Harold Brodkey

Harold Brodkey, New Yorker Hcoale, via Wikimedia Commons

Few literary reputations have fallen as precipitously as that of Harold Brodkey.
From the time his first stories appeared in The New Yorker to the publication of his acclaimed collection First Love and Other Sorrows (1958), Brodkey was considered a writer of outstanding promise. When word got out that Brodkey was working on a massive novel, portions of which appeared over the years in several magazines and journals, it was proclaimed by some as a work of genius and Brodkey as important a writer as Proust. As years went by, with his only other publication being Stories in an Almost Classical Mode (1988) and various essays and occasional pieces appearing in such places as diverse as Esquire and Anteaus, critical opinion turned. Brodkey was now more often accused of being a fraud, his much-delayed novel a hoax and his literary skills negligible. Opprobrium was directed at Brodkey’s person, at the advances given to him from publishing houses to which his novel was shopped around and at those who once championed his work. Stories that once were said to be masterpieces, such as “Innocence” and “His Son, in His Arms, in Light, Aloft,” were dismissed with such venom that one suspected the critic making the negative comment had been personally insulted by Brodkey at some private event.
When his novel finally appeared in 1991, having undergone a title change from Party of Animals to The Runaway Soul, as well as going through extensive revisions and stylistic changes from the portions that had appeared earlier, critics and readers responded negatively. Few serious novels, in my memory, have been savaged in the way The Runaway Soul was or how its author was publicly pilloried, with some reviewers leaving the distinct impression that Brodkey had committed some grave moral offense that could not be forgiven.
While he continued to publish after the failure of The Runaway Soul, producing another novel and more short stories, along with a book about Venice and a memoir of his battle with AIDS, by the time of his death in 1996 Brodkey’s literary reputation was in tatters. Now approaching twenty years since his passing, Brodkey’s works are out of print and his name has fallen out literary conversation. There are no planned symposiums on his work or person, or a even biography in the works, that would suggest a revival of interest in his work.


It is not hard to see why The Runaway Soul did not succeed. Brodkey’s novel is demanding in ways so few novels today are. There are few incidents across its sprawling text and its focus, instead, is on the obsessive and microscopic chronicling of the sensations and shifting consciousness of Wiley Silenowicz, a stand-in for Brodkey, and his coming of age in the American Midwest; and on Wiley’s love, sometimes sexual and erotic, with the various people in his life. The novel is marked by two erotic and explicit episodes that take up a great part of the book’s explorations of Wiley’s consciousness.
Where most novelists will reveal a character’s inner consciousness as it develops over time and in chronologically laid-out incidents, Brodkey has time move at the pace of consciousness. Time becomes pliable, slowing down and speeding up in Brodkey’s focus on closely examining those handful of incidents in Wiley’s life. What fascinates Brodkey is how such incidents can never yield a single final truth, that each remembrance will offer up a new sensation, an additional fact and emotional register. It is the plenitude, excess and complexity of experience within those snapshots of time that most fascinates Brodkey. Think of it as a radical form of phenomenological realism where traditional realism, as developed in the 19th century novel, is unable to go. Brodkey’s realism also requires a new kind of writing , one that can capture the subtle changes happening to Wiley’s consciousness. What Brodkey develops is a writing that captures the different emotional and intellectual registers of consciousness, but one that is not in anyway linear or continuous. It is a style marked by excess, capriciousness and expansiveness. It is a headlong rush that can change on a dime, moving from the portentous to the subtle, from the mundane to the profound. Language is stretched to the point of breaking in the rush to capture every nuance, even if at times, Brodkey has Wiley struggling to find the right words and expression for what is happening, and sometimes failing and flailing in the process. Here is Wiley describing Ora and he in the prelude to having sex:

The way we were doing it ̶ the ironic thing and the physical effort and the showiness and the sincerity ̶ from time to time ̶ and that stuff being shown (rather than the physical mattering most) ̶ well, in body-surfing, you land on the beach and you’re okay and you think back over your recent ride so you can have it in near-consciousness, so to speak (but the memory is all rushed and a lot of what happened is hidden from you inside the sense of wondering pleasure), you have bits of a conscious large-scale stuff, and then being young and bare-fleshed and borne along by the melting green locomotive. Something unhallucinatory, something graspable, the shine of faint sweat on Ora’s face, the faint fakeries of the posture in the first place ̶ I’m not comfortably a showy fucker. I’m hammy. Ora said, Oh you beautiful man . . . But, see, it was proof of a kind of wrongness ̶ which was okay ̶ it went with the thing of sex being softly and oozingly mechanical and breath-driven, and unmechanical, and fitting and suitable, and loving and stupid ̶ and not stupid ̶ and grand really only, sublime, a little ̶ as when you were small and were on a swing and went too high and suddenly the sky was there and light and infinite air and a separation from the world which was infinite, infinite ̶ for a second. That was here judgement ̶ her view. I am guessing at it. It’s the body parts and then the motions of them. And the minds. Glittery, amazed, semi-opaque ̶ like eyes. Two wills, changeable, and then the applause, thunk, thunk, of abdomens. And the permissions, I suppose. The glimmering lights of birth are echoed here, are repeated in a kind of semi-inverted animal talk.

In ‘Grammar and American Reality,’ Brodkey argues that there is no agreed upon and no ‘polite,’ American English. “We have no real over-tongue, no equivalent to hochdeutch or serious standard-British English or Tuscan.” Instead, American English and grammar is marked by a “crudity of spirit (in the sense of not anciently derived spirit) and aesthetic hubris (in the same sense), mark any intelligent us of English . . . We unconsciously admit that a proper use of English is, ipso facto, an eccentric use; and, so, we overpraise proper or seemingly proper writers who write a rather poor but pretentiously schooled English.” And later, in “Language is Articulated Consciousness.’ Brodkey writes, “Let me being with the notion that language is articulated consciousness. Articulated how? Articulated for the purpose of comprehension in real time among the physical laws of breath and hearing or eyes and comprehension.” While neither of these two essays can be called aesthetic manifestos, they do reveal a lot of Brodkey’s own principles behind his writing, especially the shift away from the kind of proper-English, middle-class American realism that so excited reviewers when his early stories appeared in The New Yorker, to the examination of interiority and the stylistic complexity and daring that came about with that shift in focus, and which offended so many.
For those interested in exploration of the personal, of daring and complex writing, there is much to be learned from Brodkey’s work. The question is, will there come a time when Brodkey’s work and The Runaway Soul will be given their due? It is impossible to tell. Literary reputation is difficult to predict and the standing of a writer can be impacted less by the quality and aesthetic daring of a work and more by changes in literary taste and what engages critics at the moment. Literary modernism and experimentalism has been replaced by nostalgia for the 19th century novel and traditional psychological realism in the mode of Tolstoy and Dickens, and works written in the style of the middlebrow fiction popular in the 1950s. Look at the number of novels and short stories being published now to great acclaim that can sit easily amongst the same readers that made Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place a best seller in 1956.
Sometimes what keeps a writer being read is the passionate devotion of a group of dedicated readers and critics who can champion that writer’s work. Brodkey now waits for those readers.

