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Harold Brodkey: Yesterday’s Genius

From Brick 101

“I write like someone who intends to be posthumously discovered,” Harold Brodkey told New York magazine in 1988. On the cover of the issue, eight years before dying of AIDS, Brodkey clutches a heavily corrected manuscript like a child you’re threatening to take from him. “The Genius,” reads the headline. “Harold Brodkey and His Great (Unpublished) Novel.”

Some twenty years after his death, Brodkey still awaits that discovery—a curious fate for a writer Harold Bloom once declared “unparalleled in American prose fiction since the death of William Faulkner.” It would be hard to name an author whose reputation has been more thoroughly unmade. Today, Brodkey is remembered, if at all, as a kind of literary bogeyman—vain, furious, menacing—a major figure without a biography, reputed to be interesting but seldom studied. When I pointed out to the clerk of a used bookstore that a Brodkey volume was cheaply priced, even though it was signed by the author, I received a shrug of indifference.

What happened? In revisiting that long-awaited novel, The Runaway Soul, and the terms of its widespread rejection, it’s possible to discern the crucible of Brodkey’s unravelling. The story could be cast as urban legend—Behave yourself, some sage editor might advise a young writer, or you’ll be forgotten just like Brodkey—but perhaps rather than a warning, Brodkey’s contradictory ghosts are issuing a challenge.

In 1964, when Random House signed him to a contract for a novel titled A Party of Animals, Harold Brodkey was arguably the most promising writer in America. After publishing stories in the New Yorker, he’d released his first collection—still his best-regarded book—First Love and Other Sorrows, in 1958. In the collection’s “untampered with, courageous letting-alone of what is given whole and outright by human life,” a critic for the New York Times announced “the promise of the author’s future.”

Instead of initiating a conventional publishing career, however, First Love and Other Sorrows would stand as Brodkey’s only book for the next thirty years. He may have signed a contract, but prising the novel from his tenacious grip would vex some of the twentieth century’s finest editors. When Joe Fox at Random House failed (“Brodkey was unhappy about my understanding of the book”), the manuscript sold to Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In 1976, a catalogue listed its forthcoming publication, but it failed to appear.

Every promise of its imminent publication was broken, yet excitement only grew for a novel rumoured to be an American rival to Marcel Proust’s.

“Only Harold Brodkey, among our novelists, is following the right nerve to the source of our emotional lives,” wrote Michael Wolff in the Village Voice. But the book just didn’t arrive. In 1979, the contract moved to Knopf, where Robert Gottleib tried producing a version. Gottleib recalls in his memoir, Avid Reader, “As I had known would happen, he didn’t want this version published.” By the 1988 New York magazine profile, Brodkey’s absurdly delayed manuscript was described as somewhere between three thousand and six thousand pages long. “It has come to the point where his wife has had to hide part of his manuscript to get him to stop revising,” New York reported.


Brodkey’s fiction works and reworks a limited number of characters and events. A simple, archetypal story forms the spine of basically everything he wrote: a Jewish child, Wiley Silenowicz (sometimes called Harold Brodkey), is raised by adoptive parents in University City, a suburb of St. Louis. His adoptive father, S. L., becomes an invalid when Wiley is still a young boy, and his adoptive mother, Lila, is eventually diagnosed with cancer. Mute for the first years of life, Wiley is portrayed as a genius possessed of Walt Whitman’s visionary exuberance. Throughout the stories and novels, we see him attend Harvard, fall in love with the brilliant Ora, and move to New York City to begin a literary career.

The story in Brodkey’s work is really no more complex than that. What is complex, he discovered, is that each attempt to capture it comprised a totally new experience. The act of remembering is rooted in ever-changing time, making the past contingent on the present and vice versa. While Brodkey obsessively returned to the same story, he could say, quite honestly, that the various artifacts he produced bore only a slight relationship to one another. Yes, the stories shared characters, settings, and scenes, but similarities were washed away by the mercurial substance of time, flowing through and setting off the work in a dazzling flux.

When Brodkey applied his method to the short story, he achieved lasting works such as “Innocence” and “A Story in an Almost Classical Mode,” which form the basis of what esteem he still enjoys.

