Sylvia by Leonard Michaels

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Reviewed by Karen Langley

The blurring of the lines between fiction and fact is an artistic trope which is very much in vogue in current writing. Novels abound featuring real people, from Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson in fictionalised retellings of their lives, through to Oscar Wilde and Josephine Tey in completely made up crime-fighting advertures. This tendency somewhat obscures the fact that much fiction has its basis in fact; and so how is the reader meant to deal with a book like this which is billed as a fictionalised memoir?

Sylvia by Leonard Michaels was first published in 1992 and has been reissued in a beautiful new edition by Daunt Books. Michaels is probably better known in his native USA than in this country, having published five collections of short stories, two novels (including Sylvia) and numerous essays and screenplays. Sylvia, however, is a fascinating and unusual piece of work, in that it’s actually acknowledged as a ‘semi-autobiographical’ novel; we all probably admit that most writers draw on their life for their work, but here that fact is made explicit.

The book opens in 1960 with the narrator travelling back to his home city of New York, having completed years of study in Michigan and California. He’s without direction; returning home with no real goal in mind, and arriving in a city in the throes of huge social change. Staying initially back at home with his conservative parents, the narrator bumps into Sylvia at a friend’s flat and the attraction is instant and mutual; within no time the pair are making love, and before long have moved in together.

This is Manhattan of the early 1960s, full of drugs, drop-outs and jazz, and the couple are very much part of this. However, it’s hard to see if the attraction is more than a physical one, and before long cracks appear in the relationship. Sylvia’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic; there are rows that are so fierce that the neighbours begin to shun them; and both parties’ mental state begins to deteriorate. As things get worse and worse, the narrator tries to break away from Sylvia, who in any event is often unfaithful; but the two seem bound together, marrying despite their obvious issues, and it’s hard to know how the relationship is going to end.

We sat together in jazz clubs for hours, saying almost nothing. I’d feel myself entering a trance of music, the meaning of this minute. How sad, or exciting, or weird it was to be alive in the sixties. I heard it in the jazz voices in the dark smoky clubs. One night, in the bar in Birdland … we listened to Sarah Vaughan. She sang ‘Every little breeze seems to whisper Louise…’ She sang it out of existence, rendering only the exquisite mystery, such sweet and melancholy love as belonged to music in those days.

Sylvia is a complex, thought-provoking novel and reading up on it I found that it was in fact based on Michaels’ first marriage to Sylvia Bloch. I shan’t reveal how that ended but it’s not really a surprise. The relationship was obviously an extraordinarily destructive one and Michaels seems to have been marked throughout his life by it, to the extent he was still writing about it some thirty years after the event. It’s a powerful piece of work, brilliantly capturing and portraying two people loving each other yet destroying each other against a backdrop of the culture of the late 50s/early 60s, encapsulating the seedy side of living in NY with sex, drugs and jazz. And seedy it certainly is, with Sylvia’s friend Agatha and her wild debaucheries epitomising the madness of the times.

Sylvia herself is a troubled character, beset by insecurities, demanding, bullying and capricious, and yet also incredibly needy. The narrator seems out of his depth, incapable of making a decision or knowing what to do, as if Sylvia’s behaviour and manipulations have warped his own mentality. Sylvia’s final fate is inevitable, and it seems as if Michaels is trying to expiate some kind of guilt and say there was nothing he could do to help her.

And yet, I have questions and perhaps doubts. At one crucial point in the narrative, Michaels visits a psychiatrist who is concerned enough to say that he will section Sylvia straight away if Michaels signs the papers. Instead of doing so, he simply returns home, relieved that there is obviously something wrong with Sylvia which is causing their disputes and that this is therefore not normal behaviour. If this was fiction, the reader could accept the action as part of the character’s development; but as this is based in memoir, and Sylvia was a real woman who obviously needed help, it’s frustrating. There is also the factor that we’re seeing the story only from one side, that of Michaels/the narrator, and how unreliable he is we can’t be sure.

However, these reservations aside, Sylvia remains an eloquent and compelling novel; it’s a vivid portrait of a disastrous relationship, showing how it’s possible to become so involved with someone that it twists your perception of the outside world, while the cocoon you’ve set up with your partner becoming the be-all and end-all of your life. Michaels, from the inside of his doomed marriage, is incapable of gaining the objectivity needed to enable him to take action and save himself and his wife. The writing is punchy and direct, the milieu brilliantly conjured and the atmosphere of the times convincing. This striking book is, I think, best read as fiction, and as that it’s a remarkable achievement.

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and was a closet Beat in her teens.

Leonard Michaels, Sylvia (Daunt Books Publishing: London, 2015). 9781907970559, 131pp., paperback.

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