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Winter 2010

Once, with Attention

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Elizabeth Tallent

The Essays of Leonard Michaels,
edited by Katharine Ogden Michaels.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009,
$26.00 cloth.



With Leonard Michaels there is right away the ordeal of style—deep style, style as a way of being in the world. Style and self are so closely intertwined when he talks about them that it isn’t always easy to tell which is which. The way I write about myself and anything else is, I’m afraid, personal or it’s nothing. The either/or of personal versus nothing was electric with severity: often he vetoed the work on the grounds that it was nothing. Or he revised mercilessly in the direction of personal. What we are left with, including this volume of essays, communicates a feeling of rarity, managing to emerge, beautiful, from under immense pressures of negation.

That style was for him a relentless concern was plain in the most glancing encounter. Once I was telling him of a conversation between two people who had, I said, “told one another—”

He interrupted, a thing he did not do. “Told each other.”

“—told each other,” I said, and skimmed on, anticipating the wasp-sting of shame—resentment, too, because my reader’s love for him was not safe from interference by the real him. But shame didn’t strike, and instead, distracted from thinking about him by the need to make conversational sense to him, I felt I figured him out: he could no more resist rubbing out pretentiousness than a cat can resist the moth that lands on its paw. Correction’s swat was the reflex of life-long grace: not personal. His feeling for language belonged as much in the shadow-realm of intuitions of rightness as to the playing fields of grammar, and taken as a whole those language-feelings comprised an ardent relation to reality. Whatever else he was—however sorrowing—he was after something. I loved this intimation of pursuit and wanted it for myself. Because he had minded an offense against English, I could see how to live.

He did not know that this happened—did he? I wanted not to let it show.

In my twenties I was a bookstore clerk in Santa Fe, which meant far away from everything and really far away from New York. MFA programs weren’t obligatory for writers then; New York was. The bookstore clerks all wanted to be writers. We lived in hope of writer-sightings but the only famous face we saw, now and then, was Georgia O’Keeffe’s, and she didn’t come into the bookstore but leaned in the black-shawled, smoldering remoteness of immense fame against the adobe wall across the street, picturesque as a nomad. An assistant came in, anxiously asked for the books she wanted, and filled out a check that already bore the inimitable signature, worth more than the figure the assistant scribbled in, but the bookstore’s owner knew if he didn’t cash the check she would never come back. Local writers, pretty much personae-less, made little impression except for one funny, self-effacing customer, author of a renowned guide to the edible wild mushrooms of North America, who died in agony after eating an amanita that had fooled even him.

In my years as a clerk I believed that the faces of writers I loved were bound to be beautiful. This fantasy fed on moody black-and-white book-jacket photos of the cigarette-smoldering-in-ashtray-near-typewriter genre, and because I had only pages to go on, hundreds of thousands of pages and no writers’ faces, or none in real life, it kept me company while I swept the aisles or counted out change. Day-dreamy and monotonous, clerking was a Peter Pan exemption from grownup responsibilities, which would have crushed the little stories I had begun writing at night, after locking up, on the store’s typewriter. In case the store’s owner drove by I left only one light on. The store was a long drift of shadow and I was its brain. The best nights, the streetlights shone into sudden movement—lucid high-altitude snow that seemed to know where it was supposed to touch down and to be drawn softly toward the spot. Books loomed on all sides, my education neatly shelved and waiting, borrowable as long as you didn’t leave fingerprints. Books were handed to me by people who loved them. One was a paperback whose title was I Would Have Saved Them If I Could. Saved who? Me, maybe. I had never read anything like these stories. That summer of 1980 there was to be a writer’s conference in Berkeley run by this writer, Leonard Michaels, and in a shy person’s fit of brashness I sent off the story required with the application. I would have fished it out of the post-office box if I could.

One of death’s minor agitations is that if you owe someone, really owe them, death can’t touch that: if they die you owe them just the same, only now what you owe is both a fact and a form of loneliness.