But the novel, which would finally appear in 1991, was a different matter. Italo Calvino once argued that “literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement,” and Brodkey’s massive novel had failure programmed into its DNA. In a way, his vision of time was far more radical than Proust’s, whose novel is more or less orderly, linear, and fixed. For Brodkey, each recollection was so transient, by the time he reached page 100, the preceding material had already changed and needed the fact of its changing registered.

“One always wonders how he keeps going,” Harold Bloom said. “He’s very, very high-strung. There is a considerable question whether Brodkey will self-destruct.”

When I began taking an interest in Brodkey’s work, his daughter, Temi Rose, wrote me a remarkable letter. She described her father as a Jew in a world dominated by the anti-Semitic WASP upper class, a bisexual or perhaps gay man in a world of robust heterosexuality. In a tragic act of self-denial, Brodkey capitulated to convention, Rose wrote, committing himself to “the best” of everything: living in Manhattan, working for the New Yorker, married to a beautiful actress. “What was it like to know you are really brilliant and yet deeply unacceptable?” Rose asked. Brodkey’s “glorious created life” hid the “underground self who was often pleased with his creation, and at other times, I can remember, raging, raging, raging.”

Constant sexual adventure—and sexual advertisement—formed an integral part of that created life. Brodkey referred to himself as Byronic, boasted of an affair with Marilyn Monroe, and was known to have been, in the words of Edmund White, “a tireless, overt cruiser” at the Sixty-Third Street Y. The publisher and biographer James Atlas once spoke of Brodkey’s “faculty for bringing you in under the eaves of his capacious ego,” and at its finest, the fiction likewise functions as seduction—a seemingly endless cascade of hypnotic, charismatic language.

Take the opening of one of his most celebrated stories, “His Son, in His Arms, in Light, Aloft.” After establishing the situation (“My father is chasing me”), the narrator says,

My God, I feel it up and down my spine, the thumping on the turf, the approach of his hands, his giant hands, the huge ramming increment of his breath as he draws near: a widening effort. I feel it up and down my spine and in my mouth and belly—Daddy is so swift: who ever heard of such swiftness? Just as in stories . . .

And just as in Brodkey’s story, the reader feels pursued: his giant, authorial hands are reaching down to lift you up.

On the eve of The Runaway Soul’s publication, Brodkey was interviewed by Michael Silverblatt on his radio program Bookworm in Los Angeles. As if sensing the demolishing verdict to come, Brodkey expressed worry about “resistance” or “suspicion” in his readers, a fear that they wouldn’t fall for the seduction: “There’s a continuous challenge that [the book] issues—a ‘Do you dare look at this?’—and I think there are a thousand ways of not doing that.”

This was partly resistance to the book itself—how it was structured, how it went about the meticulous business of rendering experience—but unlike many writers who would at least claim a distinction between themselves and their work, Brodkey personally identified with The Runaway Soul and knew that the book’s reception would be a referendum on the man himself. “It’s my life,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Not the book’s life. My life.”

And when it came to his life, the public had already grown hostile. Even in a generation that included Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag, Brodkey was resented for the sheer enormity of his ego. As Robert Gottleib remarked, “Harold’s talent was large, but his ego was colossal, and it did him in.”

Edmund White tells a story about Brodkey and the writer Sheila Kohler. Over dinner, Kohler told Brodkey that she was pleased to meet him because Gordon Lish (his editor at the time) had called him the greatest living writer. “Why, he compares you to Shakespeare,” she said, to which Brodkey bitterly replied, “I bet he wouldn’t put Shakespeare on hold,” and threatened to change editors for this weirdly perceived insult.

Yet nothing better or more sadly illustrates the ire Brodkey had incurred than the reaction to his announcement, in the New Yorker, that he was dying of AIDS. In that magazine, he wrote a series of articles about the process of dying, a series that would be collected in This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death in 1996. Yet even dying was seen as still more crowing from this insatiable rooster. In the New Republic, the poet Richard Howard called the announcement “entirely a matter of manipulative hucksterism, of mendacious self-propaganda and cruel assertion of artistic privilege.”

Everything I say is false.

Novels exist in the circular logic of this paradox. We know them to be false but must give ourselves over. What’s usually referred to as the suspension of disbelief is only half the process. Equally necessary is the volunteering of belief—not in the narrator, who may be deceitful, forgetful, or incompetent, but in the author. “The poet, the novelist, the memoirist,” Vivian Gornick has averred, “all must convince the reader they have some wisdom, and are writing as honestly as possible to arrive at what they know.” We trust that the author is controlling the material, drawing us into something worthy, exhilarating, novel. Without trust, the reader instinctively resists the writer’s advances.

