Friday, August 9, 2013

Poetic Prose and the Whirlpool of Ego

Harold Brodkey, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode

The prose is gorgeous.

"I tried to string a number of those cries together, to cause them to occur in a mounting sequence. It was a peculiar attempt: it seemed we moved, I moved with her, on dark water, between two lines of buoys, dark on one side, there was nothingness there, and on the other, lights, red and green, the lights of the body advancing on sexual heat, the signs of it anyway, nipples like scored pebbles, legs lightly thrashing, little ohs; nothing important, a body thing; you go on, you proceed."

As with much of Brodkey, the focus is coital ("Innocence"), the writing hovers on the border of mawkishness, and the narrator is--invariably it seems--Brodkey himself.  Wiley Silenowicz, the central figure in Brodkey's autobiographical stories, recounts, with variations, the story of Brodkey's unhappy childhood, romantic (or merely physical) sexual encounters, and, at times, morbidly self-obsessed view of the world.  Brodkey is an acquired taste.  Some of his stories are beautiful in the way that aesthetically-obsessed Japanese arts--bonsai say, or origami--are beautiful: there is an attention to detail, a miniaturization of action, a reduction of others to the often myopic perception of the narrator that can be exhilarating or stultifying, depending on the story.  I was never able to finish The Runaway Soul, Brodkey's 850-page autobiographical account of his childhood, a book that reminded me for three hundred pages of Portrait of an Artist with its lament for an unhappy childhood, and not at all of Proust's more engaging and socialized self-scrutiny in Swann's Way--the writer one would think Brodkey wished to emulate.

And yet when one wishes to read prose that is poetry Brodkey is as good as any other writer in English:

"When I walked next to her, sometimes it was like being next to granite blocks tumbling slowly in melodramatic little avalanches." ("Largely an Oral History of My Mother")  Or this, from "S.L.": "The enameling of the light moves and shifts: I see a bridge downstream--metallic ripples--metal braid--webby glosses of air in a rain haze at this moment, this pedestal of mind: my attention has two forms--as light and as a river on no clear geographical plane."  Perfect.

One is quite familiar with interior monologues, but i.m.'s are often rather prosy since most of our waking thoughts are just that--tedious recountings of daily minutiae, of chores to be done, fears to control, hopes and dreams to fulfill.  Brodkey's interior self speaks in verse, in the sorts of images one finds in Pound or, most memorably, in Wallace Stevens--the greatest poet of the inner voice in English.

"The malady of the quotidian. . .
Perhaps, if winter once could penetrate                       
Through all its purples to the final slate,
Persisting bleakly in an icy haze,

Once might in turn become less diffident,
Out of such mildew plucking neater mould
And spouting new orations of the cold.
One might. One might. But time will not relent."

("The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad")

I imagine Stevens always in the same fashion: bundled in his Burberry coat (charcoal, as I see it), tramping across a Hartford park--black elms and oaks, lowering sky, children building a snowman--examining impressions which unfold, miraculously, in images that were unprecedented in our language.   And so it is with Brodkey as he (I imagine) trolled the bars on the Lower East Side, or, cocooned in his apartment, turned his painful memories and ramped-up sensibilities and insatiable sexual longings toward the problem of making perfect sentences.

My Brodkey problem isn't with his art but with its resolution, or lack thereof; with the feeling as one reads through his classical stories--classical in the sense of architecturally perfect yet as uninhabitable as the ruins of a Greek temple--that I am suspended in mid-air, required to regard the art, the delicacy of description, but that I will not be allowed an unadorned glimmer of the mind, of the man, whose lovely words I am reading.   It seems odd that confessional writing can hold us at a distance, can substitute beauty for feeling, or at least the sort of deep and unmediated feeling that great writing forces us to experience.

When I read, in 1993, of Brodkey's battle with AIDS--a New Yorker memoir that was turned into a book--I felt for the first time that I had glimpsed something of Brodkey's "authentic" self: the writing was relatively stripped down, less "verbose" (this was the common criticism of Brodkey, a writer whom New York critics either adored or despised).  Over the years I have read and reread sections of Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, marveling at the beauty of the prose and feeling suffocated by the weight of the self at the center of Brodkey's lifelong autobiographical effort.

Brodkey is the subject of a fine Paris Review interview, number 126

Many thanks to my good friend and colleague Peter Nash for keeping TR alive while I was otherwise occupied.

George Ovitt, 8/9/13

1 comment:

  1. You have a real ability for writing unique content. I like how you think and the way you represent your views in this article. I agree with your way of thinking. Thank you for sharing.
    Spagart Whirlpool and garden