In the peculiar little world of literary publicity a few writers have acquired an aura of mystery as a result of determined reclusiveness: B. Traven vanishing into the Mexican wilderness, J.D. Salinger fending off paparazzi at his isolated New England domicile, Thomas Pynchon disappearing into parts unknown. But there can be no disputing that though these people may have achieved a certain extra-literary notoriety, they are also bona fide writers whose accomplishments cannot be taken lightly.
What, by contrast, are we to make of a writer who is famous -- "famous," that is, in the little world of the literati -- primarily for not publishing his work? Such a fellow is Harold Brodkey, who in 1958 brought out a volume of stories called "First Love and Other Sorrows" and who has not, to all intents and purposes, been heard from since. From time to time over the years he has published snippets from a work in progress, and from time to time his publisher has listed that work, "Party of Animals," in its catalogue, but the book itself has yet to appear.
But in the literary world, especially that part of it quartered in Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side, Brodkey is a lion. Excited whispers carry the latest rumors of Brodkey's progress -- a new paragraph, perhaps? -- from salon to salon; breathless bulletins in the literary journals announce the prospective appearance of yet another excerpt from the "long-awaited" masterpiece, as the novel has been characterized by some who have not, in fact, actually read the whole thing.
As best can be determined, the novel's principal subject is Harold Brodkey. He said as much recently in a long interview with The Washington Post, during the course of which he allowed that shaping and reshaping this fictional exploration of himself was so demanding and fulfilling a task that he simply cannot let the manuscript go. This declaration came to the attention of another writer, one who actually publishes her work. After mulling it over for a while she sent along her reaction last week. I take the liberty of quoting it in full:
"What about this Brodkey? Is he as wonderful as I imagine from The Post's article? Can I extrapolate his whole style from so few lines? The resonance is quite stunning, don't you think? Can you imagine all the writers and would-be writers who will spend long hours lying on couches and producing horrendously dull and obscure contemplations of their own lives? Perhaps it is best not to dwell on it.
"It seems to me that by the very definition of his task, Mr. Brodkey will never finish. For if he is devoted to pounding the moments of his life for each note up and down the scale of memory, he has found undoubtedly how time changes the music of our souls by taking on a drumroll here, a string progression there, the angry blat of an off-key horn until childhood's simple melody swells into a symphony that can finish only with death!
"Well, I was pretty sure that I would like to listen to whatever pieces of the score Mr. Brodkey can bear to publish and I wondered if you shared my enthusiasm."
Nicely, and tartly, stated. My correspondent has put her finger squarely on the characteristic of modern writing that is steadily sapping the vitality away from it: the pervasive, obsessive preoccupation with self. Harold Brodkey may or may not be in the process of producing a modern masterpiece -- and if he is, more power to him -- but his unabashed self-preoccupation is paradigmatically contemporary. There are many reasons why modern literary fiction no longer seems pertinent to the lives of serious general readers, but surely its solipsism -- its relentless self-exploration, self-flagellation and self-celebration -- is among the most important; a writer who is interested only in himself, after all, is saying in effect that he is not interested in the reader.
This self-absorption is one aspect of contemporary fiction's rebellion against the Victorian novel, which was passionately interested in everyone and everything. It can be traced directly to three overpowering influences: Joyce, who made the artist himself a legitimate subject for fictional inquiry; Proust, who turned self-scrutiny into a lifetime's occupation; and Freud, who (somewhat unwittingly) made self-analysis the avocation of the educated classes. The effect of these giants on modern literature has been staggering; the exception to the rule today is the writer -- Graham Greene, Eudora Welty, Paul Theroux, Anne Tyler -- who does not focus on himself.
An important distinction should be drawn between autobiographical influence and self-preoccupation. The former is inescapable, not merely for the young writer who has little experience beyond himself -- hence the characteristically autobiographical first novel -- but for the experienced writer as well; everything he writes is in a sense a psychological and intellectual autobiography, even if it does not touch directly on himself. It is impossible to separate the artist from the art, and silly to try.
But self-preoccupation is another matter altogether. It is an inherently narrow view of the world, an inability to see beyond the self into the lives and minds of others. The most preternaturally gifted writer now at work in America may well be Philip Roth, yet his failure to move outside himself or his own experience -- which seems, on the evidence he presents, to have been primarily literary and sexual -- has rendered his fiction increasingly cramped and narcissistic. He repeatedly denies that his work is "autobiographical," but that is not the point; he may be writing pure fiction but he is also, no matter how you slice it, writing solely about himself.
Roth deserves special mention not in order to single him out but because his gift is so prodigious and because it is so frustrating to watch him fritter it away on navel-gazing; the man who could write a modern "Vanity Fair" has chosen instead to write "The Professor of Desire," and the loss is ours. But others, less gifted than he, have been no less self-absorbed. Thomas Wolfe thought he was the world incarnate and spent his entire life exploring it; Ernest Hemingway's central character was always Ernest Hemingway, no matter the name or guise he took; fiction much admired in contemporary literary circles, such as Elizabeth Hardwick's "Sleepless Nights" or Renata Adler's "Speedboat," is little more than interior monologue masquerading as fiction.
As for Brodkey, the jury must stay out until all the evidence is in, and as my correspondent suggests, that day may never come; not merely is there the temptation to fiddle endlessly with his self-inquiry, there is also the apprehension that a book around which he has allowed such high expectations to collect may not fulfil them. What seems certain, though, is that if ever we are permitted to read "Party of Animals" we shall learn everything we ever wanted to know about Harold Brodkey, and then some.