David Bezmozgis: On Literary Love
David Bezmozgis was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1973. His first book, Natasha and Other Stories, won a regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was a 2004 New York Times Notable Book. His second book, The Free World, was published by FSG in March 2011. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library. In 2010, he was named one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40.” You can follow him on Twitter @dbezmozgis.
What happens when the writer you admire most becomes your friend?
In an essay he published in The New York Times in 1981, the writer Leonard Michaels cited the works of three writers who influenced him—Saul Bellow, Wallace Stevens, and Chekhov. He then wrote: “Finally, the writer who influences me more than any other: Isaac Babel. I never talk about his work.” Implicit was the idea that, if you were a writer, you were a fool or a heretic to say anything about your deepest and most fundamental influence.No matter what you said, you would never get it right, you would unmask yourself, and you would—quite justifiably—suffer the shame of profaning a sacred thing. Or, to put it another way, here is a verse from a poem by William Blake:
Never seek to tell thy love
Love that never told can be
For the gentle wind does move
I found this verse in one of the last things Michaels wrote, a short essay called “On Love” that appeared in the San Francisco-based magazine Zoetrope at the time of Michaels’ death, in the spring of 2003. Though Michaels was writing about romantic love, I think that his sentiment applies equally to love of any kind, including literary influence, which is another form of love. In the poem, the caveat is less oblique: the moment you so much as attempt to talk about the thing you love, that love is doomed. But, as both Blake and Michaels understood, people have always felt a powerful compulsion to put words to their most intimate feelings. As for writers, this paradoxical compulsion defines their work. Writers know that talking about love is a bad idea, a losing proposition, and yet they also recognize that it is the only thing worth talking about.
Having said this, I will now—and not without apprehension—go against the advice of Leonard Michaels and talk about the writer who influences me more than any other: Leonard Michaels.
In 1999, I was a graduate student in film at the University of Southern California, pursuing with futility a career in Hollywood. I’d ended up there as a strange concession to my parents, having convinced them and myself that cinema—with its endless credit roll of technical specialties—would offer the professional security they desired and creative gratification I sought. Writing—what I really wanted to do—appeared by comparison to be amorphous and fantastically improbable. But that winter, having fulfilled all of my course requirements, I enrolled in a creative writing class offered by the university. One day, the instructor suggested that I look up the work of a writer he thought I might like. That same afternoon I descended into the basement of USC’s Doheny Library looking for a collection of stories called I Would Have Saved Them If I Could by Leonard Michaels. In contrast to the library’s grand, sunlit exterior, its basement was like a bomb shelter, with metal stacks painted a dismal military gray-green. Filed on a low shelf, I found a selection of titles by Leonard Michaels, though not the book I was looking for. Arbitrarily, I opened one called Shuffle and read the first line. It went like this: “Sobbing like a child, he phoned his wife at her lover’s apartment.” Instantly, I was drawn in. Through the thicket of conflicting words—child, wife, lover’s apartment—I saw the husband in his animal misery set against the cool urbanity of the wife and her lover. Rereading the line now I see them again, as I’ve seen them on countless other rereadings. This one line, dramatic and succinct, epitomizes much of what I came to admire about Michaels’ writing. There is humor, pathos, and an appreciation for the absurdity to be found in everyday life. There is also the invocation of the subject that fuels much of Michaels’ work, which he once defined as “the way men and women seem unable to live with and without each other.” Turning pages, I stayed in the cavernous Doheny stacks for a long time, unwilling to stop reading even long enough to go upstairs and check the book out. It was the most powerful reading experience I’d ever had. I felt as if I’d found a writer who had managed to express the world the way I saw it. The effect was both exhilarating and humbling.
This was in January of 1999. Over the course of the next year I sought out everything I could find by Michaels. This proved harder than I expected. At the time, all but two or three of his books were out of print, and the ones that were available were published by Mercury House, a relatively obscure nonprofit press in San Francisco. So far as I could tell, no bookstore carried their titles, which meant that they could only be acquired by mail order. Nevertheless, gradually, in a piecemeal way, I assembled my Leonard Michaels library. Any time I visited a used bookstore I would go and browse under M. Usually I found nothing between Fern Michaels and James Michener. But occasionally, I had luck. Once, passing through San Luis Obispo, I discovered a hardcover copy of Michaels’ first collection of stories, Going Places, published in 1969. It cost $10. When I paid, the bookseller mentioned that Michaels had once read at the store. He recalled nothing particularly memorable, but the mere knowledge that I stood where Michaels had read was thrilling to me.
