Ceil

09/05/2024

Harold Brodkey is famous for a book it took him forever to complete and where the anticipation grew to such an extent that publication couldn’t have produced anything but the literary equivalent of stage fright. Before he was known as an accomplished but perhaps too-fashionable short story writer, no matter the occasional big admirer like Harold Bloom. However, plenty critics found the work minor and the self-absorption “legendary”. When The Runaway Soul finally came out after 25 years of labour, one critic called it the most overweight first novel of all time. Insult so extreme can almost be a compliment — it is certainly a superlative. But perhaps more damning has been posterity, with Brodkey little known now next to other ‘self-absorbed’ writers of his generation (Updike, Roth, Bellow, Mailer), all of whom surely remain much more widely read. Brodkey may have claimed, “I write like someone who intends to be posthumously discovered...” (New York) but thus far he was never so famous as during his lifetime. 

But let us look at that legendary self-absorption and try, just a little to historicise it through the short story ‘Ceil’. Published in the New Yorker in 1983, even e-notes, hardly known for their assertive proclamations says, “it is difficult to say definitively whether “Ceil,” one of the three stories in Women and Angels, is a success. Some would question whether it is a story or merely a collection of fragments.” In this account of the narrator’s mother, the author seems to be conjuring her out of his imagination and through fragments of other people’s accounts of her existence, especially his stepmother Lila. But it is also as though the narrator wants to move away from the harsh appraisal of his stepmother and towards his thoughts on a woman he hardly knew but whose existence is predicated upon hers — and whose own existence was predicated on his. “You were her success in the world, you were her success in America.” If this isn’t Lila’s contribution, whose is it? Lila’s words are offered in speech marks but the other voice is in italics. It seems this is the narrator’s grandmother, who is both a counterpoint to Lila and also the contextualising presence: the figure giving to the narrator’s past a much broader cultural perspective. How he finds this broader vision we can’t easily say. Lila reckons Ceil hardly knew her mother, so how come the narrator appears privy to her thoughts? Is this the narrator imagining his grandmother just as he has to imagine his mother, or does he receive information from elsewhere, but we aren’t told how that info is gathered? 

By almost any reckoning we can conclude this is an atrocious story. Out of the mishmash of facts and suppositions, of stray voices and odd italicisations, we might guess that Brodkey has no grasp of narrative technique, no control of character revelation, and little sense of thematic purpose. When James Linville, speaking to Brodkey says, “many speculated your work would never be published in your lifetime”, some readers might wish it hadn’t been. We can assume work like it wouldn’t have been published a hundred years earlier. Had literature descended to such a sorry state in the intervening years that ramblings could pass for fiction, that digressive biography could be passed off as the literary in so august a journal as the New Yorker? But UlyssesMrs Dalloway and The Sound and the Fury would have looked odd to a 19th-century reader too, so we should perhaps think of incomprehensibility as more than an insult. Many 20th-century readers no doubt struggle with making sense of these difficult books, trying to work out who we are following in Mrs Dalloway without the traditional markers, as the stream of consciousness and the interior monologue pass from one character to another. In The Sound and The Fury it isn’t easy to follow a book that opens with a narrator who is mentally impaired, while Joyce offers so many different techniques to open up the novel’s voices in Ulysses that, like with Woolf and Faulkner, one may find oneself re-reading as readily as reading. 

Our point isn’t to compare Brodkey to such great works of modernism; it is, however, to see that literature which might appear flaccid and unfocused, weakly narrated and poor in its character delineation, can be perceived as a work of potentially great innovation. A too-hasty dismissal of fiction that reads badly might leave the reader missing out on a work that re-reads very well. If Faulkner proposed that anybody who couldn’t understand The Sound and the Fury ought to read it “four times”, some might suggest Brodkey demands the same attention, especially if, as Bloom claimed, Brodkey was “...unparalleled in American prose fiction since the death of William Faulkner.” (New York Times)

