Thursday, February 11, 2010

On The Essays of Leonard Michaels

The first thing about The Essays of Leonard Michaels to arrest the reader’s attention is the author’s own photograph on the cover, taken at some point in middle age. The expression is gently quizzical, amused, open, the face aware of the camera but comfortable with itself. Michaels (1933-2003) was an American Jewish writer, principally of short stories, and of the same generation as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, whose small, carefully chiselled work was praised for its candour about sex (this was in the days when such candour was a radical artistic choice in a buttoned-up culture, and not a default setting as it often can be now, as if would be embarrassing to be anything else) and a muscular, even self-consciously masculine style that was nevertheless alive to moods of tenderness, innocence, vulnerability, the anti-masculine.

Writing, in one of these essays, about a love affair that went too fast for him (it goes just as fast
inside the essay, described in two pages as an aside to a larger meditation on a professor of English who roused him to his highest nature), Michaels writes, “I had no virginity to lose, but when sex happened with guiltless and astonishing speed, I lost my innocence.” This tension between freedom and violation, meaning and mystery, desire and disappointment is what makes for the energy and insight of this book, one half of which is devoted to literature, art and cinema, the other half to portraits of people, including Michaels himself.

The son of a barber, Michaels was aware of how his own life of education, cultivation, artistic experiment and productive introspection was founded upon the persistent, almost unthinking labour of his father in his barbershop six days a week, year after year. In an essay entitled “My Father” (almost a mandatory requirement, it seems, of a male Western writer
, but even if a compulsory assignment then carried off here with panache), he writes that, outside of the two worlds of shop and home, his father was pretty much a fish out of water:

He took few vacations. Once we spent a week in Miami, and he tried to enjoy himself, wading bravely into the ocean, stepping inch by inch into the warm, blue, unpredictable immensity. Then he slipped. In water no higher than his pupik, he came up thrashing, struggling back onto the beach on skinny white legs. ‘I nearly drowned,’ he said, exhilarated. He never went into the water again.
That word "exhilarated", coming where it does, is what brings Papa Michaels alive.

The essay ends with a beautiful night scene where the teenaged Michaels, sleekly dressed and off in search of sexual adventure, runs on the street into his father, coming back home after
a long day at work, and is handed a few coins for expenses, as a little child might. The other mentor figure to be found on these pages is a professor of literature, Austin Warren, very famous in his day, whose teaching method was so sparse and precise – all he did was read texts aloud, occasionally stopping to draw attention to a word or ask a pointed question – and yet so vivifying that he held large classes in thrall. Having heard him once, Michaels decided to junk the idea of going to medical school (which would have been the respectable thing to do) and enrolled for graduate study in English instead. Michaels’s eulogy to his teacher reminds us of the enormous power of personal example and passionate rigour, if not to change the world, then at least to decisively impact and permanently enrich a few others.

The high p
oint of this book arrives in Michaels’s discussion of the work of an painter, Max Beckmann, who spent his entire life observing his own face through self-portraits. Beckmann’s work rouses Michaels to a set of inspired jottings on the wonder and mystery of human faces, on how faces are at once both public and private. “A face is the thing we most consciously bear or carry into public view, while it remains invisible to ourselves; and it is also the thing we contemplate endlessly in others, in the tremendous variety and subtlety of theirs moods, desires, and meanings,” he writes. “Whatever we say, our face says it first, or differently, or withholds part of the meaning. It betrays as much as it expresses. It speaks of sadness while laughing, or satisfaction while commiserating.... For no reason we can specify, a face can seem loveable or disagreeable.” The beauty of Michaels’s prose reminds us that although faces and their owners disappear from this world, powerful words are much less easily effaced.

Here are
some more of Michaels's essays: "My Yiddish", "The Action of Metaphor", and an excerpt from his spirited and observant reading of Saul Bellow's novel Ravelstein.

And here is an old post on Saul Bellow's Seize The Day, and here are five more on fine Indian essayists: On Mukul Kesavan's The Ugliness of the Indian Male, "Utpal Dutt on theatre and film", "Cricket with Ram Guha", On Chidananda Das Gupta's Seeing Is Believing
, and "Krishna Kripalani's faith and frivolity".

1 comment:

sundhar said...

Congrats on the Commonwealth Writers' Prize nomination. Good luck.

Is this book available in Indian stores? Haven't seen it yet in book stores in Madras.