Michaels’s stories were like New York—intense, vibrant, and strange.
AS THE STORY GOES, Samuel Beckett was strolling with a friend on a beautiful, warm spring day. “Ah, it makes one glad to be alive,” the friend smiled. Beckett paused, considering. “Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” he replied. Presumably they continued, the glorious sun still shining. Perhaps the friend smiled. A dark joke, after all, isn’t just funny; it’s an act of hope, even optimism, in the face of life’s tragedies and futilities.
Reading Leonard Michaels, the great story writer and essayist, brings Beckett to mind. “Windows were open. The breeze smelled of reasons to live,” says one Michaels narrator, evoking hope, weariness, acceptance. Often, Michaels seems tied to Beckett by a metaphysical thread. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” says Nell in Beckett’s Endgame. For proof, look to Michaels’s dark comedies, which can sound like Beckett, if Beckett were raised speaking Yiddish on the Lower East Side.
Michaels’s great theme, echoing Beckett, is life’s myriad impossibilities, including happiness, married life, single life, self-knowledge, and enjoyable dinner parties. But he wasn’t just a miserabilist; in many ways, his career was sui generis. He produced a slim, lapidary body of work. Clean, sharp sentences, less written than chiseled, were Michaels’s trademark. Most of all, he gave feelings their due, as someone who seemed to feel more, see more, and experience more than everyone else.
After his death, in 2003, he achieved a kind of anti-celebrity, famous for not being famous. “Why is Michaels not better known?” Mona Simpson asked. I’ve wondered, too, while pressing Michaels’s stories on friends and family. How could a short story master, admired by Susan Sontag, Philip Roth, and Cynthia Ozick, be so under-recognized? In gloomier moments, Michaels blamed himself: perhaps his perfectionism had something to do with it.
A writer’s writer, an obsessive’s obsessive, Michaels began publishing as Jewish fiction flourished in America. The years 1965–1975 saw Bellow’s best novels; Roth’s scream-of-consciousness, Portnoy’s Complaint; Malamud’s The Fixer. Meanwhile, in small, obscure journals like Atlantis and Eureka Review, lucky readers discovered Michaels. He was hard to ignore once you spotted him.
He had a knack for titles: “Murderers,” “Sticks and Stones,” “I Would Have Saved Them If I Could.” And a genius for opening lines. Each story begins with a bang: “The hall was clogged with bodies.” “It was a blind date.” “I scribbled a hasty note, regretful, to the point.” By all rights, these stories should fizzle out. Instead, they power on: “She met me at the door and smiled nicely. I could tell she was disappointed.”
Michaels was thirty-six, just like Roth, when his collection Going Places (1969) was published. If Roth claimed Newark, Michaels colonized Manhattan. His stories were like New York—intense, vibrant, and strange—and featured his alter-ego, Phillip Liebowitz. We meet Phillip at a curious juncture—the moment in adolescence when you think you might be something special but you’re still awash in self-doubt. “My name was Phillip, my style New York City,” he declares. “I read books. I go to the flicks. I’m hip.” There’s a nervous, jumpy rhythm to the stories and a nervous, jumpy aspect to Phillip.
In one adventure, he’s caught in flagrante by his girlfriend’s furious father. There he was, “a hundred fifty-five pounds of stomping schlemiel,” huffing and raging. Hell hath no fury like a stomping schlemiel, except, perhaps, the schlemiel’s wife (“Morris, if something broke you’ll rot for a month.”) The farce continues as Phillip flees naked into the night (“I’d walk on my hands,” he thinks. “Beards were fashionable.”) He’ll ride the subway to salvation, or so he thinks while streaking through Manhattan.
Leaving Phillip, we enter darker territory. To Don DeLillo, all plots move deathward; to Michaels, they move toward abjection and degradation. A young couple, “ravenous for intimacy,” tussles and battles; she loses teeth, he’s scratched blind (“but there was hope in corneal transplantation”). Things get darker still: there are contusions, concussions, shell-shock; rejection, deception, coercion. You can’t imagine Michaels’s characters meeting at a dinner party. Maybe in an emergency room, late at night, awaiting triage.
