Michaels, Leonard 1933-
MICHAELS, Leonard 1933-
PERSONAL: Born January 2, 1933, in New York, NY; son of Leon (a barber) and Anna (Czeskies) Michaels; married Sylvia Bloch, c. 1960 (separated c. 1963, deceased, 1963); married second wife, Priscilla Older, June 30, 1966 (divorced, 1977); married third wife, Brenda Lynn Hillman (a poet), August 10, 1977 (divorced); married fourth wife, Katharine Ogden (a general contractor in Italy), February 3, 1995; children: (second marriage) Ethan, Jesse; (third marriage) Louisa. Education: New York University, B.A., 1953; University of Michigan, M.A., 1956, Ph.D., 1966.
ADDRESSES: Home—409 Boynton Ave., Kensington, CA 94707; 06060 Lisciano Niccone, Casella 19, P.G., Italy. Office—Department of English, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720. Agent—Lynn Nesbit, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Paterson State College (now William Paterson State College of New Jersey), Wayne, instructor, 1961-62; University of California, Davis, assistant professor of English, 1966-69; University of California, Berkeley, professor of English, 1970—. Editor of University Publishing review, 1977—. Contributing editor, Threepenny Review, 1980. Visiting professor at many universities, including Johns Hopkins University and University of Alabama. Guest lecturer in institutions in the United States and abroad.
AWARDS, HONORS: Quill Award, Massachusetts Review, 1964, for "Sticks and Stones" (short story), and 1966, for "The Deal" (short story); National Book Award nomination, 1969, for Going Places; Guggenheim fellow, 1969; National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, 1970; American Academy Award in Literature, National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1971, for published work of distinction; New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice Award, 1975, for I Would Have Saved Them If I Could; American Book Award nomination and National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, both in 1982, for The Men's Club; National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities prize, for short story in Transatlantic.
Going Places (short stories; also see below), Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY), 1969.
I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (short stories; also see below), Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY). 1975.
(Contributor) Theodore Solotaroff, editor, AmericanReview 26, Bantam (New York, NY), 1977.
(Contributor) William Abrahams, editor, Prize Stories,1980: The O. Henry Awards, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1980.
(Editor, with Christopher Ricks) The State of the Language, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1980.
The Men's Club (novel; also see below), Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY), 1981, expanded edition, Mercury House (San Francisco, CA), 1993.
City Boy (play adapted from short stories in GoingPlaces and I Would Have Saved Them If I Could), produced in New York City at The Jewish Repertory Theater, 1985.
The Men's Club (screenplay based on his novel of the same title), Atlantic Releasing Corporation, 1986.
(Editor, with Raquel Sheer and David Reid) West of the West: Imagining California: An Anthology, North Point Press (San Francisco, CA), 1989, reprinted, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1995.
(Editor, with Christopher Ricks) The State of the Language (new essays on English), University of California Press, (Berkeley, CA), 1990.
Shuffle, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY), 1990.
Sylvia: A Fictional Memoir, illustrated by Sylvia Bloch, Mercury House (San Francisco, CA), 1992.
To Feel These Things: Essays, Mercury House (San Francisco, CA), 1993.
A Cat, illustrated by Frances Lerner, Riverhead Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Time Out of Mind: The Diaries of Leonard Michaels,1961-1995, Riverhead Books (New York, NY), 1999.
A Girl with a Monkey: New and Selected Stories, Mercury House (San Francisco, CA), 2000.
Also contributor of short stories to The American Literary Anthology / One, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, and to numerous literary journals and popular magazines, including Esquire, Paris Review, Evergreen Review, Partisan Review, Vogue, New Yorker, and Tri-Quarterly. Corresponding editor, Partisan Review.
WORK IN PROGRESS: "A collection of short stories and a collection of essays."