To Going Places I added I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, Shuffle, and The Men’s Club, Michaels’ 1981 novel. Mercury House sent me a compilation of stories and essays titled To Feel These Things, published in 1993. I read everything assiduously and voraciously, eager to start and loath to finish. Michaels wrote with precision and economy, with what people sometimes describe as “a poet’s attention to language” (high praise to poets, in my opinion). His books are not long. I typically finished them in one sitting and was affected and impressed almost uniformly by everything I read. Here, for instance, is my favorite line in all of literature. It derives from “Murderers,” the first story in I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, about four boys who climb onto a tenement roof to watch a rabbi have sex with his wife: “We sat on that roof like angels, shot through with light, derealized in brilliance.” The line is an inhalation, a caesura. Iconic, it has the precision and charm of a souvenir postcard, in the manner of Cartier-Bresson or Robert Doisneau. In the space of a breath, it captures the final moment of childhood, celebrating innocence and prefiguring tragedy, climbing, comma by comma, from nostalgia to apotheosis. Much more can be said besides, about the pleasure to be found in the language, its simplicity and complexity. After reading this line, I concluded that the man who wrote it was, by far, the best writer I’d ever encountered. (This is still how I feel.) I idolized him, and found it rather baffling that hardly anybody else knew of his work.
I should say at this point that though I was a dedicated reader and entertained writerly ambitions, I knew next to nothing about the practical realities of publishing. I paid no attention to and couldn’t distinguish between the various publishing houses and knew nothing about their relative merits or reputations. I knew nothing about the arcana of lists, deals, rights, advances, tours, covers, print runs, or anything else. All books looked the same to me. They all participated equally in the wondrous, enviable state of being published. A more savvy reader, noting the poor availability of Michaels’s books, might have deduced from this something about the state of Michaels’s career, but this never occurred to me. I thought that anybody who wrote as well as he did had to be a great success, on par with Philip Roth or Saul Bellow or any other writer deserving of serious consideration. That his books were almost completely out of print I perceived only as matter of personal inconvenience to me, not anything that would be of consequence to Michaels himself. After all, he had written the books and they had been published. They existed. I imagined that anything beyond that was trivial.
As it happened, my discovery of Michaels coincided with a kind of creative resurgence for him. Individual stories about a mathematician named Nachman appeared in The Threepenny Review,The Partisan Review, and The New Yorker beginning in the late 1990s. And in June of 1999, six months into my infatuation, came the publication of Time Out of Mind: The Diaries Of Leonard Michaels. I read a review of it and then secured, not without difficulty, one of the only copies in Los Angeles. I drove across town to an independent bookstore near Griffith Park, bought the book, and then returned home to huddle with it in my tiny studio apartment—one room with a kitchen, bathroom, and “cloffice”: a walk-in closet I’d converted for dual purpose. It was a gloomy Saturday; a day I’d spent waiting for a phone call from a girl. She didn’t call and I read late into the night. Michaels’ moody and insightful entries about the tribulations of the heart and of life in general made for suitable company. A representative entry reads:
Sept. 30, 81
Possible story. Lucy, in Lincoln, Nebraska, said that one night she slept with her best friend, a boy her age. She’d known him for years. They’d never been romantically involved with each other. After the sex he got up, dressed, and started out of the room. Lucy watched him until he reached the door, and then she yelled at him, called him a son of a bitch, demanded that he come back. He did. He took off his clothes and got back into bed with her. Thus, she saved the friendship. They never had sex again. Lucy lived in a trailer with her mother, and made money by offering herself as a subject in psychological and medical experiments.
Around this time, a screenplay I’d written attracted the attention of an agent who took me on as a client. The man had once worked for a large agency but had since left to start his own boutique operation. Even though he ran his business out of the pool-house of his Sherman Oaks home, he was intelligent and reputable. When I went to meet him, I saw, parked in his carport, the reassuring evidence of a red Mercedes Benz convertible. The screenplay I had written was unconventional, but my agent sent it out to elite production companies and also to very famous actors, hoping to entice them with an eccentric role. I had just turned 26. For about a week, I walked around feeling hugely optimistic, imagining the imminent call that would herald the start of my new and desirable life. When all of the actors and production companies declined, I still retained some of my optimism. Nobody had offered to buy the script, but a few had said complimentary things about the writing and invited me to meetings on studio lots. The impenetrable seemed slightly less impenetrable. If I had any ideas, I was invited to come back with them.
