Book Review: Sylvia by Leonard Michaels
“There would be an inadvertent insult, then disproportionate anger. I would feel I didn’t know why this was happening. I was the object of terrific fury, but what had I done? What had I said?” – The Narrator
I remember a quote from the books that are a part of Melville House’s The Neversink Library. The quote is from Herman Melville and it goes like this:
“Somehow, the books that prove most agreeable, grateful, and companionable, are those we pick up by chance here and there; those which seem put into our hands by providence; those which pretend to little, but abound in much.”
I am reminded by the books that I have picked on a whim, without knowing anything about the author or the book itself, just because I liked the cover or because the things written at the back of the book piqued my interest. I am reminded by the hand that providence played in these meetings between book and reader. I am reminded by Man in the Dark, the slim book that introduced me to Paul Auster; by Chess which introduced me to Stefan Zweig; and by The Ecco Book of Christmas Stories, a book I picked up out of a desire to read something for Christmas and evolved into my ongoing love affair with short stories by introducing me to Graham Greene, John Cheever, and Alice Munro.
Sylvia, the autobiographical novella written by Leonard Michaels, belongs in the company of the books I mentioned above. My sole reason for picking it up is because it was part of FSG Classics and I was collecting them en masse in defiance of reason and common sense. After a while, I relegated Sylvia to the part of my library classified under “Books I Might Never Read In My Life”. Woe to me then if I had never summoned it back from that unfair hell where I banish some of my books.
The thing about Sylvia is that it is unassuming and simple. A slim volume of less than 2oo pages, it doesn’t talk about epic themes like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude nor is it honored as a technical powerhouse in writing like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Sylvia is a story about a disintegrating marriage between the narrator and a woman named Sylvia Bloch. It’s the kind of story where things seldom happen and where events that advance the plot is almost nonexistent. Sylvia is mostly a book of ruminations regarding the narrator’s marriage and his struggles in becoming a writer. Only in the end, when things escalate, does the reader have a sense that something is moving forward.
Of course, it may sound unsexy and boring even but what separates this book from the others, what elevates Sylvia, is Michael’s writing style. The writing is terse but dense with meaning and emotional honesty. Consider this paragraph from the book from when the narrator first saw Sylvia Bloch:
“She stood barefoot in the kitchen dragging a hairbrush down through her long, black, wet Asian hair. Minutes ago, apparently, she had stepped out of the shower, which was a high metal stall in the kitchen, set on a platform beside the sink. A plastic curtain kept water from splashing onto the kitchen floor. She said hello but didn’t look at me. Too much engaged, tipping her head right and left, tossing the heavy black weight of hair like a shining sash. The brush swept down and ripped free until, abruptly, she quit brushing, stepped into the living room, dropped onto the couch, leaned back against the brick wall, and went totally limp. Then, from behind long black bangs, her eyes moved, looked at me. The question of what to do with my life was resolved for the next four years.”
The paragraph above is devoid of any grandiosity and is written simply but it’s oozing with meaning. There’s the sensuality of Sylvia’s brushing and her movement implying that there’s a sexual attraction coming from the narrator. The reader can also see the brutal passivity of Sylvia, a trait that will become important later on. Finally, the reader is made known that the narrator has fallen in love but the declaration is without cheesiness but with urgency. Here is a man who is in a state of limbo in his life but he sees a savior in the form of Sylvia Bloch. Not only is he in love with her but he needs to be in love with her because it is something that can take him away from this limbo. Might the narrator be petty in his reason for love? Only a person who hasn’t been devastated by love and circumstance can truly say so.
Sylvia is not only a portrait of a deteriorating marriage because it is also a portrait of love. Both the narrator and Sylvia want their love to work, they want to live together because they truly love each other. However, Sylvia’s psychology and the narrator’s helplessness overshadows their love. I am reminded by a quote from a book I read recently, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending:
“There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.”
Like The Sense of an Ending, Sylvia has devastated me and left me thinking about it for days. Right now, just writing about it, I am burdened by the tragedy of the characters’ marriage. I believe that is what great books do which is to force itself upon the reader, disturbing the reader during odd moments, not letting the reader forget that there’s a book out there capable of awakening raw emotions from within you.