Issue 121, Winter 1991
For the past thirty years Harold Brodkey has pursued a path unique in American letters. After publication of a volume of finely made short stories written in his twenties, First Love and Other Sorrows (1958), many of which first appeared in The New Yorker and were acknowledged to be of outstanding promise, Brodkey began composition of an extended prose work, portions of which have been published in magazines and journals, which has provoked a wide diversity of critical opinion—from Denis Donoghue’s claim in Vanity Fair that it is a “work of genius” to suggestions that it may be a bloated hoax. In the meantime, the work became something of an object of desire for editors; it was moved among publishing houses for what were rumored to be ever-increasing advances, advertised as a forthcoming title (Party of Animals) in book catalogs, expanded and ceaselessly revised, until its publication seemed an event longer awaited than anything without theological implications. In recent years, some critics, editors and publishing wags have begun to adopt, in relation to this native of the show-me state, what amounts to a somewhat peevish “put up or shut up” attitude, an opinion most explicitly advanced by Rhoda Koenig in New York magazine, who referring to Ernest Hemingway’s many posthumous publications bearing witness to that writer’s industry, quipped that Brodkey alive was less prolific than Hemingway dead.
Brodkey has, however, been publishing all along—some fifty pieces since the first collection. Yet he withheld publication of the manuscript in book form, and consequently was able to elude ultimate public judgment until November of 1991, when Farrar, Strauss and Giroux published The Runaway Soul. Still, Brodkey declines to say whether this is the first of a multivolume novel, or even that this is “The Book,” the novel that had been advertised as Party of Animals. Reviews and advance notices contained divergent opinions, and still the only consensus on Brodkey’s extended prose fiction remains that it is “long awaited.”
From his first published stories to the most recent, Brodkey has treated his childhood, boyhood, and youth as if they were a well to which he could constantly return as a source of narrative. He was born in 1930 in Staunton, Illinois, and soon afterwards put up for adoption, a dislocation that provoked a severe withdrawal from the world—as a two-year-old he stopped speaking for more than two years.
He entered Harvard at sixteen, studied literature, and was an editor on the college literary magazine. He interrupted his studies for a year spent traveling in Europe. He married Joanna Brown just after graduation and soon found himself a junior executive at the NBC television network, commuting on the Harlem-Hudson line from Westchester County, where he lived with his new family. It was on this train that he planned the first writing produced in his adult life: a story, “State of Grace,” edited and published by a fellow commuter whom he knew socially—William Maxwell of The New Yorker.
After publication of his first book of stories, he was awarded a residency fellowship in Rome by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The following years brought divorce, a brief involvement with the Group Theater, “legendary” sexual wandering, permanent residence on New York’s Upper West Side, occasional teaching positions, work as a staff writer at The New Yorker, the production of the stories “Innocence”—a touchstone, for want of a better word, of erotic literature—and “His Son, in His Arms, in Light, Aloft,” a masterpiece of reminiscence, and finally the development of his later idiosyncratic mode of narrative.
Brodkey married the novelist Ellen Schwamm in 1980, and published another collection, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, in 1988. Brodkey and Schwamm divide their time between an apartment on upper Broadway—the view to the south somewhat occluded now by the “luxury” apartment buildings thrown up in the development boom of the last decade—and a wood-frame Victorian house in a summer community up the Hudson.
The meetings that formed this interview took place in the Manhattan apartment. At the outset Brodkey suggested the interview should be conducted without the aid of recording equipment and that the interviewer record his impressions of the meetings afterward, maintaining that this would be the best manner in which to capture the “truth” of the encounters. Indeed, when presented with the transcript of the proceedings of the first meeting that used equipment, he complained of its quality and asserted that it bore no relation to the discussion that had taken place. Brodkey continued to be an elusive though solicitous subject.
The text that follows is based on five meetings that took place over the past three years. Once the process began, Brodkey made a habit of pronouncing “for the record” (and often most epigrammatically) on the phone when no tape recorder was available, or in a restaurant, or even at a party where no pen was at hand. Some of this additional material has been added to the text. The whole, some three hundred and fifty pages, was edited, rearranged and revised by the interviewer, by Brodkey, by the editor of this magazine, and finally deemed by the subject to be “compromised” and “tainted,” but ultimately a text he would allow to be attributed to him.
Conversation with Brodkey—whether in person, or on one of the many long phone calls he makes daily to friends and publishing types to check on the progress of culture, as one might inquire about the weather before venturing outside—can be an adventure. By turns immensely charming and socially clumsy, offering observations of acute honesty with an air of Delphic significance, or an opinion with the genial guardedness of a con man. Brodkey is always intelligent and engaged—often with a declarative and emotional urgency reminiscent of an actor trained in the Method school. To a degree unusual in a man his age—and he is wont to remind one that he is sixty, “an old man,” in need of indulgence—he strikes one as remarkably unformed.
On entering the New York City apartment one is confronted with a legend—a wooden placard enjoining “Deeds not Words,” an artifact, like the rest of the furniture in the house, of early nineteenth-century vernacular design from the Era of Good Feeling. Hallways extend toward the kitchen and pantries in one direction and bedrooms and studies in the other.
