The Essays of Leonard Michaels
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 206 pp., $26
Until Leonard Michaels was 5 and learned English in school, he spoke only Yiddish in the Lower East Side enclave where his Polish-Jewish parents raised him. And maybe because he discovered that language is lost in translation, he accepted that experience is lost when it’s translated into language. Still, Michaels -- best known for his voice-driven, sexually bold story collections “Going Places” and “I Would Have Saved Them if I Could” and the novels “Sylvia” and “The Men’s Club” -- loves the yearning of words to represent the movie playing on our neural pathways -- a wish that can’t be fulfilled, he knows, because words are inexact, approximate things.
Michaels even takes on Ludwig Wittgenstein, who counseled silence when the possibilities of language are exhausted in the famous final precept of his “Tractatus": “Whereof we cannot speak, we must be silent.” Michaels circles this notion many times in “The Essays of Leonard Michaels,” a collection of brilliant, funny, uncategorizable pieces published for the first time under one cover. He approves of Wittgenstein for examining the limits of language, but the stoic philosopher also irks Michaels, who doesn’t think we should ever shut up. Sense, he says, is not the point. Rather than aiming for a place beyond language, he scratches at experience that’s below it: the shivers and shakes that make us embrace, murder and argue with our fellow lonely and desiring human beings. He’s interested in the incisions of language: the curses, oaths, labels and vows that sputter forth in moments of passion.
In the same way that words are furry to Michaels, so is form. A story, a memoir, a critical review -- who’s to say how it should sound? His fiction resembles his nonfiction, and together the pieces compose a fragmented, excited monologue addressed to you, reader. Let me tell you something, you got to hear this, he is saying, as he ponders sex, death and words. Always, words.
Not every piece is a grabber. Some feel like outtakes for more developed passes at a subject, and he keeps returning to particular feeling states from a childhood -- he was born in 1933 -- spent watching, as if they were giant puppets, Hitler and Roosevelt decide the fate of Jews. You can skip slighter entries such as “I’m Having Trouble With My Relationship” and “A Berkeley Memoir,” the joke of the latter being that although Michaels became a writer on the West Coast, taught there for many years and slid down the rabbit hole of Hollywood during the transformation of “The Men’s Club” into a spectacularly failed film, he remained, in inflection, temperament and preoccupations, a combustible New York Jew. Part of the way this was placed in relief for him was by living among sunnier denizens of his adopted state.
The collection is divided into “critical” and “autobiographical” essays, but the distinction is almost arbitrary. Michaels has affinities with the genre-defying German writer W.G. Sebald, who referred to himself as a “prose writer” rather than a novelist and whose writings traipse wantonly (though with melancholy longing for lost moments that never existed) among philosophy, memoir, history and art criticism. Michaels’ essays, too, are collages, gathering meaning and dramatic effect from the devices of film: jump cuts, montage and fades. Throwing memoiristic associations into pieces -- an aside on beautiful women in one about Saul Bellow, for example -- Michaels creates intimacy with the reader; it’s as if we’re looking over his shoulder as he struggles with issues of craft and form.
In fact, reading this collection feels less like an encounter with a book whose positions have been carved and sanded than a conversation with a guy in a cafeteria, his hands waving to catch an image, pieces of Danish flying from his fast mouth. Michaels vividly evokes this setting, with its combative debates and refinements of positions (on one hand, and on the other) in one of his most plangent pieces, “To Feel These Things,” in which he chronicles the arrival of his mother’s two brothers, survivors of the Holocaust, into his safe, American boyhood and shows how cafeteria talk became a model for his style: "[T]he fairy tale of evil and a murdered family was suddenly in these familiar streets, even in the Garden Cafeteria . . . where I sometimes sat with my father and ate whitefish on black bread with onion, amid the dark Jewish faces of taxi drivers, pickle salesmen, dry-goods merchants, journalists, and other urban beings who sipped coffee or borscht, smoked cigarettes, argued, joked, or complained in Yiddish, or in such English as had been mutilated into the nuances required by Yiddish, grammatical niceties flung aside so that meaning and feeling could walk on the earth.”
Meaning and feeling -- what do we mean by these words? Michaels remains uncertain, and he doesn’t want to be decisive. His love of maybe makes his essays works of art rather than polemics. It makes him a comedian and a theorist of comedy -- the form most attuned to limits rather than to transcendence. In “My Yiddish,” the last piece he completed before dying of complications from lymphoma in 2003, his ideas about Jews, language and meaning mount to a stunning crescendo.
He proposes that Yiddish, a tongue whose speakers have been murdered for 1,000 years for no reason, is especially equipped to reflect on meaninglessness: “At the center of my Yiddish . . . remains hut geharget yiddin [killed Jews], from which, like the disgorged contents of a black hole in the universe, come the jokes, the thinking, the meanings, and the meaninglessness. . . . Paradox as a cognitive mode is everywhere in Yiddish.” You can’t give meaning to the history of hunted Jews, Michaels says, and by the 20th century, their condition turns out to be a metaphor for the condition of all human beings in a post-God landscape (think Kafka). The gift of Yiddish to English, Michaels suggests, and to the other languages Jews write in is to make meaninglessness available to those cultures as well.
Gee, thanks for the tender sentiment, the world has not unreasonably replied. Now what?
Michaels’ answer is the post-tragedy, post-shock shrug. He knows this response isn’t unique to Yiddish, or if it is, then Beckett’s tramps in “Waiting for Godot” have been tainted by Yiddishkeit when Estragon says, “I can’t go on like this,” and Vladimir replies, “That’s what you think.” Michaels doesn’t mind. He’s in love with Yiddish, which represents immersion in sensation beyond reason. As a parting gift, he shares a joke: “The rabbi says, ‘What’s green, hangs on the wall, and whistles?’ The student says, ‘I don’t know.’ The rabbi says, ‘A herring.’ The student says, ‘Maybe a herring could be green and hang on the wall, but it absolutely doesn’t whistle.’ The rabbi says, ‘So it doesn’t whistle.’ ” For Michaels, the magic comes from laughing and being farblunget at the same time.
Stone is the author of “Starting With Serge,” “Close to the Bone” and “Laughing in the Dark.”