That fall, I reread a Michaels’ short story called “Honeymoon” included in To Feel These Things and decided that it could be adapted into a movie. The story is set at a Catskills honeymoon resort in the 1950s. In it, a young bride, “married a few hours earlier in the city,” falls in love with her waiter, an arrestingly handsome dental student, mambo dancer, and handball champion. Many complications ensue. The story is very lively, funny, but also darkly menacing. There is something inscrutable at its core, relating to the atavistic nature of love and lust. I contemplated the prospect of adapting the story for some time, debating the various reasons for and against. My Hollywood career was not progressing. I showed no talent for generating ideas with potential mainstream appeal. Once, intrigued by a historical footnote I heard on the classical music station, I pitched an idea involving Bach, Handel, and a lesser-known Baroque organist named Dietrich Buxtehude. I sensed my agent’s enthusiasm dwindling; it took him longer and longer to return my proverbial phone calls. Out of desperation, defiance, or some combination of the two, I resolved to adapt “Honeymoon.” At heart, what motivated me more than involuted commercial or creative considerations was having a valid excuse to contact Leonard Michaels. I gathered my courage and called the UC Berkeley English department where Michaels had been a professor. At that point, Michaels had retired mostly to Italy, and a colleague agreed to forward my request. I composed a short, professional-sounding email, expressing my admiration for his work and briefly citing my qualifications. Two days later I turned on my computer and felt my pulse quicken. Michaels wrote a warm and receptive note, its tone personal and conversational, very much like his essays and stories. He asked me to provide some indication of my capabilities, but not in any lofty or forbidding way. “My experience with movies has been rather disappointing in the past,” he wrote, “but I remain hopeful that something good can always happen.”
This initial exchange proved the beginning of a correspondence that lasted for three years. At first we spoke mainly about “the possible movie.” Michaels—or Lenny, as he was known to his friends—wrote to me about his experience as a busboy and waiter in the Catskills, and particularly of his love of Latin music and dancing. He wrote about the vernacular of the time, and also about what it had been like to be a young American Jew in the 1940s and 50s, with the heady, idealistic promise of Israel, and the bleak, gruesome knowledge of the Holocaust. I posed questions and he answered expansively and intimately, as if we had known each other for a long time. That we had never met and that I was 40 years his junior didn’t seem to matter. We corresponded like this for months as I prepared to write the screenplay. Then I wrote it. I planned meticulously, and completed it in something like five days, faster than I’d written anything before. The script required the invention of characters and dialogue which were supposed to coexist with what Lenny had already written. To do the work meant, more than ever, to quell the single and unremitting question: Who do you think you are?
Looking back now, the script seems incidental, though at the time it meant quite a lot, not only to me but, I think, also to Lenny. We discussed its possibilities earnestly and at length. When I sent Lenny the script, he wasn’t effusive, but offered suggestions; he seemed generally to approve. For me this alone was a huge relief and the highest validation. In the months after I wrote the screenplay I put it and myself through the demoralizing circuit of submissions to “people in the business.” It came to nothing. Lenny tried to help by recommending friends of his who worked in movies, but none of them warmed to the idea. Many were of the opinion that Dirty Dancing had exhausted the subject.
“It’s a horrible business, I think, asking for money,” Lenny wrote, “and if you could do the movie in video for cheap it would be fine with me.” What animated him was the prospect of committing to the screen what he had committed to the page: a true and unabashed rendition of Jewish life, one that allowed for Jewish physicality and gracefulness. In other words, a portrayal of Jews like normal people—complementing the musical prodigies and lefty intellectuals with athletes, gamblers, and mambo dancers. I felt the same way. Lenny had grown up on the Lower East Side, and played varsity basketball at NYU; I had grown up among Soviet Jews, and had, at a young age, and for the purposes of instruction, watched my father repeatedly shoot a puck through a cardboard target.