Thus what we can initially propose, is that any criticism of Brodkey’s work needs to be specific enough to dismiss it on its own terms otherwise a general dismissal might have to include works that have entered the canon as Brodkey’s has not. Maybe Brodkey has been unfairly neglected but it wasn’t as if that neglect included his lifetime. Brodkey had a pretty good start on his road to posterity, with an acclaimed collection First Love and Other Stories. But though he would go on to mine similar material for his subsequent fiction, it was as if there were many shafts to disappear down in which to extract it. Michael Lapointe says, “the story in Brodkey’s work is really no more complex than that. What is complex, he discovered, is that each attempt to capture it comprised a totally new experience.” Lapointe adds, “the act of remembering is rooted in ever-changing time, making the past contingent on the present and vice versa.” (Brick) It is partly why Bloom could see him as an “American Proust” (LA Times), a claim supposedly Brodkey hated and with good reason perhaps if it means you have to live up to a master while struggling to publish a work you aren’t yet happy to offer the public. Like Proust, he was given to intricate revision. “It has come to the point where his wife has had to hide part of his manuscript to get him to stop revising.” (New York

Yet whatever Bloom’s hyperbole, we can see why, looking at ‘Ceil’, such a claim might be made. Brodkey doesn’t have a story to tell but a history to excavate, one where he cannot be anything but a very limited and speculative narrator; after all, he was two when his mother died. This means relying on the vaguest of emotional memories and the observations and prejudices of those who knew her. If it is generally assumed that memories start around 2.5 years, then Ceil’s death didn’t only rob the narrator of his mother, but the memory of her as well. If Proust could access for his vast work memories of his mother who at the beginning of the first volume doesn’t come up and kiss him goodnight because of the guest downstairs, Brodkey has no memories to access and so the difficulty starts with a void. “I have to imagine Ceil — I did not know her. I did not know my mother. I cannot imagine Ceil. She is the initial word. Everything in me having to do with knowing refers to her.” Some might see needless obscurantism, a meaninglessness that has little to do with the void and a lot to do with writing that is unclear. The narrator has to imagine her but cannot imagine her. Is this a paradox or a plain contradiction? She is the initial word, he says, but would that be likely, would Mummy be the initial word, and yet a word he wouldn’t be able to remember since she would be dead before he would have access to such a memory in his young state? Or was this a word he would hear after her death as he became capable of remembering and would hear others speak of her? 

   Here we have a paradox that could merely be a contradiction; the ineffable that could just be the needlessly opaque. Later, the narrator says, “Ceil, almost nervously, always overrated rebellion — and discipline — loyalty to the absent king, complete law abidingness as rebellion, the claim of following the true law, the truer one.” From being unable to imagine his mother he is now speculating on the specifics of her psychology, and in ways that entertain the intricacies of her personality. But the reader might believe that if he can imagine such complexities, can he not also imagine scenarios in which they can be played out? Instead, Brodkey adds more speculation and paradox. “In Illinois, where money was comparatively plentiful, she would despise money, which she liked, but despising it was a further mode of bandit independence and religious soaring freedom.” We might have preferred that the writer gave a context to her almost nervous need for rebellion, and explain why at the same time it could seem, as the narrator says, overrated. An anecdote, an incident that would give credence to the claim. If a writer can conjure up in his imagination the speculative, the writer too can conjure up reasons for such assumptions. Another writer might say after telling us that rebellion was overrated that she found herself in Illinois a little lost and confused. Instead, Brodkey keeps adding fragments to the fragmented, insists on offering snippets of information that are in danger of neither pulling the reader forward nor of illuminating us about the mother’s character. When the narrator goes on to say that in Illinois she was confused by the “actual politics of the county and the state, the bribes and the use of force and the criminal nature of much that goes on”, this suggests being embroiled in the underworld that the story doesn’t quite inform us over. It would be more or less the prohibition years, with Chicago a rising underworld culture. But if this helps explain why Ceil overrates rebellion, and where money was comparatively plentiful and that she liked it yet despised it, this is a reading that offers very few markers indeed. 

