‘Sylvia’ by Leonard Michaels

Sylvia by Leonard Michaels

Fiction – paperback; Daunt Books; 144 pages; 2015.

If literature “ought to be depressing” — as this NYRB Tweet shared by my friend Armen suggests — then Leonard Michael’s 1992 novella, Sylvia, has truly fulfilled its function.

A portrait of a dysfunctional marriage in 1960s Manhattan, this story is about as depressing as they get.

Said to be semi-autobiographical and based on the author’s own bad marriage, it’s a beautifully crafted novel, written in short, to-the-point sentences, but it’s also a terribly sad one.

A fateful relationship

When the book opens we meet the young 20-something nameless narrator. He’s just returned to New York after two years of graduate school in Berkeley “without a PhD or any idea of what I’d do, only a desire to write stories”. He’s now living at home with his Jewish parents in Lower East Side Manhattan, where his mother pampers him and his father thinks he’s a disappointment.

One day he visits his friend Naomi, who lives in Greenwich Village. She’s sharing a rather squalid apartment with a dark-haired Asian woman called Sylvia and it is from this one meeting that a fateful relationship is set in motion.

After being abandoned by Naomi and her boyfriend on a walk through Washington Square Park, the narrator and Sylvia “continued together, as if dazed, drifting through dreamy heat”. They return to the apartment “like a couple doomed to sacrificial assignation” and “made love until afternoon became twilight and twilight became black night”. And that’s when Sylvia nonchalantly mentions she already has a boyfriend.

Infidelity and lustful sex aren’t Sylvia’s only tropes. Our narrator soon learns that Sylvia, who has no immediate family and is essentially all alone in the world, is also wildly unpredictable, argumentative, prone to violent outbursts, jealous rages and self-harming. And yet, for all the difficulties and drama she creates, he cannot seem to say no to her.

He encourages her to go to university, while he struggles to find any paid work. Against his own wisdom, the pair get married. They spend their spare time hanging out in bars, conducting screaming matches or having angry, compulsive sex. Neither of them appears to be happy. It all seems doomed to failure.

A toxic marriage

Written as a retrospective narrative, the book is interspersed with diary extracts of the narrator’s innermost thoughts at the time which includes quotes from Sylvia’s  diatribes to show how cruel and mad she could be. Sadly, these extracts are not laid out any differently to the rest of the text so it’s easy to mistake them as part of the main narrative until you see the tiny date stamp at the end. Using a different font would have easily solved this problem.

That aside, the most interesting thing about Sylvia is its focus on a toxic marriage from the husband’s point of view (instead of the wife’s).

In Sylvia, the narrator is a passive male character, who is constantly manipulated by his “crazy” wife. She uses emotional blackmail to harangue him and makes idle threats to end her life to gain his full attention. It’s heart-rending to read knowing the narrator is caught between the social mores of the time — his parents believe he should stand by his wife no matter what — and his inability to get Sylvia to seek the medical help she so clearly needs.

This is a fast-paced stylish read. Its undertone of latent violence makes it feel like a noirish thriller, but there’s also a raw melancholic power that gives it a mad intensity, almost as if you, the reader, is living through the self-destructive love of this doomed couple. It’s not an easy read, nor a comfortable one, but its shock ending with its nod to redemption makes it worth the effort.

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17 thoughts on “‘Sylvia’ by Leonard Michaels

  1. It is indeed a dark and troubled book, with a devastating portrait of a very dysfunctional marriage. I read and reviewed it for Shiny New Books back in 2015 and whilst I recognised the power of the book, it concerned me as it was based very much on Michaels’ first marriage to Sylvia Bloch and I had reservations about the fictionalising of such a relationship. There were also places where I felt uncomfortable reading the story because of Michaels’ failure to recognise and deal with some of Sylvia’s issues – the consequences of which seemed to stay with him for decades. A very difficult work.

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    • I guess the moral dilemma with these kinds of works is that they only ever tell one side of the story. This tale was hard to read because, as you point out, Leonard (the narrator) fails to get appropriate help for his wife, but he does try. He wants her to see a psychoanalyst but she fails to turn up to the appointment so he goes in her place and is told that they feed off each other. I think this puts him off seeking further help because he didn’t like what he’d heard… Anyway, it’s a fascinating book.

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  2. You know, I just finished reading a gorgeous, hilarious, tender novella about two sisters, (The Bed-making Competition) and I realised how long it had been since I read something that wasn’t depressing. Are all these depressing books landing on our desks because there’s a high rate of depression, or is it the depressing books that are making us depressed?

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    • Ah, don’t get me started on this topic! My book group had a very rude awakening when a new member joined and complained that we only ever seemed to read depressing books. We all then started to choose cheery stories, but it was a struggle to find anything that wasn’t twee or naff. Admittedly, I like depressing books (though maybe depressing isn’t the right word; perhaps “dark” might be a better description) because I think it’s a good way to explore other lives, other experiences, other ways of thinking as it not only helps develop my sense of empathy it makes me realise and appreciate how lovely my own life is.

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  3. Great review, Kim. I read this book a couple of years ago but couldn’t write about it at the time as I found it too harrowing. Your very thoughtful commentary captures the mood of the marriage so effectively.

    Have you read Simenon’s novella Three Bedrooms in Manhattan? If not, you might find it interesting. It was inspired by the author’s affair with Denise Oiumet, another very troubled relationship by all accounts.

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    • Thank you Jacqui. It is a harrowing book. I don’t think it helped that I read it while recovering from some nasty oral surgery. Indeed, I had to put it aside and pick up something slightly more cheerier until I felt sufficiently recovered to go back to ‘Sylvia’.

      Thanks for the Simenon recommendation. That has been recommended to me before (I do love New York novels set prior to the 1970s) but I’ve never read it. I must see if my library has it because I think it’s now out of print?

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  4. I don’t know if great lit ought to be depressing, after all Jane Austen isn’t, but my own never-to-be published writing suggests that failed relationships are both easier to write about and inspire more passionate writing.

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    • I think there is something in that: not only are troubled/failed relationships easier to write about, but they’re infinitely more interesting to readers than stories about happy (dull?) marriages.

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  5. I have to agree with Cathy, it does sound excellent, and the small extracts you’ve included are quite something in themselves. It must have been difficult to write, uncomfortable, and what you said to Kaggsy in the comments, the one sided-ness.

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    • It’s a harrowing tale but done really well… the narrator isn’t seeking pity… he knows he’s got himself into this mess but part of the agony is his realisation that if he walks away he’ll be seen as the bad party and I think he’s also fearful of what his wife might do if she is abandoned.

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  6. This makes me think of the Carol Shields and Blanche Howard novel which tells the story of a marriage from both sides (literally, a flip-book). Maybe someone will tell the other side of this one someday, in the way that writers like Colm Toibin and Zadie Smith and Francesca Segal have done.

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    • Oh, I would love to read a book told from Sylvia’s side… she sounds like a nightmare in this tale, but she clearly needed medical help, which her husband seemed unable to get her (for various different reasons) and I’m sure there’s probably a very good reason/s for her bad behaviour.

      I wasn’t aware of the Carol Shields and Blanche Howard novel … will look it up. I really loved Jane Gardam’s two novels, Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat, which explore two sides to a marriage: the first one from the husband’s point of view, the second from the wife’s. Highly recommended if you haven’t already read them.

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