‘I am going to make a scene when Momma comes home’

Adam Begley

  • Stories in an Almost Classical Mode by Harold Brodkey
    Knopf, 596 pp, $24.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 394 50699 5

Harold Brodkey, whose debut collection of stories, First Love and Other Sorrows, was greeted with well-deserved acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic when it appeared in1958, has produced a hefty new collection: Stories in an Almost Classical Mode. During the intervening thirty years his reputation, bolstered by occasional stories in the New Yorker and other glossy American magazines, has grown formidable. Such is the Brodkey mystique that his name, reverently intoned, conjures up an image of the Author at work on High Art. He has yet to publish a novel, but some of the new stories are novella-length – reportedly fragments from Party of Animals, his singularly famous unfinished, unpublished magnum opus. Besides offering a preview of coming attractions, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, which includes stories written over a twenty-five-year span, charts the evolution of Brodkey’s fiction. His unexceptional subject-matter (the difficult intimate relations of middle and upper-middle-class white Americans, many of them Jews) hasn’t changed at all: but his voice, and his whole approach to this material, has changed greatly.

In the stories from the Sixties, as in First Love and Other Sorrows, Brodkey marks off a comfortable distance between his readers and his fictional world – a distance maintained, in part, by irony. His characters struggle with emotions too powerful to control: some hope to embrace them, some to avoid them, some merely to understand them. In ‘Bookkeeping’, Avram (who lives under a ‘well-audited sky) lusts after the beautiful, passionate Anetje, but refuses to fall in love with her: ‘I can’t afford it.’ Anetje, in a disastrous attempt to understand better her third husband, takes LSD and freaks out. Their encounter with a ‘square’, unexpectedly antagonistic couple, is comic, but also dangerous: any of the four characters may, at any time, lose all self-possession. As Avram says: ‘It’s incredible. No one has thrown anything.’ In these early stories, the reader, safely out of range of hurled objects, contemplates characters who consider themselves masters of their feelings, but whose lives can be knocked off-balance by a sudden, inexplicable access of emotion.

Brodkey’s stories don’t have elaborate plots, but the narrative scope and frame of reference of most of the early work from this collection is broad – plenty of action stretched over long periods of time. In ‘The Abundant Dreamer’ a prominent director shooting a film in Rome learns of the death of his grandmother, the cold, domineering woman who raised him, with whom he eventually quarreled. He thinks back on their quarrel, on the break-up of his first love affair – a record of past failures. The play of his memory is set against the day’s filming (he manipulates his actors with a skill born of hard experience), and the result is a richly textured, complex story that seems to encompass a character’s entire life.

The turning-point in Brodkey’s fiction comes with the infamous ‘Innocence’, originally published in 1973. This is the first of the many stories narrated by Wiley Silenowicz, who at this stage in his life is a Harvard undergraduate intent on providing for his girlfriend, Orra, her first orgasm. Orra is no virgin: famous for her beauty, she has been the ‘trophy’ of a number of men before Wiley – but as she realises, belatedly, ‘they were doing it wrong.’ Some twenty pages of ‘Innocence’ are devoted to an exhaustive description of Wiley finally doing it right. Oddly enough, the scene isn’t particularly erotic: Wiley’s account veers between the clinical dissection of sexual mechanics and self-conscious, inflated prose. Witness, for example, his extended metaphor for oral sex, which begins: ‘I saw myself (stupidly) as a Roman trireme, my tongue as the prow, pushing at her; she was the Mediterranean.’

As if to explain the obsessively narrow focus of the story, Wiley proclaims that he distrusts controlled, detached summaries: ‘I think someone who claims to understand but who is obviously calm, someone who claims to write with emotion recollected in tranquillity, is a fool and a liar. To understand is to tremble. To recollect is to re-enter and be riven.’ Whether or not this defiant manifesto is in fact also Brodkey’s, the rest of the stories in the collection (all of which have first-person narrators) are written from Wiley’s recommended posture: ‘I admire the authority of being on one’s knees in front of the event.’ Brodkey often adopts the perspective of a very young child, and writes of a small, circumscribed world ruled by fumbling, sometimes terrifying giants. The irony has not entirely vanished, but the reader, drawn to the child’s side, no longer enjoys the spectacle at a comfortable remove: in the best of these stories, to recollect is indeed to re-enter and be riven.

‘The Pain Continuum’ is a nightmare reversal of ‘Innocence’. Wiley, four years old, stripped naked, plays doctor under the porch with his pre-adolescent sister, Nonie. What begins as a game, Nonie poking him with a twig, ends as systematic torture, Nonie repeatedly jabbing, then striking him with a mop handle, until at least she draws blood: ‘Part of her experiment was a dabbling, so to speak, in delivering a blow in the masculine style.’ The extended description of Nonie’s experiment does more than summon an accurate image of a trapped and defenceless child’s suffering – Wiley’s memory of prolonged pain belongs to every outraged victim: ‘My name, the value of daylight, the assurance of any logic beside that of a short statement such as I hurt, are gone, are worthless. There is a stew in me, meaty, acid, of unswallowable present consciousness of being deep inside the realities, the boundaries of pain: this stretches forward and backward without interruption or memory or hope of another state: this is ... the pain continuum.’ The easy movement in this passage between the concrete and the abstract is a sign of success: when Brodkey can fix his exploration of meaning to a dramatic and palpably real moment, his stories work.

