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Michaels, Leonard

MICHAELS, Leonard

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 2 January 1933. Education: The High School for Music and Art, New York, graduated 1949; New York University, 1949-53, B.A. 1953; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, M.A. 1956, Ph.D. in English 1967. Family: Married 1) Priscilla Older in 1966 (divorced), two sons; 2) Brenda Hillman in 1976, one daughter. Career: Teacher, Paterson State College, New Jersey, 1961-62; assistant professor of English, University of California, Davis, 1967-69. Since 1970 professor of English, University of California, Berkeley. Visiting professor at many universities, including Johns Hopkins University and the University of Alabama. Since 1977 editor, University Publishing review, Berkeley. Corresponding editor, Partisan Review; contributing editor, Threepenny Review, 1980. Contributor of short stories to numerous literary journals and popular magazines, including Esquire, Paris Review, Evergreen Review, Partisan Review, and Tri-Quarterly. Awards: Quill award, Massachusetts Review, 1964, 1966; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1967; Massachusetts Review award, 1969, 1970; Guggenheim fellowship, 1969; National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, 1970; American Academy award in Literature, National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1971; New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice award, 1975. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow and Nesbit, 598 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10022. Address: Department of English, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720, U.S.A.

Publications

Novel

The Men's Club. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Cape, 1981.

Sylvia: A Fictional Memoir, illustrated by Sylvia Block. San Francisco, Mercury House, 1992.

Short Stories

Going Places. New York, Farrar Straus, 1969; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970.

I Would Have Saved Them If I Could. New York, Farrar Straus, 1975.

A Girl with a Monkey: New and Selected Stories. San Francisco, Mercury House, 2000.

Play

City Boy (produced in New York City, 1985).

Screenplay:

The Men's Club, 1986.

Other

Shuffle. New York, Farrar Straus, 1990; London, Cape, 1991.

To Feel These Things: Essays. San Francisco, Mercury House, 1993.

A Cat, illustrated by Frances Lerner. New York, Riverhead Books, 1995.

Time out of Mind: The Diaries of Leonard Michaels, 1961-1995. New York, Riverhead Books, 1999.

Contributor, American Review 26, edited by Theodore Solotaroff. New York, Bantam, 1977.

Contributor, Prize Stories, 1980: The O. Henry Awards, edited by William Abrahams. New York, Doubleday, 1980.

Editor, with Christopher Ricks, The State of the Language. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1980; University of California Press, and London, Faber, 1990.

Editor, with Raquel Scherr and David Reid, West of the West: Imagining California. Berkeley, California, North Point Press, 1990.

*

Critical Studies:

Passion and Craft: Conversations with Notable Writers, edited by Bonnie Lyons and Bill Oliver, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Leonard Michaels comments:

My writing tends to be terse and quick, usually about urban types and the kinds of psychological violence they inflict upon one another. I have no philosophical or political messages. My work depends on traditional beliefs.

* * *

The fiction of Leonard Michaels is not easily describedit resists categories. It is realistic, but its dominant feature is irrationality of plot, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, sometimes both at once. It is symbolic in its depiction of urban life, but its meanings are never reducible to messages, never allegorical. It is surreal and fragmented, but there is a consistency of viewpoint which can tie stories together and make for an overall coherence not to be found in the individual pieces. It reflects, sometimes self-consciously, the influence of such writers as Kafka, Roth, Malamud, Barthelme, and Borges, but it is nevertheless distinctive and compelling. At their best, Michaels's stories are intense, active, and imaginative; they can also be incomplete, vague, even incomprehensible.

Michaels's fiction has been published in three volumes of stories, Going Places, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, and A Girl With a Monkey, and one short novel, The Men's Club. He has published a book of essays on various subjects, To Feel These Things; a mix of essays and autobiographical vignettes, Shuffle; and a selection of entries from his diaries, Time Out of Mind. With most writers, the distinction between their fiction and their autobiographical writing is reasonably clear. With Michaels, there is little to distinguish, in form or content, his diary entries, for example, made during his ill-fated marriage to Sylvia Bloch from his "fictional memoir," entitled Sylvia.

The earlier pieces provide brief glimpses of contemporary urban existence, bizarre incidents suggesting the unnatural condition of city life: a naked boy is denied entrance to the subway for lack of a token; a couple maim each other in a fight and then decide to marry; a Talmudic scholar slips on an icy street and is assumed to be a drunken derelict; a professor of philosophy, by never speaking in class, wins a reputation for profundity; an honors graduate preferring to make a living by driving a cab is beaten gratuitously; a boy spying on his rabbi making love to his wife falls to his death; a telephone caller trying to reach a friend speaks instead to the burglar ransacking the friend's apartment. Some form of intense, though often anonymous, sexual encounter begins or ends many of the stories. In all of this there is the recognition of the craziness of things and yet of their plausibilityespecially the stories set in New York City during the 1960s.

The element that provides continuity in Michaels's stories is the "central intelligence" of Phillip Liebowitz. Identified in many stories, present as unnamed narrator in others, he is a self-proclaimed, street-smart "city boy." Phillip emerges as a character not in any particular story but only in the collection as a whole. His contact with others is almost entirely in a sexual context: the women in the stories are merely objects of lust, the other men his rivals for their favors. Through sexual conquest, Phillip asserts his existence and a degree of control over the hostile urban environment.

The one novel Michaels has published, The Men's Club, is strongly reminiscent of his story collections. A group of men get together to form what might be called a consciousness-raising group. They decide that each will tell the story of his life, but what we get instead are fragments of stories, not biographical data but moments of intense self-awareness. As in Chaucer's "marriage group" of tales (one of the characters is named Canterbury), there is a recurring theme: the fascinating power of women over men. These husbands who come together one evening specifically to be free of women can speak of nothing but their wives and lovers, some women whom they have lived with for many years, others they spent a few moments with many years ago. These anecdotes, like most of Michaels's stories, lack endings. When one character complains that he did not get the point of another's story, the narrator expresses views which apply to all Michaels's fiction:

Doesn't matter I don't get it either. I could tell other stories that have no point. This often happens to me. I start to talk, thinking there is a point, and then it never arrives. What is it, anyhow, this point? Things happen. You remember. That's all. If you take a large perspective, you'll realize there never is a point.

Sylvia, "a fictional memoir," is the story of the stormy relationship between a young writer and the troubled woman he marries. Interspersed within the narrative are passages labeled as "journal" entries dated between 1960, the year the narrator meets Sylvia Bloch, and 1963, the year of her suicide. As in his stories, Michaels has his narrator recount anecdotes of his life with Sylvia without any attempt to convey why the characters behave as they do. Throughout his narrative, the writer refuses to explain: "My life, after all, wasn't a story. It was just moments, what happens from day to day, and it didn't mean anything, and there was no moral."

Things happen in Michaels's fiction, often strange things, but there are no explanations, no point, no moral. The same traits which have drawn a cult following to Michaels alienates others. Readers who choose to enter the world of Leonard Michaels world do so on his terms.

Robert E. Lynch

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