I’m hip. I live in New York

Theo Tait

  • Sylvia by Leonard Michaels
    Daunt Books, 131 pp, £9.99, June 2015, ISBN 978 1 907970 55 9

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.

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