When one of my co-workers asked me what I thought of Sylvia, the autobiographical novella by Leonard Michaels that explores his tumultuous first marriage, I jokingly described it as a gender reversed Fifty Shades as written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Unlike that novel, though, Sylvia does not attempt to disguise what it is: a tragedy of domestic abuse, made no more romantic by the much more accomplished prose style of its author.
That’s not to say it isn’t a love story. Since his first, almost wordless encounter with her, Sylvia is the singular focus of the protagonist’s life. They quickly marry, and it becomes apparent that he has failed to comprehend just how unwell Sylvia actually is, that even as her violence becomes more extreme he lacks the emotional toolkit to really address it.
Despite the polished and beautiful writing, Sylvia’s power lies in its rawness. Michaels revised the manuscript from an autobiographical essay, fictionalising it into a novel, and one gets the sense that, had he been given the opportunity, he would have revised it again. The less literary moments are the most telling: Michaels’ diary entries are interspersed throughout, vignettes of martial discord that are unsettlingly minimalistic and capture the bleakness of these ordeals. Similarly, the narrator’s interior monologue reads less like a deliberate choice by Michaels’ than the circular, illogical thought processes of an abuse victim. That he never identifies himself as such makes recognising this all the more horrific.
Set against the backdrop of a revolutionary 1960s New York, Michaels’ describes scenes of sexual decadence that are steadily becoming the norm. These anecdotes from friends and acquaintances contrast his more traditional, very young marriage. But it is the interior life of this seemingly conservative union in which the dark side of sexuality is explored, and compared to their private hell, the exhibitionism and deviances of others in their circle have an almost childish playfulness.
That the protagonist never really views Sylvia as a monster is the novella’s most heartbreaking aspect. She is not a cliché, but a web of contradictions, one he is never fully able to understand. In the final pages one gets the sense that Michaels realises that he has failed to do this and, however implicitly the point is made, that in doing so he has failed her. In writing the story he has attempted to write himself back to her, knowing that this is an impossible task.