The New York Times Book Review
Time out of Mind: The Diaries of Leonard Michaels, 1961-1995by Leonard Michaels
Taken from the journals of distinguished writer Leonard Michaels, Time Out of Mind chronicles the author's life as a friend, lover, husband, and father. With wrenching dramatic intensity, it captures the character and the mind of an extraordinary talent--from
From the literary legend praised by William Styron as "an extraordinarily original and gifted talent."
Taken from the journals of distinguished writer Leonard Michaels, Time Out of Mind chronicles the author's life as a friend, lover, husband, and father. With wrenching dramatic intensity, it captures the character and the mind of an extraordinary talent--from his days as a struggling young writer in Greenwich Village, through the turbulent Vietnam era, to his years as a professor of English literature at Berkeley. This is an unforgettable portrait of an artist in the world--from one of the most acclaimed authors of our time.
"A testament of three decades as an American writer."--Booklist
"Only the greediest reader would ask Michaels to do better than he's done in Time Out of Mind...a terrific diary, replete with insights."--San Francisco Chronicle
"Leonard Michaels is one of our masters of story."--GQ
"Leonard Michaels's [diaries] give me hope. He has edited his own voluminous journals down to a digestible volume with a coherent touching wisdom to it."--The Los Angeles Times
Leonard Michaels is the author of two short story collections, Going Places, which was nominated for a National Book Award, and I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, named one of the six outstanding works of fiction of the year by The New York Times. His bestselling novel, The Men's Club, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and made into a movie. He was a professor for two decades at U.C. Berkeley.
The New York Times Book Review
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Jan. 21, '61
Sylvia's girlfriends are Naomi, Susie, Sally, Jolie, Ellen, and Baiba. Boyfriends are Harvey and Steve. All can be categorized by a few major factspretty, handsome, smart, wealthy, good, bad, depressed, funny. If you're one thing you can't be two or three, at least not fully. If someone is good, almost everything else seems trivial.
Jan. 27, '61
Ernie calls from Chicago. He says there is a conspiracy of politicians and "the mob" to make the price of a certain stock shoot up. "The mayor is in on it," he says, and insists that I raise money however I canget it from friends or familyand buy as much of the stock as possible. I've already forgotten the name of the stock. In a few days he will call again and tell me to sell. Then the stock will crash. He sounds like a movie gangster, talking out of the side of his mouth not to be overheard. He was concerned to have me benefit from the conspiracy. I was touched, and I wished I could oblige him and get rich, but I don't have any money to invest in stocks, crooked or otherwise. Why is Ernie concerned to involve me? Is he fond of me? We haven't talked for over a year, not since we were roommates in Ann Arbor. He has a big soft white face with large brown eyes. Looks sensuous and womanly. Maybe he just wanted to talk to me and felt he needed a reason. You can always talk to a person about how to become rich. Ernie talks only about money, food, possessions. He becomes interested in someone if he thinks the person is useful, either as a means of getting rich or having sex. I'm neither. He phones anyway, so he probably misses me. Ernie has no job. He schemes constantly and will do anything not to work. Except when I was a little kid, I've always worked.
Feb. 5, '61
A piece of Danish pastry lies where Sylvia left it on wax paper on the middle shelf of the refrigerator. It's been there for days. Now and then she chips off a bitshedding crumbs and flakes of icingand eats it. She won't eat it all at once. That would be too fattening. She's five foot six, weighs one hundred and fifteen pounds, and looks slender. Her inner thighs, soft and doughy, were once heavier. I wanted to toss the piece of Danish into the garbage, but I'm curious to see how long she will leave it in the refrigerator and pick at it. The sticky wax paper gathers miscellaneous droppings from higher shelves and tiny roaches have penetrated the refrigerator seal.
A spooky-looking gray female cat lives with us. Cat, fleas, roaches, mice, and us in a room and a half. The toilet is down the hall; a narrow closet, an overhead tank and long chain. Forty bucks a month plus utilities. There are regular people in the building, local Italians with their kids. There are also artistsactors, writers, painters. Only Darden, the actor who lives upstairs, has reputation. A startlingly beautiful dark-haired girl appeared at our door, looking for Darden. I told her he lived upstairs. She said thanks and left. I was upset. If she hadn't knocked at our door, I'd not have suddenly thought this building is old and grim and smelly.
