The Precarity of Self
If Flaubert could famously say "I am Madame Bovary" (or more precisely, Madame Bovary, C'est moi), indicating that style is more important than narrative, that a book about nothing could be elevated by the author's brilliance, then we can see that Harold Brodkey modifies the claim further by suggesting "I am Harold Brodkey." While Flaubert thought there was a thin line between the ostensibly huge chasm of Bovary and himself, Brodkey would continuously write stories about a man so much like Brodkey that Flaubert's provocative claim became a tautological one. Looking back on Flaubert's novel it hardly seems a book about nothing, no matter if he wished to produce exactly that: a perfect novel would be of narrative irrelevance yet held together by its style. Madame Bovary, however, was never that novel: there is immense suspense in her husband trying to prove himself by fixing a boy's clubbed foot, in awaiting an assignation or in Emma's agonising death. But Brodkey's stories really can seem to be about nothing. And yet the source of the endlessly autobiographical would seem to rest on the psychoanalytically pertinent as opposed to the narratively focused. Adopted at the age of two after his mother's death, Brodkey was brought up by an uncle and aunt who themselves died while Brodkey was still in his teens. If in another well-known writerly claim, Flannery O'Connor's remark that "anyone who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days." (Mystery and Manners) Brodkey took this more literally than most, and why shouldn't he with such a devastating series of losses that turned him into a grown-up long before he had the rights of an adult?
In 'A Story in an Almost Classical Mode', which details his aunt's demise from cancer, the narrator says, "at Harvard [while she was still alive], I began to forget her. But at times I felt arrogant because of what she and I had done; I'd managed to do more than many of my professors could. I'd done more than many of them would try' I knew more than they did about some things." By the end of the story, he's succumbed to a nervous breakdown, one which as nothing to do with the pressures of Harvard, it would seem, but the nature of loss. It is the sort of collapse we might expect from a man who has lost his wife but is instead that of a boy who has witnessed death too often and too young, a domestic devastation that looks like a battlefield.
Yet if most of Brodkey's work focuses on the trauma those early years delivered, near the end of his life Brodkey became still more autobiographical, mining his own impending death as he had earlier found literature in the death of others. Discovering he was dying of AIDS, the generally heterosexual and twice married Brodkey, who also had intermittent homosexual encounters, wished to expose his illness to others, to make clear there was nothing to be ashamed of even if shame was still very much attached to the disease when he died in 1996. "I'd rather be open about AIDS and scoff at public humiliation than feel the real humiliation of lying. I'd rather try to make this a death as much like any other as I can." ('Impact(s) of Truths: The Confessional Mode in Harold Brodkey's Illness Autobiography')
Yet whether detailing his childhood, the death of those closest to him in his early years, or his own imminent demise, Brodkey seemed consistently interested in a literature of exposure, which isn't quite the same thing as the autobiographical, nor what has come to be known as auto-fiction. When asked whether he was inclined to put his life down on the page he insisted "I don't use memory...I make constructions," adding "I started to write in college when I was sixteen. I began to take writing classes. But I had no interest in memory stories. I didn't write any." (Paris Review) But while we might assume Brodkey's resistance to the claim he was writing from memory rests chiefly on the idea that to admit to doing so would be undermining the craft, he offers it even more pertinently in the context of the problem of memory for him. "Ordinary memory is dangerous to me...when I was eight years old and I had a very bad reaction to the anaesthesia - I went into convulsions...I have the sense if I push too hard into memory I'll come apart - not only a loony bin sort of thing, but a real shattering. Self-loss." (Paris Review) Brodkey offers here a complicated relationship with memory and self, with the anaesthetic serving halfway between a hallucination and a fit, all the while seeing memory as an activated space which doesn't know its own limits. If in auto-fiction the question of limits is often viewed as socially transgressive (as we find in examples like The Diary of Catherine M, which reveals the sexual adventures of art critic Catherine Millet, or Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle tomes which were seen to traduce many of the people present in the books and none more so than Knausgaard's till living uncle) Brodkey very interestingly proposes that the first problem of remembering, let alone, writing and then publishing, lies in the self-shattering that constantly threatens.
