Even here on the literary slopes of the Upper West Side, who has heard of Harold Brodkey? When he shops for lox at Barney Greengrass (the Sturgeon King), or when he takes a stroll past the unconscionable consumption on Columbus Avenue, does anyone recognize him -- this tall, bearded man who may be America's Marcel Proust?
For years, a small clutch of writers and critics not ordinarily given to breathless adoration has compared Brodkey to Freud, Wordsworth and Whitman. "A true artist," says Cynthia Ozick. Some have even called him the greatest novelist alive.
And yet . . . he has not published a single novel.
Brodkey says his life's work, a massive Bildungsroman-in-progress titled "A Party of Animals," is "more than 90 percent done," but he will not release it quite yet into the public teeth -- partly because the texture and breadth of his manuscript continues to evolve, partly because of the most affecting and naked sort of anxiety: "It's like giving away a daughter in marriage. You don't really want to do it, it's so painful. And I'm afraid to publish the book for fear it will change the world around me too much; for fear that it won't change anything at all."
*At 55, Brodkey is genuinely handsome, ironically vain. ("I am a sexual icon," he jokes.) An occasional portrait subject for Richard Avedon, his face is elegantly long, as if it grew up between two city buildings. His beard and hair are graying; his eyes are the clearest of windows -- alternately searing, frightened, warm, delighted. Light is everything in Brodkey's work, and the light now is white-yellow, a fierce winter morning light, and Brodkey wears the sort of yellow-tinted glasses favored by highway patrolmen and skeet shooters. To him it will seem like morning all day.
His readers possess just one commercially published book -- "First Love and Other Sorrows," a story sequence put out 27 years ago by Dial Press. The Vintage Contemporary Series will reissue a paperback edition next month, but the leap in authority and ambition in Brodkey's writing has been so vast in the intervening years that "First Love" gives only the faintest hint of the book that may be ahead.
Brodkey is a strange literary phenomenon, a reputation pieced together over two decades from scant and scattered evidence. His progress is a kind of parlor guessing game in literary Manhattan, a stream of questions, rumor and gossip fueled occasionally in the '70s by extraordinary sightings in print: "Innocence" in the American Review, "His Son, in His Arms, in Light, Aloft" in Esquire, "A Story in an Almost Classical Mode" in The New Yorker. But the stories were rare and did not appear as part of their comprehensive vision. To read them is to some extent like seeing certain features of a single master portrait over long stretches of time -- a blue-green eye one year, a smooth pink throat the next.
Sometimes the extravagant expectations and queer wonderings about Brodkey have made it to the papers. Under the headline "Brodkey Delivers," The New York Times published a story nine years ago that Farrar Straus & Giroux finally had in hand a complete 2,000-page manuscript and that the Book-of-the-Month Club had already chosen the novel as an ir alternate selection. Alas and alack: The book never came out; Brodkey left Farrar Straus for Alfred A. Knopf; and predictions have been more cautious ever since. The author's note for Brodkey's recent essay in The Times Book Review said his "first novel, 'A Party of Animals,' may be published next year."
The poet Paul Vale'ry once said that a work of art is not so much finished as abandoned, and now there is real reason to believe that Brodkey is loosening his hold on the novel. He has worked directly with New Yorker Editor William Shawn; together they have found a way in recent issues to publish lengthy excerpts including "S.L." and "Nonie." Other sections have run in Partisan Review and Vanity Fair. And last March the Jewish Publication Society of America offered its members a $30 edition of "Women and Angels," a 157-page compilation of three stories, "Ceil," "Lila" and "Angel."
"Maybe doing it this way, one bit at a time, will help me," sw,-1 sk,1 ld,10 Brodkey says. "But how do I know? Bernard Malamud once told someone that I was a genius, but the wrong kind of genius, a much, much lesser kind, not like Mozart, where the work just kept pouring out of him. Maybe that's right."
With his wife, novelist Ellen Schwamm, Brodkey lives on West 88th Street in a labyrinthine apartment filled with early American art. He spends his mornings writing in a study as cluttered as a toolbox. Afternoons he reads, lifts weights at a local gym called Pumping Iron, gossips with friends on a wireless phone -- "Hello. It's Brodkey" -- works some more. His project has spanned the invention of several technologies, and in the course of writing "A Party of Animals" he switched from typewriter to word processor. The word count is climbing. On paper and on disks is the astonishing "story" of Wiley Silenowicz.
"It is hard in language to get the full, irregular, heavy sound of a man," Brodkey writes, and so it is. Even the presence of a tape recorder does little to capture his honeyed voice, the voluptuous sentences. In fact the recorder threw him for a loop at the start of the first interview. He began to stutter a little. His hand fluttered as if it held a bird.
"God, that machine!"