What was Michaels saying about people and violence? Over and over, we see the savagery beneath civilized surfaces; the primacy of the irrational; life’s basic absurdity and injustice. The stories mix humor and horror, but the strange, chilling quality comes from what’s missing: sympathy, sentiment, a moral center. If there’s a guiding spirit, it’s Isaac Babel, whose Red Cavalry stories influenced Michaels profoundly. Both writers practiced a kind of savage seeing into the heart of human darkness.
With Going Places, Michaels achieved the recognition he deserved. When Susan Sontag named her favorite books of 1969, she chose Going Places, not Portnoy’s Complaint, calling Michaels “the most impressive new American writer to appear in years.” She seemed to regard him as an honorary European, serious, exotic, deeply attuned to darker currents in human nature.
Michaels followed Going Places with a second collection, I Would Have Saved Them If I Could (1975). Readers expected strange, original stories, and they weren’t disappointed. Here was the comedy of misery (“She didn’t like me. So I phoned her every day”); intense feelings and inner conflicts; more dark comedy. In “Murderers,” a group of nice Jewish boys climbs a roof and watches a rabbi shtupping his pretty young wife: “We sat on that roof like angels, shot through with light, derealized in brilliance.” One boy, squealing with delight, slips, tumbling to his death. There’s no pleasure without punishment in Michaels; guilt is ambient, like the weather. After getting an eyeful, the boys are spotted, screamed at (“Murderers”), and banished to summer camp. At night, they’re haunted by owls—“the sound of darkness, blooming.”
Naturally, readers wondered about that darkness. Was it pretension—a young writer’s mask of seriousness? In fact, Michaels came by it honestly. Born in 1933, the favorite son of Polish immigrants, his was a strange childhood, both blessed and blighted. Michaels’s father, Leon, was a calm, gentle, somewhat inscrutable man deeply attached to his native Poland. Trained as a rabbi, he saw a better future for himself in America, and, once settled, opened a barber shop, the better to take Shabbos off. Leon dressed well and projected good health, and in that way, Michaels took after him, dressing sharply, styling his hair as a teenager, keeping a slender, boyish figure for most of his life.
With Leon’s hands full, his younger wife, Anna, raised three children (and proved the dominant parent to all). She was an anxious, efficient woman whose intelligence and determination were often overlooked. (Concealing her true age, she emigrated at 16 and taught herself English after arriving.) Anna doted on her children, especially small, fragile Lenny, while keeping a kosher home where no one went hungry. Nonetheless, life was hard; the family was poor. They scraped by on Leon’s modest earnings and Anna’s contributions from sewing. It all went toward rent and meals, each meager dollar carefully allotted.
Part of Michaels’s inheritance was a deep, abiding guilt. “My mother had done too much for me…It’s hard to forgive self-sacrifice,” he once wrote. As for Leon, Michaels felt equally indebted. (“He gave,” Michaels remembered. “I took.”) Michaels never forgot how, as a mischievous child, he once tripped his brother, who fell, smashing their father’s cherished violin. “I wish my father had become enraged, knocked off my head, so I could forget the incident.” Indeed, the boy who craved punishment would often veer towards punishment and violence in his fiction. Young Lenny experienced “early notions of guilt as fundamental to life.”
Guilt had many tributaries. When Michaels was 6, Germany invaded Poland; into the home flooded stories of horror and murder. Once again, it’s easy to connect the violence against Michaels’s family and the violence in Michaels’s stories. “The Holocaust is never absent from his writing,” says Michaels’s widow, Katharine Ogden Michaels. “It was always the engine of his imagination.” In the end, nearly all of Anna’s relatives perished. Watching Anna grieve, Michaels absorbed the lesson that life is anarchic and savage. Like any acutely sensitive child, Michaels experienced her feelings as his own. “Her many fears nourished mine,” he wrote.