“Ethics and aesthetics are inextricable,” he writes in “I Would Have Saved Them If I Could,” a collage of the unbearable and the erudite whose paragraphs, given headings and set apart from each other by white space, include lacerating family accounts and dud jokes, literary criticism as insolently unerring, in this tumult, as brain surgery in a bowling alley, and a passage from a letter of Lord Byron’s, the stuff of the text as tumbled-out and unassimilable as the style is whole, decided, sure. Honey and smoke, in Levi-Strauss’s analysis of the ethos of certain aboriginal people, are opposites, and, roughly contemporaneous with Levi-Strauss’s work, this story shoves raw right up against cooked, the hoarded honey of emotion, intellect’s smoke. In the excerpted letter, opposites reconcile in Byron’s “child-like, high-spirited allegiance to the facts of the occasion inside and outside his head,” his italicized because in watching the guillotining of three prisoners Byron not only keeps his head but refuses to disown the raw: “The first turned me quite hot and thirsty, and made me shake so that I could hardly hold the opera-glass (I was close, but was determined to see, as one should see every thing, once, with attention); the second and third (which shows how dreadfully soon things grow indifferent), I am ashamed to say, had no effect on me as a horror, though I would have saved them if I could.”

In its cool opera-glass gaze at terror, this paragraph of Byron’s has always seemed to me Leonard Michaels’s secret ars poetica, a confession of dearly held ambition paradoxically voiced by another writer. Both the spotlight shone on instructive veracity—Byron’s —and the quasi-elusiveness about himself are characteristic. When it comes to style he is like a boy who asks another boy to approach the longed-for girl and tell her that he—the first boy—loves her.


On a rainy night many years ago, I went with a friend to a jazz club called Basin Street in Greenwich Village to hear a Miles Davis quartet. There was a small, sophisticated crowd. It applauded in the right places. At a certain point Miles Davis began turning his back to the crowd whenever he played a solo. I don’t know what he thought he was doing, but the effect was to absent himself from the tune, as though he were saying, “Don’t look at me. I’m not here. Listen to it.” He gave us a lesson in music appreciation, or the appreciation of any art. With Davis’s back turned, the music became more personal.

—“Writing about Myself”



When no actual musician personifies style, music itself steps in:


Ultimately, I believe, meaning has less to do with language than with music, a sensuous flow that becomes language only by default, so to speak, and by degrees… I’ve often had to rewrite a paragraph because the sound was wrong. When at last the sound was right, I discovered—incredibly—that the meaning was right.

—“My Yiddish”


Isolated between dashes, incredibly qualifies a mysticism important to the writer, but shading worrisomely toward the language of credulousness. This mystical streak shows up again in the “Lost Interview,” conducted in 1986 and finally published in the Spring 2008 Paris Review: “I hated to use adverbs because of the ‘ly’ endings. They made the sense mushy and weak and artificial. I didn’t want to mean anything beyond what could inhere in the particular limited aural sensation. Idea and sound had to be exactly the same length, or the same density, as if a word could be made flesh.”


When the acceptance letter came, I called the conference’s administrator, a kind voice that didn’t try to talk me out of withdrawing. Self-loathing had retaliated for the bravado of putting the story in the mail, and the agoraphobia sustaining certain miserable, never-ending marriages in which it’s very dangerous to get a glimpse of the outside. I was wrecked by my near escape and sat cross-legged on the floor with my back against the kitchen wall where the telephone hung. The telephone rang. This voice was Lenny’s. He asked why I had changed my mind, and I said, “I want to but we don’t have the money,” and he said doubtfully, “Money,” and then, “Let me call you back.” I sat cross-legged, back against the wall. When the phone rang it would be Leonard Michaels. The kitchen was now a kitchen Leonard Michaels would call. So such people were real—Chekhov might call, too. The phone rang, and I didn’t deserve it. “Listen, come on a scholarship.” Before he hung up he floated a silence. It was his silence. Then: “Your story is good.”