Mailer’s Egyptian Vision

Norman Mailer, 1948 By Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings is a novel that grows in stature as time passes.
On first publication, Ancient Evenings was ridiculed in the popular press. After a decade of work on its near 700 pages, Mailer’s novel seemed both an anomaly and an outrage. That so much effort should be given to a novel that literalised Egyptian mythology and W.B. Yeats’s theosophical interpretations of that same mythology; tying that mythology to Mailer’s own ruminations about death as an existential beginning, the psychic substance of semen, feces and buggery; and finding equivalences between the ancient forces of the Egyptian psyche and contemporary America, was too much. Even today, Mailer’s novel still polarizes, though it has its fierce supportive partisans, of which I am one.
If that wasn’t enough, reviewers who were able to hold their noses in the presence of Mailer’s dialectics of sex and death, the cavalcade of buggery, rape, incest and excrement, were more offended that all this is worked out in a novel that barely has a traditional plot. To summarize briefly: Meni, whom Menenhete relates his narrative through, is dead. He awakens and struggles to gain self-awareness moving uneasily and unreadily through the Land of the Dead. Making the journey difficult is that his ka, one of the nine components of the self, must find a way to reunite with the body. Things only gets worse. Meni discovers that the tomb has been broken into and desecrated. Soon Meni meets his great-grandfather Menenhete, where after having Menenhete’s penis inserted into his mouth, Menenhete begins to recount his exploits, from an ambitious solider to a general fighting against the Hittites with Ramses Usermare II. Things go badly for him soon after as Ramses demotes him after raping him. After he is born again, he becomes a High Priest of Amon. In his second and third lives, he never attains the glory or position he had in his first life. While he does achieve in his fourth life some semblance of his earlier glory and power, Menenhete becomes depressed that he could not bring about the removal of the Pharaoh. He once more succumbs to despair and loneliness. Meni remarks that his great-grandfather never found what he most desired and Mailer’s novel suggest that Menenhete’s psychic burden is what prevents him from having a final death. Meni, it seems, now must take on that enormous burden.


Harold Bloom warned in his passionate and supportive review of the novel that “if you read Ancient Evenings for the story, you will hang yourself. There is a lot less story than any summary would indicate, because this is a book in which every conceivable outrage happens, and yet nothing happens, because at the end everything remains exactly the same.”
Ancient Evenings demands to be read several times to see how Mailer carefully constructs the novel and how his use of Yeats’s theosophical works and Egyptian mythology illuminate the contemporary American psychic landscape. It is not possible to detail all of what Mailer does, but it is sufficient to draw attention to two key elements of Mailer’s novel. Mailer draws from Yeats the insight that the self is never stable, that minds flow into one another and become a single mind. When Ra in The Book of the Dead states “I poured seed into my mouth, I sent for issue,” Mailer takes that statement literally. Meni must take Menenhete’s member into his mouth, his seed, in order for Menenhete’s and Meni’s memories to issue forth. Another element Mailer takes from Yeats is the image of the spiral, that great gyre of energy and endless return and circling. Mailer’s novel turns on itself. Memory, the self and time spiral and merge as Meni and Menenhete come together and become indistinguishable at times. History is dynamic, never linear. It repeats both in the world of the living and in the dead through the great cycles of rebirth and regeneration, both bloody and terrifying. The image of the Nile and its flooding is tied by Mailer to excrement and the place it has in life and regeneration — and of violation.
There are deep primal forces, tied to the deepest recesses of the psyche, that drive these characters to assert themselves, to dominate their world and other people around them. Menenhete both loves and hates the Pharaoh, who both gives him his glory and then casts him down. This dynamic becomes sadomasochistic. Ramses sodomizes Menenhete. Menenhete later rebels by sleeping with the Pharaohs’ mistress. Menenhete watches the Pharaoh’s sometimes violent sexual exploits and later acts out the scenes he has witnessed with available mistresses.
Still, Menenhete is always in a subordinate position, a feminine position. Mailer explores this dynamic in greater detail in the last two books where critics find the sadomasochistic elements overwhelming. For Mailer, the assertion of masculinity, the striving for dominance on the personal level or on the world stage through Imperial and political domination, involves male domination of other males. This is experienced though male-on-male rape. Mailer had been exploring aspects of this dynamic for some time, from the Kennedy presidential campaign he chronicled and later collected in The Presidential Papers, on blood sports as boxing and in such stories as “The Time of Her Time” that first appeared in Advertisements for Myself.
This is what most critics find find difficult to accept and produced the most resistance when the novel was first published. There are other depths to the novel left untouched here, but I will say that Mailer’s Ancient Evenings will come to take a central and important place not just in Mailer’s canon, but in American literature. Like Melville’s Pierre and Israel Potter and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, its mythic constructs and characters throws a light on the “crude thoughts and fierce forces” that animate America’s psychic and political landscape even to this day.

