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The Essays of Leonard Michaels

The Essays of Leonard Michaels

by Leonard Michaels

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Leonard Michaels was a writer of unfailing emotional honesty. His memoirs, originally scattered through his story collections, are among the most thrilling evocations of growing up in the New York of the 1950s and '60s—and of



Leonard Michaels was a writer of unfailing emotional honesty. His memoirs, originally scattered through his story collections, are among the most thrilling evocations of growing up in the New York of the 1950s and '60s—and of continuing to grow up, in the cultural turmoil of the '70s and '80s, as a writer, teacher, lover, and reader. The same honesty and excitement shine in Michaels's highly personal commentaries on culture and art. Whether he's asking what makes a story, reviewing the history of the word "relationship," or reflecting on sex in the movies, he is funny, penetrating, surprising, always alive on the page.

The Essays of Leonard Michaels is the definitive collection of his nonfiction and shows, yet again, why Michaels was singled out for praise by fellow writers as diverse as Susan Sontag, Larry McMurtry, William Styron, and Charles Baxter. Beyond autobiography or criticism, it is the record of a sensibility and of a style that is unmatched in American letters.

Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
…it packs a lot of punch and is filled, as was all his work, with sentences that border on poetry…you'll look for a long time to find writing as good as this and thinking as clear.
—The Washington Post
Megan Buskey
…showcases Michaels's timing, wit and instinctively good prose. Whatever the subject matter—and the essays here range from Edward Hopper to the Rita Hayworth vehicle "Gilda" to Yiddish, his first language—Michaels channels the full force of his intellectual and narrative abilities into a voice that is at once sensitive and unyielding.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

These essays, spare and elegant as Michaels alights on a range of subjects, follow the late writer's own precept: "I think we name ourselves, more or less, whenever we write, and thus tend always to write about ourselves." This pungent collection, by a quizzical New York Jew who never quite assimilated, divides into two sections: critical essays and autobiographical essays. Many of these works first appeared in the Threepenny Review, among other publications. The first part includes a brilliant essay "On Love" and another on "Having Trouble with My Relationship." The latter breezily covers figures as diverse as Pope, Larkin, Heidegger and Kafka. Other figures and subjects blowing through these pages include Bellow, Nabokov, Kubrick, Edward Hopper, Wallace Stevens Rita Hayworth, and how to watch a movie. The best and most penetrating essays come in the second section, as Michaels gives a wincing account of family bedtime stories-on pogroms-a happier set of epiphanies on his father, a wise Yiddish-speaking barber; and yet another describing fish-out-of-water experiences at Berkeley. All told, these are soul-baring occasional pieces by a writer's writer and a master stylist. (July)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

In this definitive collection of short nonfiction essays by Michaels (1933-2003), author of Sylvia and The Men's Club, we find two smaller collections of essays-critical and biographical. Michaels analyzes story parts and the origins of the word relationship and its deeper meaning in literature; he pays tribute to an anonymous author, all the while philosophizing and quoting Sartre, Genet, Plato, Joyce, Montaigne, and the Bible. The author writes of being the son of Jewish Polish immigrants, learning English from a neighbor, and growing up in New York City, and he describes his time spent in Michigan, California, and France, among other places. Although the literary references can be overwhelming, there is no arguing that Michaels is an intelligent author, philosopher, and critic of popular culture. Michaels explains that we write about ourselves to learn about ourselves, and he acknowledges that trying to write nonfiction is an act of insanity. This collection, edited by Michaels's widow, is recommended for academic and larger public libraries.
—David L. Reynolds

