- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 23, 2009

THE ESSAYS OF LEONARD MICHAELS
By Leonard Michaels
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26, 204 pages
REVIEWED BY STEPHEN GOODE

At the first baseball game Leonard Michaels ever attended, he caught a ball casually tossed into the crowd by the great Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg. It was a big moment in the young life of the future writer. Greenberg was Jewish and New York City-born, and Mr. Michaels, too, was Jewish and from New York City. That baseball, Mr. Michaels later wrote, “was the only palpable treasure I’d ever owned. … The baseball made me feel like a real American.” Mr. Michaels described the incident in “My Yiddish,” one of the essays included in a new and posthumous collection of his nonfiction, “The Collected Essays of Leonard Michaels.”

Mr. Michaels (1933-2003) was the author of highly regarded short stories and novels (“The Men’s Club”). These well-crafted and varied essays — each is a gem in its own way — proves him to be a marvelously skilled writer of nonfiction as well. The essays cover 30 years of Mr. Michaels‘ writing career. They range from thoughtful book reviews (of Saul Bellow’s “On Ravelstein,” for instance) and commentaries on art (a powerful piece on the painter Edward Hopper) to poignant memoirs (“My Yiddish,” “My Father”).

Mr. Michaels‘ prose is lean and subtly crafted, sometimes even Zen-like in its precision and compactness. A widely read man who relished and thoroughly digested the works of authors he valued, Mr. Michaels was master of the apt quotation from writers as diverse as St. Augustine, Wallace Stevens, Vladimir Nabokov and Ludwig Wittgenstein, to name but a few who appear in these pages.

The essays frequently offer valuable advice to writers: “The problem of storytelling,” wrote Mr. Michaels in “What’s a Story?,” “is how to make transitions into transformations, since the former belong to logic, sincerity, and boredom … and the latter belong to art.” Mr. Michaels can also be profoundly critical of the contemporary world: “an age of multitudinous blah, blah,” he called it in one essay, a time he found to be far too convinced of its own cleverness.

In “On Love,” Mr. Michaels took issue with pornography describing it as “the graphic demystification and annihilation of mystery.” It’s a good definition, which he then expanded: pornography “represents the desire for some feeling to be exhaustively talked about or imagined or exhibited, which is probably the condition that the modern world knows best in regard to every subject: love, sex, food, etc.”

What to do? Mr. Michaels offered this suggestion, “… not to say ‘shut up,’ but only to say ‘stop talking.’ The difference is everything — in love and art.” Of course, Mr. Michaels did not mean that we should stop talking completely. He knew words have real meanings — see his wonderful essays on two Old Testament narratives, “The Story of Judah and Tamar” and “The Story of Jonah.”

What Mr. Michaels recognized was that silence, and the careful weighing of meaning, can give words weight they lose amid too much chatter. Several times in these essays, he quotes the famous last sentence of Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus,” “Whereof we cannot speak, we must remain silent.”

Mr. Michaels appreciated Wittgenstein’s austere demands on the care that must be taken when we use language. But he found the philosopher’s dictum “a mean little poem against poets,” in Mr. Michaels‘ well-chosen words. For, as Mr. Michaels argued, it ” is also true that, whereof we cannot speak, we dream, or tell stories,” and “whereof we cannot speak we make a joke.” Absolute silence isn’t necessary to maintain meaning, meaningful words can pierce that silence.

Nowhere in these essays does Mr. Michaels go more deeply into our current carelessness with language than in “I’m Having Trouble With My Relationship.” Mr. Michaels does not like the word “relationship.” English has far richer words, rooted in past usage, that mean the same thing, he argued: “affair,” “romance,” boyfriend,” “girlfriend.”

What’s wrong with “relationship”? For Mr. Michaels, the word was too abstract. “People say ‘I’m having trouble with my relationship’ as though the trouble were not with Penelope or Max but with an object, like a BMW…,” he explained.

“By displacing old words for romantic love,” he explained, “‘relationship’ indicates a new caution where human experience is extremely intense and ephemeral, or a distrust of concrete words … or perhaps a distrust of words in general.”

Mr. Michaels‘ essays on family members, friends and growing up in New York City in the 1940s and ‘50s are rich in anecdote and detail, but cover only small parts of the author’s life, leaving the reader wanting more.

“A Sentimental Memoir,” a stunning portrait of Austin Warren, a University of Michigan graduate English professor, brings to life a brilliant man and teacher, warts and all. Mr. Michaels served as the professor’s teaching assistant, a role that included being summoned on occasion at midnight to bring the great man a bottle of Jim Beam, which Warren, who was not a priest, received clad in the garments of a Greek Orthodox cleric in an incense-filled apartment.

But perhaps the most personal of these essays is “The Zipper,” Mr. Michaels‘ homage to screen star Rita Hayworth. He was in his early teens when he saw the actress in her famous film “Gilda” at the Loews Canal Street movie house in lower Manhattan in 1946. Decades later, he could recall the jealousy the movie’s male leads, George Macready and Glenn Ford, aroused in him. They, not he, got to zip up Gilda’s dress when she asked for help.

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