Nearly all of Brodkey’s recent fiction is a single-minded exploration of one unhappy family. The names change (inexplicably), but the characters remain the same: mother, father, older sister, immigrant nursemaid – and the narrator, Wiley, who also appears as Alan Cohn and Harold ‘Buddy’ Brodkey. Adopted at two, Wiley/Alan/Buddy goes through several distinct phases: damaged infant, beautiful child, ugly and precocious young boy, ungainly, brooding adolescent. His point of view, therefore, shifts subtly – sometimes in the course of a single story – as he grows older.

Occasionally Brodkey lets him get up off his knees so that he can comment, either on the action or on the process of recollection, in a mature (if not quite tranquil) voice. But his point of view is so personal as to exclude everything but the family itself. A brief attempt at placing the parents in a wider social context (this from ‘A Story in an Almost Classical Mode’) ends in meek retreat: ‘They were good-looking small-town people, provincially glamorous, vaudeville-and-movie instructed, to some extent stunned, liberated ghetto Jews loose and unprotected in the various American decades and milieus in which they lived at one time or another – I don’t know that I know enough to say these things about them.’ Within the compass of his certain knowledge, Brodkey recognises no such constraint: his narrator observes everything, tells everything.

‘Largely an Oral History of my Mother’, by far the longest of these stories, displays all the characteristic virtues and flaws of Brodkey’s more recent work. An ambitious story, its themes are love and fear and memory and the bond between parent and (adopted) child – in this case Alan Cohn. Leila Cohn adopted him only to lure back her husband, S.L., who had left her; she is too busy worrying about aging gracefully to give Alan a mother’s attention. S.L., a weak sentimentalist, wants an adoring son and has no use for the complexities of a flesh-and-blood child. Nonie (whose name never changes) is (as always) the jealous and sadistic sister. When a battery of scientists discover that young Alan has a phenomenal IQ and suggest that he needs special treatment, the Cohns, seeing their chance to rid themselves of a suddenly unwanted child, try unsuccessfully to return him to his natural father, an illiterate junk man. Alan adopts a variety of childish strategies to secure his place, but only in memory, or looking back as narrator, can he control his adoptive family, fix them in a constellation around the bright sun of a child’s ego: ‘I will run this history, this oral history; I will order it, arrange it.’

Parts of the story are extraordinary, especially where Brodkey concentrates on what the child perceives and feels. Accurate detail is essential to the enterprise: it grounds more daring excursions into the hazy area of an infant’s mental processes. Smells, the play of light, voices, and especially textures – these are Brodkeys’ building-blocks: ‘I am enclosed in a hug, in a noisy crumpled whisper of ironed linen. I don’t know it’s linen: I name it now. Then it was a roughish, nice matting, a sliding, a half-silence of ignorance in me.’ Sensations shade into emotion: ‘A stubble of purpose and discontent rubs at me like daddy’s face sometimes when he doesn’t shave. I am going to make a scene when Momma comes home.’

But the story is (largely) a portrait of Leila Cohn in her early thirties, a complex, unhappy woman, interesting enough to hold the reader’s attention for a while, but not for 90 pages, through an endless boring catalogue of her character traits and typical phrases, sprinkled with unaffixed musings. Leila is inconsistent, and so, doggedly, is Alan’s account, which comes to resemble a thick Cubist tangle: ‘She’s not too honourable. So her feelings for me are amusing, unreliable; she is not without a kind of honour; and so, although I do not trust her, there is some way in which I trust her more than I do anyone else – which is maybe sad, maybe not sad.’ Part of the problem is that Brodkey doesn’t give Leila anything to do, as though action, incident or sustained dialogue might compromise the purity of the portrait. ‘S.L.’ (largely an oral history of Wiley’s father) succeeds as a portrait of an adult because S.L. is described almost exclusively in terms of his overtures to the two-year-old Wiley as they take a rainy walk to a nearby park. Brodkey has a superb ear for the mindless chatter directed towards a child thought too young to understand, and S.L.’s babble works like a stream of consciousness, an intimate record of half-formed thoughts and associations. But Leila is entombed in her history; she comes to life only on those rare occasions when, as part of a larger action, she is allowed a completed gesture: ‘Momma is loosening – her under clothes, I think: anyway, her hands are inserted here and there, her arms hold strange postures, her eyes are distracted, her mouth slightly awry with the pain of feeling now how tired she is after the effort she has been making all afternoon, and with the minor pleasure of this beginning of private egoism, the nearly-absolute-smallness of the relief of this loosening. She is free of a number of pretences she has had to support all day: she is at home.’

‘Angel’, the last story in the collection, is a daring, in some ways admirable piece of writing – and also a monument to Brodkey’s chief failing. Once again we find Wiley on his knees before the event: an angel appears before him (and many others) on an otherwise unremarkable afternoon in 1951. The real subject of Brodkey’s typically intense scrutiny is not the Seraph but the workings of Wiley’s all too adult mind. His testimony turns into an investigation of the meaning of the apparition and drags on far too long. As for The Angel (who, predictably, does nothing), Wiley confesses to being unable to describe it in any except vague, awestruck terms. This admission, which sums up the difficulty of writing with so narrow a focus on matters so abstract, carries with it a warning: ‘It is sad to know by how much a written account, removed from physical presence, fails.’