Kirkus Reviews
A collection of articles by celebrated author Michaels (The Collected Stories of Leonard Michaels, 2007, etc.). Divided into two distinct halves, the volume serves as an assemblage of the author's nonfiction work, much of which was published late in his life. "Critical Essays" includes several free-flowing, loosely constructed entries on a variety of big, important topics like love, death, art and literature. Despite their seemingly heroic ambitions, most of these pieces are brief and playful in their approach-this unassuming manner makes for entertaining reading. In "Some Examples of Murder," Michaels selects great moments from the Bible, Nabokov, Bellow and Kafka and props them up next to each other in an effort to unearth connections and underlying truths. The second section, "Autobiographical Essays," is less successful, mainly because it reflects a more conventional form and style. While many of these nostalgic stories of youth and adulthood are well-written, few are revelatory. At a mere five pages, "The Abandoned House" stirringly captures the inherent fear and recklessness of prolonged adolescence, while "Kishkas" provides a droll assessment ozf the film adaptation of The Men's Club. The best essay is "The Zipper," which centers on Rita Hayworth's role in Gilda and the emotional reaction it caused in the teenaged Michaels. The story successfully synergizes the book's two halves, ably combining the critical eye of the first section with the self-reflection of the second. Contains weaknesses, but largely enjoyable and intellectually stimulating.

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The Essays of Leonard Michaels

By Leonard Michaels

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2009 Katharine Ogden Michaels
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3324-7


what's a story?


THRUSTING FROM THE HEAD of Picasso's goat are bicycle handlebars. They don't represent anything, but they are goat's horns, as night is a black bat, metaphorically.

Come into the garden ... ... the black bat night has flown.

Metaphor, like the night, is an idea in flight; potentially, a story:

There was an old lady who lived in a shoe. She had so many children she didn't know what to do.

Here, the metaphorical action is very complicated, especially in the syllables of the second line, bubbling toward the period — the way the old lady had children — reflecting her abundance and distress. The line ends in a rhyme — do/shoe — and thus closes, or contains itself. With her children in a shoe, the old lady is also contained. In effect, the line and the shoe contain incontinence; but this is only an idea and it remains unarticulated, at best implicit.

"Can you fix an idea?" asks Valéry. "You can think only in terms of modifications." Characters, place, and an action "once upon a time" are modifications deployed in rhythm, rhythmic variation, and rhyme — techniques of sound that determine the psychophysical experience, or story, just as the placement, angle, spread, and thrust of the bicycle handlebars determine horns, a property of goat, its stolid, squat, macho bulk and balls behind, like syllables of a tremendous sentence.

Lo even thus is our speech delivered by sounds significant: for it will never be a perfect sentence, unless one word give way when it has sounded his part that another may succeed it.

Saint Augustine means perfection is achieved through the continuous vanishing of things, as the handlebars vanish in the sense of goat, as the dancer in the dance, as the bat in the night in flight.

Here is a plain sentence from Flannery O'Connor's story "Revelation," which is metaphorical through and through:

Mrs. Turpin had on her good black patent leather pumps.

Those pumps walk with the weight and stride of the moral being who inhabits them, as she inhabits herself, smugly, brutally, mechanically good insofar as good is practical. The pumps vanish into quiddity of Turpin, energetic heave and thump.

Taking a grander view than mine, Nabokov gets at the flow and sensuous implication of Gogol's story "The Overcoat."

The story goes this way: mumble, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, fantastic climax, mumble, mumble, and back into the chaos from which they all derived. At this superhigh level of art, literature appeals to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships.

No absolute elements, no plot, only an effect of passage, pattern, and some sort of change in felt-time. The temporal quality is in all the above examples; it is even in Picasso's goat, different parts vanishing into aspects of goat, perfection of bleating, chomping, hairy, horny beast.

The transformation, in this seeing, is the essence of stories:

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears.
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

Life is remembered as a dream, her as a "thing," and himself not feeling. Amid all this absence is an absence of transition to the second stanza. Suddenly:

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course;
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

The transformational drama is deliberately exemplified, in the best writing lesson ever offered, by Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon. He tells how he forces himself to remember having seen the cowardly and inept bullfighter, Hernandorena, gored by a bull. After the event, late at night, slowly, slowly, Hemingway makes himself see it again, the bullfighter's leg laid open, exposing dirty underwear and the "clean, clean, unbearable cleanness" of his thighbone. Dirty underwear and clean bone constitute an amazing juxtaposition — let alone transformation of Hernandorena — which is redeemed (more than simply remembered) half-asleep, against the blinding moral sympathy entailed by human fears.

