Leonard Michaels Michaels, Leonard (Vol. 6) - Essay

Michaels, Leonard (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michaels, Leonard 1933–

Michaels is an award-winning American short story writer. I Would Have Saved Them If I Could is his best known book. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

[The] publication of Leonard Michaels's second book of stories ["I Would Have Saved Them If I Could"] (the first, "Going Places," was a National Book Award nominee in 1969) 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, and "I Would Have Saved Them If I Could" seems to me an important literary event….

Coming of age in the fifties seems clearly to have been a decisive factor in Michaels's imaginative education, along with his being an intellectually inclined second-generation American Jew. The liberation of political, sexual and artistic energies, and their uncertain survival once liberated, is the recurrent figure in most of these stories, several of which center upon a character named Phillip Liebowitz, whom we see in various stages of socio-sexual development….

[The] fine comic flair of these stories doesn't obscure their gloomy appraisal of past post-revolutionary life. From Kafka and Borges (both of whom make brief appearances in the book), and more immediately Barthelme, Michaels has learned how to dissolve the connections of "rational" narrative, replacing continuity with a collage of intensely rendered moments, so that reading feels something like taking a number of hard blows to the head and groin.

The method can seem derivative, as in philosophizing sketches about Trotsky's murder and Byron's marriage that sound too much like (good) Barthelme. But at its best Michaels's work answers the question why someone who's published two strong volumes of stories doesn't write a novel. The Liebowitz stories in fact add up to a kind of exploded novel, and if it sometimes seems as if that novel is "Portnoy's Complaint," still Michaels's version is concerned more with the political than the psychological expressiveness of sex, in keeping with Liebowitz's characterization of himself as "the enemy of Freud, the son of Marx"—though a prodigal son, to be sure.

Two of these stories show most clearly the virtues in Michaels's refusal of the large, loose, leisurely novel form. "I Would Have Saved Them If I Could" is a dark and intellectually dazzling meditation upon the difficulty of fully imagining other people's suffering. It links stories by Borges and Dostoevsky, Marx's theory of labor power, a letter of Byron's about witnessing an execution, and the fates of the narrator's relatives—some murdered by the Nazis in Poland, some rich and successful in capitalist America—into an unanswerable question: whether institutionalized death is best seen as ecstatic transformation (the Death-is-the-Mother-of-Beauty theory) or as a horror that makes the myth-making power trivial and irrelevant, whether death shall be viewed literarily or politically. Byron's way of talking about legalized murder, his responsiveness to both the objective and the subjective components of his experience, is intellectually more pleasing than "the sneering, sarcastic, bludgeoning verbosity of Karl Marx," but is it therefore more adequate? "It is impossible," the narrator can only helplessly remark, "to live with or without fictions."

That terrible paradox is more dramatically rendered in "Eating Out," which seems to me the best story here and the surest proof that Michaels's collages can accommodate the substance of a good novel….

Leonard Michaels works on a small scale, but his effects are clean and incisive. 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" is a volume that should be read by anyone who hopes that fiction can still be both a powerful and an intelligent art. (pp. 1-2)

Thomas R. Edwards, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 3, 1975.

Leonard Michaels's second collection of stories begins hot and doesn't cool down. In story after story, he wields his prose like a weapon: part bludgeon, part scalpel, it flickers, dense and resilient. With insane precision, he drops stink bombs. With a poet's twist of language, he decomposes civility into its not-so-secret elements of sex, perverse daydreams, inventive resentment. Every normal act is pitted with an abyss from which comes laughter, ridicule, murder. The brute is not the guest in the basement any more, he is not the secret (Freudian) of our "delicate intentions." The brute is in the streets, and "delicate intentions" are dead. That could be the subtitle of Michaels's book: The Death of Delicate Intentions….

I Would Have Saved Them If I Could is a medley of stories, some no more than a few lines long. In many of the short pieces, the narrative deflects into parable and illumination, resembling prose poems more than stories. There is a theatrical quality in many of these pieces, as of people talking to themselves. In Michaels's view, the mind in its natural state is not a surrealist but a gossip and a playwright mixed together….

Michaels's themes are not new, nor, in a way, is his tone. His hero is the schlemiel of Jewish fiction…. Michaels doesn't care about new ideas—or old ones, for that matter. Ideas, themes, and tones are digested by his extraordinary stylistic gift and emerge transformed, hardened into an extreme. Liebowitz—his schlemiel—isn't only inept and defeated; he is predatory. He is a schlemiel with teeth, and a Charlie Chaplin toe of the shoe in the rear. He cancels the genre. (p. 68)

At the thematic heart of the book is a sequence of essaylike fragments that form the strangest exercise in literary criticism I have ever read. It might be called literature read by the Holocaust. Borges, in love with paradox, according to Michaels, writes a story about a suspected Jew who experiences ecstasy while in jail awaiting his execution: the Gestapo, an organization of death, is responsible for the "secret miracle" of redemption through ecstasy. It turns out that Borges got this story not from any experience of "photographable reality" but from another story. Culture, for Michaels, is a daisy chain of such stories which recline high in the redemptive air, while, at a distance, visible if you look, "a suspected Jew of average height, with bad teeth, gray hair, nervous cough, tinted spectacles, delicate fingers, gentle musical voice—physically and exactly disintegrates … between a hard stone wall and the impact of specific bullets."