In the time I knew Lenny we communicated almost exclusively by email. On several occasions we spoke by phone and twice met in person. The first time, in the summer of 2000, I visited him at his house in Kensington, near Berkeley. He looked older than I had expected, rumpled, and he asked me to project since he was hard of hearing in one ear. The effect made me conscious of his mortality in a way I hadn’t quite considered before. We spent a few hours together, talking, and Lenny made a tuna salad, which we ate without ceremony. The scale of everything was modest and unpretentious. The house resembled its owner, rustic and benignly disheveled. No exorbitant attention was devoted to furnishings or objects. Here and there, on the walls, I saw the papery husks of spiders. These came from the trees that surrounded the house, Lenny explained. Thus they were natural, harmless, and not worth disturbing. My visit alerted me to the disjunction between reality and my preconceptions. It reminded me of a comment Lenny had recorded in his journals. The comment had been made by his eldest son, who, still a child, had watched his celebrated father sweep the kitchen floor. He’d looked at Lenny “with weary incomprehension” and said: “You’re practically famous, and you’re sweeping the floor.” I suppose I felt a version of that.
Our friendship forced me to confront such dichotomies. To reconcile my perception of the authorial persona with the author as a person. In his work Lenny exhibited incisiveness, self-awareness, and control, and yet in life he sometimes appeared to me to be innocently childlike. He was often very emotionally candid. He talked freely and unguardedly about himself and about his friends and acquaintances. Though not trying to be mean-spirited or malicious, he could be indiscreet. Once, in conversation, he mentioned a friend, a man with a recognizable name, who had impregnated his much younger girlfriend to keep her from leaving him. I understood that Lenny had mentioned this in a flow of social feeling, not to sow gossip, only to remark upon a peculiar incident that he’d found illuminating and amusing. Still, the disclosure seemed at odds with the image I’d constructed of Lenny based on his work.
Another time, he spoke angrily about a critic who had reviewed Time Out of Mind. I had read that review but had been so excited that I hadn’t paid very close attention to what the reviewer had actually written. Lenny accused the man of taking things grossly out of context, of misquoting, and, worst of all, of calling Lenny a misogynist. (Now, reading the review again, I see Lenny’s point.) Lenny said he knew this man and described him as a Jew who’d converted to Catholicism, an intellectual mediocrity, a cripple with a cane and a limp. He said that he was prepared to go after him. Or if he didn’t, he knew that Gore Vidal would. On this point, Lenny said with all seriousness, he and Vidal were in the same camp. The scenario struck me as ludicrously comic. I pictured an irate, septuagenarian Vidal pursuing a terrified, gimpy Jewish convert to Catholicism. When I pointed this out, Lenny laughed.
Far less funny was when he asked if I or someone I knew might be able to review A Girl With A Monkey, a compilation of new and selected stories published by Mercury House in 2000. I was a literary nonentity and couldn’t imagine anybody allowing me to write a review. Other than Lenny, the only other writer I knew was the professor who had recommended Lenny’s work. I asked him.
“If it takes more than two phone calls, don’t bother,” Lenny wrote. “The book isn’t going to make money. I just don’t want it to vanish instantly.”
It was depressing to think that he expected his book to vanish. And it was depressing that someone like him should have to ask someone like me for help. I felt embarrassed and sorry for him, which was the opposite of the way I wanted to feel. I also didn’t quite understand how he’d gotten himself into this position. Were stories in The New Yorker no indemnification? I wondered what accounted for the glaring disparity between his talent and his profile. True, he hadn’t been as productive as, say, Roth, Updike, Bellow, or Malamud, but I could think of other writers who had established enduring reputations based on far less. What was it, then, that had caused his name to slip so far below the horizon?
One explanation was provided by Lenny himself. In the 1990s he’d elected to leave his New York publisher and sign on with Mercury House. He went there when he “decided to become marginal, rather than have any more to do with commercial giants.” It was a move he later regretted. Throughout his career it seemed as though Lenny had a conflicted relationship with success. Though he was socially gregarious, he was also temperamentally averse to promoting his work. When The Men’s Club—a book which he acknowledged later as “receiv[ing] more attention than anything [he'd] ever published before”—was published in 1981, Lenny declined opportunities to publicize the novel and instead drove alone from Baltimore to California. In Time Out of Mind he wrote: “I’ve never been able to sell anything and I didn’t think I would do the novel or myself much good.”