In this strenuous, self-conscious, grim demonstration of his art, Hemingway explicitly refuses to pity Hernandorena, and then he seizes his agony with luxurious exactitude. Though he does say "unbearable," he intends nothing kindly toward Hernandorena, only an aesthetic and self-pitying reference to himself as he suffers the obligations of his story, his truth, or the truth.

The problem of storytelling is how to make transitions into transformations, since the former belong to logic, sincerity, and boredom (that is, real time, the trudge of "and then") and the latter belong to art. Most impressive in the transformations above is that nothing changes. Hernandorena is more essentially himself with his leg opened. Wordsworth's woman is no less a thing dead than alive. The handlebars, as horns, are fantastically evident handlebars.


IN CHEKHOV'S GREAT STORY "The Lady with the Dog," a man and a woman who are soon to become lovers sit on a bench beside the sea without talking. In their silence the sea grows loud:

The monotonous roar of the sea came up to them, speaking of peace, or the eternal sleep waiting for us all. The sea had roared like this long before there was any Yalta or Oreanda, it was roaring now, and it would go on roaring, just as indifferently and hollowly, when we had passed away. And it may be that in this continuity, the utter indifference to life and death, lies the secret of life on our planet, and its never-ceasing movement toward perfection.

But this man and woman care, through each other, about life, and they transform themselves into the creatures of an old and desperately sad story in which love is the vehicle of a brief salvation before the sound of the sea, the great disorder that is an order, resumes and caring ceases.

The man's feelings in the story, like those of Wordsworth and Hemingway in their stories, are unavailable in immediate experience. He lets the woman go, time passes, then it comes to him that he needs her, the old story.

The motive for metaphor, shrinking from
The weight of primary noon,
The A B C of being.
The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.

He goes to the woman's hometown, checks into a hotel, and is greeted by the sight of

a dusty ink pot on the table surmounted by a headless rider, holding his hat in his raised hand ...

A metaphor. To find his heart, he lost his head. Nothing would be written (ink pot) otherwise; nothing good, anyhow, and that is the same as nothing. "There is no such thing as a bad poem," says Coleridge. In other words, it doesn't exist.

The best story I know that contains all I've been trying to say is Kafka's:

A cage went in search of a bird.

Like the Mother Goose rhyme, it plays with a notion of containment, or containing the uncontainable, but here an artifice of form (cage rather than shoe) is in deadly pursuit of spirit (bird rather than children). A curious metaphysic is implied, where the desire to possess and the condition of being possessed are aspects of an ineluctable phenomenon. (Existence?) In any case, whatever the idea is, Kafka suggests in eight words a kind of nightmare — chilling, magnificently irrational, endless — the story-of-stories, the infinitely deep urge toward transformation. "One portion of being is the Prolific, the other, the Devouring," says Blake, a great storyteller obsessed with cages and birds.


THE ABILITY TO TELL A STORY, like the ability to carry a tune, is nearly universal and as mysteriously natural as language. Though I've met a few people who can't tell stories, it has always seemed to me they really can but refuse to care enough, or fear generosity, or self-revelation, or misinterpretation (an extremely serious matter these days), or intimacy. They tend to be formal, encaged by prevailing opinion, and a little deliberately dull. Personally, I can't carry a tune, which has sometimes been a reason for shame, as though it were a character flaw. Worse than tuneless or storyless people are those with a gift for storytelling who, like the Ancient Mariner (famous bird murderer), go on and on in the throes of an invincible narcissism, while listeners suffer brain death. The best storytellers hardly ever seem to know they're doing it, and they hardly ever imagine they could write a story. My aunt Molly, for example, was a terrific storyteller who sometimes broke into nutty couplets.

