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Tag: The New Republic

Harold Brodkey: endless kvetch

Saturday, 26 January, 2019

On this day in 1996, the short-story writer and novelist Harold Brodkey died. His greatest claim to fame was the 32 years he took to write his first novel, during which time a legend grew about the much-awaited book. When it was finally published in 1991 as The Runaway Soul, it was not well received and caused bewilderment as to whether it was really the same masterpiece he had been promising for decades.

Harold Brodkey’s career began auspiciously with the short-story collection First Love and Other Sorrows, which received widespread critical praise at the time of its 1958 publication. Six years later he signed a book contract with Random House for his first novel, provisionally titled “A Party of Animals” and sometimes referred to as “The Animal Corner”. The unfinished novel was subsequently resold to Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1970, then to Knopf in 1979. As the Paris Review interview linked to above noted, “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 1983, The Saturday Review referred to “A Party of Animals” as “now reportedly comprising 4,000 pages and announced as forthcoming ‘next year’ every year since 1973.”

In 1993, Brodkey announced that he was suffering from AIDS, and this prompted the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Richard Howard to write in The New Republic that the disclosure was “a matter of manipulative hucksterism, of mendacious self-propaganda and cruel assertion of artistic privilege, whereby death is made a matter of public relations.” In posthumously reviewing Brodkey’s essay collection Sea Battles on Dry Land for The New York Observer, Susie Linfield wrote, “When Brodkey is bad, he is very, very bad, and he is very, very bad quite often. Sea Battles is filled with whoppers: misstatements, overstatements, nonstatements and statements that are silly, false or incomprehensible.” This is classic Brodkey:

“I distrust summaries, any kind of gliding through time, any too great a claim that one is in control of what one recounts; I think someone who claims to understand but who is obviously calm, someone who claims to write with emotion recollected in tranquility, is a fool and a liar. To understand is to tremble. To recollect is to reenter and be riven. An acrobat after spinning through the air in a mockery of flight stands erect on his perch and mockingly takes his bow as if what he is being applauded for was easy for him and cost him nothing, although meanwhile he is covered with sweat and his smile is edged with a relief chilling to think about; he is indulging in a show-business style; he is pretending to be superhuman. I am bored with that and with where it has brought us. I admire the authority of being on one’s knees in front of the event.” — Harold Brodkey (1930 – 1996)