Imagine that what’s wanted for the reader is the fluent play of consciousness in and through the text, a depth of experience discoverable in literature alone and made possible by a self-forgetful intensification of self, and you have a sense of his style, which seductively cherishes the reader’s liberty. His is a catchable brilliance that seems partly the work of your brain, like the music of Mozart, your own sensibility exalted to the farthest starry point of erudition, which you always knew you had in you. The reader keeps company with a gorgeous sensibility moving very fast. To me as a hick twentysomething autodidact it was lovely—it was relief and welcome, the way he managed to be swift and hyperarticulate without outdistancing the reader’s intelligence or emotions.

Especially emotions. The threat and menace and incidents of violence that fascinate him as subjects are shunned in his style, which is a good example of how honorable the pact between reader and writer can be. However enthralled you are, you are not going to be manipulated while reading Michaels: your imaginative and empathetic privacies are respected. Finishing one of his essays, your relation to its truths will have the verisimilitude of zero consolation except beauty.

In his incisiveness he was a genius deviser of paradox. He may have liked the way it dissembles about the degree of craft involved. Look what I found, paradox says. This weird pairing. See what you can make of it. The deadening intrusion of the writer’s determination to achieve certain effects is hereby avoided, and this can hold true at the macro level of structure through a work’s imagery and down to individual words. The restless, careful searchingness of his essays often has, as its generating note, the chime of irreconcilables, some puzzle or incongruity literary, intellectual, or linguistic, present in his own life, or in his own head, which the essay approaches with sidling skepticism about his right to talk about it in the first place—with a fastidiousness the equal of his fascination. It was as if he felt one way to handle mystery without injuring it was to wrap it in paradox.

“Jews have always talked essays,” he writes in “My Yiddish,” meaning that an essay is the musical luxuriousness of obsession in full voice, wit, vigor, play, and the somehow-inevitability that unfolding a thought full-length results in form. For Michaels the form manifest in voice-y, conversationally unfolded thought is not only a reliable truth about how to go about writing essays but a relief from other forms of form—from form that suggests, before you begin, where you ought to end. Montaigne, the inventor of the essay on paper, says of choosing subjects for his essays, “I cannot easily shake off the importunity of my soul, which cannot ordinarily apply itself unless it becomes wrapped up in a thing, or be employed unless with tension and its whole being.” It seems likely that Lenny’s soul was every bit as resistant to under-employment as Montaigne’s, and that he was lucky in his prompts, many of them from The Threepenny Review, because his odd array of subjects—Edward Hopper, Rita Hayworth, the biblical story of Jonah, love, his father, his mother, his childhood, several revered literature teachers, the hazards of literary criticism, an attempted theft of furniture from an abandoned house—share the literary sharpness that comes of being well and truly provoked. In life, bizarre noticing is alienating; in an essayist, it’s charming. Was any other adolescent moviegoer ever aware of the teethiness of the zipper threatening to glide down to reveal a naked Rita Hayworth? Who else, contemplating Michelangelo’s Moses, registers its sexual self-deconstruction? “The statue is peculiar, sexually ambiguous in its hair, so free of proscriptions in its luxurious pour. A man who has such female hair and who unconsciously likes to feel its flow, likes to fondle it, conflicts in feeling with the body’s solidity and its powerful arms and its expression of angry and uncompromising disapproval.” He failed to notice the usual scandals and (in “I’m Having Trouble with My Relationship”) saw scandal in the “referential promiscuity” of relationship, a word then happily making the rounds. In the hard radiance of his scorn the little noun curls up and dies. You could feel sorry for it.

The closing essay, “My Yiddish,” the last piece of writing he finished before his death, traces his style to the cunning, bite, and ready paradoxicality of the only language he spoke till he was six. It was a language that liked you to be quick, and within the prevailing nimbleness self had to flower fast if it wanted to be seen. Jokes ranged from sweetly absurdist non-sequiturs to character-skewing aperçus; Yiddish was nowhere more incisive than in rebuking uppitiness. “I’m sure about very little about what I know except that the Yiddish I can’t speak is more natural to my being than English.”