“He had a journey in mind in the novel,” Temi Rose told me. “He wanted to take us somewhere and he wanted us to let him, to trust that it would be a meaningful ride, to let go and flow into the thrill of his excellence.” But to a profound extent, Brodkey had lost trust by the time his magnum opus, the labour of three decades, arrived. The writer of promise had become a liar.

A selection of characteristic responses to The Runaway Soul: “formless, plotless and graceless” (London Review of Books); “logorrhea in excelsis” (Washington Post); “masturbatory narcissism” (New York Times).

Brodkey claimed to have gauged around two hundred reader responses to The Runaway Soul. “On page 35 or 40,” he told Michael Silverblatt, “they suddenly realize I’m not asking them to follow line by line or phrase by phrase, and that I’m not writing in order to be the king of a small kingdom, and then the suspicion goes away and they start to read.”

Page 35 does mark a crucial early moment in the novel. “If one might try the different language of a different self,” it begins, initiating a tour de force sequence in which a young Wiley wades into the Mississippi River. Observe the powerful current of just one sentence:

I trailed a hand in the light-struck, unstable, hurrying surface as if to restore a sensory narrowness of perception, but I felt the water moving and wrapping itself around me, my fingers, and the palms and backs of my hands and my wrists; and the merciless transience, insatiable-throated and sulphurous-muddy, on my hands or in them, my wrists were half-clasped by it; the stench-ridden, flowing and unobliging, gliding pliability and wet suffocation of the water.

Here, Brodkey thrills us, the imagery wedded to the style, illuminating the novel’s innermost theme of merciless transience, the constant need for a different language when each flickering moment demands a different self. Like Wiley, the reader just lets go and flows.

At other times, however, the novel makes a supreme demand of trust and triggers resistance. A sex scene goes on for hundreds of pages, including lines such as: “The other tongue of mine, the tonguelike meat-staff, still pantsed, is against her side.” Tonguelike meat-staff? And I have stared, seemingly for hours, at a sentence like the following, unable to decide if it’s very good or very bad: “I had a sense of him,” Brodkey writes of a depressed friend, “that I say now was of someone self-autopsied—a little as if a tulip could tear itself apart in a spiritual wind.”

Brodkey had an ambivalent relationship to the title of genius. To be “someone who could be the rough equivalent of a Wordsworth or a Milton, is not a role that a halfway educated Jew from St. Louis with two sets of parents and a junkman father is prepared to play,” he told David Remnick, then of the Washington Post. “In daydream, yes. In real life, no.”

Yet novelists don’t live in real life. And so at other times, as on the cover of New York, Brodkey wore “genius” like a crown, divinely ordained. In such daydreams, everything he wrote—every last vision and revision of The Runaway Soul—was, categorically, a work of genius. The publisher clearly hoped the public would make the same assumption; the author’s name is printed hugely on the spine, eclipsing the title.

But that’s a strategy of yesterday. We don’t really believe in genius anymore, certainly not as the “natural endowment” of Immanuel Kant’s definition, with all the attendant phallic puns. Looming over a masculine artist, “genius” (never mind “Genius”) only piques Brodkey’s dreaded suspicion.

“My father would have liked to be trusted as a truth-teller,” Rose told me, “but I wonder if that could occur when the society he was writing for could not be trusted with the ‘truth’ of what he was.” A writer of excellence with a penchant for self-destruction; a seducer with hidden lives; a steel-plated ego with a self as fluid as time—Brodkey was all these things, simultaneously, overlappingly, interpenetratingly. “I am a genius or I am a fraud,” he wrote in This Wild Darkness. “I am possessed by voices and events from the earliest edge of memory and have never existed except as an Illinois front yard where these things play themselves out over and over again until I die.”

Such is the challenge of The Runaway Soul. Do we dare trust yesterday’s genius? We instinctively resist a consciousness, ungovernable as a river, that might bear us along, overwhelm, or even drown us.

Michael LaPointe contributes to the Times Literary Supplement and has written for the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and the Paris Review. He lives in Toronto.

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