 Instead, the story goes into a past that proceeds Ceil rather than explains her. We get a lot about the narrator’s grandfather, who was killed a decade after Ceil died, which we can guess would be around 1942, and would make the father far from young. If Ceil was born around 1896 (she was nineteen in 1913), and Ceil was the youngest of “fifteen, twenty, twenty-five children”, then that would mean he would have been born around forty years earlier than Ceil, in around 1856. That would make him in his mid-eighties, which fits with the narrator’s claim, but would such a man be able to sustain eighteen shots and heal, albeit miraculously? The narrator admits that much of this is probably fabrication but “some part of this is true, is verifiable.” 

In such remarks the reader might wish for one of two things; that Brodkey imaginatively convinces us why the unbelievable might be credulous or gives us the facts that indicate the story has validity. With neither, we are lost in the narrator’s hesitations, while we have seen that an important aspect of modern literature is creating difficulties that were absent before, these difficulties must come from a principle that justifies the effort. Whether one likes Mrs DallowayUlysses or The Sound and the Fury, one reason they have achieved posterity (albeit an ever-changing notion) rests on the problem they address being equal to the demanding form they adopt. If Ulysses is so hard to read it is partly because of the use of polyphony and the heteroglossic. It only covers eighteen hours in a Dublin day, but it puts more life into the novel than previously had been possible if we think of these two terms from the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. The polyphanic offers numerous distinct and independent voices in the one work, while heteroglossia covers the different registers that people can speak in. Ulysses gave the novel a new richness that could go off in very different directions, and it would influence books like Trainspotting and 2666, securing Joyce the posterity that Brodkey has failed to achieve. Brodkey may have indeed mined his own life but it appears that when he took it back up to the surface was it too close to base metal? Not all that glistens is necessarily gold, even if, while he was alive,  plenty believed he was an important figure in contemporary letters. Perhaps in time, he will be seem so again, but Ceil seems to be a story that floats on the assumptions of modern fiction without itself adding much to its newfound possibilities.  

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Ceil

Harold Brodkey is famous for a book it took him forever to complete and where the anticipation grew to such an extent that publication couldn't have produced anything but the literary equivalent of stage fright. Before he was known as an accomplished but perhaps too-fashionable short story writer, no matter the occasional big admirer like Harold Bloom. However, plenty critics found the work minor and the self-absorption "legendary". When The Runaway Soul finally came out after 25 years of labour, one critic called it the most overweight first novel of all time. Insult so extreme can almost be a compliment it is certainly a superlative. But perhaps more damning has been posterity, with Brodkey little known now next to other 'self-absorbed' writers of his generation (Updike, Roth, Bellow, Mailer), all of whom surely remain much more widely read. Brodkey may have claimed, "I write like someone who intends to be posthumously discovered..." (New York) but thus far he was never so famous as during his lifetime.

But let us look at that legendary self-absorption and try, just a little to historicise it through the short story 'Ceil'. Published in the New Yorker in 1983, even e-notes, hardly known for their assertive proclamations says, "it is difficult to say definitively whether "Ceil," one of the three stories in Women and Angels, is a success. Some would question whether it is a story or merely a collection of fragments." In this account of the narrator's mother, the author seems to be conjuring her out of his imagination and through fragments of other people's accounts of her existence, especially his stepmother Lila. But it is also as though the narrator wants to move away from the harsh appraisal of his stepmother and towards his thoughts on a woman he hardly knew but whose existence is predicated upon hers and whose own existence was predicated on his. "You were her success in the world, you were her success in America." If this isn't Lila's contribution, whose is it? Lila's words are offered in speech marks but the other voice is in italics. It seems this is the narrator's grandmother, who is both a counterpoint to Lila and also the contextualising presence: the figure giving to the narrator's past a much broader cultural perspective. How he finds this broader vision we can't easily say. Lila reckons Ceil hardly knew her mother, so how come the narrator appears privy to her thoughts? Is this the narrator imagining his grandmother just as he has to imagine his mother, or does he receive information from elsewhere, but we aren't told how that info is gathered?

