The first thing about The Essays of Leonard Michaels to lay claim on the reader’s attention is the author’s own photograph on the cover, taken at some point in middle age—the expression gently quizzical, amused, 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 an artistic choice that made a discordant sound in a buttoned-up culture, and not a writerly reflex as it often appears to be now) and a muscular, even self-consciously masculine style that was nevertheless alive to moods of tenderness, innocence, vulnerability, the anti-masculine.
Portraitist: Leonard Michaels. Bloomberg
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 almost 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, he writes that, outside of the two worlds of shop and home, his father was pretty much a fish out of water.
The essay (which can also be found on the Internet) 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 father 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 point of this book arrives in Michaels’ discussion of the work of a 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 their 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’ prose reminds us that although faces and beings disappear from this world, powerful words are much less easily effaced.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org