SIDELIGHTS: With several award-winning short stories placed in prestigious literary magazines, Leonard Michaels became known as an impressive writer—a reputation that was extended when Going Places, his first book-length collection, was nominated for the National Book Award in 1969. Reviews of his second collection, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, named Michaels a master of short fiction forms. "The hallmarks of these stories," David Reid summarized in the Threepenny Review, "are an amazing rapidity of image, incident, and idea and a deftness of rhythm and phrasing that, quite simply, confirm, sentence by sentence, his status as one of the most original, intelligent, and stylistically gifted writers of his generation." Critics praised the blend of horror and humor in the stories which are unified by their New York settings, often noting that Michaels's descriptions of urban brutality strike the reader with an almost physical impact. After I Would Have Saved Them If I Could was named by the New York Times Book Review staff as one of the six outstanding works of fiction published in 1975, Michaels co-edited three popular essay collections (The State of the Language, a 600-page anthology of essays and poems; a second tome on the English language also entitled The State of the Language; and West of the West: Imagining California, about California's unique role in history as "the New World's New World") and wrote the controversial novel The Men's Club. Though not prolific, Michaels sustains critical favor by pressing on to new territory and larger forms, while reducing his use of literary allusions.
Michaels grew up on the Lower East Side of New York City, the son of immigrant Polish Jews. "I spoke only Yiddish until I was about five or six years old," he told Washington Post contributor Curt Suplee. At that time, his mother bought a complete set of Charles Dickens, providing Michaels's introduction to English prose: "If you can imagine a little boy . . . listening to his mother, who can hardly speak English, reading Dickens hour after hour in the most extraordinary accent, it might help to account for my peculiar ear." Interested in literature, but feeling that his heritage placed him outside "The Tradition" as defined by T. S. Eliot, Michaels studied painting in high school and then entered New York University as a premed student. There he met and became the protégé of Austin Warren, a respected critic who encouraged Michaels to cultivate his literary interests.
After two failed attempts at graduate school at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley, Michaels moved to New York City, where he began to write stories. During this time, he met and married his first wife, Sylvia, who eventually committed suicide after the pair separated; she figures prominently in Michaels's later writings. Michaels returned to the University of Michigan to work on his Ph.D. He also wrote two novels that were never published. Though he eventually reshaped the second novel into the series of stories in I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, he incinerated the first one, Helen Benedict reported in the New York Times Book Review, "because of the 'severe' ideas he then held about the writer's obligation to art." "It's true," Michaels told Threepenny Review contributor Mona Simpson, "I wrote it in a very short period of time and I threw it into the incinerator. It was absolutely horrible. I wrote it . . . to show I could write a novel any time I wanted to, even in two weeks. But I wasn't about to really do anything like that. . . . I was more interested in forms of writing that seemed to me closer to the high ideals of art." Michaels found the short story form more demanding and better suited to his artistic ideals. He was twenty-nine when Playboy magazine bought the first story he sent them for $3,000, making him, as Suplee remarked, "an instant success." This assessment of Michaels's talent proved to be no exaggeration when stories published in literary journals such as the Massachusetts Review brought him two Quill Awards, the O. Henry Prize, and a National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities prize.
Going Places contains several of the prizewinners. "The key events in [these] stories—usually holocausts in the lives of his protagonists—are indistinguishable from the settings in which they occur," Laurence Lieberman noted in the Atlantic. They are set in New York City, which is itself "a crucial protagonist in each story," according to Village Voice contributor Stephan Taylor. Taylor saw the city in these stories as a "laboratory" in which "human beings are the only remaining manifestations of nature," a condition that makes their relationships more intense, more sexual, and more prone to culminate in violence. More imposing than the city's skyline, the urban population is presented as a "monster" that brutally rapes or beats its victims. In "The Deal," an attractive woman's trip across the street to buy cigarettes puts her into a confrontation with "twenty Puerto Rican boys congregated into the shape of a great bird of prey on a banistered front stoop in Spanish Harlem," Lieberman noted; and in the title story, an aimless cab driver's fares beat him with such force that it leaves him near death, and—for the first time in his life—conscious of his will to live. In "Crossbones," an unmarried couple fight and maim each other in the tension provoked by an impending visit from the girl's father, making it clear to Taylor that "while we've controlled natural disasters like plague and drought and famine in our cities, we may simply have freed people to perpetrate personal disasters that are just as harrowing." This view was shared by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times: "Mr. Michaels creates a hostile, violent, and absurd world in which people grope for each other longingly, yet can only touch one another by inflicting damage."