This is the language in which loss and violence dawn, the child learning that in faraway Poland his maternal grandfather and grandmother and his mother’s younger sister have been murdered, his uncles taken to concentration camps. Believing that his family’s documents were finally in such perfect order that the request for emigration must irresistibly be granted, the grandfather was on his way to the government office when a mob swept down the street. He survived the beating but did not recover from his injuries in time to try again for the emigration papers that would have saved the family.


In photos [my grandfather] is pale and thin. Skin pulls tight across sharp bones in a narrow face. He has the alert, hyper-sensitive look of an ill-nourished person, but sits correctly, posing old-style, as if a photo is serious business. He was a tailor who made uniforms for Polish army officers, and he had a feeling for posture. My mother says they threw his uncon-scious body into a cellar. I heard the story around the time children hear fairy tales. Once upon a time my grandfather was walking in the street…

—“To Feel These Things”


The present tense gives us an aliveness of the body’s, “pale and thin.” Body is again foregrounded in “Skin pulls tight across sharp bones.” It’s not his narrow face but a narrow face, and “the alert, hypersensitive look” is not idiosyncratic but evidence of membership in the class of hungry persons. (Such assertions about a class of people may be the only way a writer can be both ingratiating and fabulously savvy, like Eliot when she clears her throat and begins Middlemarch: “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” Who, meeting a beautiful person, has ever thought, yup, this is that kind of beauty?) In the lasting present-tense of the photo the grandfather “sits correctly,” and only now, with his decision to pose old-school, does an individual emerge, a tailor whose dealings with Polish army officers, which surely included circling, crouching, measuring from groin to ankle and from the nape to the buttocks bodies tutored in military bearing, may have engendered his own “feeling for posture”; or not; the open-ended “and” doesn’t insist. The lone manifestation of the grandfather’s soul is his style, his composure. The next sentence obliterates his uniqueness, since the opposite of composure is to be thrown unconscious into a cellar.

This series of sentences in “To Feel These Things” enacts the irony of the grandfather’s being assaulted as he was going for his family’s emigration papers: to emerge as a self by virtue of style, to seek the documents necessary for escape, are both dangerous assertions. Then: “I heard the story around the time children hear fairy tales.” Such tales are meant to go deep, to become part of the child’s kit of life-narratives. Fairy tales favor unlikely protagonists—clever mice or orphans— triumphing over evil. They’re an argument for unastonished resilience in the face of adults’ malign actions. Once upon a time should open the door to a menacing but ultimately just cosmos, and by breaking off into ellipses, Once upon a time my grandfather was walking in the street… acknowledges its unbearable deviation from the world where children are entitled to reassuring stories because they are children and a child’s optimism is to be handled with care.

In “What’s a Story” he describes “the best writing lesson ever offered,” a passage from Death in the Afternoon when Hemingway tries to write about the goring of the “cowardly and inept” bullfighter Hernandorena:


After the event, late at night, slowly, slowly, Hemingway makes himself see it again, the bullfighter’s leg laid open, exposing dirty underwear and the “clean, clean, unbear-able cleanness of his thigh-bone.” Dirty underwear and clean bone constitute an amazing juxtaposition…which is redeemed (more than simply remembered) half-asleep, against the blinding moral sympathy entailed by human fears.