There are times in the course of conversation when Brodkey will say he is ready, at the very least, to publish a first volume of 300 pages by 1987. And then he revises even that, saying he might publish more stories first and "keep breaking in slowly."
Pointing to his study, Brodkey says, "In that room is the manuscript, all of it in various stages of completion. What's lacking is the authority and the will to say, 'This is what I've written.'
"I'm not sure that I'm not a coward. If some of the people who talk to me are right . . . well, to be possibly not only the best living writer in English, but 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. In daydream, yes. In real life, no."
What do you think of Mailer?
He's a writer. I am not.
What do you mean?
How many writers have you interviewed? Twenty by now?
I'm not like them.
They're not like each other.
True, but I'm not a professional writer in the usual sense . . . You see what lies behind a response to what I write is the possibility of a Brodkey dictatorship in letters. That comes from the authority of the text. It exists whether I want it to or not.
* The small garrison of passionate Brodkey fans includes Susan Sontag, who says he is one of the few American novelists today "going for real stakes. I read every word he writes." Critic Denis Donaghue, who has read much of the unpublished manuscript, puts the book in an exalted category: ". . . It's a work of genius. As good as Proust? Why not? Proust, too, was once a not-too-young man who couldn't make up his mind where the next bit should go."
Critic Harold Bloom says Brodkey "is an original. He deals you a tremendous blow, a tremendous wound. If he's ever able to solve his publishing problems he'll be seen as one of the great writers of his day."
Novelist Gordon Lish works as an editor at Knopf, a position that may seem to compromise his judgment that "nothing comes close to Brodkey in prose fiction" -- but Knopf also publishes John Updike, Salman Rushdie, Joseph Heller, John Cheever and Ozick, and Lish prefers Brodkey above all.
"You may think I'm gaga on the subject, but one could take virtually any section of 'A Party of Animals,' put it into type right now and have a book that would surpass almost anything you and I have ever read," says Lish. "He is the writer of our time, maybe of the century. You have to have a sharp sense of the magnitude of his undertaking. Brodkey is trying to say everything he possibly can summon about the exchange that obtains in a family; everything that can register on the mind and heart is in his text."
By withholding his novel and making his literary life an all-or-nothing matter, Brodkey exists both as his collected works and his collected myths. He is the inheritor of so many myths: the myth of the New York intellectual (Delmore Schwartz), the myth of the Great American Novelist (Melville, Hemingway, Twain, Fitzgerald), the myth of the Reticent Writer (Ralph Ellison, Katherine Anne Porter, J.D. Salinger). Brodkey lives those myths with a crystalline purity.
What will matter is the work. Like Wordsworth's lyrics, his project is an epic act of imaginative remembering, gleams of half-extinguished thought sharpened into powerful literature. "Memory never gives you all its secrets," he says. "If you try to remember the light on a day when you were 5 years old, the light is not the real light, it's thought-light, some kind of artificial illumination. You wonder, where has the real light gone? The point is getting the sense of truth."
Brodkey was born to Russian-Jewish immigrants Ceil and Max Weintrub. Ceil died when Brodkey was an infant; he was adopted by his real father's cousins, Doris and Joseph Brodkey. And so it is -- somewhat -- in the book. In "Ceil," Brodkey plays at "remembering" his real mother: "I was born in her bedroom, at home. I feel her; I feel her moods." After describing Ceil's agony through the voices of his stepmother Lila, his adopted grandmother Ruthie and others, the story ends with this:
"In the tormented and torn silence of certain dreams -- in the night court of my sleep -- sometimes words, like fingers, move and knead and shape the tableaux: shadowy lives in night streets. There is a pearly strangeness to the light. Love and children appear as if in daylight, but it is always a sleeping city, on steep hills, with banked fires and ghosts lying in the streets in the dully reflectant gray light of a useless significance.
"I do not believe there was any justice in Ceil's life."
His prose is passionate, mystical, full of long sentences capable of bearing even the most romantic music. He sounds like no one else. In "Lila" he writes a long passage about Wiley, at 13, trying to imagine his stepmother's pain: "She had asked me to put myself in her place. OK. But what did that mean? How could I be a dying, middle-aged woman walking around in a housedress?"
In "Angel," Brodkey describes how Wiley confronts God (or some gnostic version of God) while walking through Harvard Yard in October 1951. Nothing in any of the major Jewish American writers -- Bellow, Roth, Ginsberg, Malamud or Ozick -- aspires to anything quite so religious. Bloom says " 'Angel' converted me to Brodkey's work. It's written in what used to be called the sublime style. It has overwhelming eloquence. Brodkey contaminates his reader with a spiritual anguish."
Harold, how did you get by all those years? Did you work?
I've never had a patron.
What about jobs?