After the success of the novel, he also descended into a silence that lasted the entirety of the 1980s. Previously he’d published a book every five or six years, but a decade elapsed betweenThe Men’s Club and Shuffle. Partly to blame for the silence was the unfortunate screen adaptation of The Men’s Club, released in 1985. By any estimation it was a terrible movie, and one whose badness Lenny took exceedingly personally, as if he were morally culpable.
When he started publishing again it didn’t help him that the book he published in 1990, Shuffle, was an unusual hybrid of processed journal entries, personal essays, and memoir. The writing was excellent and formally inventive, but difficult for a publisher to market or for a bookstore to categorize.
The three books that succeeded Shuffle—Sylvia, a fictional memoir of his first marriage; To Feel These Things; and A Girl With A Monkey—all either reprinted or enlarged upon work that Lenny had previously published, and opened him up to the criticism that his formal experimentation amounted to little more than creative repackaging.
It might also be that the traits I found endearing in Lenny—his generosity of spirit, his accessibility, his enthusiasm, his total lack of imperiousness—were antithetical to career advancement. During the time that I knew him, he contributed essays and reviews either for free or for some token sum to small online arts publications as favors to former students or artist friends.
“I just wrote a brief review of the short stories of Yasunari Kawabata for an internet website called Tipworld,” Lenny wrote, inviting me to do the same. “A former student of mine is one of the editors and she asked me to do it. Reviews pay 40 dollars.”
And to some degree, Lenny also believed that the quality he prized and worked so hard to attain in his own work disconcerted and alienated readers.
“Almost everything I write is praised and damned,” Lenny wrote, “and often these responses are passionate…. People get pissed off by things in the stories not because they don’t feel true, but for the opposite reason…. Even the sentences, regardless of their meaning, annoy some people because they sound more or less too much achieved, so to speak.”
In his journals, where he made many fine observations about the nature and craft of writing, Lenny articulated this idea another way:
My writing feels warm until I revise, make it better, and then it gets cold. I should revise further, mess up my sentences, make them warm, make money.
Trenchant and concise, this statement says essentially everything that needs to be said about writing and I reflect on it often. And in its very trenchancy and concision it also exemplifies Lenny’s point.
That said, I’m reluctant to concede that the nuanced, wonderfully calibrated, and introspective quality of Lenny’s writing played any role in marginalizing him. His writing seems to me unimpeachably good. More than that of almost anyone else, Lenny’s work satisfies my standard for good writing: an ability to engage a reader if opened randomly to any sentence on any page. Most books have the reverse effect. The phenomenal quality of Lenny’s prose, power of observation, emotional acuity, and pace make this possible. He is never boring. Here, for argument’s sake, is a short passage taken from Sylvia:
Outside the Carnegie delicatessen, I took my money out of my pocket to see if I had enough for tickets and dinner. I needed about ten dollars. Sylvia said, “You’re not going to count your money in the street, I hope.” After that, I had no choice but to count my money, but I didn’t do it. I stuffed the bills back into my pocket. Irascible and silent, we waited for Roger and his Rosalie. The minutes in the afternoon heat stood like buildings along the avenue, utterly still.
The placement of each word is so specific, always there to maximize effect. For instance, Sylvia’s “I hope,” placed not at the beginning but at the end of the sentence, tweaking with passive-aggressiveness. And the last two words, “utterly still,” tolling bell-like, but also, physically, in the verticality of their “Ts” and “Ls” resembling the buildings themselves. This kind of writing is present on every page Lenny wrote.
In the end, however, the thing that hampered Lenny more than any other was the fact that he was, by constitution, a writer of short stories. Writers, like runners, have their distances, and Lenny wasn’t built for the novel’s marathon length; instead, like Roger Bannister, he was a world-class miler. But, to his misfortune, he lived at a time when any mediocre marathoner garnered more respect than the best miler. (Granted, this remains the case; perhaps always has, perhaps always will.) In the most pragmatic sense, Lenny understood this, but there was little he could do about it. And though he prevailed upon himself to write two novels—The Men’s Club and Sylvia—these didn’t conform to the conventional idea of the novel. Instead, they were more like extended Leonard Michaels stories. Both books come in under 200 pages.