Horrors such as "orgies, rapes, mayhem and suicide in city scenes and subwayscapes" keep the reader's attention while Michaels explores the familiar themes of love and death, Lore Segal remarked in a New Republic review. Segal believed the author "makes these horrors horrible again and funny." For instance, in "City Boy," Phillip and his girlfriend are caught in a carnal embrace on the girl's living room floor by her father. Phillip escapes into the street without his clothes, and tries to disguise his nakedness by walking on his hands. The nude Phillip fails to establish enough trust with the subway conductor to secure his ride home. As he leaves the subway station, his girlfriend greets him with his clothing and the news that her father has suffered a heart attack.
Taylor conceded that the stories are comic, "not funny," since "their comedy takes place on a tightrope, a high wire beneath which there's broken glass instead of nets. And the laughter, ranging everywhere from booming to tittery, is flung in the teeth of despair." "The balance between the plaintively humorous and the grotesquely sad is what gives full dimension to Michaels's fiction," Ronald Christ suggested in a Commonweal review. Segal summarized, "If [Going Places] poses that old chestnut of a question, How is it possible to read about what is bleak and hideous and be reading something hilarious and beautiful and pleasurable, the answer is the old one: It is at the miraculous point where this transformation happens that literature has occurred."
In 1970, Michaels began teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is still professor of English. His second collection of stories, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, published in 1975, "is a useful reminder that the rich complexity of a successful novel can, in the hands of a master, be achieved within the limitations of smaller forms," Thomas R. Edwards commented in the New York Times Book Review, adding that he considered the book "an important literary event." These stories trace Phillip Liebowitz's social and sexual development as a second-generation Jew during the fifties. In one story, the adolescent Phillip and his friends climb a water tower from which they have an unobstructed view of their young rabbi enjoying sex with his voluptuous wife, until the youngest boy falls to his death. In this, as in the other stories, Edwards noted that Phillip "finds his sexuality a source of continuous humiliation and self-betrayal, and the fine comic flair of these stories doesn't obscure their gloomy appraisal of past postrevolutionary life." The book measures the development of Phillip's mind as well as his body. Edwards concluded, "I know of few writers who can so firmly articulate intensity of feeling with the musculature of cool and difficult thinking, and 'I Would Have Saved Them If I Could' . . . should be read by anyone who hopes that fiction can still be a powerful and intelligent art."
Michaels discusses the relationship between creativity and death through his character Phillip in the title story, which "identifies the personal history of the narrator with the history of modern European Jewry," Lehmann-Haupt wrote in the New York Times. He felt that the story raises the question, "By what right do we go on living and creating when our forefathers have been slaughtered?" Phillip's reflections include a quote from Wallace Stevens ("Death is the mother of beauty"), and an extended quote from Lord Byron. In a letter describing the execution of three robbers in Rome, Byron admits that, after the first decapitation, the next two failed to move him as horrors, though he would have rescued them if he could. Lehmann-Haupt paraphrased Byron to put the story's thesis, as he sees it, into simple terms: "I would have saved them if I could. But I couldn't, so I rescued art from them." Moreover, the reviewer concluded, "This is Mr. Michaels's achievement....Hehas rescued art from the horror."
