What is style… and how does one achieve it? Our English teachers admonish us to enliven our verb choices, to reach for colorful synonyms… and we imbibe the idea that style means not sounding like anyone else, that styles are as distinctive as handwriting. As, indeed, some are. When we encounter “aurochs and angels and the durable pigments of art,” we know we’re in the presence of Nabokov; “There was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun” announces Hemingway like a calling card.
But how many legions of writers, in search of style, have settled for Lolita-lite, or cadences half-in-Ernest? Or conversely, aiming for originality, have ended up mired in pretension? It’s too easy, pursuing individuation en masse, to sacrifice one’s native freedoms to someone else’s idea of what style should be.
So what, really, can we say about style? That some writers have more of it than others. (These we call “stylists.”) That it’s possible to be a fine writer and to sport a neutral style. (I’m not sure I could say of a sentence, “Only Ian McEwan could have written this.”) And that a very few writers, in the course of a lifetime, manage to elevate more than one style to a state of perfection. Such is the case of Leonard Michaels, whose late novel, Sylvia, achieves a pellucidity as uniquely his as the ferocious defamiliarization of his early short stories. So, what is style? For the time being let’s leave it at this: it’s the thing Leonard Michaels has in spades.
On the stage of late-Twentieth-Century American fiction, Leonard Michaels cuts, to my mind, a somewhat tragic figure. The tragedy being that I wouldn’t hear of him until the summer of 2007, when I read Wyatt Mason’s essay “The Irresponsibility of Feelings” in Harper’s. My subsequent reading would confirm Mason’s intuition that Michaels is one of the major literary artists of our time. But before FSG’s recent resuscitation of the Michaels catalogue, most of his fiction had fallen out of print.
The reasons for this are manifold, but we can point to a couple of obvious ones. The first is that Michaels, like his beloved Byron, seems to have been born under a bad sign. Raised on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Michaels came of age in that no-man’s-land between the Beat Generation and the Summer of Love. In New York’s bohemian precincts, the alienation of the former persisted, but without the political agitation that focused it. Drugs were rampant, but had not yet become a Utopian “culture.” Psychotherapy was taken seriously enough to drain most of the fun from sexual liberation, but not seriously enough to save troubled young people like Michaels’ first wife, Sylvia Bloch, who would, in 1963, commit suicide
Michaels evokes this milieu beautifully in his second book of stories, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (now reissued as part of The Collected Stories of Leonard Michaels). His fictional stand-in, Phillip Leibowitz, is, like Michaels, a working-class kid, a basketball player, a son of immigrants. Watching Leibowitz struggle with dingy walkup apartments, harrowing relationships, unsavory sexual encounters, druggy intellectuals, and poverty, we sense Michaels’ own alienation. For Michaels was, however ambiguously, an autobiographical writer.
Which brings us to the second reason for his lack of renown: Michaels’ writerly practices were completely at odds with the emerging structures of the publishing world. Where editors prize prolific authors, Michaels was an obsessive rewriter of his own work. (Sylvia: a novel was first “Sylvia” the story-length memoir.) Where publicists seek ways to pitch books to readers, Michaels transgressed serially against every manner of classification. How to market a book like 1990’s Shuffle, which combines new short-stories with previously published fiction, essays, and fictionalized (or not) journal entries? This isn’t to knock the publishing industry; in my own urge for linearity, I don’t know which version of The Men’s Club to read. It is, however, to salute Michaels for his fortitude. He was an artist, and he persisted in his quiddities. And every ten years or so, they would produce a substantial, integral work of literature. Going Places. I Would Have Saved Them… The Nachman Stories. And Sylvia.
To read a Michaels story from the 1970s is to feel oneself in the presence of a visionary, a furious expressionist. Here, from “The Captain,” is a bit of description of a sadomasochistic (and possibly imaginary) sexual encounter:
“On a shelf about chest high lay three hundred sausages, coiled in convoluted complications, a monster brain. A long gray iron chain. The prospect of such appetite suffused me with feelings of poverty, no education, and moral shock, but in one clean movement of self-disgust I laid on hands like he who knows. The chain chuckled as my fingers pierced its holes.”