I taught at Cornell for a few years. And I had a job at NBC a long time ago for a couple of years -- program development, the works. I got some nice promotions. But I hated it.
Well, I didn't have a car. My living expenses were almost nothing. If I was broke I could do a story. I get paid pretty well. I used to play the stock market whenever I needed a quick $800.
I am an incredibly good dinner guest. For years I used to be able to eat out every night for free with the best food and the best-looking women. I'm a good talker. I'm a charming guy.
"Harold was a charming young man," says William Maxwell, Brodkey's editor at The New Yorker 30 years ago. "I had known Harold's first wife, Joanna Brown, when she was a little girl. I got to know him when he was just out of Harvard, and I found his first stories brilliant. They were like no one else's." It was a promising time. Roth and Updike were publishing their first stories, too. But while they continued to publish stories, novels and essays and, in general, grow up in public, Brodkey retreated.
To begin with, Brodkey knew that those stories about childhood, first love and family were someone else's voice, someone else's experience. "I was consciously lying when I wrote them. I was a happy man and I didn't want to screw it up. They were meant to be friendly and make a certain amount of money. They were like Sherwood Anderson or Scott Fitzgerald.
"Afterwards I said to myself, 'I'm going to write books.' I didn't know it was going to be one book."
With a wife and daughter, Tammi, to support, he worked at various jobs, but his principal occupation, and obsession, was memory. "I took out seven or eight years and taught myself to remember," he says. "I spent hours and hours on a couch -- my own couch -- thinking." Brodkey wanted to write about his life -- Ceil, his stepfamily, Harvard, a variety of religious experiences, all that had registered on one American life -- but he discovered it would not come so easily.
"I found out that Proust had lied," he says. "You don't taste a madeleine cookie and everything comes flooding back." He spent hours, years really, thinking, imagining, for example, "the physical qualities of light at certain moments when I was a child."
The process, like Freud's own self-analysis, was painful, as dangerous a journey as the mind allows. Brodkey wanted to remember his mother, who died before his second birthday. Whether those memories are real or poetic seems to matter not at all. They inform "Ceil" and his entire project:
"The kid in the book had a mother until he was a year and a half old. She was almost tyrannical, the only one who got close to the child. Then one day she just disappears. And almost anything connected with her is psychologically unendurable.
"Yiddish, for instance. If I hear it for too long I'll throw up, because it produces in me a state of grief. Hebrew is worse. After a certain amount of Hebrew my head begins to spin. She spoke Yiddish and said all these prayers in Hebrew.
"When my mother disappeared I cracked up. I don't know how that happens in an infant, but the kid just refused to live. And there was a time when my real father reentered my life in the first grade and I cracked up a second time. I'd been restored to life and emotionally placed my mother in other women -- there was no death, there had been no death. When my real father showed up and talked about her too much or fell into Yiddish . . . then I was done for.
"Two times in my life under anesthesia -- once while having a tooth removed and once during an operation when I was 7 -- I went into terrible convulsions and almost died. It was the reappearance of her image, which was simply not acceptable. You see, if you get me talking about my real mother, there's a thing in the back part of my head that opens up and this grief starts. I can talk perfectly normally, but I have this sensation of weeping and grief. Even now. If she had lived there would have been certain moments to declare independence. I never had that."
"A Party of Animals" promises a character who is above all disconnected from "normal" experience: Wiley is a child with four parents, a Jew in the Christian Middle West and Christian Harvard. "You see, I think American lives, Jewish or gentile, are weird. Updike's life is not actually credible! He keeps talking about it as if it were. In the '50s I wrote in a way in which the lives I wrote about made a Freudian and sociological sense, but they don't. American lives are completely insane! Yours, too, right? That's what I write about."
After discovering his subject and the means to retrieve it, Brodkey spent years developing the language in which he would express himself. "Bit by bit I began to change," he says. In the latest stories his prose is dense, filled with clauses, parentheses, colons, semicolons, sentences that seem as rich as foie gras. Like many poets before him, Brodkey is trying to find sentence forms that fit to the music of a particular and peculiar mind. For Brodkey to work in the minimalist forms of contemporary fashion would be a bit like outfitting Arnold Schwarzenegger from the closets of Don Knotts.
Denis Donaghue says that if Brodkey's work has a discernible fault, it is that "he doesn't give you much room to breathe -- everything is so dense and intense, sometimes you hope for a relaxed passage." Brodkey's work is difficult, not so much because it demands great learning as that it demands emotional and intellectual endurance. Brodkey is convinced -- and he is right -- that his work is "destabilizing," an unsettling literature bound to confuse readers, create factions, inspire rivalries. He seems, at once, to derive both pleasure and anxiety from what may be his mark on the world.