I see you're sitting at the table, Label.
I wish I was also able.
But so long as I'm on my feet,
I don't have to eat.

I went to visit her when she was dying and in bad pain, her stomach bloated by a tumor. She wanted even then to be herself, but looked embarrassed, slightly shy. "See?" she said. "That's life." No more stories, no more rhymes.

Published as "What's a Story?" as an introduction to Ploughshares, Spring 1986, edited by Leonard Michaels.


the story of judah and tamar

TAMAR IS AMONG THE MOST COMPLEX, practical, and effective characters in the Bible. The story is about her relation to Judah and his sons. First, she marries Er and then Onan, and both sons die. Judah promises Shelah, the third son, to Tamar, but she doesn't marry him. Instead, she seduces Judah. The consequence is strange and Tamar begins to seem more like an agent of history than a character.

We are told very little about her, rather as if the woman is taboo and the reader is deliberately discouraged from wondering, or becoming involved imaginatively with Tamar. Where does she come from? Did she have sex with Er, her first husband, the oldest son of Judah? What about Judah's next son, Onan? Does Tamar have sex with him before he spills his seed on the ground? Were both sons, who are slain by God for unspecified wickedness, homosexual? When Tamar goes away at the end of the story, where does she go?

The story is brief, yet eventful. Major events occur in this order:

1. Judah gives his oldest son, Er, to Tamar to be her husband.

2. Er is wicked and is slain by God. We aren't told anything in particular about his wickedness.

3. Judah then gives Onan, his next oldest son, to Tamar.

4. Onan is wicked. He spills his seed on the ground, refusing to impregnate Tamar.

5. Judah promises to give Shelah, his third son, to Tamar, but she must wait.

6. Tamar doesn't wait for Shelah to become her husband. Instead, she puts on a veil and sits at the crossroads.

7. Judah comes along and thinks she is a prostitute. They agree to terms and have sex.

8. Judah learns that Tamar, his daughter-in-law twice over, is pregnant.

9. Judah intends to have Tamar killed.

10. Tamar proves to Judah that it is he who made her pregnant.

11. Judah reflects on the case and says Tamar is more "righteous" than he.

12. When Tamar is in labor it is determined that she is carrying twins. A hand emerges from her womb. The midwife ties a red cord about the wrist to make certain that the firstborn twin will be recognized.

13. But the other twin emerges first.

14. Judah does not want to know Tamar again, and she goes away.

The biblical story records events in a bleak, assertive style, without laboring over meanings. But events become meaningful as they become — at some amazing turn — stories, just as notes become meaningful, retrospectively, in a melody. The moral, like a melody, is open to interpretation.

Talking about stories, Samuel Beckett says, "The sun rose, having no alternative, on the nothing new." Beckett means there is only one thing after another, which is to say meaningless repetition, which is no story. There was a time, however, when the sun rose again and again on unpredictable amazements. A sense of this is contained in the formula "Once upon a time."

This crucial moment of mysterious transformation is at the heart of the story of Judah and Tamar. Soon after she is widowed for the second time, Tamar disguises herself with a veil and pretends to be a prostitute. The veil is the turning point in the story, and appropriate to Tamar, an agent of divine power who moves amid mysteries.

When Judah realizes that he's been tricked into having sex with his daughter-in-law, he might have been outraged, but he decides, according to ancient law, that Tamar has done nothing wrong. Indeed, she has done justice to herself and made certain that the line of Judah is perpetuated, albeit through him, not his sons. When he states that she is more "righteous" than he, Judah's remark is legalistic, but it carries moral overtones. Perhaps Judah understands that Tamar has had enough of his wicked sons, and that she shouldn't have been made to wait for Shelah, who may have been as worthless as the first two.

By wearing a veil, Tamar doesn't merely seduce Judah. She obliges him to understand that she has been treated like a prostitute. In effect, the veil, hiding Tamar's face, reveals Judah to himself.