Once, referring to an aborted attempt to expand one of his stories, Lenny lamented: “I’m afraid I don’t think like a novelist.” He didn’t specify what he meant by “thinking like a novelist,” but I interpret it as his recognition of the inherent incompatibility between the rigor and discipline of his craft and the sweeping, garrulousness of the novel. Throughout his career, he was frustrated by this problem, and tried many times to overcome it.
Of the life advice Lenny dispensed to me, prominent was the exhortation to turn certain things I’d written into novels. Once, it was to expand upon an email in which I’d described how, on summer afternoons, my grandparents walked over from their apartment building to sit quietly in the backyard of my parents’ house, admiring the bushes and trees. And how I used to watch them, in their simple goodness, through my basement window, where I sat at a computer writing an account of my experience working on the set of a pornographic movie.
“As written, there is really only one scene,” Lenny wrote, “but you say you have pages on the experience of watching porno productions…. I’m curious to know if you could even begin to imagine a novel?”
Another time, when I’d sent him an early draft of a story, he strongly encouraged me to consider it as the beginning of a novel. I was very flattered but also anxious and unsure of how to proceed. I understood that he was trying to help me, to give me the benefit of his experience, to keep me from repeating what he perceived as his mistakes, but the task seemed daunting, beyond me. What’s more, at heart I’d aspired to nothing more than a story. I confessed most of this to Lenny, but he didn’t think much of my tortured protestations.
I wish you would just start writing your novel without anticipating all the stages of the whole process and without waiting for a wide and encouraging readership to urge you to continue before the book exists. What you have written so far might even be publishable if the ending were slightly more like an ending. Even as it stands now the chapter, so to speak, could be used to get the interest of a publisher. Do you want I should ask around maybe a little?
Lenny sent the chapter to his agent, who kindly declined, and thus spared me the terrifying obligation of turning the story into a novel.
At that time, defeated and disenchanted, I had left Los Angeles and moved home to Toronto with the intention of writing stories about Soviet Jewish immigrants. Occasionally I sent these to Lenny for his reaction. He did the same, sending me things offhandedly, dispassionately, almost as an afterthought. Some of these he termed experiments, others were drafts of Nachman stories which I would later see, remarkably, in the pages of The New Yorker. I never knew what kind of response he wanted. But if I had reservations about a story, I would be hesitant to voice them; and if I was genuinely impressed, I tempered my admiration, so as not to appear too fawning. I know now that I should have responded honestly, but I was always sensitive, probably too much so, to the balance between being Lenny’s friend and his admirer. I believed that tacit rules governed our friendship, rules which I could not subvert. And yet there were highly intimate things which I confided only to him, knowing that he would be uniquely sympathetic. Peculiarities of family life, romantic life, writing, financial straits, existential doubts, and matters pertaining to Jews and what might be called “the Jewish mind”: we discussed these things in a way I hadn’t before, and haven’t since.
In the summer of 2002, a friend I had made through Lenny—like myself, a fledgling writer, and part of a spontaneous, far-flung, and loosely affiliated society of devotees to Lenny and his work—passed a typescript of a story I’d written to a young editor at a New York publishing house. After reading the story, the editor contacted me and asked if I’d written any others. I sent him what I had and that fall I received an offer for publication. I was ludicrously happy, but also completely unprepared. I didn’t have an agent and was tentative about how to proceed. I wrote to Lenny and received his sober, well-intentioned, and idiosyncratic direction.
When it happened to me I had no real idea about what was going on, but mainly I didn’t like it, and didn’t think it was a wonderful experience. I never even read a contract, which I regret today, but I’m not sure things could have been different. My books go out of print but the publisher doesn’t return the rights…. This won’t seem important to you now, but when you have a book in print it may come as a shock to discover that it is hardly different from a can of sardines in the business world. It is a commodity…. Anyhow, don’t hesitate to ask me questions. I don’t know much but I have had enough bad experiences to know more than other people.
Primarily, Lenny thought I should take the deal offered by the publisher, forget about the agents, and just settle down to finish the book. However, if I was determined to hire an agent, he believed I shouldn’t allow myself to be misled.