"I thought I was writing something easy and accessible," he says. "I thought by now that there would be a lot of people working the way I am. It turns out I was wrong."
Why do you worry about reviews and New York so much?
I am hated. Anybody I'm not particularly fond of will tend to dislike me as an act of self-defense because of who I am.
I don't get it.
Let's say that in this particular interview I found some of your mannerisms distasteful and tried to hide it, but you were on to it. But it's not just anyone. It's me, the one who wrote 'Angel.' So it becomes a big issue in a certain way and you can't wait to tear my head off.
Why don't you move out of New York, leave it?
I've thought about moving to the Italian part of Switzerland, to Boston, Washington. But language is spoken here. My language. Besides, I'd miss the gossip.
In a review of "Women and Angels" for The New Republic, Leon Weiseltier wrote that some of Brodkey's work proved him "an unpleasant man, immensely alive." That review and a far more hostile one by D. J. Enright in The New York Review of Books enraged Brodkey, provoking him to write a 24-page, single-spaced letter to the editor. The New York Review published a shorter letter in which Brodkey offered readers a copy of the original if they would write to him at his home address.
In conversation Brodkey excoriates his rivals and naysayers -- they include, he says, some of the biggest names in literary New York. He believes a demonic character in a recent best seller is based on him. His sense of a "cordon of enemies" has made him combative, suspicious. Brodkey says his friends tell him to "cut out the paranoia," and yet he cannot, not completely. His sensitivity to literary politics may even be accurate, but it doesn't help.
"Not to say it too boldly, but the reason for the reviews is that people want to go on living their lives the way they live them, and they accept in a writer only what validates them, verifies them or reflects them. It is just possible that I am the voice of the coming age. Some people are braced for it and some people are not."
You mean you can say it more boldly?
"Oh, I don't know. I want to be funny. I want to be the writer next door."
Forget it. Brodkey will never be the writer next door. He can be charming, warm and kind, but any reader or acquaintance can see he does not live easily in this world, literary or otherwise. That has been the case from the start.
His wife Ellen Schwamm remembers that before she met Brodkey she had heard he was "brilliant but extremely difficult. Now I know he is brilliant and extremely difficult, but he's also kind and always truthful." A couple of years ago she published "How He Saved Her," a novel that some literati read as an account of the author, her ex-husband and a satyric Brodkey. Both Schwamm and Brodkey deny the novel is any sort of memoir.
But Brodkey concedes he can be difficult. "I figured I'd be able to earn a decent living and be bright as soon as I learned the rules," he says. "When I got to Harvard I didn't have one of the big scholarships and I had to get a job selling shoes so I could send my mother money. I felt so guilty about leaving her. By the time exams came, I had done so well in courses like chemistry, German and English that a dean called me into his office. Harvard was incredibly Christian at the time, and the dean was the vicar of God.
"He said, 'We made a real mistake about you. We can help you with your scholarship and your room.' My room was directly across from the bell tower and every morning I'd wake up six inches off the bed. It was the room they gave to the Jews. At a certain point he asked me what I wanted to be, and I said I wanted to earn my living as a doctor, but I really wanted to be a writer. The tension was incredible. He said, 'You're a lot smarter than we thought.' I didn't answer. I just said, 'Why haven't you asked me to sit down? May I sit down?'
"He said, 'Yes.' But I kept at him. I said, 'Why did you make me stand?'
"In the tension of the moment of my being so rude and awful, he said, 'A Jew can't be a good writer in English. That's a waste of your time. The things you can do are . . .' and he made a not entirely stupid list. Finally he said, 'You can't survive anywhere but Harvard.' And he's been about 80 percent right." NBC, Farrar Straus, Cornell University are some of the places where Brodkey could not survive happily. Fortunately, there is West 88th Street and The New Yorker.
Finally his visitor has to ask whether he will finish at all, whether Brodkey will fall victim to what Freud called the "will to fail" or whether it will be left to an editor to piece together a posthumous edition of "A Party of Animals." After all, when Proust died in 1922 half his novel was still in manuscript.
"I'm pretty sure that won't be the case for me," Brodkey says. "But what's the point of talking as if I were Mailer or Updike? I don't have the guts they have. I could defend myself by saying that they're not carrying so dangerous a message, but maybe I'm flattering myself. It goes around and around.
"What I'm thinking now is that the time has come. I'll do it. I'll publish. I'm ready."
When the first volume is published it will begin this way:
"I remember crawling naively and being slapped and hurried and rolled along in the private applause of birth -- the applause was that of my mother. Do I remember this? The I was not an I -- my sense of sight did not yet exist: I imagine it perhaps, that applause, that amusement park ride . . . "
Or it may begin this way:
"Imagine a mind shaped like a person."
Brodkey is not yet sure