What Role The Critic

Books on a Shelf

No one has anything good to say about critics. They are a despised lot, of a lower order to that occupied by the artist. Brendan Behan called critics “eunuchs in a harem.” Kenneth Tynan said of critics, including himself, that they were persons who know the way around, but cannot drive a car. Nabokov’s disdain of critics was only matched by the contempt he had for editors, whom he described as “pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to ‘make suggestions’ which I countered with a thunderous ‘stet!'”

Even the greatest of critics are more commented upon than read. How many today read Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare or his Lives of the English Poets? Or for that matter how many know of Sainte-Beuve’s What Is a Classic? or Coleridge’s writings on Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher? Or Hazlitt’s Lectures on English Poets? All are confined to the connoisseur or literary specialist. It is no better for more recent critics. How many people know of the work of Viktor Shklovsky whose Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar and his essays in Theory of Prose should be on any serious literature student’s desk, next to Auerbach’s Mimesis and Lukács’ Theory of the Novel and The Historical Novel.

One reason why critics are so poorly thought of is that proper criticism has been much diminished. Take a look once more at the small list of names I mentioned. These critics situate their subjects and ideas within larger arguments of history, philosophy and previous and current commentary. They examine how artists work and explicate upon the various strands of thought, criticism, ideas and politics at play in their works. At the same time, these critics show why certain artists are worthy of such sustained attention. They exemplify Hilton Kramer’s argument for connoisseurship, “the close, comparative study of art objects with a view to determining  their relative levels of aesthetic quality.” Criticism today is reduced to statements of preference rather than discrimination, placing all works on the same aesthetic level. Joyce is in no way superior to Henry Miller, Pound to Maya Angelou. This is criticism reduced to Amazon’s starred reviews and comments.

When criticism works, it brings forward not only the aesthetic aspects of the work under study, but the mechanism by which that work makes its aesthetic claims and thereby allow a reader to see why its is aesthetically superior to other works.

William H Gass By David Shankbone (Own work) CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

William H Gass is one of America’s finest novelist and critics. In many respects his novels and stories and his criticism form a continuous dialogue, building on and developing Gass’ evolving and deepening philosophical and aesthetic insights and arguments. From his earliest essays collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life, Gass staked his esthetic mission on an argument that is difficult to refute, although many have tried, from his late and close friend and novelist John Gardner to most recently James Woods: “Novelist and philosopher are both obsessed with language, and make themselves out of concepts.” (Philosophy and the Form of Fiction, pg. 4) Shortly thereafter, “The esthetic aim of any fiction is the creation of a verbal world, or a significant part of such a world, alive through every order of its Being. Its author may not purpose this — authors propose many things — but the construction of some sort of object, whether too disorderly to be a world or too mechanical to be alive, cannot be avoided.” (pg 7)

The art of fiction is, at it core, an assemblage of words, shaped by the artist who places them onto a page under mechanisms chosen by them in order to shape those words into a fiction. This can be the either be Joyce’s loose modeling of Bloom’s and Stephen’s wanderings about Dublin on Homer’s Odyssey and the creation of their interiors through various linguistics literary pastiches or to the pared-down prose of Beckett that seeks the clarity and weight of Heraclitus. The landscapes and destinies of characters, the worlds created are “indistinct from words and all their orderings.” (pg. 8) Even the realism so prized by James Woods in How Fiction Works is a mechanism, one of many that can be chosen, by which words are ordered by an author. And what is realism? It should not be forgotten that Joyce was attacked for writing about Bloom’s satisfying bowel movement and the wiping of his arse with bits of his morning newspaper. Joyce’s realism was a step too far, even among readers and critics of the time who read Zola.