Borges's ennobling ecstasy is a paradox for onlookers. But the Holocaust, the trapped, crazed lives that people Michaels's stories, condemn the "onlookers" who prefer to lift experience into the perenity of cultural statement. For Michaels, perenity is obscenity. His characters, however ridiculous or defeated, live a dance of victory because, as one of them says, "I am not interested in being superior to my sensations."

As philosophies of culture go, this may be too simple. Yet, as a fictional theme, its very oversimplification becomes a strength, and a plea that reverberates in every story.

Although one senses the hovering of recent literary kin—Burroughs, Barthelme, perhaps Roth—these stories are more nearly poems, with a tightly reasoned quality that calls to mind more distant, stranger ancestors: Baudelaire's Little Poems in Prose, or Aloysius Bertrand's Gaspard of the Night, with an ingredient of Lenny Bruce diverting them into belly laughter.

I Would Have Saved Them If I Could must be read to be believed. It is surely one of the outstanding works of fiction of the year. (p. 69)

Paul Zweig, "Delicate Intentions," in Harper's (copyright 1975 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the September, 1975 issue by special permission), September, 1975, pp. 68-9.

Leonard Michaels has crossed the novel with the short story to produce I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, a collection of stories and vignettes involving a recurring cast of characters, formed by a single, disturbing sensibility. The book's godparents are Donald Barthelme and Philip Roth. The setting is familiar—that surrealistic cityscape of modern fiction where people are obsessed by sex and violence, haunted by the ghosts of Freud and Marx.

To some extent, the book's effects are simply flashy. One piece pays homage to Borges so efficiently that there's hardly any Michaels in it. Others wield a powerful, manic prose that extorts attention by brute force. "The Captain," for example, is a nearly sadistic depiction of Manhattan's sleek party-goers and party-givers. Michaels makes it impossible to see through the carnage to the motives behind it. By contrast, "In the Fifties" is a piece that works by quiet intensity. It makes fiction with minimal materials, merely listing with apparent randomness moments from the narrator's life in the decade of his coming of age. He recalls living on the margins of art and radicalism; some friends have committed suicide, he has heard of orgies. We sense in his tone both passive contempt and nostalgic longing for the days when living on the margins was enough, commitment was not required. "In the Fifties," with its suggestion that author and narrator are one and the same, is the most approachable in this intriguing, puzzling, and frequently unsettling work. (p. 108)

Amanda Heller, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), October, 1975.

["I Would Have Saved Them If I Could"] may not be quite the literary event it's been purported to be, but it is damned impressive—short (and short-short), introverted stories in the mode (partly) of Kosinski or Barthelme, deliberately opaque, sometimes overwrought, all delving deep into the problems of the modern condition: alienation, indifference, isolation, failed emotions, silent terror. A few long stories and a string of vignettes appear to be about these things when they appear to be about anything at all. Some very short "epigrammatic" pieces appear to be about nothing, which is also to the point…. Hence, the feeling … that life has been pared to the (often grimy) essentials, emotionally and morally stripped of meaning. Citing a letter of Byron's, in which he describes the guillotining of three criminals, he (Byron) says of the last two, "I am ashamed to say, (they) had no effect on me as a horror though I would have saved them if I could." Hence the title, and a key to understanding what may—and little wonder—escape at least a few ordinary readers…. All [is] done in the most bare, sometimes brilliant, enigmatic prose—or, in the author's own words, with "casual precision, lucidity, complexity of nuance, smooth coherent speed." Howsomever, one needn't be a passionate lover of the well-made, well-crafted sentence to appreciate that Michaels is a serious and important talent, covering old ground very, very nicely. (p. 56)

Anne Larsen, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1975), October 20, 1975.

"I Would Have Saved Them If I Could" takes details from what might have been an autobiographical Jewish novel and enlarges them into separate stories. The effect is a kind of super-realism, as if Flannery O'Connor had been urbanized and speeded up. There is a ferocious vitality and intelligence at work here; Michaels seems to have tapped some electric current of moral rage, lust, wit, sorrow, narrative violence. He writes of childhood on the Lower East Side, of graduate school in the fifties, of marriage, sex, politics, apocalyptic paranoia in the sixties. Funny, desperate, manic, overwrought, he scatters allusions like buckshot (Byron, Trotsky, Borges, Kafka). But these are always stories, filled with characters, not silhouettes—they suffer and bruise. (p. 2)

The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 28, 1975.