Writing Against Yourself: On Leonard Michaels’s Nachman Stories

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I will propose two axioms here, the first completely obvious, the second hopefully less so.  One: most writers have a zone of thematic interest they compulsively revisit in their work.  Rare is the Flannery O’Connor story without a fraught parent-child relationship; few are the Raymond Carver stories without a bottle of gin lurking on the counter. Two: per Carver and O’Connor, a writer’s greatness tends to be proportionate to, or correlate with anyway, the strength and clarity of these fixations.  Great writers have great subjects, and they return to them again and again, like a dog worrying daily over a buried bone.

covercoverSo it’s interesting when an important author purposefully writes against these tendencies, against themselves.  In his recent Lincoln in the Bardo, for example, George Saunders abandons his familiar dystopian terrain, going back in time to achieve something artistically new.  Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, which I recently discussed on my podcast, Fan’s Notes (shameless plug), strikes me similarly.  Following the runaway success of The Adventures of Augie March, with its rollicking first-person narration and ambition of scope, Bellow released Seize the Day, a slim novella, and cramped in every sense.  The third-person narration is straitjacketed, the setting is an old folks’ home, the action is mostly confined to a single, contentious meal between father and son, and the stakes hinge on $700 worth of lard futures.  After Seize the Day, Bellow returned to large books like Henderson the Rain King and Herzog — large in scope, large in voice.  Largeness was Bellow’s aesthetic mode, outsized spiritual yearning his native thematic soil.  But Seize the Day is a notable aberration, an effortful — though somewhat clumsy and abortive — stab at smallness and bathos.

Regardless of how we evaluate this kind of book’s success, it is gratifying and noteworthy to see a artist pushing against his or her own inclinations and instincts.  And so I found it, going through the work of Leonard Michaels to arrive at the Nachman Stories.

The Nachman Stories, as they are informally known, are a cycle of seven pieces bound by a single protagonist, Raphael Nachman, a well-regarded mathematician at UCLA (Michaels himself taught at Berkeley for decades).  These stories are terrific, wonderfully written, shot through with an enigmatic, elusive sense of mystery.  And they are completely different than anything else Michaels wrote.

coverMichaels’s great subject was the erotic and the borderlands it shares with other worldly conditions:  love, hatred, friendship, confusion, depression, and, in particular, death.  Going Places, his first collection, commences with two stories of graphic sexual content — “Manikin,” in which a woman is raped and commits suicide, and the even more representative “City Boy.”  Here, the protagonist, caught screwing his girlfriend on the living room floor of her parents’ Manhattan apartment, is banished from the house without clothes, runs to the subway entirely naked only to be denied entry, and upon return to the street is met by his girlfriend, who bears his clothes and the news that her father has suffered a heart attack.  They return to the apartment, and celebrate the phone call reporting her father’s survival with another interlude on the floor.

coverI Would Have Saved Them if I Could, Michaels’s second collection, features “Murderers,” perhaps his most well-known and anthologized story.  In it, a group of teenage friends routinely masturbate on the sloping edge of a Brooklyn apartment roof while watching a young rabbi and his wife have sex across the street.  One day, a member of the group slides down the roof, tearing his finger off in the process, and plummeting five stories.  The naked rabbi screams out the window at them, calling them murderers — a fusing of the carnal and mortal in one indelible moment.

coverMichaels’s last story collection, A Girl with a Monkey, features a titular story that leads with the following sentence:  “In the Spring of the year following his divorce, while traveling alone in Germany, Beard fell in love with a young prostitute named Inger and canceled his plans for further travel.”  This strikes me as a characteristic Leonard Michaels sentence, packing loneliness and trauma into a rhetorical sardine tin with the frankly sexual.  The story proceeds as you might imagine:  sex, sex, regret, folly, sex, regret, sex.

In 1997, six years before his death in 2003, Michaels wrote the first of the Nachman stories, entitled, simply, “Nachman.”  In “Nachman,” Raphael Nachman has traveled to Poland for a mathematics conference, where he is informed by the American consul that he will be surveilled by the communist secret police.  Nachman responds, “My field is mathematics.  Nothing I do is secret, except insofar as it’s unintelligible.”  Prodded further with a warning as to the “considerable allure” of Polish women, he elaborates:

I’m not married.  I have no secrets.  I don’t gossip.  I didn’t come to Cracow for romantic adventures.  It’s arguable that I’m a freak.  You’re wasting your time, Mr. Sullivan, unless you want to make me frightened and self-conscious.