Gass’ criticism pays special attention to how writers use words, to how words are ordered and what mechanisms shape that order. Gass is a master in teasing out how writers shape words and sentences to achieve the desired ends. Gass is one of America’s the great masters of the sentence. Take a look at his discussion of Gertrude Stein’s style in “Gertrude Stein: Her Escape From Protective Language.” Written as a review of “Gertrude Stein: A Biography of Her Works” by B.L. Reid, Gass does not so much review Reid’s book, but examines how Stein’s prose work and how Reid fails to comprehend what Stein is up to. Reid disparages Stein because she embodies principles that upset his notions of art. Gass points out that Stein has had that affect on critics from the beginning; and that is the very point of what Stein is trying to do with her prose. She wishes to challenge in the most direct way possible our notions of art and style, of or received opinions, and she will sculpt language to do so. Sculpt is the right word as I believe that Stein works with language as sculptor works with stone: “It requires us to consider again the esthetic significance of style; to examine again the ontological status of the artist’s vision, his medium, and his effect.” (pg. 87) The language of her early story Things As They Are seems to mock the title, for as Gass points out it is on the first flush or reading, pompous and vague, filled with circumlocutions and pedantic rhetoric.

One’s reaction is to give up and claim Stein a fraud. Many still do. But it is only on closer reading and looking at what Stein is trying to do with this language, especially as developed it in her later works, does one understand her strategies. She is challenging that common aspect of English writing toward what Gass calls protective language, where words — common words, phrases, social speech, simple nouns etc. — are used not as a way to confront the world, but to “gain by artifice a safety from the world — to find a way of thinking without the risks f feeling — is the source of the impulse to abstractness and simplicity in Gertrude Stein as it is in much of modern painting, where she felt immediately the similarity of aim.” (pg. 89) Protective speech is not about finding meanings, but cutting them off and limiting words to mere naming. A writer will say “John loves Mary.” It is a simple, declarative sentence. Only while the writer tells us that the character John, who may be young or old, a stock broker or a construction worker, loves Mary, possibly a teacher or a lunch counter waitress, the writer will never show them loving. Stein wants to show. Gass demonstrates how Stein’s language works to do exactly that: to show rather than to name. If we fail grasp that we fail to see how she works with words; for how Stein works with words, how she arranges them on the page, will show us how she accomplishes her goals. She will challenge how language should operate, how words should be used in order to break out of this protective language. If we fail to see how the writer does what they do, that we come instead with preset notions of what literature should do and how words should be used, then a writer like Stein will always stand as an effrontery. Take this passage from Stein’s The Making of Americans:

Disillusionment in living is finding that no one can really ever be agreeing with you completely in anything. Disillusionment then in living that gives to very many then melancholy feeling, some despairing feeling, some resignation, some fairly cheerful beginning and some a forgetting and continuing and some a dreary trickling weeping some violent attacking and some letting themselves do anything, disillusion then is really finding, really realising, really being certain that no one really can completely agree with you in anything, that, as is very certain, not, those fighting beside you or living completely with you or anybody, really, can really be believing anything completely that you are believing. Really realising this thing, completely realising this thing is the disillusionment in living in the beginning of being an old man or an old woman is being no longer a young one no longer a young man or an young woman no longer a growing older young man or growing older young woman.

Stein loves words, their sound and even their look upon the page. Protective language and criticism banishes this simple fact. Gass in his fictions as with Stein revels in words, in their vitality on the page and in ones mouth when spoken. Gass and Stein should be read out loud, the mouth savouring as one will a fine wine or as once chews a piece of meat. Gass’ criticism forces one to look anew at words and how artists work with words. We may say that characters come alive when we read them. Gass reminds us how the artists is there behind them.

Guy Davenport

Guy Davenport At Poetry Collections (http://collectionofaphorismsandpoetry.blogspot.ca/2015/05/guy-davenport.html)

Guy Davenport is another critic and writer where the dialogue between his fictions and his criticism is constant. Many of his essays and stories should be ready side-by-side to see the sinews between them. Like Gass, Davenport is one of the masters of the sentence. Davenport’s are instantly recognizable. No one writes like him or brings the full weight of learning, lightly worn but ever present, to the sentence.

Davenport said of his stories and novels that they resemble not so much traditional fictive forms but “assemblages.” His is a collage of styles and techniques, calling attention to how the object in question, in this case his fiction, is assembled. It is closer to the Pound’s argument that master artists are those who combine a number of processes together and into a new whole. Davenport’s assemblages, whose closest parallel are Joseph Cornell’s boxes, calls attention to how he creates and assembles his work; at the same time, because of how he assembles the various object trouvés  that make up his works, he forces new ways of reading as well.