Given all this, the wonder is that Michaels thrived as a teenager, making friends, acquiring a certain swagger. He was a watcher, alert and curious, who spent countless afternoons drawing (good training, it turned out; Michaels’s essays show a painter’s eye for detail). His parents indulged his artistic leanings—to a point. “He was supposed to make something of himself and support my parents,” his sister Carol Foresta recalls. It was obvious to everyone but Michaels that he would attend City College, the “Jewish Harvard.” Instead he chose NYU, abandoning medicine for literature. A providential encounter with Austin Warren, co-author of Theory of Literature, sealed his fate.
After NYU came graduate school in Michigan, which may as well have been Athens to a sheltered Manhattan boy. There, he made two quick discoveries: alcohol, a goyish phenomenon, and casual conversation (“Where I came from everything was personal”). There were anti-Semites at U of M—not just students but professors. A happier discovery was the New Criticism, a method of textual analysis that could unravel a book’s deepest mysteries. Through serious, immersive reading, he forged a philosophy: art as religion; literature as vocation; reading as a way of life.
If Michigan was eye-opening, then UC Berkeley, his next stop, was an even greater revelation. The furthest point, geographically and spiritually, from New York, he would eventually settle there, first for more graduate work. Here he found a deeper immersion in literature, falling for Byron’s “extremely bleak vision of experience.” Returning to Michigan, he finished courses and nervously submitted his dissertation. He needn’t have worried. Michaels was a triple thinker with a clear, graceful style. “It is an absolutely brilliant performance,” a future Berkeley colleague gushed, “written as no Ph.D. dissertation that I’ve ever seen.”
One assumes these were happy times—happier, at any rate, than his brief, stormy marriage to Sylvia Bloch. In Manhattan, he’d met Bloch—slender, dark-skinned, exotic, 19—and was instantly smitten: “The question of what to do with my life was resolved for the next four years.” It was the type of coup de foudre Michaels was always vulnerable to. In a sane moment, he pondered backing out, but both Leon and Anna favored the union. “She was Jewish,” Carol recalls.
What followed—several years of madness and misery—is recounted in Sylvia, Michaels’s harrowing memoir. Raised in a calm, stable household, he had no idea how much chaos two people can create, nor how a peaceable person can get inured to screaming and violence. Sylvia recalls a nightmare of horrible, hopeless enmeshment. “If Sylvia said I was bad, she was right,” Michaels would think. So it went: Michaels felt guilty; Sylvia confirmed it. He wanted punishment; she supplied it. Indeed, Sylvia shows how perversely they suited each other.
In the end, it wasn’t divorce that liberated Michaels, it was Sylvia’s suicide, an event that seemed both shocking and foreordained. One can barely imagine Michaels’s anguish. Yet what was wrenching for the man was useful for the writer. From then on, he would explore romantic misery—“the way men and women seem unable to live with or without each other.” That meant probing romantic darkness: how shared traumas bind people; how love and hate commingle; how strong, buried impulses, even murderous ones, find erotic outlets. Such realities formed “the sadomasochistic dynamic at the erotic core,” Michaels wrote, echoing Freud. Indeed, Michaels couldn’t stop exploring troubled relationships. “The subject is inexhaustible,” he told Esquire editor Gordon Lish.
By dwelling on pain, trauma, and their sequelae, Michaels earned a reputation. “I’d never write about being happy,” he vowed. “It’s of no interest as a dramatic subject.” Thus it often surprised people that the brooding, serious-minded author of Going Places was actually warm, funny, and garrulous. The poet August Kleinzahler recalled “this brilliantly engaging meshuggener” spouting smart bluster, strong opinions. “Lenny was like a tummler,” his friend David Reid recalls. Practically everyone found Michaels lovable. “There was always a generous side to Lenny. Very generous,” says the essayist Phillip Lopate. “He would do anything for a friend, basically.”
Physically, Michaels was handsome, even dashing, and comfortable in his body. (In photos one sees why: He had a lithe figure, a thick, unruly head of hair, and a wonderfully expressive face, with deep, recessed eyes.) Politically, he was hard to pin down: anti-corporate, pro-worker, and passionately pro-Israel. “He seriously ran afoul of Berkeley liberals on that subject,” Katharine Michaels recalls. As a young professor, he sided strongly with Israel in its wars and always despised anti-Semitism. It was there in anti-Zionism, a new strain of an old disease. “You see it in people who become hysterical when their ancient right to hate Jews is brought into question,” he wrote.