Feb. 6, '61
I was hired at a teacher's college, Paterson State, and went to my first faculty meeting. Several colleagues spoke with considerable excitement about some girla studentwho has embarrassed them and others. They didn't say how, only that she ought to be thrown out of school and she would be if her average weren't one tenth of a point higher than the flunking average which is required by state regulation for expulsion. One said that she shouldn't ever be permitted to teach, and Fern, red-faced and blowsy, shrieked, "That girl will drag the name of Paterson State College through the mud." I wanted to ask who she is, but didn't dare lest they imagine things. The idea of her dragging us through the mud was interesting, better than talk about teaching methods.
The students chat during class. I lost my temper and said, "You don't have to be here. Leave right now if you want to." I was shaking with anger. None of them left. A student came up afterward and told me chatting was common in class. I had to tell them off, or put up with it. I told Chairman McCrae. He offered to tell the president and have the students pulled out of the class. Tell the president? I felt like a fool for having lost my temper.
Feb. 9, '61
The water to the building was cut off. Some problem with pipes. I went up to the roof, collected snow in a pan, then put it on the stove and lighted the burner to heat the snow and make water for coffee. The snow melted, turning into gray water and black bits of filth. I was surprised. Beautiful white snow falling on the rooftops is mainly filth.
Feb. 10, '61
Ernie calls and asks if I have invested. I said, "I don't have any money." He says the stock has gone way up in value. "It made history." I said again I don't have any money. He said he can tell me how to get money from a bank without collateral. Another scheme. "Do what I'm telling you. It's not too late, but it will be soon." I asked if he has made a lot of money. He said he has made a fortune on paper. He was holding the stock for a few more days. It would continue to go up in value. Then it would crash. He would sell shortly before that happens. He was laughing in little gasps, a sort of weak cackling, and practically begging me to invest. Why does my involvement mean so much to him? He's like the pot smokers who offer you cigarettes. I've never been in a room with a pot smoker who didn't want me to smoke with him. Also heavier more expensive drugs. Nobody is more generous than a user. They want you to do it with them, they want company in badness. Ernie is excited by the idea of making me complicit, as if he were taking my cherry.
Feb. 11, '61
Bought chestnuts, put them in the oven, turned up the heat, and after a while went to see how they were coming along. When I opened the oven door the chestnuts exploded in my face. I forgot to slice them. I looked into the heart of the explosion and saw the lines of force as the chestnuts, suddenly torn apart, sent bits of meat and shell streaking away in all directions. The lines were like spokes radiating from the hub of a wheel, or spears of starlight.
Mar. 1, '62
I arrive at the Port Authority terminal at seven A.M. and get on the number thirty bus to Paterson, New Jersey. The bus goes through the Lincoln Tunnel, then Secaucus and Rutherford, and passes Fairleigh Dickinson University. At 7:25 I'm in Paterson, and walking up a long hill with my fat briefcase bumping the side of my leg. I get to my class at eight A.M. Standing outside the room, smoking a cigarette, I heard a student say, "He's outside, smoking." I put out the cigarette. I was still feeling unsettled, but walked into the room and began the class. I said I will read one of their compositions aloud and stop at the end of every sentence that has a problem, and I will ask them to tell me what is wrong with the sentence and they can't look at it. They had to listen. I told them to hear what is wrong. I told them you must learn to hear. You can't read or write with your eyes. You go to movies with your eyes, and when you come out you are always dumber than when you went in.
Friends and acquaintances teach at ColumbiaAllen Bergson, Ross Firestone, Richard Brett, Fred Grab, Edward Said. I'll never have a Ph.D.
My Paterson colleagues complain about the low quality of the students, and talk about the purpose of teaching. Zale said he just failed half of his students. Said he searched his soul for a way not to do that, but there was finally nothing else he could do except fail them, including a student who had received an A last semester. Zale then said he learned that the student got a C in another course, "a very low C," and that relieved him a little of his doubts. It supported his decision to fail the student. Much deliberation is required and much has to be said on the subject of grading these poor little ignorant kids from the sticks. New York is fourteen miles away. From a hilltop on campus you can see the Manhattan skyline. Most of these kids have never been there.
