Probably there are as many writers who are dog people as those who are cat people, but the idea of cats as the foremost literary familiar has long been entrenched and seems unlikely to be dislodged any time soon. (I have a friend who insists that if a person hates cats that person can’t be a writer.) Cat books are known to outsell dog books, and the average well-read person can rattle off a list of cat-besotted authors, from Mark Twain to William S. Burroughs to Patricia Highsmith. Conjure up an image of, say, Hemingway or Colette, and you may find that a cat has sneaked into the frame. In 1995, when A Cat was first published, I didn’t know the author well enough to know how he felt about my favorite animal. I do remember being surprised, though. The last thing I would have expected from Leonard Michaels was a cat book.
I had met him about twenty years before, when I accompanied a friend to the Berkeley campus of the University of California, where she had been invited to teach at a weeklong writers’ conference and Michaels, the conference organizer, was on the faculty. I was excited to meet him. I had read the brilliant, nervy, exquisitely written stories in his two collections, Going Places and I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, and I was a fan. He was forty-three, as handsome as his author photo, with luxurious dark hair, Mr. Rochester’s great, dark eyes, and a moody-looking, at times sullen, expression. His voice was also dark, the voice of a tough guy (I could have said thug), a voice you would not have wanted to hear raised at you, especially since it was obvious that beneath a gentle and self-deprecating surface was a very angry man.
From his stories I knew that he had a natural dry wit and a wicked sense of humor, but that week brought out little of that side of him. I was shocked at how openly miserable he was. Though, like his first book, his recently published second one had been widely praised, including on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, it had also been subject to a cruel and blockheaded attack by an unfortunately highly regarded critic in the New York Review of Books. Michaels made no secret of how much that review had enraged him, or how depressing he found the life of a writer. But in fact, much of the conversation I heard that week at the faculty club was in the same vein. The cheapskate publishers, the egotistical editors, the philistine readers, the lazy or malicious critics. You publish a book, said one writer, and it’s like you become a fire hydrant, there to be pissed on by any dog that comes along. Cats, as I recall, were never mentioned.
Michaels was equally disgusted with academic life. (Soul-crushing was how he described teaching.) But it seemed to me there was something deeper than his voiced discontents. This was the period just after the Vietnam War. I knew men who were suffering from PTSD. Michaels, who had never been to war, reminded me of those men. Later, after I read his novel Sylvia, an account of his traumatic relationship with his first wife, a mentally disturbed woman who killed herself when he tried to leave her, I thought that this—though it had happened more than two decades earlier—might have been part of the cause.
At the end of the week, when we said goodbye, we agreed to get together the next time he was in New York. But when the time came, in a fit of nervous shyness I made some last-minute excuse. Later, when I recalled that the plan had been to visit him in his mother’s apartment, on the Lower East Side, where he had been raised, speaking only Yiddish until he was five, I would be filled with regret.
That would have been fascinating. That would have been an honor. All these years later, I still feel regret. And it wasn’t until the millennium that I would see him again. By then he’d retired from teaching and was living in Italy with his wife, Katharine Ogden Michaels. During a year I spent in Rome, I saw them on social occasions a few times. He was calmer and clearly happier than the man I’d met in Berkeley, but he was not done with anger. I’d been warned by mutual friends that certain topics could set him off. All things Jewish was one. At dinner one night we lit somehow on Sylvia Plath’s use of the Holocaust as metaphor in her famous poem “Daddy.” Michaels, whose aunt and grandparents had been murdered by Nazis in Poland, said, through clenched teeth, “How dare she.”
In the long years between our first and last meetings we were only occasionally in touch, but at one point—a very low point in my life, when all I knew of publishing was rejection—I sent him a couple of stories, which he passed on to his friend Wendy Lesser, editor of the Threepenny Review, which led to my first publication in a literary journal. (Michaels was the unusual writer who enjoyed discovering and helping aspiring writers.) Meanwhile, he remained on the list of writers of whom I knew I must read everything. He was always writing, and there came more stories—including the series written toward the end of his life, known as the Nachman stories and surely among his best—as well as novels, essays, diaries, and, of all things, a cat book.
According to Joseph Brodsky (yet another literary ailurophile), “The discarding of the superfluous is in itself the first cry of poetry.” Nothing superfluous is a good way of describing both a cat and A Cat, which is written in the same “terse and essentializing way” that Michaels said he found himself impelled to write whenever he wrote about himself.
