, he is shocked, and asks – a little impatiently – why she didn’t get a taxi. As he speaks her smile goes ‘from wan to screwy, perturbed, injured’. For days, she punishes him by walking around Cambridge, ‘pressing the ball of her foot onto the nail, bleeding’. The couple have a great many arguments, but Michaels describes them in such way that both the reader and the narrator only gradually come to realise how vicious and violent they are. A friend tells him that he has heard New Yorkers on a beach in Majorca discussing their rows; later a gay couple in their building refuse to speak to them ‘because our fights had become so ugly’. The narrator seems to have sleepwalked into a relationship that he only understands long after its terms have been irreparably established, and after his father has told him that because she is an orphan, ‘You cannot abandon her.’ Eventually the narrator concludes: ‘Even if, somehow, I loved her and would always love her, our life together was hell, and could never be otherwise.’
Sylvia conforms to David Shields’s formula for the non-fiction novel: ‘The grist of the material is factual – a narrative with people whose names you can look up in the phone book or who have historically verifiable existences – but it’s fiction in the sense that it’s heavily patterned and plotted; it’s structured like a novel.’ Part of its power comes from the use of a variety of temporal perspectives: the narrator moves between dramatising individual scenes in detail, and offering a retrospective synopsis, a wider sociological sweep. He suggests, for instance, that it was easier to ignore Sylvia’s mental illness because ‘in those days R.D. Laing and others sang praises to the condition of being nuts.’ Interspersed with the main narrative are journal entries, which closely resemble those in Michaels’s collected diaries, Time out of Mind (1999). These tend to be raw and apparently uncensored: ‘I have no job, no job, no job, I’m not published. I have nothing to say. I’m married to a madwoman.’
The two poles of the story are the Greenwich Village tenement and the narrator’s parents’ apartment on the Lower East Side, representing, respectively, bohemian sleaze and solid Old World values. The contrast is lively and often funny. His upstanding parents, and the intergenerational tensions, are warmly characterised:
Barely five feet tall and always cooking, cleaning, shopping, sewing. To criticise ‘the Mommy’ – my father’s expression – was, even if correct, incorrect in the eyes of God. It was close to evil. In the background with his cigar, watching television, brooding, he made gloomy, silent judgments. (‘That’s how you talk to the Mommy? What’s the matter with you? Don’t you know better?’)
Behind all the drug-taking and sex, the idea of propriety hangs uneasily, like a warning; Michaels evokes the vertigo of suddenly being able to live in a completely different way. There’s a great description of a Lenny Bruce gig, at which the ‘hunched, scrawny, unwholesome, rat-like’ comedian with his ‘poolroom face’ points to members of the audience and says ‘nigger’ or ‘kike’ or ‘spic’, until the crowd is laughing hysterically, ‘as if we’d all gone over the edge, crazed by the annihilation of proprieties, or whatever had kept us from this until now’.
Comparing the final version of Sylvia to the one in Shuffle, you can see how much and how carefully it has been rewritten. In the earlier version of a passage describing Sylvia’s parents’ untimely deaths, Michaels writes: ‘After her mother died, Sylvia lived with an aunt and uncle in Queens. She had bad dreams; she heard voices.’ In the final version, that second sentence becomes: ‘She had bad dreams and heard jeering voices, as if the loss of her parents had made her contemptible.’ The voice of Sylvia is recognisably Michaels’s voice, as he described it himself in his essay ‘My Yiddish’: it has a clear Yiddish ‘undercurrent’ and a propensity for verbal ‘drama’, mostly derived from melding different registers – slangy and high-cultural, humorous and despairing. But the moments of vehemence and hysteria, which come thick and fast in the early work, are rationed here, and so work to much better effect. Only occasionally will you come across a passage like this one, after a long description of the public events and figures of the era: ‘There were really no large meanings, only cries of the phenomena. I read assiduously. I kept in touch with my species.’ In the context it seems invigorating. Michaels’s writing also seems more open to self-mockery. Sylvia sends the narrator out to the drugstore for Tampax, in order, he suspects, to humiliate him: ‘I dreaded the man at the counter, who would think I was an exceptionally bizarre Village transvestite. I asked for Tampax in a hoodlum-ish voice, as if it were manufactured for brutal males.’
Many people have praised Sylvia but plenty have seen it as disturbingly self-exculpatory and one-sided. That criticism seems to miss the point. Sylvia is one-sided, but quite deliberately so: Sylvia the character remains unknowable, the sum of her erratic actions, an extreme example of the mysteriousness of others. There is certainly an element of slipperiness about the narration – the violence in the relationship is often glimpsed rather than treated in detail – but then part of what the book is narrating is a failure to see things. Sylvia is clearly a confession, a record of a shameful episode. Again, there’s a parallel with Knausgaard, in that shame seems to be a powerful impetus behind the writing: the story is an agonised, perplexed attempt to apportion the blame. ‘I didn’t know what I felt for myself’ the book’s last paragraph begins, before concluding with a final hopeless reverie of lost bliss: ‘I said we could do anything she wanted, anything at all, and we went out to look for a restaurant, desperately happy.’