Insiderish

Colm Tóibín

  • Profane Friendship by Harold Brodkey
    Cape, 387 pp, £15.99, April 1994, ISBN 0 224 03775 7

One of the early chapters in Harold Brodkey’s first novel The Runaway Soul is entitled ‘The River’. The narrator, after his father’s death, returns to a landscape which he had known in early childhood. Some of the prose is plain and clear: ‘At the mouth of the stream, where it emptied into the inlet, under willows, lay a very large, ungainly river dinghy. It was greenish and heavy, made of thick and heavy pieces of wood, scarred and scratched, peeling and warped, moored to a ring in the trunk of a willow.’ But Brodkey sets out in this book to find another language, broken and fast-flowing, to slow down experience as it is rendered in fiction, to make it more exact and true, to establish, if he can, the way in which several things happen in the mind at once, the way in which sensations come not single spies but in battalions.

He has hardly any rules to follow. Henry James’s later prose style, with its long, flickering sentences and infinite subtlety, must have been a help. And other modern voices which deal with the language of consciousness, such as Joyce and Virginia Woolf and Beckett, must have been useful too. Brodkey’s grand project stands apart because his narrator is not concerned with the social but with the self. He does not observe the world, or measure himself in relation to others, or talk about last things. Instead, he grandly and humourlessly seeks to find a language to match his feelings and his sensations, to describe in great detail what it is to be himself. So that when he experiences something, or sees something, the thing is of no interest: what matters is the register of what he feels, how he feels, in all its complexity. He is greatly helped by being an American, and inheriting a tradition in which it is almost enough to be American, to experience America in all its newness, to feel interesting and have something to say:

In the nowhere inside my head – that unperpetual everywhere – the nowhere-but-there in my head kept claiming an apartness from time – but it now had a belief that what was true out there was a papery and rustling and crumpling NOW with an unresolved arriving as well as a steadily observable moving off of it, both the old moment and the new moment, not in sequence, but eccentrically or syncopatedly overlapped, the complexly shaped n-o-w; and that this was so in me as well, and was so of my thoughts and ideas.

In this chapter the landscape has been carefully established. The reader is allowed to believe that there is a real American boy on a boat on the river. Thus it is easier to accept the strange, jerky prose as he stops time to experience himself. If you read fast, you can catch something of the sense Brodkey is trying to make; you can pick up sensations from the words. You can almost become the person experiencing things in the novel.

It is difficult to sustain such runaway prose throughout a book, and it is easy to see why Brodkey laboured for years on his novel. It is difficult, also, to write about the self in this way without seeming self-absorbed, arrogant and overbearing, and the self in The Runaway Soul is certainly all of these things. At times the self fails to protect itself from the reader’s sense of the absurd. The man can describe himself as ‘a sexual powerhouse beauty’, if he likes, and deal with the slow sensations that can occur in coupling, and how the mind registers the light and shade of intimacy, but we may laugh when we come across this:

So she loved my butt – and the nape of my neck ... And my lips somewhat, the not-hurtful things. I’m big enough phallically that some people do what she did and widen helplessly. Maybe that is really common. Really, she loved my prick, too – as she would a child, who, if I loved it, she would compete with it and she would vie for its attention and then she would treat it harshly if she was second to it in my regard.

Brodkey avoids irony and any form of self-deprecation: he wants grandeur, hauteur, elegance. His seriousness is clear in every page of his book. Although his tone goes against the grain of what became fashionable in American fiction, he shares with Raymond Carver and John Updike and others the feeling that homo erectus americanus, the life of any American male, its slow detail, is of intrinsic interest.

His novel, when it appeared in 1991, was both praised and sneered at. His florid style and his long sentences and his great ambition provoked debate. He has always been capable also of writing plainly and using the short sentence to effect. Last year, in an article in the New Yorker, he began: ‘I have Aids.’ It is difficult to separate the Brodkey self from the self in The Runaway Soul; the latter was so obsessed with his own specialness, his particularity, so proud of his sexual instincts and his body. It must have been hard to write that sentence down: ‘I have Aids.’

The tone in the rest of the article is mellow, honest, reflective. But the old pride is still there. ‘I didn’t always appreciate what I had at the time, but I am aware now that accusations against me of being lucky in love were pretty much true and of being lucky sexually, also true ... And I think my work will live.’ The grandiloquence is still there too. His grandparents, he says, ‘had, each of them, a strong tropism toward the epic’. And he cannot resist trying to write a beautiful sentence. ‘Death itself is soft, softly lit, vastly dark.’ And he ends by asking us to pray for him.