Thus the term construction. Brodkey doesn't seem to view such a term as an issue purely of craft, but of a complicated creativity that finds a form by which to produce the work and protect the self. As he puts it: "Because of the peculiar circumstances of my life I had to find a way to get along with my conscious mind, or I really couldn't exist, and one way to do that was to start thinking about my life as a story, or something to be interpreted or examined."(Paris Review) Brodkey suggests he wasn't writing to become a successful writer (he talks a lot in the interview about resisting the possibilities and pressures of fame) but to become a coherent being. He wouldn't have wished to sacrifice himself to his art in the modernist tradition that was of course exemplified by Proust but was instigated by Flaubert and the terrible time the latter had composing perfect sentences. Brodkey may have taken twenty-five years to write a book (The Runaway Soul), described by Jeff Staiger as "a magnum opus decades in the making, promised and touted and doubted, along the way until its non-publication itself became the subject of no little publicity" (Kenyon Review), and Brodkey talks at length about the complications involved in putting together a piece of prose the writer can believe in, yet what matters more is the constant risk of failing to live rather failing to write. When Brodkey says "There were maybe four or five years of the double life of being a writer and still being a person. Then by, say, 1957, before First Love came out, I was really fed up. Between the two I really thought I'd rather be a person than a writer. Starting in 1959 I began the slow retreat into reclusiveness. Except, remember, I was publishing all that time. I didn't vanishI was around . . ." (Paris Review). The process of trying to be a writer in an attempt to be a coherent person nevertheless contains within it the danger of the collapse of the person in the very process of becoming a writer.
Let us move away from the anecdotal and enter into the speculative, before attending to the fiction itself. Maurice Blanchot suggests, "the disaster...is what escapes the very possibility of experience it is the limit of writing. This must be repeated: the disaster de-scribes." Blanchot strongly influenced Derrida, Foucault and Barthes and it might be Blanchot Brodkey is indirectly referring to when he invokes Barthes. "As you begin to change, there's a horrible transformation from being a person to being a writer. Roland Barthes said that he regretted being a writer because then he knew he would never speak the language of his contemporaries. There is a movement away from ordinary life, from statistically normal life." (Paris Review) This would seem to be Barthes under the influence of Blanchot, seeing that there is a literary space which is quite different from the space of living: that where literature is, life isn't'; where life is, literature isn't. It resembles a binary code of existence that indicates writing happens not only to be difficult in common parlance but in a peculiar way is the death of us. As Blanchot says: "to write is to enter into the affirmation of the solitude in which fascination threatens. It is to surrender to the risk of time's absence, where eternal starting reigns. It is is to pass from the first person to the third person, so that what happens to me happens to no one..." ('The Essential Solitude') Putting down words on a page creates a certain type of absence in the words' presence. Brodkey talks in Paris Review as though with a fear of such a death, but he also talks as one who doesn't want to confuse life and literature. To write down his memories wouldn't be to produce literature but to recall memory to put onto the page the self that cannot exist there without falsifying one or the other. How this fits with his final work about dying of AIDS, with its late confession concerning his uncle sexually abusing him when he was in his early teens, and which, Brodkey suggested, led to the sexual liaisons with a man whose past was similar to his own, would be for another piece. Indeed Einat Avrahami's 'Impact(s) of Truth' addresses some of these questions. Perhaps they can be seen as a deviation on, or an extension of, Brodkey's interest in the autobiographical without necessarily falling into memory. But taking into account Brodkey's Barthes reference, and Blanchot's influence on Barthes, literature isn't so much an account of life but a 'de-scribing' of it, a way of living within writing but with an awareness that the stories Brodkey creates don't quite match life but also don't quite pass for the drama of fiction.
Returning to 'A Story in an Almost Classical Mode', what seems to be a general account of his life, as Brodkey lives with his aunt Doris and uncle Joe, and focusing mainly on his aunt's dying life after his uncle has passed away, is also the story of a narrator who goes through a rite of passage as another's death rite. In the early stages of the story, the first-person narrator tells her just how difficult his aunt happens to be, someone who reveals in turn how selfish the narrator happens to be too as she rails against him, determined to reduce the narrator to a state of self-disgust she herself feels. Telling his aunt he will go away to school soon enough, to study at university, and thus no longer be a burden, she says: "all right leave me too you're just like all the rest. You don't love anyone, you never loved anyone. You didn't even mourn your real mother died, you don't ever think about her. I'll tell you what you are: you're filth. Go. Get out of here." It is the sort of attack on another that can't help but leave the attacker in a state of dreadful complicity with the accused. To insist someone has been acting badly is one thing, to act badly in telling someone they are acting badly is another. If the story possesses an arc it rests on turning this complicit self-disgust into self-renunciation. Though the narrator tells us that Doris doesn't seem capable of change, change she does. Earlier he says "she had an odd trait of never blaming herself, and nothing anyone ever said about her affected her in a way that led her to change." But interestingly, it is what she herself says that seems to generate transformation the accumulated abuse she heaps on others finally leaves her so unhappy with herself she needs to see others in a new light so that she can see her own way out the darkness. "She put together a whole new set of friends. Those friends loved her actually, they looked up to her, they admired her." His aunt might still show signs of delusion, insisting that her old friends were sticking by her when they weren't. The narrator makes clear these were new people: they were young folk who liked her. In turn, she now seemed capable of liking herself, and also liking her nephew. She now insists he must go to Harvard instead of staying with her. While her sister and brother reckon he shouldn't leave Doris, that doing so would be a crime, for his aunt refusing to go would be a far greater dereliction of duty as she locks herself in her bedroom and refuses to eat until he agrees to go off to college. Instead of the wish to leave on his part meeting the intransigence of a selfish woman who determines he should stay and look after her, it is the other way round as a value is produced and the story gains its arc. Brodkey may end the story by saying "make what use of this you like" but this is a throw away line in a story indicating clearly that it fits into a tradition of moral sentiment a story showing a woman who finds her dignity in death and a young man who comes to maturity aware of the difficulties when faced with the choice between self-growth and attending to another' disintegration. The nervous breakdown that he acknowledges in the last paragraph of the story suggests what happens when someone is torn between those two places. One wouldn't wish to simplify Brodkey's story; more that we want to insist it very much happens to have an arc, that for all the narrator's insistence that we can make of it whatever we wish, a structure has been imposed upon it.