Michaels’s outrage over anti-Semitism informs I Would Have Saved Them If I Could. Here, in its grim particulars, is the story of Michaels’s grandfather, wounded by Polish pogromists. A small, slender man, essentially helpless, he lay bleeding and semi-conscious before staggering home. History, wrote Michaels, “flings you into a cellar and saves you for bullets.” Recalling this nightmare, Michaels was making a point: This wasn’t “historical dialectic,” he wrote sharply, objecting to abstract theorizing. “I’m talking about my grandfather, my grandmother, and my aunt.”
Michaels’s motley collection—less violent, more personal than Going Places—confirmed him as an original, not just Babel’s disciple. Old admirers cheered (“A dense, ribald, astringent outpouring of pure talent”—Sontag). The New York Times celebrated “an important literary event.” Yet when major prizes were announced, Michaels was overlooked. “A collection of 40‐year‐old short stories by Vladimir Nabokov and not a collection of brand‐new short stories by Leonard Michaels?” the critic John Leonard complained in The New York Times. “Who does the nominating, anyway?”
Michaels was rightly annoyed by such slights, which, though normal in publishing, left him feeling mistreated and excluded. “I’m afraid I’ll never look kosher enough in the eyes of the establishment,” he sighed while waiting for a Guggenheim. All his life, Michaels’s hyper-alertness worked against him as he noted fresh insults, new injustices. Friends failed him. Critics assailed him. Bad writers outsold him. “I think you might be horribly amused,” he told his editor in a frustrated moment; “you might better understand my fits of resentment against the world.”
Romance remained another fraught subject for Michaels. In all, he would marry four times, once per decade after the 1950s. His feelings about marriage—the dark comedy of cohabitation; men’s role in the trouble—would inform his long-awaited novel. What sounds like a borscht belt gag—a lawyer, two therapists, and a tax accountant walk into a Berkeley living room—was the serious conceit behind The Men’s Club.
The first rule of the Men’s Club is total honesty. “Can I tell a story?” someone pipes up. “Only if it’s miserable,” comes the reply. Over a long evening they’ll kvetch, confide, and commiserate, sharing shames and troubles. At times, the problem of marriage seems to stand in for the larger, Beckettian problem of living. “Life is unfair business. Whoever said otherwise?” one man says. “It is a billion bad shows, low blows, and number one has more fun.” That sense of comic futility colors their conversations, and extends in all directions. “All this talk, talk, talk,” one man sighs exhaustedly. “It’s sick.”
The book proved popular and controversial. Was it unforgivably sexist? Or slyly feminist? Or perhaps a work of accidental feminism, exposing men’s weaknesses? Somehow, the book’s true subject—male fragility and confusion—was largely overlooked. These men are a sorry lot, numb, dumb, and befuddled, stuck halfway up the evolutionary ladder. “The reader laughs and gags,” wrote John Leonard in The New York Times, comparing Michaels to Kafka and Chekhov.
Many readers were less charmed. What goes on in men’s minds isn’t always pretty, and writing honestly about men’s thoughts and desires made Michaels vulnerable to charges of sexism. “The only characters…who have strength and brains are women,” Michaels protested. “The men are blind to themselves.” It was futile. That Michaels admired women; mentored female writers; and quietly offered blurbs, advice, and encouragement to women he’d never met, nor had any hope of meeting, was hardly ever reported, and Michaels never flaunted his generosity.
For all its departures, The Men’s Club featured classic Michaels themes. Marital misery. Life’s basic unfairness. Intractable shame. (“Don’t be ashamed,” says one clubber; “We didn’t come here tonight to be ashamed.”) The questions that plague midlife—who am I, really? how did I mess things up so badly?—are central, signaling a greater crisis of identity. Happy illusions, sustaining myths: when these dissolve, you’re in major trouble. Then again, trouble—moral, psychic, romantic—was always Michaels’s metier.