Speaking about Isaac Babel, George Saunders once noted “two types of beauty crossing in [his] prose: the beauty of the world, and the beauty of the sentence.” This could just as well have been said about Leonard Michaels, who, for all his pessimism—and for all the ugly characters and nasty goings-on in much of his fiction—saw, even as a child looking at nature, “that colors never clash and that the world is everywhere beautiful.” That child grew up to be a man enthralled by and keenly sensitive to art. One day he would name Isaac Babel as “the writer who influences me more than any other.”
“Line is as important in prose as in an engraving,” stated Babel. In all Michaels’s writing, the importance of the line is supreme. It is something he fancies a cat could appreciate, too. “When your hand strokes its back,” he writes, “a cat feels it own beautiful lines.” Elsewhere, observing a cat in motion, he sees its parts “flow like words in a sentence.” (A well-written one, understand.) “Below the words, the play of a cat’s muscles is a grammatical exercise.”
Elegance, precision, succinctness, clarity, wit: the same qualities that distinguish Michaels’s other writing can be found in A Cat. Here, too, is ample evidence of the acute powers of observation for which he has been much admired. We’ve all seen it, but who else ever thought to describe that familiar feline gesture as “its cameling back”? Though he compares cats to several other things, from clouds to caterpillars, what I think most captivated Michaels, whose writing contains numerous instances of self-criticism and self-doubt, was that a cat is wholly itself—“However a cat looks or behaves, it is what it is, a small and intensely serious being, a cat”—and, quite wonderfully, enviably, happy to be just that. A cat “wouldn’t want to write a book or a poem or anything … For a cat, just to live is splendid.” A whole other animal indeed.
Besides its serene self-contentment, and among other traits that make it such an attractive creature, Michaels cites a cat’s sense of privacy, the independent spirit that makes it refuse to be trained, its dainty manners, and its sphinxlike, enigmatic nature. (I find it significant that, when describing his first sight of the unfathomable, unpredictable woman who would become his first wife—that fateful moment when, he writes, “The question of what to do with my life was resolved for the next four years”—he compares Sylvia to Egyptian statuary.)
Cats and writers, writers and cats—who knows what this famous affinity is really about. Dogs are interrupters; they want to go out. A cat jumps in your lap and keeps you at your desk. When I remember that Michaels used to say that he didn’t like novels and that he was never really comfortable writing in the novel form—“a sloppier thing,” as he once put it in an interview, compared with the “pure, magical form” of the short story—I can’t resist thinking of dogs as novels and cats as stories or poems.
If it could read, your dog would tell you that your manuscript is the best, the very best, the best best best best thing the world has ever seen! Your cat, if you could even get it to read what you wrote, would never give you that. Rilke reminds us that, no matter how much you think a cat likes you, you shouldn’t make too much of this: “Even the privileged few, allowed close to cats, are rejected and disavowed many times.” But, according to Michaels, “When it comes to loneliness”—that inescapable aspect of the writer’s life—a cat, itself “a lonely animal,” is a better companion than a dog. “A dog … makes such a big deal of being there for you,” he explains. “A cat will just be, suffering with you in philosophical silence.”
Leonard Michaels died in 2003, in Berkeley, where he had returned for medical treatment for a recently diagnosed cancer. Thus was lost one of America’s most vibrant, intelligent, and beautiful storytellers. He was seventy years old. In an old, undated letter I have from him, there is this mention of A Cat: “I’d hoped it would sell millions of copies since it was written with love” (think of Rilke’s definition of art: “love which has been poured out over enigmas”), “but it didn’t. Not cute enough, maybe.”
Not cute at all, in fact, but rather a meticulously written work of deep sensitivity, humor, and grace. The line drawings created by Frances Lerner to illustrate the text are spare, refined, and full of charm. In other words, a perfect match.
Sigrid Nunez is the author of the novels The Friend (a 2018 National Book Award finalist), Salvation City, The Last of Her Kind, A Feather on the Breath of God, and For Rouenna, among others. She is also the author of Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag. She has been the recipient of several awards, including a Whiting Award, the Rome Prize in Literature, and a Berlin Prize Fellowship. Nunez lives in New York City.
Copyright © 2018 by Sigrid Nunez. Illustrations copyright © 1995 by Frances Lerner. Reprinted from A Cat, by Leonard Michaels, with permission from Tin House Books.