One sees the same in his essays, collected in The Geography of the Imagination, Every Force Evolves and Form and The Hunter Gracchus. His essays and commentaries force one to look anew and more closely at how the works of certain artists are put together and how they forge new strategies of reading.

“When a density of learning began to appear in English literature, there came with it the understanding that the author would teach us what we needed to know as we read along,” Davenport write in “The Critic as Artist (Every Force Evolves a Form, pg 99-100) By the time we reach the modernist movement in literature, with Pound, Carlos Williams, Zukofsky, Olson and Joyce and Beckett, the artist is asking for more careful and attentive reading than what many are often willing to give. Most don’t and complain bitterly at the work required. “Everywhere we look in modernist writing, we can see the writer trying to get us to pay attention, to wake us from some sleep into which literacy itself has lulled us.” (102)

Take the opening from Louis Zukofsky’s immense poem “A”:

A round of fiddles playing Bach

Davenport makes us pause over this simple opening. It only reveals its complexity once we begin to understand what Zukofsky is doing throughout his monumental poem, one of the great 20th century works that almost never makes it onto university syllabuses of modern poetry, much as Olson’s Maximus Poems and Carlos Williams’ Paterson, and for good measure Pound’s The Cantos are left off. Davenport tells us that to understand what Zukofsky is doing, we need a new way of reading. We must read the line as: A round of fiddles playing a work of Bach’s, with an appreciation that “playing the fiddle is work for musicians . . . These musicians playing Bach are working at Carnegie Hall in 1929 (both Passover and Good Friday that year), and they are working because union fiddlers are on strike and would not play. Work, said Karl Marx, the tutelary spirit of this part of the poem (before Thomas Jefferson take over later), should be as engrossing as play (an idea from Fourier, an evocation of whom will close the 23rd part of the poem).” (102) The task of the critic, according to Davenport, is to show how to read Zukofsky’s  poem, the techniques used by Zukofsky to explicate his themes and his images.

Each work of art brings with it its own set of rules for reading. How one reads Proust’s double images and symbolism is of a different sort than how one reads Ulysses, which needs its own set of reading mechanisms. Davenport’s great contemporary Hugh Kenner realized that the 20th century’s literature was an complete overturning of the aesthetic direction of the 19th century. We need new ways of reading Beckett, Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Olson and Zukofsky. We cannot bring how we read Dickens, Thackeray or Austin to these writers.

This is from Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr:

He slouched and ambled along, neglecting his muscles: and his full-blooded blackguard’s countenance attempted to portray delicacies of common sense and gossamer-like backslidings into the inane that would have puzzled any analyst unacquainted with his peculiar training. Occasionally he would exploit his criminal appearance and blacksmith’s muscles for a short time; however: and his strong piercing laugh through ABC waitresses into confusion. The art-touch, the Bloomsbury technique, was very noticeable.   

One cannot approach this without knowing something of Lewis’s quarrels with Chelsea and Bloomsbury artists, of his Vorticism and his relationship other European avant-gardes and Marinetti’s Futurism, along with his Lewis’ own critical works such as his immense Time and Western Man. Without those, Lewis’ prose will flummox most readers.  Lewis demands a new kind of reading. The same for Olson’s “The Kingfishers”:

I thought of the E on the stone, and of what Mao said
la lumiere”
                    but the kingfisher
de l’aurore”
                    but the kingfisher flew west
est devant nous!
                    he got the color of his breast
                    from the heat of the setting sun!


Davenport’s essay on Charles Olson in The Geography of the Imagination shows what kind of new reading is needed for Olson’s poem: “It cannot be avoided that we as readers are asked to become Leskenoi along with the poet, to leave the polychorme images and finely modulated rhythms of the poem, learn some things, and then return as a worth participant.” (Olson, pg 89) The critic makes the reader a participant in reading.