In some sense, Michaels’s main quarrel was with life itself. “Nobody gets through life without causing pain,” one character sighs, echoing his creator. The problem is large and inexorable. “You couldn’t simply live in a society,” Michaels once wrote. “Simply to breathe incurred responsibilities.” Behind these existential burdens were myriad smaller ones. “Look, I’ll be completely honest. I can’t stand couples,” says a Men’s Clubber. “I hope none of your wives ever invites me to dinner.” Who can blame him? The boredom; the tension; the simmering hostility. Every friendly party begins to look like Guernica when you look closely.
Michaels wasn’t one for pretense. “Living in the world requires a certain social veneer,” Katharine Michaels points out. “Lenny never made his peace with that.” In Berkeley the veneer was thick, especially at dinner parties. After a couple of drinks, Michaels would get provocative, “throwing a wrench into the politeness of the evening.” Michaels would relish his mischief, having laid waste to another genteel Berkeley gathering, then find himself guilt-ridden. Yet the same impulse struck at faculty meetings, from which he was eventually excused (“they found him too disruptive,” Katharine recalls).
Following The Men’s Club, Michaels seemed adrift. In 1990 he published Shuffle, a potpourri of fiction, memoir, and journal; it was either wonderfully or annoyingly eclectic, depending on your taste. Harsh reviews were nothing new (“The Howe review came like a blow from God,” he wrote in 1975), yet each seemed to reopen old wounds. As friends observed, there was something innocent—open, unprotected—about Michaels. “There were good consequences to that,” says Katharine. “But he was sort of un-defended.” A different writer, with more protective armor, might have suffered less. Not Michaels, “whose nerve endings were right on the surface.”
Critics aside, Michaels’s writing was sharp and finely observed. In 1993 he published To Feel These Things, a title that doubled as a credo. Never mind major events; the real drama of our lives is internal, our doubts, dreads, and pleasures. The primacy of feelings is the not-so-hidden theme of Michaels’s published journals as well. The Michaels sensorium leans heavily towards worry and unease, but also surprise and amazement. The feelings are warm, but Michaels is cool, precise—an empiricist of emotions.
There were revelations as well. What the fiction conceals, the essays and journals reveal: an earnest humanism; a lofty regard for the individual. One should ignore modern culture, he wrote, and reclaim “depths of soul,” “the quiddity of people.” Michaels relished this highly unfashionable language: souls and quiddities. “He was a radical conservative,” Katharine laughs, noting how, among progressives, Michaels remained a maverick freethinker.
Michaels’s Beckettian streak, the sense that life is 1,000 small futilities adding up to one large futility, still ran deep. “It was a nice day,” he wrote in Sylvia. “I felt only a little miserable.” As time passed, he increasingly valued simplicity, yearning to “escape sophistication and see innocently.” Such was Michaels’s credo in the 1990s: Don’t think—feel. Thinking vitiates experience. Indeed, a simple, ingenuous quality entered Michaels’s writing, as did a new tenderness. “I loved her so much it hurt my teeth,” says a Michaels narrator. In another story, an American studies Japanese alongside his Asian wife. “We sit together at the kitchen table, and she helps me perfect the sounds…” The moment lasts; the set-piece ends; the reader is left with simple, loving silence.
Skeptical of happy endings, Michaels might not have predicted one for himself, but in 1996 he married Katharine Ogden after a speedy courtship. Life together was a happy blur of museums, book talk, and furtive cigarettes. (“I haven’t been smoking!” he would plead after Katharine started sniffing the air.) The previous years had been difficult ones. “I can’t somehow project a benevolent authorial persona,” Michaels said in 1993. In his journal, he pondered why: “My writing feels warm until I revise, make it better, and then it gets cold. I should mess up my sentences, make them warm, make money.” Warm, relatable books won prizes. Cool books didn’t. By then it had been eleven long years since The Men’s Club. “He was starting to feel like a failed writer,” says Katharine.
