Leonard Michaels, writer and teacher: born New York 2 January 1933; four times married (two sons, one daughter); died Berkeley, California 10 May 2003.
Leonard Michaels was a gifted writer of short stories, but like virtually all practitioners of that now unpopular genre, he enjoyed a purely literary reputation - until he wrote a controversial and topical novel, The Men's Club, which was a considerable popular success and was made into a feature film.
Superficially, Michaels conformed to the stereotype of the Jewish-American writer: born in New York in 1933 to immigrant Polish Jews, he grew up on the Lower East Side and spoke only Yiddish until he started school at the age of six. He took his BA at New York University, then did graduate work at both Michigan and Berkeley without completing the doctoral dissertation which would have allowed him to pursue an academic career. But he was unrepentant, recalling over 30 years later, "I didn't want to hear more lectures, study for more exams, or see myself growing old in the library."
He was already writing stories, and on returning to New York from Berkeley soon began to place them in literary journals - as well as sell one for the princely sum of $3,000 to Playboy, then a publisher of fiction of the same calibre as the more august New Yorker magazine.
Virtually all of these early stories were set in New York, but his was a fantastic version of the real place - urban as Michaels's background was, he was never a naturalist writer, perching instead on the edge of an exuberant surrealism then most evident in the work of New York painters and poets such as Larry Rivers and John Ashbery. And Michaels's self-acknowledged influences were the diversely imaginative ones of Byron, Kafka and Wallace Stevens.
The urban grittiness of his early stories seems secondary to the flights of fanciful imagination, and this set him apart from other Jewish writers in America - in Michaels's work there is the sense that the Jewishness of his milieux and characters is truly incidental, whereas with so many other writers (especially Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Bernard Malamud) the Jewishness is absolutely key.
Michaels's chief subject was the universal upheavals of love. Unlike many male writers of his generation, Michaels fixed relentlessly on relations between the sexes - his stories, he once explained, were almost always about "the way men and women seem to be unable to live with or without each other". If his women characters often offended women readers - for they are usually harpies or victims or gold-diggers - his male characters are never better and often worse. But Michaels made his reputation really for his prose style, and what one critic called its "economical lyricism". The diction is deceptively matter-of-fact, the style plain but taut and carefully composed, and suddenly capable of explosive grace:
Thus, delivering the can, he delivered himself, grabbed life in the loop and hoisted it like a gallon of his own blood . . . steeping light hosannaed while Beckman's arm stiffened and shuddered from wrist
to mooring tendons in his neck as he held the stance, leaned with the heavy can like an allegorical statue: Man Reaching.
And characters are evoked with a few simple brushstrokes that none the less create a powerfully vivid picture:
Dead-white hair and big greenish light in his eyes. The face of an infant surprised by senility
he is a thin man who looks like he has heavy organs
Having finally taken a PhD (from the University of Michigan in 1967), Michaels taught briefly in New Jersey before moving to the West Coast. After a short stint at the University of California at Davis he joined the faculty of Berkeley in 1969 and taught there until retiring in 1994. He enjoyed teaching and was an imaginative, exciting figure in the classroom, able to mix a "wonderful, hilarious, dark sense of humour", as one student recalls, with "a great respect for serious things".
California was in many ways a liberating influence for Michaels's work, since he found its protean environment - full of social fads and transient cultural attachments, of sexual experimentation and guilt- inducing affluence - a fertile ground for his imagination. Like many men, he was at once intrigued and shocked by the ferocity of feminism in its Berkeley incarnation, and by the rancorous conduct of what were formerly more civil traditions of sexual warfare.
Something of his own amorous impulses, his own amorous failures (he was married four times) and his own bafflement infused his novel The Men's Club (1981). The novel's premiss - seven men gathered together one evening in the form of "men's club" and "encounter group" - was at once unusual and accurate, since many such groups had sprung up in the wake of the feminist movement and Michaels himself belonged to one in Berkeley. The book charts the progress of the men as they gather for what turns out to be a night-time's worth of talk, argument and confession. The focus of the novel, and its protagonists' conversations, is overwhelmingly on the men's relationships with the women in their lives - which are fraught, violent, entangled and, without exception, disappointing.
The obscene language of The Men's Club shocked some readers; the sexual frankness (the host of the gathering, a psychologist, claims to have bedded 622 women) shocked others; but it was the hostility expressed towards women by the men which made the book so controversial. Attacked as a misogynist by feminists, lauded by unreconstructed sexists as a defender of his gender, a dismayed Michaels protested that both were wrong and that he had had no agenda in writing the book other than to make a fictional representation of what he had witnessed in his own men's group.
What in fact is most interesting about the novel is not the stories about women it contains, but the extent to which its male protagonists define themselves in terms of women - and how much women bewilder these men's sense of themselves:
she wasn't so damned gorgeous . . . I could see flaws. She was arrogant, hot, suffocating meat. I couldn't even talk.
After the critical and commercial success of The Men's Club, Michaels wrote very little for the next 10 years; he was never prolific, but his energies seemed at low ebb. He did write the screenplay for the 1986 movie version of The Men's Club, but, although it had a star-studded cast - including Roy Scheider, Harvey Keitel, Frank Langella and Treat Williams - and was praised for the pungency of Michaels's dialogue, the film was not a box-office success.
Shuffle, called by one critic an "autobiographical grab bag of gorgeous prose", appeared in 1990. Described by The New York Times as a "a shockingly bad book", it nevertheless led the way for more personal writing on Michaels's part - Sylvia (1992) is a thinly fictionalised account of Michaels's youthful life in Greenwich Village with his first wife, who killed herself in 1963, and in 1999 he published Time Out of Mind: the diaries of Leonard Michaels, 1961-1995. A final collection of stories, A Girl With a Monkey, appeared in 2000 to enormous critical appreciation.
For the last seven years of his life, Michaels lived in Italy, though he returned to California for cancer treatment before he died.
Michaels will be remembered for his stories as well as for The Men's Club. Much anthologised, they are notable for their compression, their careful but unaffected construction, and for the way in which the catastrophic sexual and social lives of their characters are made arresting by the alternating calmness and exuberance of the prose. In his acceptance of the lives he describes Michaels finds and makes something beautiful -
he felt only that his heart was breaking, and there was nothing he could do about it . . . Her gray eyes were non- committal and vast as the world.
Like it or not, the stories of Leonard Michaels seem to say, this is what happens.
Andrew RosenheimReuse content