Yet to insist that Brodkey is interested in shaping his material in a classical style would be to take the title too literally and ignore the claims he makes for his work that are more interesting than formatted fiction, however sophisticated. Brodkey appears instead to be generating out of the fiction an excavation and a creation, balancing the need to recall with the will to create, all the while seeing in the tension between these two places the abyss that, if he were to fall into it, would result in self-shattering. Taking into account our remarks on Blanchot and Barthes, and the writerly self as a binary system of writer and writing, a self that exists in life and another on the page, with the former dying the moment the latter lives and vice versa, Brodkey indicates that the chasm between these two places is perhaps all the more pronounced when the work is apparently autobiographical. The creation can give way to recollection, but that would be to give the writing over to the already established self, and thus would fail to replenish creatively, instead solipsistically getting absorbed into a past self it constantly tries to find. To understand how Brodkey escapes this problem, while constantly threatening to fall into it, we can look briefly at three further stories, 'Innocence, 'Hofstedt and Jean - and Others', and 'Ceil'.
Like a few of Brodkey's stories (including 'The Quarrel' and 'Sentimental Education'), 'Innocence' focuses on a young man at Harvard; this time someone who starts seeing a girl so attractive that "to see her in sunlight was to see Marxism die...it was because seeing someone in actuality who had such a high immediate worth meant you had to decide whether such personal distinction had a right to exist or if she belonged to the state and ought to be shaded in, reduced in scale, made lesser, laughed at." We can see in the language this isn't so much recollection, however autobiographical the story might be, but linguistic and psychological creation. To write about the details of the past the clothes she wore, how she had her hair, the shoes on her feet, the cafes they frequented and the bar they went to would be to fall into, taking account the abyss, description. Instead what we see Brodkey often seeking out is formulation. Jeff Saiger makes much of this, saying "perhaps only a zest for formulation could motivate a writer to write such a sentence...Brodkey's style of phenomenological realism is so vivid and revelatory that he is able to generate suspense from the ever renewable illusion that the current formation is definitive." (The Kenyon Review) The sentence Saiger refers to comes from The Runaway Soul, but the sentence as formulation is to be found throughout his work, evident in the one above, and here are a couple from 'Innocence'. "What I did took nerve because it gave her a tremendous ultimate power to laugh at me, although what the courtship up until now had been for was to show that she was not my enemy, that she could control the hysteria of fear or jealousy in her or the cold judgement in her of me that would lead her to say or do things that would make me hate or fear her; what was at stake included the risk that I would look foolish in my own eyes and might then attack her for failing to come and then she would be unable to resist the inward conviction that I was a fool." "I didn't mind being feminized except for the feeling that Orra would not ever understand what I was doing but would ascribe it to the power of my or our sexuality." Both sentences concern the narrator's determination to give his girlfriend her first orgasm. She may have had plenty of partners in the past but none had satisfied her, and she just assumed such satisfaction was beyond the realm of her possible experience. The narrator thinks otherwise and will stop at nothing (the pain of the sinew at the base of his tongue, the tiredness of the muscles around his lips) to give her pleasure.