That was about to change. Raphael Nachman, his sublime creation, was born on a snowy winter day in 1997. Michaels sat down to write and for the first time had the peculiar sense of taking dictation; of being less a story’s author than its vessel. Michaels’s normal method—slow, careful accretion—had ensured a modest output. (“I’d go mad with concern over semicolons. Conjunctions ruined my sleep.”) But his celebrated Nachman stories, seven in all, began effortlessly. “That first story was definitely waiting for him,” says Katharine.
Nachman is middle-aged, quiet, with a sprawling inner life. He enjoys his own company and gets his thrills solving complex mathematical equations. Moral questions bedevil him: should he inform a friend of his wife’s affair? Should he ghostwrite a term paper on philosopher Henri Bergson? Even gentle Nachman harbors aggressive impulses. He meets new women; his libido stirs. Like many Michaels men, he’s surprised by his lust and aggression.
The stories ponder a problem at the center of life: how do we handle our selfish, aggressive urges? If we suppress them, we betray our true nature; if we express them, we forfeit our dignity and risk harming others. It was a deeply vexing question to Michaels, whose work had always explored our uncivilized nature. We become brutish—in a sense, Nazi-like—very easily, as Nachman discovers. Here was the oldest philosophical question, reframed: When our moral ambitions collide with our baser instincts, how should we act? In short, how good can we be?
The Nachman stories—gentle, mellow, deceptively conventional—offer few answers, but like Kafka’s stories, simply pose questions. These are works of quietness, subtlety, and grace, without the eruptiveness of the earlier stories, and they found a large audience through The New Yorker. They seem to reflect Michaels’s late style, a mix of tenderness and retrospection. “I approached the wavering light of Friday night candles in our kitchen window,” Michaels recalled in one essay. “The shadow of my mother, against the window shade, moved from refrigerator to stove. Everything as it should be.” Everything home represented—safety, comfort, warmth—is neatly captured in that phrase, Everything as it should be, its stable rhythms—everything, a solid dactyl, melting into soft, soothing trochees: as it should be.
In his final essay, “My Yiddish,” Michaels again returned to childhood. “This moment, writing in English, I wonder about the Yiddish undercurrent,” he wrote, noting his opening clause—“a thought that hangs like a herring.” Perhaps there was a watermark, faint but visible, in everything he wrote: Yiddish sounds, Yiddish warmth, a Yiddish shrug after sentences. “To some extent, my intuitions and my expressions of thoughts remain basically Yiddish.” It was baked into his sentences. “There is a kind of enforced intimacy with the reader. A Jewish kind, I suppose.”
“Enforced intimacy”—the words flush, conjoined, intimate—describes Michaels’s finest writing. Within the Michaels cult is a smaller sub-cult that adores his nonfiction. The forms play to Michaels’s strengths: his roving intellect is well suited to essays; his impatience, his need to get to the heart of things, is served by short, fragmentary journal entries. The essays feature a deep intelligence, a cool, beguiling voice, and beautiful sentences. The diaries buttonhole you—Listen!—with urgent memos from his emotional world.
Michaels died in 2003, having traveled the greatest distance as a writer, yet his themes were remarkably consistent. In the early stories, Phillip flirts with cruelty, indulging his not-so-nice side. Who am I, he seems to be wondering: mensch or monster? Friend or seducer? Voyeur or participant? Am I a simple creature? Or am I fighting my own character? Decades later, in his final incarnation, Nachman is still discovering—and reckoning with—his unseemly side. Like many Michaels characters, he’s abandoning shame, coming closer to self-acceptance. The work of a lifetime was nearly complete.
“Writers die twice,” Michaels once wrote, “first their bodies, then their works.” Maybe so, but Michaels has enjoyed quite an afterlife. Memoirs by friends keep his name circulating; well-curated collections of his stories and essays keep attracting readers. Meanwhile, Michaels’s widow is organizing his archives and writing a memoir of their marriage. The critic Sven Birkerts defines a cult writer as one “that many readers like to hug to themselves as a kind of secret.” Michaels is the opposite: a secret everyone wants to share.
In that spirit, I suggest starting with the Nachman stories, sampling the journals, then going back to Going Places and I Would Have Saved Them If I Could. But, really, any place works for this versatile and virtuosic writer, whose mission was “to feel these things,” and share those feelings with readers.