I’m surprised by the choice of this passage; mostly I wonder about his admiration for the kind of rhythmic browbeating he never resorts to: “clean, clean, unbearable cleanness.” No reader is free in relation to the word unbearable, and the diminution of freedom for a reader confronted with agony is a narrowing of human realness for which the visual pleasure and incongruity of the dirty/clean contrast pretends to compensate. A Yiddish proverb Leonard Michaels remarks on elsewhere holds that to kill a person is to kill a world. A world wherever you come across it, if only in a character on a page, deserves awe. “In regard to my own writing, its subterranean Yiddish may keep me from being good at killing characters in my stories.” This is very funny, but it may mean that he didn’t see that he wrote violence with a quieter, less artist-y authority than Hemingway’s. Counter to the somewhat self-congratulatory aestheticism of the gored-bullfighter passage is Michaels’s awareness (as a child, here) of the groping implicit in going after meaning: “We sought it with brain fingers, loved how it feels in the elaborations of talk.” As far as a lesson in how to write a swift goring, more can be learned from this:


She stood barefoot in the kitchen dragging a hairbrush down through her long, black, wet Asian hair. Minutes ago, apparently, she had stepped out of the shower… She said hello but didn’t look at me, too much engaged, tipping her head right and left, tossing the heavy black weight of hair like a shining sash. The brush swept down and ripped free until, abruptly, she quit brushing, stepped into the living room, dropped onto the couch, leaned back against the brick wall, and went totally limp. Then, from behind long black bangs, her eyes moved, looked at me. The question of what to do with my life was resolved for the next four years.


Which isn’t Hemingway, but Leonard Michaels in his memoir about his first marriage, Sylvia. In fact, if this is about writing lessons, I would trade all of Death in the Afternoon, except that one sentence about the bull cornering like a cat, for this sentence of Michaels’s: “I can tell stories all day, but to write one that sounds right entails labors of indefinable innerness until I hear the thing I must hear before it is heard by others.”

This is about a self-seen rightness worlds apart from the one-eye-on-the-reader artifice of Hemingway’s unbearable. It’s the indefinable innerness that is the ultimate resource here, a privacy indifferent to style where style is born.



My foolish conviction that writers should be at least as beautiful as their work rejoiced in his big life-handled face, an emphatic, vulnerable face whose expressiveness must often, for the sake of social agreeableness, have suppressed the remorseless truthtelling of the brain behind it. He was a distinctly outlined person who liked cigarettes partly because, he said, cigarettes make the human hand more beautiful. In his bearing there was insouciance and restraint, as if space must be occupied just so or it would take offense, a little extra dose of uprightness in the carriage, like a dancer’s. Black hair, clothes on the natty end of the professor spectrum, harsh, thrilled laugh. His seeming indifference to his beauty allowed for a genuineness that was both real and somewhat uneasily complicated by watchfulness. His eyes’ eloquence made moods look like highly desirable experiences. There was no end to their feeling. Astoundingly, he was kind. It was as if an ocelot was nice to you.

I went to meet him in his office on the fourth floor of Wheeler Hall, an occasion that I described inwardly, to myself, in italics: going to talk with Leonard Michaels. My state of intimidated hick-dom and generally not knowing what to do made for fearful politeness. The door to his office was open and coming down the hall I could hear his raised voice. He gestured for me to come in; he was on the phone, and when I hung back, he gestured again, an invitation to the bonfire of himself, his voice rushed, fervently persuasive, but with an undercurrent of rankled virtue, the conviction, surely counterproductive in this exchange, that he was right, because what he wanted was to see his sons, and he wanted this with a ravaged love that was wrong for me, a stranger seating her awkward self in the chair by his desk, to hear, but when I got up to leave he shook his head, the great eyes taking notice, his hand gesturing for me to sit down again, meanwhile talking, never losing the vehement thread, and if in this onslaught there was strain and bewilderment there was also the most serious and abiding love, his for his sons, an emotion deserving recognition, and I suppose I was the recognizer, the inadequate, secretly judgmental scrutinizer of his heart, there, in that office with its genial books-and-papers chaos. There was a furious ending. When he put down the receiver it was as if nothing had happened. At least, he didn’t acknowledge anything, and I wouldn’t have known how to. He lit a cigarette that made his hand more beautiful. He tilted back in his chair and began to tell me about writing.



Elizabeth Tallent teaches in the writing program at Stanford University.

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