Thursday, July 12, 2007

A New Life After Death

Published: July 12, 2007


Literary history is full of stories of men and women whose once rising stars fell below the horizon, but who were rediscovered and even canonized (in the literary sense) after they died. What must that feel like?

Unless you believe that not only is there life after death but also that in the other life you will be able to keep tabs on this one, it doesn’t feel like anything. It certainly doesn’t feel like success, even in prospect. No one opts for the “undervalued when alive, but admired when deceased” track. The pleasures of being vindicated in the long run are experienced by those left behind, by biographers and torch bearers; it is their careers that flourish. How can that be satisfying?

I ask because of what is now happening (after the fact, as it were) to an old friend of mine, someone I once knew well as a colleague, friend and fellow basketball player (unlike me, he really could play the game), someone I lost touch with, someone who died in 2003. His name was, and on the page still is, Leonard Michaels, and in the late ’60s and early ’70s his first two collections of short stories (“Going Places” and “I Would Have Saved Them if I Could”) earned him the praise of people like Susan Sontag, who said, “I think Leonard Michaels is the most impressive new American writer to appear in years.”

A novel in 1981, “The Men’s Club,” seemed to seal the promise, but then the production slowed, the notices were less positive and, as Wyatt Mason observes in a retrospective in the July issue of Harper’s Magazine, by the time he died at the age of 70 his story had become one of “an apparent exhaustion of resources, as common in the arts at it is in life.”

Right after his death, the story didn’t get any better. An obituary in The New York Times took away the Ph.D. he had earned at Michigan (it was restored to him a week later, but few ever read the corrections) and dispatched his mother by leaving her off the list of survivors (she was restored, too). But now that Farrar, Straus & Giroux is reissuing his fiction and essays, the story is being rewritten and is on an upward trajectory. Michaels is now being recovered, reappreciated and, in a way, resurrected.

Now people say things like: “Leonard Michaels’s stories stand alongside those of his best contemporaries — Grace Paley and Philip Roth”; “He was among the few essential American short-story writers of the past half-century”; “The author’s five decades of short fiction argue effortlessly for a place beside the work of America’s paragons of the story form.”

And there are confident predictions like: “Four years after his death, it seems he’s finally poised to get the audience he deserved”; “The republication of his work ... should bring Michaels to a new generation of readers and remind us of his lasting achievement.”

It is a cliché that we Americans love comebacks and second chances. We especially love them when they’re given to the dead.

In this case, the revival — I say the word in the hope of furthering it — has another byproduct: it has produced a new work for which Michaels can now be praised. In 1997, Michaels wrote a story titled “Nachman,” and followed it up with six others. Nachman is a middle-aged mathematician, whose “need for ecstasy was abundantly satisfied.” In place of the untidy war zones inhabited by Michaels’s earlier, volcanically passionate characters, Nachman inhabits a simple, clean space: “The room looked as if Nachman weren’t guilty of existence.”

He is determined to be ordinary. “It was Nachman’s deepest pleasure to feel like everyone else, regular, not like a freak.” But, of course, he is like everyone else, a freak, and the “internal resources” he takes pride in are always being frayed by contacts with a world that is itself deeply freakish.

Written in a style outwardly calmer than the snap and crackle of his earlier stories with their sentences that explode like cluster bombs, the Nachman stories are nevertheless just as tensile, disturbing and unpredictable. Collected in a slim volume as they should be (they now occupy the last 90 pages of “The Collected Stories”), they will surely win their author posthumous prizes, as if he cared.

Stanley Fish, a contributing columnist to TimesSelect, is a guest columnist.