Sylvia: A Novel

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A Year in Reading: David Bezmozgis

In a year where it seemed like much of the conversation was about very long books — I’m thinking particularly about the series of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novels — my favourite book was a very short one. In fact, the book has something in common with the Knausgaard books, in that it too is a sort of memoir cum novel. The book is William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. I was in San Francisco on my desultory book tour when it was recommended to me by a friend. Knocking around the city with little to do, I went into City Lights Books and asked for it. They had a single copy, still in print as a Vintage paperback, 135 pages. I knew very little about Maxwell before this and hadn’t read anything else by him, but, after I’d read the book and was still in its thrall, I discovered that friends whose literary taste I respect knew it well, and remembered certain passages from the book with remarkable fidelity. It is that kind of book. Published when Maxwell was in his 70s, it bears on every page the mark of experience, wisdom, and a gentle humility — the consequence of the many mysteries and regrets that comprise a man’s life. At the heart of the book is a murder, a crime of passion committed in a rural Illinois community in the 1920s. Maxwell, a boy at the time, had only a glancing connection to the event, in that he was acquainted with the murderer’s son. But the event haunts him, largely because of a seemingly trivial act of cruelty — barely perceptible — that he visited upon this other boy. Tormented by the memory, Maxwell reimagines the events in the minutest detail, recalling not only his own boyhood self but inhabiting every character related to the murder — including, famously, a dog. That he is able to realize this in only 135 pages, sacrificing no depth for brevity, is a extraordinary achievement. I recommend the novel for this, and also for its prose — in a class with George Orwell’s — each sentence honed for honesty and clarity. It is an exemplary book, well-deserving of its high reputation. I’m sure I’ll return to it again, as I do to a number of other short novels that have staked their claim on me: Cees Nooteboom’s Rituals, Leonard Michaels’s Sylvia and Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer.

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A Year in Reading: Megan Mayhew Bergman

I re-read some of my favorite books for a class I taught at Bennington in the spring: Sylvia by Leonard Michaels, The White Album by Joan Didion, and Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Each was richer upon a second or third read and yielded particular pleasures — Michaels’ tight language and genuine despair, Didion’s high quality of ideas and singular style, Nabokov’s remarkable and unlikely sensory details. Sharing books I love with students is a tremendous privilege.

I gulped down a heap of non-fiction this year; standouts included E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, and Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. Wilson bowls me over with his synthesis of ideas, the way he mashes up complex anthropology, biology, sociology and gives us not just ideas and explanations, but something prescriptive to hold onto (restraint). Foer wrote a brave book with Eating Animals; it was a hard book for me to read because I already share the core ideals, but it was a necessary book for me to consume. Finally, with Out of Africa, the reader gets the sense that Dinesen truly wrote a book no one else could. Her descriptions of colonial Africa, the natural landscape and complex socio-political climate are stunning, unsentimental, even sublime. Ultimately, my favorite non-fiction reads in 2012 got me thinking about the way we use nature, what we take, and how we justify it.

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A Year in Reading: Stephen Elliott

I kind of hate to say this, but the very best book I read this year was Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. It’s cliche, and he doesn’t need the boost. I read a number of smaller press books, some of which were excellent. Bluets by Maggie Nelson in particular springs to mind. But still, I really think Freedom is a masterpiece. I read it as an advance copy, so I had the fortune to read it when there was hype, but not as much hype as there became.

I will say this, it was not my best year for reading. It was a year where I read a lot of really good books but almost no great books. Last year I read three books I would consider better than Freedom, though only one of them was a novel, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. It took me six months to read 2666. In the meantime, I also read We Did Porn by Zak Smith, which was also a better book, as was Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. But that was last year, and that’s not what this is about.

But I don’t care. I want to talk about something else. You know what’s a great novel? Lush Life by Richard Price. That’s from my 2008 list (I keep a list of every book I read). Also, in 2008, I read the novella Ray by Barry Hannah. Are you kidding? You want to talk about great literature, you have to read Ray before you can even have the conversation. And those two books weren’t even the best books I read in 2008. Because in 2008, I read the absurdly underrated Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker, which impacts the way I think about creative non-fiction still to this day.

And then in 2007, I read Stoner, which would probably top the list of “Best Books I’ve Read In The Last Four Years.” 2007 was a glorious year for reading. Sylvia by Leonard Michaels, Advertisements for Myself by Norman Mailer, The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm, The Places In Between by Rory Stewart.

I’m not even going to get into 2006. I’d start to cry.

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A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, and is a contributor to The Millions….And what a year it was: the manic highs, the crushing lows and no creamy middle to hold them together. In this way, my reading life and my other life seemed to mirror each other in 2007, as I suppose they do every year. As a reader, I try not to pick up a book unless there’s a good chance I’m going to like it, but as an aspiring critic, I felt obliged to slog through a number of bad novels. And so my reading list for 2007 lacked balance. It’s easy to draw a line between the wheat and the chaff, but harder to say which of the two dozen or so books I loved were my favorites, so grateful was I for their mere existence.If pressed, I would have to say that my absolute greatest reading experience of the year was Howard’s End by E.M. Forster. Zadie Smith inspired me to read this book, and I can’t believe I waited this long. Forster’s style seems to me the perfect expression of democratic freedom. It allows “the passion” and “the prose” equal representation on the page, and seeks the common ground between them. Forster’s ironies, in writing about the Schlegel family, are of the warmest variety. I wish I could write like him.A close runner-up was Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives. It’s been years since I reacted this viscerally to a novel, as you’ll see if you read my review.Rounding out my top three was Helen De Witt’s first novel, The Last Samurai. Published in 2000 and then more or less forgotten about, The Last Samurai introduced me to one of my favorite characters of the year, a child prodigy named Ludo. Ludo’s gifts are ethical as much as they are intellectual, and I loved De Witt’s rigorous adherence to her own peculiar instincts; her refusal to craft a “shapely” novel in the M.F.A. style.Other favorite classics included Balzac’s Lost Illusions and Fielding’s Tom Jones – each the expression of a sui generis authorial temperament – and Anne Carson’s odd and arresting translation of the fragmentary lyrics of Sappho. Every year, I try to read at least one long, modernist novel from my beloved Wiemar period; in 2007, Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers reminded me why. And from the American canon, I was smitten with Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (essay) and Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (review).Three books by short-story writers whom I’d nominate for inclusion in the American canon: Excitability: Selected Stories by Diane Williams, Sylvia by Leonard Michaels (review), and Transactions in a Foreign Currency by Deborah Eisenberg, one of my favorite contemporary writers.Of the many (too many) new English-language novels I read, the best were Tom McCarthy’s stunningly original Remainder, Mark Binelli’s thoroughly entertaining Sacco & Vanzetti Must Die, Thomas Pynchon’s stunningly original, thoroughly entertaining, but unfocused Against the Day (review), Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (review), and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. This last book seemed to me unfairly written off upon its release. I taught an excerpt from it to undergraduates, and for me, DeLillo’s defamiliarized account of September 11 and its aftermath deepened with each rereading.The best book of journalism I read this year was Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower (review). And my two favorite new translations were Gregoire Brouillier’s memoir, The Mystery Guest (review), and Tatyana Tolstaya’s novel, The Slynx (review).Thanks for reading, everybody. See you in ’08!More from A Year in Reading 2007

Amour Fou: On Leonard Michaels’ Sylvia

I.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.II.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 suicideMichaels 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.III.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.IV.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.

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