The only serious differences between one agent and another is that one takes fifteen percent and another takes ten, and one actually reads the work and thinks about it and the other doesn’t care about anything but money…. When it comes to money I suppose women are more ferocious. Men are competitive with each other, but basically more sympathetic. Regardless of how much warmth a woman offers, it’s merely natural. From a man warmth is offered against murderous resistance, so it’s probably worth more spiritually. You never hear about a woman flinging herself onto a live hand grenade to save her buddies. Men do that all the time. OK? Now everything should be clear about choosing an agent. So either pick the woman who will make you rich, or the man who will fling himself onto a live hand grenade to save you from certain death.
I met with half a dozen agents and, perhaps fittingly, was most impressed by a somewhat effeminate gay man.
That fall and winter I was uncommonly busy, working on the book and on a documentary. Sometimes weeks or months would pass without me hearing from Lenny. This wasn’t all that unusual since our correspondence had always been cyclical. Through the friend who’d submitted my manuscript, I would sometimes hear updates. When I communicated with Lenny, we spoke of possibly meeting when he next came to New York. Also, I started to make preliminary plans to go to Italy. I wanted to write a novel which would be set primarily in Rome. Previously, Lenny had extended invitations for me to come and visit him in the Umbrian countryside where his wife managed a number of tourist villas. As much as I’d wanted to go, there had always been reasons, mainly financial, which precluded me from accepting. But now, somewhat liberated by the advance for my book, and needing to do research, I planned to go with my girlfriend and live for four months in Rome. Lenny kept a small apartment in Trastevere and I anticipated the prospect of seeing him regularly, of being in his company in a way that hadn’t been possible before.
Then, sometime in the spring of 2003, our mutual friend wrote me to say that Lenny had been admitted to an Italian hospital. The severity of his condition wasn’t clear. Shortly thereafter Lenny left Italy and flew to seek medical care in Berkeley. Everything seemed to happen without warning and with terrible speed. Through the same friend I learned that Lenny had been diagnosed with lymphoma. An operation was scheduled but apparently Lenny was in reasonably good spirits, ready to fight. At the end of April he experienced severe complications from the treatment, and barely survived. I was given a number for Lenny’s daughter, the youngest of his three children. We’d never spoken before and she didn’t know who I was, but she’d assumed the unenviable task of fielding confused and awkward telephone calls from people like me. She was still in her early 20s, her father was dying, and I was a complete stranger, but she described everything patiently and with great empathy, as if my grief merited equivalent consideration. Less than two weeks later, she wrote me to say that her father’s liver and kidneys had failed and that the family was starting to plan the funeral. He died that same day, May 10, 2003.
Two days later, one of my stories appeared in The New Yorker. Another had appeared a few weeks earlier in Harper’s. And another in Zoetrope. This was my grand debut, but I looked at the magazines and thought mainly that Lenny hadn’t lived to see them. A hideously egotistical thought, but it colored everything. I’d wanted to make him proud, to demonstrate in some tangible way that I’d been deserving of his friendship and his time.
In the days immediately following his death I immersed myself in his books and essays. Now that he was gone, it became impossible to read his stories the same way. It felt as though, before, I’d read inattentively, and glossed over the deeper meaning. Now that meaning was eminent. A deathly shade seemed to hover over everything. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been aware of it before. I had. It had always been there, but at a remove. But now, particularly in his later work, I saw that it had crept closer, like a sinister premonition. It was as if he’d been rehearsing his farewell, and now he’d gone.
In the four years since his death not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought of him. Sometimes, in a personal sense, as when I hear a certain anecdote or see something that I know would have appealed to his sensibility. More often, though, it is when I pick up his stories and essays, which I do with great regularity. I also hear his voice whenever I sit down to write. I hear his tone, his mood, his syntactic rhythms. I also hear isolated lines, snippets of dialogue or description, which I know much better than my own. They serve as my models and guides. When I feel that I’ve lost my way, I use them to reorient my soul. I rely on two lines in particular:
Whenever I write anything, my presence and absence are in constant tension—especially when writing about myself.
The way I write about myself or anything else is, I’m afraid, personal or it’s nothing.
Both of these lines come from Lenny’s brilliant essay “The Personal and the Individual.” I’m aware of them every time I sit down to write. I think of them and feel not only the tension between my own presence and absence, but Lenny’s as well. I sense the ineffable pressure of influence, corrective and not unpleasant. It informs every sentence I write, including this one.
This essay originally appeared in Nextbook in 2007. Reprinted with the author’s permission.
“Writing About Myself” by Leonard Michaels, originally published as “The Personal and the Individual.”