Earlier this year, he wrote a second bulletin for the New Yorker describing his illness, his time in hospital and his wife’s response. He was trying to be exact, as in his fiction, to register every flicker of feeling, to examine himself. In one section, he began: ‘Do you know the myth of irresistibility? It isn’t easy to talk about. The Fuck You Dreamed Of, Maybe.’ He remembered his ‘extreme beauty’ as a child and went on: ‘I was in fashion in New York in terms of this irresistibility off and on for the last forty years. And it was an insiderish thing to be in love with me at those times ... I cannot find in memory a day in my life without some erotic drama or other.’

In the article he explained how he left hospital and went home. He worked, he said, on the last draft of ‘a book I’ve written about Venice’. Profane Friendship is, I presume, the book. It was, according to the biographical note, written in Venice in the spring of 1992. On the page which deals with copyright we are told that the book ‘was written at the invitation of the Consorzio Venezia Nuova and printed privately in December 1992 in an edition not for sale to the public’. In The Runaway Soul the world outside the self is problematic; now, the ordinary reader is, for a period of time, to be excluded.

‘Every shade of emotion changes even the smallest particles of your self, all the micro elements, every iota, every degree of amiability or of toughness,’ he writes in this new book; and once more he seeks a language and a rhythm in prose for this. He is happy, as a writer, with Venice, just as some of his compatriots are with trailer parks.

In his second New Yorker article he wrote: ‘I did think that, for me, no decent relations were possible with women back then: the women were rotten with their self-expectation, their notions of femininity, their guilt.’ In Profane Friendship the narrator Niles O’Hara, brought up in Venice before the war and returning to the city after it, is lusted after by his friend Onni and by several women, but he does not find sexual satisfaction. Women provoke images of disgust and violence in our hero’s version of events. They do not please him. ‘I felt a goading appetite to fuck and then in the moments of doing it, a dreamlike inability to want to really, anymore, so that to continue to orgasm was hard, like wading in the muck in the shallows of the Lagoon.’ Later, he remarks that breasts ‘look like custards that get thrown in your face in a movie. They have eyes. They make me feel deaf and dumb.’

On page 271 he asks: ‘How heterosexual am I?’ It is unclear. For the most part, he rejects Onni’s overtures, although both boys at one stage soap themselves between the legs and simulate sexual intercourse. It is important for Niles that he is sought after, but wants no one in return. ‘I was good-looking that year ... I was admired.’ Again: ‘my public sexual quality at that time was beautiful, was valid in the opinion of a number of people then.’

Although the narrator comes to Venice three times in the book, the play of memory is not as rich and intense as in The Runaway Soul. Because most of the experience he describes is essentially horseplay between adolescents in the streets of Venice, and because he has no moral sense and no interest in history, but merely an ability to feel, there is a real thinness not merely in the overall texture of the book, but in every page, every moment.

There are times when the description of Venice seems to be written by numbers: ‘February’s an alphabetical light, pale with dark shadows like lines and blotches on a page. We played in the beckoning and slightly motional, slightly vulgar, pallid and yellowish light of March. Then in the fresh bright glare of April mornings which makes me squint, we play some more.’ The efforts to capture experience itself, in all its layers and colours, can be weak; entire passages are incomprehensible.

The fact that none of the characters comes to life in the book may not be an issue. Brodkey’s great ambition may be to exclude the idea of character. Niles’s friend Onni may not be seen as someone to believe in, or feel sympathetic towards or interested in, but as a force, a simple presence in the scene being described – no more than that. But in the early pages of the book, when the narrator is explaining how his father was a friend of Hemingway’s and knew Pound, it seems that Brodkey had the idea of rooting his characters in an American expatriate scene, of placing them in history. This never becomes credible. The names are dropped, but their legacy is left there.

In the last section of the novel, Onni and Niles have become old and famous. Onni is a famous actor; he owns a palazzo in Venice; he has bodyguards. ‘He was half royal now – half a royal prisoner. We usually meet with precautions towards his public. And some towards mine. Mine exists. People turn to look at me, but they don’t babble or carry on or clutch at me.’ The narrator, of course, has become a famous writer. He is as vain as ever.

For many readers this vanity will make Brodkey hard to read and take seriously. But vanity is an essential force in his quest to examine the proud self, to root fiction in the body and the intricacies of the mind, to give nothing and no one autonomy except the powerful self, all-male and all-American. He must have known, as he set out to write his two novels, how close to failure he would come. Profane Friendship does not match up to The Runaway Soul in style or scope; it is too long and self-indulgent; some of it is only half-imagined. It is brave but it is not enough to make people turn and look at him.