Philip Roth would have garnered great mirth out of such a scenario yet Brodkey instead offers formulations around the act, teasing out of the pleasure principle thoughts that allow for the phenomenological realism Saiger insists upon. Brodkey doesn't describe events even for comic effect; he formulates them as a means of holding people together. Is this what Saiger is getting at when he says the novel (generally) is existentialist: "Being always trumps any meaning that can be laid on top of it." But let's be more specific, assuming many a book doesn't have the problem of being at all, and say that what interests Brodkey is how to inform description with ontological significance - and thus seeks out formulations. In this sense, Brodsky is a post-Proustian but more psychoanalytically self-aware. If Proust was looking for the comprehension of time through Henri Bergson's notion of clock time versus duration, of time that we generally live by and act automatically within, and this other time that we find and requires qualitative rather than quantitive analysis to understand, Brodkey is (in this sense like Roth) post-Freudian: a writer well aware of a psychoanalytic tradition he is both writing in and fighting out of and finds the struggle in the skirmishes of the self. When he talks about the "Freudian thing about the Other who is an enemy" it is consistent with Saiger's belief that "without being in the least reductive, then, Brodkey's view of character is consistently informed by the presumption that the social scene is a field of barely hidden competition, which is waged not for money, property, or position (the novel's scope is in any case too narrow for such matters), but for the more fundamental, less tangible, prize, personal validity, what the novel calls rank." (The Kenyon Review)
The narrator's insistence on bringing his lover to orgasm in 'Innocence' is central to this, but it is also there in 'Hofstedt and Jean and the Others' and in a very different way present in 'Ceil'. In each instance, the formulation allows Brodkey to explore selfhood without assuming a set of values and expectations that support it. In 'Hofstedt...' the narrator tells us initially this is a story about what happened when a "forty -ive year old professor of English slipped into an affair with a twenty-year-old student" a girl he couldn't quite love. Determined to make it edifying, he also says "the narrative will be coloured like a map, according to the geography of my spirit, the prickliness of my temper, my perversity, which I am told I possess to an unbearable degree." Brodkey insists on the preliminaries but they also or more especially function as burgeoning formulations when he compares the affair with his young, student lover, Jeanie, with his friend's with his wife. He has known Inez fourteen years and knows too that his friend no longer finds her attractive. Or, at least it is what Inez says, and when she says that Ett doesn't find her so, the narrators tells her "I do." Is this a come-on or a lift up an attempt to boost another's confidence or threaten to boost one's own to the detriment of an important friendship with Ett? "The danger comes if we permit our eyes to meet. Then the joke falters." The story keeps hovering over the unethical that is foreshadowed in the initial claims of the unedifying. But perhaps what is especially unedifying are these egoistic skirmishes that shows everyone in competition with everyone else, with Brodkey refusing the broad strokes of humans against each other so expected in the arenas of ambition, war and business for smaller spoils. Brodkey, as Saiger notes, consequently sees such competitiveness everywhere. "...They seemed so cramped and pitiable, Inez and Ett, so petty and competitive, falling like hammers on my nerves and on each other's like parents fastening children to dead urgencies." If Brodkey's work doesn't seem to have much of a moral compass by conventional standards, it rests on possessing a compass of a different sort one that sees the micro-management of small feelings, and seeing how terrible people can be within an ostensibly broader decency. When he says of Ett that "he was tired of the dinginess of Ett's heart (actually he has quite a good heart as hearts go: he is loyal)..." the major value is in parenthesis while the minor values get amplified.
In 'Ceil', the narrator says he has to imagine his mother; he didn't know her. What he conjures up is a formidable figure, determined to make her way in America, someone from a family of Jewish Russians. "I was her child her infant, really and the most important thing in her life, she said, but never to the exclusion of her rising in the world or the operation of her will." These needn't quite be one and the same, but a notion of the American Dream might depend on the latter hooking itself up to the former: that loving a child is partly predicated on the idea that they can be part of one's own will in the world as they are expected to make a success of themselves too. Brodkey may have gone to Harvard at the tender age of sixteen, may have always been seen as a brilliant child with a great mind, but it is as though both the work and the life called into question the assumptions behind the brilliance necessarily leading to the great career. Clearly, Brodkey was no failure, but that depends on what success means. For years a staff writer at the New Yorker which guaranteed a fair income and a high degree of security, it nevertheless took Brodkey twenty-five years to produce a novel that was then widely attacked. He appeared always aware of the small aggressions over the possibility of great success, saying "publishing is a miserable procedure. Most of the reviewers are probably okay but a number of them aren't okay. I mean they don't write or think very well. And the politics, the politics of doing favors, and of being favored are hard to handlenot long ago I read an essay, I can't remember who wrote it, blaming Walter Benjamin for not being more of a politician. But the thing is, the importance of someone like Benjamin is not in his literary career, it's in his texts. It's probably not so bad a thing to publish. But I don't like it." (Paris Review) What interests Brodkey here isn't the success of making a name for himself but more making a self that had a name: to hold the centre against the onslaught of childhood catastrophes and the envy, competitiveness, rivalry and wounds administered in adulthood. As the narrator says in 'Hoftsedt and Jean and Others', "as everyone knows, an affair or a marriage [and perhaps by extension all human encounters] leaves bruises all over one's psyche and one's fantasies, and one wants to be left alone." It is this question of existing within the world while trying to exist within a self that Brodkey often explores, and perhaps seeing that the writing allows one to forego the worldly self and find another that needn't compete with others, nor, for that matter, live in the ego of one's own memories. It is a precarious place exploring the precarity of self, as though Brodkey were determined less to find a high place in society, than a safe place within the aesthetic.
© Tony McKibbin