There was something physically intimidating in the way Zale asked for my agreement. He leaned at me and a vein bulged in his neck. His mouth is big, his forehead high and boney, and his wrists are wide. He talked about the importance of grammar as if it were a moral vision. He had taught junior high school for twelve years before he got this job at Paterson, and says that he teaches grammar with pleasure. I never teach grammar. I probably couldn't. English grammar is Latin grammar, imposed by nineteenth-century scholars, neither natural nor appropriate to English. Why teach it to kids who, for the most part, are incapable of learning it? The gorgeous Italian girls who sit in the front row and cross and uncross their legs all during the hour couldn't care less. Maybe I should be like Zale, and teach them grammar.
The way the professors talk. A hundred words where one or two would be enough, and they give odd emphases to words as words, as if words are about words more than anything else. They begin to seem material, like coins or cookies.
The sentences grow heavier, thicker, and much longer than they have to be, as if in the hope that significance, like yeast, will rise from the slow dough of the words. The professors have a few ideas, but no thoughts. The ideas pop up according to the occasion, but they never have thoughts, only small recognitions which lead to ideas. Oh, you mean that idea. I know that idea. Well then, here is this idea: "Yikkipickywickylaslatttummuckyblabobbleclop." If they didn't have ideas, they might say things worth saying. Plato's philosopher kings practice the dialectic. They abide in an infinite flow of thoughts.
Mar. 6, '61
Sylvia said adolescent love is extremely physical because of the social taboos which are taken far more seriously in adolescence than later. Later, when we become indifferent to the taboos, physical passion diminishes. I agreed, but said the taboo was a thing despite which kids make love and so gain intensity of feeling (like self-pity?) because they're giving something up for each other. Later, when the taboo is forgotten, there is nothing to give up except the body. Perversions are invented to recapture the original heat thrill. I was carried away by the sudden access of total illumination. I was flying. You have to give something up, I said, but after you've done everything sexual you don't have anything to give up. Sylvia's face darkened. She was angry. Conversation wandered off toward literary things. We had different interpretations of Death in Venice, but didn't argue about them. She let me know how much it irritates her when I talk down to her. After she said it, I wondered if it were true that I talked down to her. It seemed I talked only the way I used to talk to Allen. Then I supposed it didn't matter how it seemed to me. I asked if she thought I was stupid. She said no. I felt embarrassed. The subject changed to what she intended to buy when she went outbrassieresand that changed to the great subject of a wedding dressand now she insisted that I come with her. I wanted to work on the story for which I still felt something, though less than before, but I didn't not want to go shopping with her. I said a few half-ass things intended as no, I'm not going, but not final things. I said I needed a shave, was reluctant to walk into a ladies' store looking like a bum. She said it wouldn't matter. I shaved and we went. It was very very windy and cold along MacDougal Street. She said she hadn't realized how cold it was. If she had, she said, she wouldn't have insisted that I come with her.
I remembered a party in a house outside of Ann Arbor. There was a jazz bandpiano, bass, drums, and saxplaying in one of the large rooms. A heavy odor of marijuana hung in the air. The host appeared now and then looking pleased, as if he liked seeing strangers in every room, the party out of his control. It wasn't wild, but with a constant flow of people who knows what they're doing. It became late and I was a little drunk, wandering from one part of the house to another. I entered a long hall and was surprised by the silence, as if I had entered another house. A girl at the other end of the hall was walking toward me. I saw large blue eyes and very black hair. She was about average height, doll-like, features delicate as cut glass, extremely pretty, maybe the prettiest girl I'd ever seen. When she came up to me I took her in my arms and kissed her. She let it happen. We were like creatures in a dream. Holding her hand, I drew her with me and we passed through rooms where people stood about, and then left the house. As we drove away she said her name was Margo. She was a freshman at the university, from a town in northern Michigan. I took her home. It was obvious that she'd never gone home with a man. She didn't seem fearful, only uncertain, the question in her eyes: "What happens next?" What happened next was nothing much. We fell asleep in our clothes. I wasn't the one to make her no different from everyone.
Sylvia hated every dress she tried on. I hated them, too, and she could see it in my expression and took it personally. She was very angry, but said nothing when we left the store, and it was too cold outside for her to make a scene. We walked with our heads down and hands in our pockets, saying nothing. At the 8th Street Bookstore, where we went inside to warm up and browse, I ran into Eddie Epstein. He was interested in chatting. I was, too, but reluctant to say much because I couldn't invite Eddie up to our apartment. He'd see the revolting condition in which I live, maybe mention it to his mother, and there'd be gossip. Sylvia came up to us. I introduced her and she nodded shyly and smiled, then wandered off down an aisle of books, out of sight, hiding as usual. She didn't want to meet anybody. I couldn't even suggest we all go somewhere for coffee. Eddie had read one of my stories in a literary magazine, and referred to the characters as "grotesques." I was surprised. The characters seemed to me like people I know.