"Leonard Michaels's stories established him as a master phenomenologist of dread and desire. The Men's Club will confirm and enlarge that reputation," Dave Reid commented in the Threepenny Review. In the novel, a group of men assemble in the Berkeley home of a psychiatrist to form a club. The club's purpose, they discover, is "to make women cry," and to tell their life stories—tales of sexual conquest, marital frustration, and insatiable appetite. "It is a little as if Golding's Lord of the Flies had been transposed to middle-class, middle-aging California," Carol Rumens remarked in the Times Literary Supplement. "As the night progresses," David Evanier summarized in his National Review article, "the men fight, throw knives, destroy furniture, and howl together in unison." At that point, the host's wife returns to find the feast she had prepared for her women's group devoured and her home demolished. While she gives her husband a serious head injury with an iron frying pan, his guests escape into the early morning, offering no answer when one of them shouts "Where are we going?" Evanier remarked that "on its own terms it is a considerable novel. Nothing in Michaels's two previous books of short stories . . . prepared me for the relentlessly dark and brilliant strength of these pages. Here is a middleaged predatory Berkeley inferno of loss and chaos."
Some critics viewed The Men's Club as an antifeminist novel; others contended it is feminist. A review in the New Yorker claimed that the men in the novel amount to "one married misogynist split seven ways." Robert Towers conceded, "The Men's Club might at first glance seem to be part of an anti-feminist backlash, to draw its energies from male fantasies of revenge against the whole monstrous regiment of women. As an ostensible cri de coeur from a small herd of male chauvinist pigs, it will thrive upon the outrage it provokes and the rueful yearnings it indulges." Nonetheless, Towers suggested, the book's subtler implications become apparent during a more careful reading. Newsweek magazine contributor Peter S. Prescott believed that since the men reveal themselves to be at fault in their failed relationships, the book takes on "a distinctly feminist cast that is far more appealing than what we find in most novels written by angry women today." Michaels is surprised by both interpretations. He told Suplee, "[The Men's Club] is not in any sense propaganda, pro or con feminism, pro or con male sensibility....Itis, I hope, believe it or not, a description of reality."
Another debate among critics is the attempt to link Michaels with literary influences. "From [Franz] Kafka and [Jorge Luis] Borges . . . and more immediately [Donald] Barthelme, Michaels has learned how to dissolve the conventions of 'rational' narrative, replacing continuity with a collage of intensely rendered moments, so that reading feels like taking a number of hard blows to the head and groin," Edwards remarked in his review of Michaels's second book. A Chicago Tribune Book World review by Joyce Carol Oates and a review in Atlantic also named Barthelme as an influence and added Philip Roth. However, Larry Woiwode argued in the Partisan Review that Michaels's works were completed before Roth's; and, regarding the Barthelme connection, Woiwode maintained, "In terms of influence, it seems surely possible that Michaels has touched on Barthelme as much as Barthelme on Michaels, especially since Barthelme didn't really delve deeply into anguish, Michaels's prime subject, until The Dead Father [published in 1975]." Rather, the major influences on Michaels, Woiwode believed, are not his contemporaries: "[Isaac] Babel is obviously Michaels's literary mentor, but it often seems that [Ernest] Hemingway is a favorite sounding board, the Americanized side of Michaels's fascination with violence, suicide, and death (which has 'eat' at its center), and perhaps a bit of patriarchal scourge, being antiintellectual, a tyrant in most matters, and a fellow practitioner of the short sentence with the kick-back of a pistol-shot."
Allusions to Michaels's favorite writers appear often in the stories, which Towers believed are "excessively literary in their inspiration." An Atlantic contributor mused that "One piece [in the second book] pays homage to Borges so efficiently that there is hardly any Michaels in it." In the novel, Michaels deliberately adopts a different approach. "I think of The Men's Club as a descent into the human," the author told Simpson. In another interview, he told Benedict, "By that I mean the considerations of literary art in this book are supposed to seem minimal. Everything I talk about, I try to talk about in regard to human reality, which is a much sloppier thing than art." Towers's comment on the novel indicated that Michaels succeeds: "The literary influences so evident in the stories have now been largely assimilated. Leonard Michaels has become his own man, with his own voice and a subject substantial enough to grant his talents the scope they have needed all along."
