84. The Nachman Stories, by Leonard Michaels
In Raphael Nachman, Leonard Michaels created one of the more loveable characters in recent American fiction. Loyal to friends, bashful with women, reverent before the transcendent order of mathematics and music, Nachman is the unworldly final creation of a writer who traveled in many worlds. “Conservative by nature,” Nachman “hated to travel.” He “particularly disliked flying, with its discomforts and terrors,” and dreads leaving his own home. The author, in the course of his life, made his way from the Lower East Side to rotate at the last between Berkeley, Rome, and the Umbrian countryside. A graceful, handsome man, a college basketball ace, and a salsa dancer later in life, Michaels has given us the ill-dressed Nachman, who declines to swim in the ocean a few blocks from his house.
But to call Nachman, as many have, Leonard Michaels’s opposite is to overlook the complexity of both author and character. The Nachman character is a staple of American Jewish humor, a nerd and a klutz, hapless and ineffective. As such, he serves Michaels the comic writer well in these highly amusing stories. But he is also recognizable as a fabulist hero, a figure of mythic power who, like his grandfather and namesake the healer of Cracow, is capable of superhuman insight and decisiveness. In these states, Nachman can deliver salvation to friends in trouble, as well as to strangers in meetings that have the air of destiny. “Frenchy,” he urges his startled neighbor at the race track, “fifty bucks on Frenchy” – in an episode whose outcome verges on magic realism. Seen from one perspective, Nachman is a philosopher whose play of mind propels these stories as forcefully as the abrupt and violent physical events in Michaels’s earlier New York stories.
Leonard Michaels was the author of critical essays, the story collections Going Places and I Would Have Saved Them if I Could, the novel The Men’s Club, and autobiographical works including Shuffle and Sylvia. He was born in 1933 in Manhattan and died in 2003 in Berkeley. The son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, he grew up on the Lower East Side, speaking only Yiddish until the age of six. After attending the High School of Music and Art, where he studied painting, he entered New York University as a pre-med student at sixteen. Turning from science to the study of English literature and the writing of fiction, Michaels received a Ph.D. in English from the University of Michigan in 1967, while teaching at the University of California, Davis. In 1969 he became a professor in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. That same year his first book of stories, Going Places, was nominated for the National Book Award and won accolades from such writers as John Hawkes. Over the decades, Michaels was an influential force among fellow writers and his students, editing anthologies and guides to writing while he produced his own stories and memoirs. He retired from teaching in 1994, and began living much of the time in Italy, the home of his wife Katharine Ogden Michaels.
The short story writer Charles Baxter gives us a view of what Michaels’s stories meant to younger writers: “In Michaels’s first two books the mixture of mordant political commentary and dramatic blackouts created a new terse form in the American short story. In their flash and intensity these stories anticipated the sudden fiction form two decades later, though Michaels was always smarter and more stylish than his imitators. What he does, no one does better.”
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