Leonard Michaels: Sylvia

Leonard Michaels (1933 – 2003) is one of those writers who has attained minor icon status in the USA (his fiction is published there by a classics imprint) but has never really taken off in the UK. In his introduction to this book – its first British publication – David Lodge suggests that this is because Michaels’ “concentrated, genre-busting” stories, widely considered to be the best of his work, “were challengingly unfamiliar in content and form, written with an intensity that demanded a corresponding effort from the reader.” For example his story ‘City Boy’, included in The Paris Review’s Object Lessons anthology as one of “the greatest short stories of the past sixty years”, mixes realism and fantasy without distinction. His late stories about mathematician Nachman (“People called Nachman Nachman, as if he were a historical figure”) are semi-comic scenes from a life and the “high point of [his] career”. Michaels also wrote two short novels, The Men’s Club (1981) and Sylvia (1993). I read the former a year or two ago without remembering much about it, so I was interested to see that the reliable Daunt Books had reissued this.

Leonard Michaels: Sylvia

Sylvia started life as a short-story-length memoir, published in a collection of journalism and other pieces, and was extended to stand alone a few years later. Although presented as fiction, it is, Lodge tells us, “[Michaels’] own story”. This at least frees it from the questions of author-as-narrator that dogged Michael’s contemporary Philip Roth: this time we know it’s him. But it invites exactly the same judgements for non-literary reasons (“What is being done to silence this man?” a rabbi asked on publication of Roth’s first book, Goodbye Columbus, in 1959), because the narrator of Sylvia is often as unsympathetic, as crudely and unreconstructedly male, as Alex Portnoy or Mickey Sabbath.

But first: it’s 1960 and our narrator, Leonard, aged 27, has arrived in New York. He’s an aspiring writer, a fortunate young man “humoured by the world”, one who “could give no better account of himself than to say, ‘I love to read’.” In short order a friend introduces him to a young Asian woman, Sylvia, and “the question of what to do with my life was resolved for the next four years.” Sylvia is a book of memory (the epigraph, from Adam Zagajewski’s poem ‘Fruit‘, is “How unattainable life is, it only reveals / its features in memory, / in nonexistence”), and most of it is told long after the events – was, presumably, written long after the events, so the telling has the richness of long thought and is dotted with the sort of details that crystallise and colour over time. Sylvia tells Leonard of her mother’s death:

She said her mother became increasingly sensitive as she declined, until even the odour of the telephone cord beside her bed nauseated her.

Memories come too from the journal entries that are peppered through the book, which are real and contemporaneous, according to the introduction, and are artless enough that they have a ring of authenticity (that’s to say, I don’t think they add much to the book other than verisimilitude).

Perhaps inevitably – it wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise – Leonard and Sylvia quickly move from fucking to fighting: or rather, to both. “No passport was required. There wasn’t even a border. Time was fractured, there was no cause and effect, and one thing didn’t even lead towards another. As in a metaphor, one thing was another. Raging, hating, I wanted to fuck, and she did too.” Pretty soon, Leonard is spending more time at his parents, including once when Sylvia rings to tell him she has slit her wrists. (Don’t fear spoilers, by the way – we’re only on page 30. This one’s a wild ride.) Here we get relieving bursts of black humour, as Leonard resents his mother detaining him as she makes up a food parcel to take with him as he returns to see if Sylvia really has tried to kill herself. “She suspected things were bad on MacDougal Street, but if I left without the food she’d know they were very bad.”

Leonard Michaels

Even when recollected in tranquility, Leonard’s memories of Sylvia can be brutal. He suggests that the fact that she is (as he sees it) “certifiably, technically nuts” may be connected to her lack of interest in current affairs. “Sylvia never read a newspaper. I told her what was happening. She didn’t care one bit. I told her anyhow.” Because “I had a vague notion that mental health is more or less proportional to the attention you give to matters outside your head.” David Lodge in his introduction seems happy to go along with this, referring to the book as having “its place in the extensive modern literature of psychopathology.” Meanwhile, Leonard, with frankness that’s either refreshing or foolhardy, finds himself “giddy with pleasure” to learn from friends that they all fight with their partners too.

I felt happily irresponsible. Countless men and women, I supposed, all over America, were tearing each other to pieces. How great. I was normal.

The recognition makes him feel “miserably normal … Whatever people thought of me, I could think it first of them. I could flaunt my shame as a form of contempt for others.” His contempt is never more flaunted than when discussing Sylvia’s friend Agatha, a beauty whose voice “suggested a low-voltage brain” and whose boyfriends, “if they weren’t vicious when they met Agatha, she helped them discover it in themselves.” And his thoughts on women generally are – what? – candid, and authentic-seeming. Teaching students, he is surrounded by “gorgeous girls with olive skin and lustrous, wavy hair. I never touched any of them. They had the handwriting of little children and drew bubbles over the letter i.” It’s for the reader to decide if this is just innate – he’s a man – or a reaction to the increasing domestic blitz of life with Sylvia. By this time, their fights “had become so ugly that the gay couple across the hall wouldn’t ever say hello to us.”

All this must end, and so it does – but how? “It would have been easy to leave Sylvia. Had it been difficult, I might have done it.” This is a short book, at 130 pages, but intense, and as ugly as it is beautiful. Not incidentally, it provides a convincing portrait of 1960s New York, from a man who pictured it romantically as a boy, then lived in it unromantically as an adult. It contains self-contained jewels like an account of a Lenny Bruce gig which left Michaels feeling “a pleasing terror, like leaping from a high place.” His book has a not dissimilar effect.


  1. I can identify with the women of the 60’s. I am somewhat nuts but quite intelligent. Women have many places to put things in life we choose not to deal with and we have many ways to do it that get past men. We know it drives them up the wall, but we go ahead anyway. It is self preservation. I was a young woman in my 20’s in the early 70’s.it was a confusing time. From day to day I chose who I was-even by the clothes I wore. Being a little nuts and also smart is a dangerous combination, but an interesting one. Now, at 65, I am the same. I have only honed my skills. Women like us do not fit into the mainstream so we express ourselves in art and words or we do go off the deep end. I am a Sylvia. Proud to be one. I am just so glad my patient husband is not a Leonard.
    Thanks for the post. 🙂

  2. John,

    Are there any women in the narrative that Leonard doesn’t have issues with? I noted Sylvia, who he seems to think he can cure with current affairs programs, Agatha and her “low-voltage brain” and the olive-skinned women who he also doesn’t seem to think much of. For a book with a woman’s name as its title, it seems to objectify its women somewhat.

  3. I just read this, and passed by to re-read this review, only to be blind-sided by four – four! – new reviews. Gosh.

    Anyway, I got round to the review. I wonder what version of himself Michaels thought he was presenting. Is he sincere? disingenuous? pathetic? possibly all three.

    There’s quite a stock of misanthropy in here to go with the misogyny – his male friends are uniformly assholes of one stripe or another. Yet the sense of energy and life coming out of the New York milieu is undeniable. It must have been dreadful to live through, but also a lot of fun.

    A strange book. I’ll look for his stories.

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