The story proceeds with Nachman touring Cracow’s former Jewish ghetto accompanied by a young female guide who may or may not be a government agent, one of Poland’s famously alluring women.  He feels a vague attraction to her, though mainly to her stoic inscrutability, and the story ends with them drinking vodka in a café, Nachman thinking, “For an instant, [he] wished he could love Marie, feel what a man is supposed to feel for a woman, but not for the sake of ecstasy.”

Nachman is an ascetic, and Michaels’s focus on such a character — happy with his pencil and paper, his equations and conferences, and his solitude in a little house in Santa Monica — is arresting.  It’s as though Michaels, in order to thwart his habitual mode, had to create a character inoculated against desire.  To return to our earlier examples, the equivalent would be a Flannery O’Connor protagonist on pleasant speaking terms with her mother, a Carver character who enjoys a single glass of crisp white wine before bedtime.

What does it profit an author to create a character pitted by nature against its creator’s instincts?  In Michaels’s case, backgrounding the erotic charge serves to foreground it — Nachman’s sterile, calm existence is constantly being impinged on by the promise or threat of erotic life.  The effect is something like a pristine operating room marked by a bare smudge of mud or a greasy handprint, and the plots of these stories are not unlike a contaminated OR being scrubbed down.

“Of Mystery, There Is No End,” begins as Nachman accidently spies his best friend Norbert’s wife, Adele, kissing a man on the side of Santa Monica Boulevard.  This coincidence throws his life into moral turmoil — should he tell Norbert and how?  And why does it bother him so?  The simple answer seems to be that he has his own feelings for Adele, yet he never acts upon these feelings despite having ample opportunity.  He is a man of instinctive restraint, a restraint signally opposed to Michaels’s frank explorations of the bedroom and its consequences.  It is only in the last line of the story, chastely lying in bed, that Nachman allows himself to wonder if he is in love with her.

The stifling of this erotic energy tends to position the Nachman Stories in the realm of the metaphysical.  It’s as though, absent a release for the ambient sexuality in Michaels’ work, the narrative energy is funneled upward, into — if not the spiritual — the mystical.  Nachman’s profession, mathematics, perfectly echoes this quality, in its intellectual self-denial, its abstraction in pursuit of equations that aspire to an almost numinous beauty, a beauty that, in turn, can take aesthetic shape in the real world.  In “The Penultimate Conjecture,” Nachman visits a math conference featuring a mathematician named Linquist who claims to have solved a long-standing, famous problem reminiscent of Pierre de Fermat’s Last Theorem.  Watching the man, Nachman senses the equations are wrong, and the story pivots on his internal struggle: should he speak up and ruin Linquist?  He imagines himself and Linquist as medieval knights engaged in mortal combat.  Cowering beneath Nachman’s sword, Linquist offers up his slave girl, and thus (as, again, the rumor of sex invades the story’s realm) does Nachman’s fugue end.

The story cycle itself ends with “Cryptology,” in which Nachman has been invited by a shadowy corporation to New York for a cryptology conference.  While in the city, he runs into a woman who seems to know him and invites him to dinner; he goes to her apartment only to find her having sex in the shower with her husband, and he flees in mortified dismay.  “Cryptology” ends with Nachman in Washington Square Park, calming himself with a vision of home that serves as a perfect imagistic postscript for these stories:

His office and his desk and the window that looked out on the shining Pacific.  He’d never gone swimming in the prodigious, restless, teeming, alluring thing, but he loved the changing light on its surface and the sounds it made in the darkness.  He didn’t yearn for its embrace.

It is difficult to read these stories, written by a man in his 60s shortly before his death, and not read into them a certain clarity of purpose.  Having produced decades of work marked by hectic energy, Michaels’s creation of Nachman seems an attempt to slow things down, to filter the intemperate world through a temperate soul.  The sexual is still there in these stories, but it exists less as an act or an actor, and more as atmosphere — background noise that, like the ocean crashing outside Nachman’s window, occasionally intensifies into something audible, becomes for a moment frighteningly present, then just as quickly again subsides.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

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