By almost any reckoning we can conclude this is an atrocious story. Out of the mishmash of facts and suppositions, of stray voices and odd italicisations, we might guess that Brodkey has no grasp of narrative technique, no control of character revelation, and little sense of thematic purpose. When James Linville, speaking to Brodkey says, "many speculated your work would never be published in your lifetime", some readers might wish it hadn't been. We can assume work like it wouldn't have been published a hundred years earlier. Had literature descended to such a sorry state in the intervening years that ramblings could pass for fiction, that digressive biography could be passed off as the literary in so august a journal as the New Yorker? But Ulysses, Mrs Dalloway and The Sound and the Fury would have looked odd to a 19th-century reader too, so we should perhaps think of incomprehensibility as more than an insult. Many 20th-century readers no doubt struggle with making sense of these difficult books, trying to work out who we are following in Mrs Dalloway without the traditional markers, as the stream of consciousness and the interior monologue pass from one character to another. In The Sound and The Fury it isn't easy to follow a book that opens with a narrator who is mentally impaired, while Joyce offers so many different techniques to open up the novel's voices in Ulysses that, like with Woolf and Faulkner, one may find oneself re-reading as readily as reading.

Our point isn't to compare Brodkey to such great works of modernism; it is, however, to see that literature which might appear flaccid and unfocused, weakly narrated and poor in its character delineation, can be perceived as a work of potentially great innovation. A too-hasty dismissal of fiction that reads badly might leave the reader missing out on a work that re-reads very well. If Faulkner proposed that anybody who couldn't understand The Sound and the Fury ought to read it "four times", some might suggest Brodkey demands the same attention, especially if, as Bloom claimed, Brodkey was "...unparalleled in American prose fiction since the death of William Faulkner." (New York Times)

Thus what we can initially propose, is that any criticism of Brodkey's work needs to be specific enough to dismiss it on its own terms otherwise a general dismissal might have to include works that have entered the canon as Brodkey's has not. Maybe Brodkey has been unfairly neglected but it wasn't as if that neglect included his lifetime. Brodkey had a pretty good start on his road to posterity, with an acclaimed collection First Love and Other Stories. But though he would go on to mine similar material for his subsequent fiction, it was as if there were many shafts to disappear down in which to extract it. Michael Lapointe says, "the story in Brodkey's work is really no more complex than that. What is complex, he discovered, is that each attempt to capture it comprised a totally new experience." Lapointe adds, "the act of remembering is rooted in ever-changing time, making the past contingent on the present and vice versa." (Brick) It is partly why Bloom could see him as an "American Proust" (LA Times), a claim supposedly Brodkey hated and with good reason perhaps if it means you have to live up to a master while struggling to publish a work you aren't yet happy to offer the public. Like Proust, he was given to intricate revision. "It has come to the point where his wife has had to hide part of his manuscript to get him to stop revising." (New York)

Yet whatever Bloom's hyperbole, we can see why, looking at 'Ceil', such a claim might be made. Brodkey doesn't have a story to tell but a history to excavate, one where he cannot be anything but a very limited and speculative narrator; after all, he was two when his mother died. This means relying on the vaguest of emotional memories and the observations and prejudices of those who knew her. If it is generally assumed that memories start around 2.5 years, then Ceil's death didn't only rob the narrator of his mother, but the memory of her as well. If Proust could access for his vast work memories of his mother who at the beginning of the first volume doesn't come up and kiss him goodnight because of the guest downstairs, Brodkey has no memories to access and so the difficulty starts with a void. "I have to imagine Ceil I did not know her. I did not know my mother. I cannot imagine Ceil. She is the initial word. Everything in me having to do with knowing refers to her." Some might see needless obscurantism, a meaninglessness that has little to do with the void and a lot to do with writing that is unclear. The narrator has to imagine her but cannot imagine her. Is this a paradox or a plain contradiction? She is the initial word, he says, but would that be likely, would Mummy be the initial word, and yet a word he wouldn't be able to remember since she would be dead before he would have access to such a memory in his young state? Or was this a word he would hear after her death as he became capable of remembering and would hear others speak of her?