Michaels’ first language was Yiddish, and here we see him toying with the varied registers of English as though discovering them for the first time: the Biblical, the clinical, the philosophical, and the visceral. All of Michaels’ stories do this, in one way or another. Typically, his sentences are savagely compressed, forcing the reader to reconstitute their full meaning. Language is gloriously obtrusive.
By the 1990s, however, Michaels’ prose had become a clear-running stream. Here is how he begins Sylvia:
“In 1960, after two years of graduate school at Berkeley, I returned to New York without a Ph.D. or any idea what I’d do, only a desire to write stories. I’d also been at the University of Michigan, from 1953 to 1956. All in all, five years of classes in literature. I don’t know how else I might have spent those five years, but I didn’t want to hear more lectures, study for more exams, or see myself growing old in the library.”
Shorn of its figurative tangles, relaxed, decompressed, this is a style that insists, “this is this, and that is that, and this is the way things stand.” It is a style that doesn’t shy from statements of truth. Which makes it the perfect vehicle for a reassessment of Michaels’ first marriage and Sylvia Bloch’s death.
Sylvia is a slippery title in two ways. First, it tempts us to conflate Michaels’ first wife with her fictional namesake. The Sylvia we meet in the book is a woman dancing on the edge of the abyss: volatile, secretive, obsessive. But she is also a less than round character, and in shaping his narrative, Michaels largely elides Sylvia’s past and the parts of her present not contiguous with her husband’s life. From a certain feminist perspective, this might be a source of critique, but really, all it means is that this is a novel. It retains the intimacy of its origins as a memoir, but can behave more freely with its characters.
Which brings us to the second tricky thing about the title: really, Sylvia isn’t about Sylvia at all. It is about the man who marries her, and the wonder of Michaels’ account is its lacerating honesty. The narrator doesn’t suffer through Sylvia’s psychic disintegration as the cost of loving her; in some way her instability is the catalyst for his love. When he meets her, he finds himself “hypnotized by Sylvia’s exotic flashing effect.” The unsettlingly speedy commencement of their sexual relationship only deepens the attraction.
Sealed inside an increasingly hermetic folie a deux, the narrator cannot bring himself to see Sylvia’s violent outbursts and compulsions and depressions as symptoms, and in this way contributes to her disintegration. Then, awakening to Sylvia’s illness, he finds himself pulling away from her, abandoning her to her fate. Years later, what unifies his two perspectives – the one from inside and the one from outside – is a steady sense of guilt.
“My body lusted. That was my secret infidelity, never confessed to my journals. Despite the daily misery of marriage, I wrote that I loved Sylvia. I wrote it repeatedly into my journals, and I wiped sincerely pathetic tears from my eyes. ‘I love Sylvia.'”
These journal entries are interspersed throughout the narrative, and only deepen the sense of ferocious candor. And what we see beneath the surface is pathetic, in the Greek sense: two suffering souls who can live neither with nor without each other. The narrator resists any attempt to exculpate himself for Sylvia’s death or, conversely, to overstate his fault. What he does do is document (and offer an antidote to) the solipsism of youth. And we are forced to wonder: Given better friends, better family, better conversation, and a better marriage, might Sylvia have survived?
“In the conversational style of the day,” Michaels writes,
“everything was always about something; or, to put it differently, everything was always really about something other than what it seemed to be about… The plays and sonnets of Shakespeare and the songs of Dylan were all equally about something. The murder of President Kennedy was, too. Nothing was fully resident in itself. Nothing was plain.”
In making plain the suffering of two people, Sylvia reveals that style in the truest sense is not merely a set of aesthetic choices; it is the outward display of an author’s ethics. In writing this book, Leonard Michaels honored Sylvia’s death by trying to see his own connection to it clearly. He tried to let their life together be fully, fictionally, resident in itself. And beneath the layers of resentment, short-sightedness, and reproach, Sylvia became a final act of love, a testament of “desperate happiness.”
He would have saved her if he could.