Mar. 7, '61
Ernie's stock crashed. He lost everything he'd invested, most of it borrowed money. He is in great debt. I asked why he didn't sell before it crashed. He said he couldn't. "The stock was still going up." I said, "You knew it would crash." He said, "I couldn't sell it." I saw his face in the sound of his voice, the ironical smile in his heavy rosy lips. He's a big soft woman. He'd conned himself, and was no different from investors completely in the dark. He'd become a believer, and had a seizure of masochistic self-annihilation. The stock crashed. He knew it would happen. He let it happen to himself.
Mar. 9, '61
Went to dinner at the bocce restaurant, a family-run place. We feel respectful of traditional Italian life, how they gather to eat and smoke, and how the men play bocce. When Sylvia took off her coat a cockroach jumped out of it and ran up the wall. She was mortified.
The Italian girl has olive skin, light brown hair, and green eyes. She sits in the front row, to my left, a few chairs from the door. It is impossible to see her all at once. I look at her hair and I see it, but then lose it as I look away to her eyes or legs. She's one creature, but her elements forbid dissolution into unity. Like Italyher elementseyes, lips, nose, fingers, kneeslike towns and citieswhile visiting one, you can't think of another.
In my elementary school, P.S. 188, at the corner of Monroe and Market streets, teachers screamed at the kids and sometimes hit them. Elaine talked back to Miss Higgins, a big hitter. We were about ten years old. Etaine's mother came to the classroom. She sided with Miss Higgins, demanding that Elaine apologize for having talked back. She wouldn't. Her mother slapped her face. Elaine remained silent and took the abuse, as if she would sooner be beaten to death than concede to them. I was terrified, and sick with love because Elaine had short black curly hair and pale white skin, and was very pretty and bright. When I came out of school, my mother would be waiting for me at the corner, across Market Street. She'd never have hit me in front of Miss Higgins, not even if she believed I'd been rude. My mother was much better than Elaine's or anyone's.
April 1, '61
Ernie calls, says he is in big trouble. He owes money to "the mob." He was laughing, a sick frightened whiny laugh. He wanted to ask me to lend him money, but the request was made in the strangest halfhearted way, more like a feeble suggestion than a request, as if he realized before he finished asking that it was ridiculous, and then he changed the subject. If he must turn to me for money, he is truly desperate. I wish I could feel deeply concerned or even feel pitynot that it would make any difference. The minute I hang up the phone I forget about him, except for a lingering sense that I owe him something more than conversation, but now I'm not even thinking of him, only this anxietyowing more than I could give. He once walked into my bedroom without knocking. Roslyn happened to be standing beside the bed half dressed. She put her hands on her hips and turned to look at Ernie. He blushed and made some idiotic remark as he backed out of the room. She didn't seem embarrassed, but coolly indignant. Ernie walked in because, subconsciously, he wanted my girl. With Ernie I have always had the sense that he wants something from me, but not anything I can give him, like beautiful Roslyn, money, or love. Even when he was giving me the tip on the market, I knew he wanted something.
When Ernie cooked a steak, he'd squeeze a tube of anchovy paste onto the steak. When he saw me staring at him he would blush. The big face became pink and florid, and he looked like a hothouse lily, smooth-skinned, meaty, with large juicy brown eyes. He blushed as if ashamed, but he was only mildly embarrassed and tickled by his eccentricity. Couldn't deny himself excess. "Would you like some steak?" he'd ask in a jocular tone. I'd say, "No, thanks." He'd then eat enthusiastically, taking huge mouthfuls, making a show of how he relishes steak smeared with anchovy paste. He knew he was disgusting. He didn't enjoy anything, not even steak. The enjoyment, the satisfaction, the sufficiency Ernie needs isn't in the sensual universe. He couldn't deny himself excess even when he knew the stock would crash.
We moved from MacDougal Street to an apartment on 104th Street, near Columbia University, where Sylvia attended night school. She took a class in German, thinking she might someday do graduate work and would have to pass exams in modern languages, but she had no idea of what subject she would study, and soon gave up German as well as night school.
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