Here we have a paradox that could merely be a contradiction; the ineffable that could just be the needlessly opaque. Later, the narrator says, "Ceil, almost nervously, always overrated rebellion and discipline loyalty to the absent king, complete law abidingness as rebellion, the claim of following the true law, the truer one." From being unable to imagine his mother he is now speculating on the specifics of her psychology, and in ways that entertain the intricacies of her personality. But the reader might believe that if he can imagine such complexities, can he not also imagine scenarios in which they can be played out? Instead, Brodkey adds more speculation and paradox. "In Illinois, where money was comparatively plentiful, she would despise money, which she liked, but despising it was a further mode of bandit independence and religious soaring freedom." We might have preferred that the writer gave a context to her almost nervous need for rebellion, and explain why at the same time it could seem, as the narrator says, overrated. An anecdote, an incident that would give credence to the claim. If a writer can conjure up in his imagination the speculative, the writer too can conjure up reasons for such assumptions. Another writer might say after telling us that rebellion was overrated that she found herself in Illinois a little lost and confused. Instead, Brodkey keeps adding fragments to the fragmented, insists on offering snippets of information that are in danger of neither pulling the reader forward nor of illuminating us about the mother's character. When the narrator goes on to say that in Illinois she was confused by the "actual politics of the county and the state, the bribes and the use of force and the criminal nature of much that goes on", this suggests being embroiled in the underworld that the story doesn't quite inform us over. It would be more or less the prohibition years, with Chicago a rising underworld culture. But if this helps explain why Ceil overrates rebellion, and where money was comparatively plentiful and that she liked it yet despised it, this is a reading that offers very few markers indeed.

Instead, the story goes into a past that proceeds Ceil rather than explains her. We get a lot about the narrator's grandfather, who was killed a decade after Ceil died, which we can guess would be around 1942, and would make the father far from young. If Ceil was born around 1896 (she was nineteen in 1913), and Ceil was the youngest of "fifteen, twenty, twenty-five children", then that would mean he would have been born around forty years earlier than Ceil, in around 1856. That would make him in his mid-eighties, which fits with the narrator's claim, but would such a man be able to sustain eighteen shots and heal, albeit miraculously? The narrator admits that much of this is probably fabrication but "some part of this is true, is verifiable."

In such remarks the reader might wish for one of two things; that Brodkey imaginatively convinces us why the unbelievable might be credulous or gives us the facts that indicate the story has validity. With neither, we are lost in the narrator's hesitations, while we have seen that an important aspect of modern literature is creating difficulties that were absent before, these difficulties must come from a principle that justifies the effort. Whether one likes Mrs Dalloway, Ulysses or The Sound and the Fury, one reason they have achieved posterity (albeit an ever-changing notion) rests on the problem they address being equal to the demanding form they adopt. If Ulysses is so hard to read it is partly because of the use of polyphony and the heteroglossic. It only covers eighteen hours in a Dublin day, but it puts more life into the novel than previously had been possible if we think of these two terms from the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. The polyphanic offers numerous distinct and independent voices in the one work, while heteroglossia covers the different registers that people can speak in. Ulysses gave the novel a new richness that could go off in very different directions, and it would influence books like Trainspotting and 2666, securing Joyce the posterity that Brodkey has failed to achieve. Brodkey may have indeed mined his own life but it appears that when he took it back up to the surface was it too close to base metal? Not all that glistens is necessarily gold, even if, while he was alive, plenty believed he was an important figure in contemporary letters. Perhaps in time, he will be seem so again, but Ceil seems to be a story that floats on the assumptions of modern fiction without itself adding much to its newfound possibilities.


© Tony McKibbin