Brodkey’s study is a large, white-walled made-over bedroom crowded with library tables, a drafting board, outlines and notes taped to the wall, and a collection of computer equipment worthy of a bond-trading room—computer systems of different makes, a monitor, another monitor of a vertical-rectangular shape that can show a single whole page of text, printers, and a scanner that Brodkey used to input the many pages of manuscript he wrote before he went “high tech.” A long wall is lined at shoulder height with cabinets that one is assured, ominously, are fireproof.
Before we get started I just want to say one thing. When I was a kid I really did think that people would someday cheer for me, a kind of acknowledgment of what I would do as a writer. Then, when I was in my mid-thirties, I was running at the West Side Y in New York, on the track that goes around up above the basketball court, and as I ran, I watched the basketball game being played below. McBurney School was playing someone or other. They came from behind and the game went into overtime, and they won; there was this huge outburst of cheering, screaming, kicking, and stamping on the floor. People shouting. I think the track is twenty-four laps to a mile, unless that’s the swimming pool, and I was on about my twentieth lap, which is always rather an emotional time anyway, and I burst into tears, because I finally realized, you know, they’re never going to do that for a writer.
Not unless you climb into the ring, the sports arena.
Veronica Geng, who is very smart, and I were sitting around talking with George Trow and Ian Fraser. I don’t know who brought up baseball, but I said I was jealous of baseball players’ salaries; I said it bothered me that Dwight Gooden got so much more money a year for what he did than I got for what I did. So Veronica said, But Harold, Dwight Gooden goes out and delivers exaltation on a regular schedule to a great many people on a reliable basis.
Are you beginning to feel exposed?
All of a sudden, when Stories in an Almost Classical Mode came out, I moved from being a kind of amiably well-regarded nobody to being not exactly an often hated somebody, but close. But you’re not really somebody; you can’t go around assuming that an enormous number of people have read your stuff and liked it; you can’t be gracious, it isn’t like that.
It would be nice, though, if more people would give you that opportunity to be gracious.
Sure. Being an object of curiosity (and rivalry) is very peculiar when you’re no longer young. You really spend an awful lot of your time in New York just being confused about how to act. Someone like Elaine, who runs that restaurant, she helps because she places you in the hierarchy. She’ll try to tell you you’re a certain kind of person, and that’s a kind of an anchor. A lot of the time people insult you, tease you, insult your work, but sometimes it’s flirtation, or a job offer, the prelude to an alliance. When New York magazine came out with my picture on the cover a couple of years ago, I would be walking down the street and people would pass me, and then I would see the same people again, a minute later; they’d circled around to see the cover in life. And I would think, What do I do? Should I smile? Do I really like this? What’s the etiquette here? I think I did like it, but I’m not sure. It was bloody goddamn strange. On Broadway once I saw this guy about ten yards in front of me with a lively, educated, great face, smile at me. Then he began to applaud. Now, first of all, he was handsome and ironic, so I thought it was a joke. Or he was mad. But I thought, Hell, go ahead, believe it. He raised his hands and clapped them, and as we started to pass each other, he said, You’re the best. Keep it up. You too, I said stupidly. And I applauded him—I had no idea what I could do to thank him. Then there was this guy who followed me into Burger King, he asked for an autograph. He had about three coats wrapped around him, a homeless guy. I said my autograph wasn’t worth much, and I gave him a buck. He said, Sign it. The buck. I don’t know.
Has this business about fame been a longtime concern?
When I was a kid there was this show called “The Quiz Kids.” I auditioned for the producers; they asked questions, but I quit part way through. I stopped trying, because I got this sense, you see, that there was this trap, that you had to merchandise yourself, be cute on cue. And then you’d be stuck with producing that effect, that personality, all your life; you’d never escape. There was a clear association in my mind of stardom and self-destruction, so much so that when Larry Rivers said at Frank O’Hara’s funeral in the 1960s, “We all expected Frank to be the first of us to die,” that really glittered with truth. It was the same with James Dean when he got killed, and Marilyn Monroe. But I had this sense when I was a young man that you got famous and then, one way or another, you killed yourself. Or you retired—deadened, burned-out, cynical, sour. Death and fame.
You felt from the start this . . .
I’m pretty sure, looking back, that I was afraid of being mediocre, ultimately, in the light of literary history. And yet at the same time I was determined that no one was going to say I was a great writer and catch me that way. I was interested in escaping all that bullshit. It was necessary that everything I did be good of its kind but that it not present greatness as an issue. When that is attached to the aura of a writer, you get two writers, one the narrator and then another—an in-between persona, the rumored immortal running for office, the office of rumored immortality.
There’s a Yiddish word, yenta, for the sort of person who nags you all the time. Frank O’Hara was a yenta. I wasn’t someone he publicized, but twice a year he would confront me and tell me that I was a great writer, a great artist, a great thinker, whatever, and that I was just hiding. And he would say that this was despicable. He would say that the work was fantastic, that it had influenced him, but unfortunately (he would say), I was a middle-class drag, not serious about becoming famous and influencing the world. William Maxwell said many of the same things to me. I practiced evasion until I was forty.
Evasion of what?
Of being an honest, wholehearted, fame-spurred writer. A sucker. A writer—and eaten up by it. Then, when I was forty, I gave up. I stopped being evasive. I clumsily wanted to be known. An eaten man. I think—and I have some evidence from when I was a teacher—that most people who try to write can succeed but don’t want to; I would argue that psychologically they would rather daydream about creating texts and being recognized while having real lives—they would rather do that than publish, I think.