31 Days of Stories 2009: Day 22, “I Would Have Saved Them if I Could” by Leonard Michaels

August 22, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Collected Stories.

41GxUU6bCUL“I’d never write about being happy,” claimed Leonard Michaels in his diaries. “It’s of no interest as a dramatic subject. Being sad feels personal, even unique.” Reading Michaels’ collected stories back-to-back is thus a somewhat charged experience: a kind of existential moralist (for want of a better term), his short fiction – which spans close to five decades’ worth of output – is almost defiantly downbeat, in subject if not approach (Michaels could be bristlingly funny at times). In aggregate, the stories also testify to a writer who was unafraid to experiment technically; the relatively naturalistic stories in Micheals’ first collection, Going Places, abut the more aggressive postmodern pastiches that characterize his second volume, I Would Have Saved Them if I Could.

The title story from that volume, which owes a debt to Barthelme, is a collage-like accretion of perspectives on the Jewish existential dilemma, incorporating figures as diverse as Marx, Borges, Byron, and Jesus. The story’s phantasmagoric opening involves a young man who infuriates his uncle by renouncing his Jewishness on the eve of his bar mitzvah. “Do I know the meaning of even ten Hebrew words?” the young man asks. “Is the bar mitzvah a Jewish ceremony? Do I believe in God?” The livid uncle sends telegrams “throughout the Western Hemisphere” cancelling the celebration, then destroys his nephew’s bicycle. The irony in this anecdote involves the rather bizarre physical accoutrements the boy has developed: “Green, iridescent Stars of David had grown from his nipples.” He may want to renounce his Jewishness, the story implies, but this will ultimately prove impossible.

The Jewish heritage – at once inescapable and fraught with danger and misery – is examined from a variety of angles over the balance of Michaels’ story: Borges’s depiction of Jaromir Hladík, “suspected of being a Jew, imprisoned by the Gestapo, sentenced to death,” in the story “The Secret Miracle”; Karl Marx, “an alienated Jew assuming the voice of a Hegelienated Jew,” who wrote, “Money is the jealous God of Israel”; the narrator’s own uncle, who survived the war to become a successful businessman in the U.S. Throughout, imaginative representations of Jews are counterpoised with stark reality, as though to illustrate the story’s contention that “[i]t is impossible to live with or without fictions.” Or, to put it another way, “Ethics and aesthetics are inextricable.”

Michaels conflates literary representation with that which is represented: the story’s narrator imagines Borges’s Hladík as having “bad teeth, gray hair, nervous cough, tinted spectacles, delicate fingers, gentle musical voice,” which is exactly the way he describes his own grandfather in the next section. Hladík is sentenced to death by the Nazis, but at the moment of his execution, he disappears, ecstatically divorced from the “hard stone wall and the impact of specific bullets.” The narrator’s grandfather, by contrast, survives a pogrom “bleeding and semiconscious, hidden in a cellar,” only to discover upon his return home that it is too late to acquire a visa out of the country. This is “the meaning of history” that the Nazis bring with them: “what flings you into a cellar saves you for bullets.”

The story’s title derives from a letter Lord Byron wrote after witnessing the execution of three robbers in Rome. Byron is stricken by the first execution, but by the second and the third he has become inured to the horror of the spectacle, although, he avers, “I would have saved them if I could.” This echoed refrain, of course, was repeated innumerable times during the apocalyptic horror of the Holocaust, and to as little avail. It carries with it the awful burden of responsibility, which the young boy with the Star of David nipples renounces at the beginning of the story, and which the narrator feels bearing down on him at the end, when he is accosted by a malevolent presence, “shorter than a midget, speaking mouth, teeth like knives,” which castigates him for his indolence: “Always having fun, aren’t you? Night after night, dancing, drinking, fucking. Fun, fun, fun.” The American kid, who can “eat half a dozen bialys, with an onion and coffee” and still “sleep like a baby,” is, after all, connected to the “hideous idiocy” of history, whether he likes it or not.

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