In 1985, Michaels worked with director Edward M. Cohen to produce several of the Phillip Liebowitz stories as a play. "Leonard writes splendid dialogue," Cohen told New York Times contributor Samuel G. Freedman. "He writes short, concise stories. So there is a dramatic compression already there." Speaking to Freedman, Michaels described the experience of working with other artists to adapt the stories for theater as "wrenching," "frightening," and "exhilarating." Michaels also wrote the screenplay for the film based on The Men's Club, condensing its long monologues and adding a new ending in which the men finish their evening out with prostitutes instead of breakfast. Janet Maslin's review in the New York Times stated that "the lengthy whorehouse sequence" which makes up the film's second half "wasn't in Mr. Michaels's book and didn't need to be." A Los Angeles Times review concurred that the film's "porno ambiance is doubly unfortunate," and adds that the film does not reach the potential promised in the "stinging, smart, abrasive dialogue from scenarist Leonard Michaels." Still, Evanier commended the author for his foray into yet another genre: "Leonard Michaels breaks new ground, in the tradition of the artist who does not stand still."
Michaels's next two works found him back in the realm of fiction—at least marginally. Shuffle, described by its dust-jacket blurb as autobiographical fiction, comprises several parts, including the narrator's "Journal"; a narrative piece entitled "Sylvia" that discusses the narrator's marriage and divorce; and four short stories. Throughout, Michaels interweaves fact and fiction, examining the familiar terrain of "anomie and cigarette smoke and literary referents and sex," noted Nicholas Delbanco in the Chicago Tribune Books. Reviewers struggled with Shuffle's structure, generally criticizing the work as self-indulgent and aimless. Anatole Broyard, writing in the New York Times Book Review, averred that Shuffle "is a shockingly bad book for a man of Mr. Michaels's stature. All the wryness [evident in his previous work] has dried up and left him with a bad taste in his mouth." Times Literary Supplement reviewer Roz Kaveney, while praising the four short stories in the collection for their "artful authenticity," characterized the prose as "tinny through and through" and averred that the work as a whole lacks "the ring of truth."
Sylvia: A Fictional Memoir similarly confounded critics trying to determine what was fiction and what was not. In fact, as Tom Clark noted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the work was "advertised in the publicity copy as a rewrite" of the narrative section in Shuffle titled "Sylvia." In this "rewrite," Michaels offers the story of a young writer's combustible love affair and marriage with a troubled woman who eventually commits suicide—events that mirror Michaels's own life. Set in Greenwich Village during the 1960s, the book details the "moral chaos and social confusion" of the decade's "counterculture landscape," commented Clark. A New Yorker reviewer called Sylvia "stylish" and "hard to put down." "There is an airless, claustrophobic, solipsistic quality to Michaels's book," wrote Clancy Sigal in a Washington Post Book World review. While critical of the author's portrayal of Sylvia as possibly hostile and one-sided, Sigal averred that the book "rings with awful truth."
The 1993 publication To Feel These Things brings together 14 previously published essays. While reviewers continued to wonder at the labels attached to Michaels's work—fiction or nonfiction?—several greeted the book with praise. Peggy Constantine, writing in the New York Times Book Review, termed the author's style "evocative" and "gloriously relaxed." Calling Michaels "a superb stylist," Corrine Robins in American Book Review stated that "Michaels's prose achieves the beauty of a physical feat."