The hand thrusting from Tamar's womb is an amazement, since it doesn't follow from any previous event. It thrusts out of the story like an inexplicable excrescence, or a talisman of the wonderful. What follows the amazing hand anticipates and gives meaning to what came before as well as to the end of the story.

Tamar gives birth to twins who are the re-creation or redemption of Judah's two sons — Er and Onan — who were slain by God. Metaphorically and actually, then, Tamar is the mother of Judah's sons, both living and dead. Since the twin with the red cord was not delivered first, it means first is last and last is first, and this describes the paradox of Judah's fateful relation to Tamar. Judah is first — as the father of the slain boys — and last — as the father of their miraculous surrogates, the twins.

Veiled Tamar waited at the crossroads, a place that represents blindness to fate. Judah doesn't recognize her, the woman in whom his past and future lie. The veil of Tamar, a sign of prostitution, is also an invitation to the mysterious realm of storytelling in which meaningless repetition is transformed into meaning. In the realm of story, events assume a pattern in the otherwise arbitrary existential flux, and the sun rises on an unpredictable and potentially amazing future where there is justice for Tamar and redemption for Judah's dead sons. Judah, who doesn't want to know Tamar again, abandons her to the reader's imagination, which is our desire to know her.

A version of this was first published as "The Story of Judah and Tamar," in Genesis as It Is Written, edited by David Rosenberg (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996). The present version is Leonard Michaels's reworking of the original essay.


the story of jonah


STORIES WERE ONCE MEANT to be told and retold aloud. As in the Bible, they were revelations of events on heaven and earth and were the common property of the race.

Like fairy tales, they contained only a few immutable details, making them easy to remember from one telling to the next. Rapunzel has golden hair, but we don't know the color of her eyes or how tall she is; and if you called her Baboonzel and gave her black hair, it would still be a great story. The Frog King is handsome. This says merely that he looks nothing like a frog, and you are free to imagine his appearance however you like.

Today, stories are written to be read, and sometimes in a way that few people understand, leaving out most of the race. Furthermore, not everyone can read, and those who can do so in isolation and silence, which is exquisitely sensuous but also alienating, perhaps a little scary since it smacks of magic.

When a modern story, which is written to be read in silence, is read aloud before an audience, the experience is sometimes boring and embarrassing. Events sound contrived, and the motivations of characters sound arbitrary. This is never a problem with old-time stories. When God calls Jonah and says, Go to Nineveh and cry out against the wickedness of that great city, it doesn't occur to you that this event is unconvincing. Jonah, amazingly, does not go to Nineveh, and perhaps you wonder why not, but you accept the action even if it remains puzzling.

The story of Jonah is puzzling, but it is also fascinating and has been retold innumerable times by writers and painters. Modern stories are hardly ever retold except in movies. The most extraordinary retelling of Jonah appears in a magnificently written chapter of Moby Dick, where a minister uses the story as the basis of a sermon. He loads the story with highly particular visual detail to make it real for his congregation, much in the manner of the Protestant clergy in his day. But it also seems that Melville, through this imagined minister, wants to make the story of Jonah uniquely his, to possess it slowly and luxuriously, swallowing it into the belly of this book, as the great fish swallows Jonah. But the great fish swallows Jonah in one bite, and the effect is terrific, whereas the minister chews long, and the effect is that of magnificence born of desperation.


Excerpted from The Essays of Leonard Michaels by Leonard Michaels. Copyright © 2009 Katharine Ogden Michaels. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

LEONARD MICHAELS (1933–2003) was the author of six collections of stories and essays as well as two novels, Sylvia and The Men's Club. His Collected Stories and novels are available as FSG Classics.

Leonard Michaels (1933-2003) was the author of Going Places, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, and The Men's Club, among other books. FSG will publish his Collected Stories in June to coincide with the reissue of Sylvia.

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