During his troubled first marriage, Michaels began keeping a personal journal. His journals ultimately became an ever-present part of his life, and he took them wherever he went. Time Out of Mind: The Diaries of Leonard Michaels, 1961-1995, contains a portion of these journals and, as Frank Caso wrote for Booklist, the entries read like short literary pieces that captivate the reader almost immediately. Caso concluded, "If there is one drawback to this book it is that there are not enough entries"; Caso wanted to know what became of the people who came in and out of Michaels's life. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented, "In minimalist, deadpan prose, he re-creates their [Michaels's and his first wife's] Greenwich Village milieu, conjuring a circle of off-kilter urban characters who seem as self-absorbed and neurotic as any Seinfeld coterie. . . . A seismic register of daily thoughts and observations, this journal sometimes descends into the mundane, but every so often quietly rises to magnificence."
A Girl with a Monkey is a set of seventeen short stories written by Michaels from the 1960s to the 1990s. Brad Hooper of Booklist remarked that Michaels's skill at presenting the themes of love and sexuality enable him to "pinpoint in the sheerest of prose the absolute truth about relationships." A critic for Publishers Weekly stated that Michaels's "remarkable talent lets his new stories join ranks with his old, surveying the line between eros and selfishness with an almost frightening accuracy."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 6, 1976, Volume 25, 1983.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 130, American Short-Story Writers since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993.
Michaels, Leonard, Going Places, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY), 1969.
Michaels, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY), 1975.
Michaels, The Men's Club, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY), 1981, expanded edition, Mercury House (San Francisco, CA), 1993.
American Book Review, June-July, 1994, p. 8.
Antaeus, summer, 1979.
Atlantic, April, 1969.
Booklist, June 1, 1999, Frank Caso, review of TimeOutofMind, p. 1772; February 15, 2000, Brad Hooper, review of A Girl with a Monkey, p. 1084.
Chicago Tribune, January 31, 1990.
Chicago Tribune Book World, March 30, 1969.
Commonweal, September 19, 1969; July 11, 1975.
Contemporary Review, April, 1980.
Esquire, May, 1981.
Harper's, September, 1975.
Hudson Review, autumn, 1981.
Kenyon Review, Volume 31, number 3, 1969.
Library Journal, February 15, 2000, Ann H. Fisher, review of A Girl with a Monkey, p. 201.
Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1981; May 28, 1981; September 22, 1986; January 18, 1990.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 26, 1989; October 11, 1992, p. 3.
Nation, November 15, 1975, November 27, 1989, p. 638.
National Review, September 18, 1981.
New Republic, July 19, 1969; August, 1978; May 2, 1981.
New Statesman & Society, January 12, 1990, p. 33.
Newsweek, March 2, 1970; April 27, 1981; September 10, 1990, p. 56.
New Yorker, May 4, 1981; October 26, 1992, p. 139.
New York Review of Books, July 10, 1969; November 11, 1975; July 16, 1981.
New York Times, April 14, 1969; July 30, 1975; April 7, 1981; February 8, 1985; September 21, 1986; September 28, 1986.
New York Times Book Review, May 25, 1969; August 3, 1975; January 6, 1980; April 12, 1981; September 9, 1990, p. 14; September 20, 1992, p. 11; August 8, 1993, p. 20.
Observer, January 27, 1980; September 1, 1991, p. 54.
Partisan Review, winter, 1977.
Playboy, December, 1989, p. 30.
Publishers Weekly, March 13, 1981; September 1, 1989; p. 72; July 13, 1990, p. 40; May 24, 1993, p. 81; June 4, 1999, review of Time Out of Mind, p. 59.
Saturday Review, August 2, 1969; April, 1981.
Spectator, February 16, 1980.
Threepenny Review, summer, 1981.
Time, April 27, 1981.
Times Literary Supplement, April 23, 1970; February 22, 1980; October 16, 1981; October 18, 1985; February 2, 1990; August 30, 1991, p. 19.
Tribune Books (Chicago), August 19, 1990, p. 6.
Village Voice, February 19, 1970; October 20, 1975; March 10, 1980; April 8, 1981.
Washington Post, May 26, 1981; October 3, 1989.
Washington Post Book World, February 17, 1980; April 26, 1981; February 25, 1990; December 20, 1992, p. 6.*