Books by Harold Brodkey

Released: April 15, 1999

Brodkey's self-involved, prolix prose style, which made his long-awaited Runaway Soul (1991) a sacred monster of recent fiction, fails badly to translate into readable essays on art, culture, politics, books, etc. After winning an early niche at the New Yorker with his fiction, Brodkey, like Updike and Barthelme, could always place an essay there—no matter how slight or puffed up the piece. Unlike the latter two writers, however, his New Yorker pieces, which bulk up this collection, read like carbons of the magazine, rather than contributions to it. Often Brodkey seems to be parodying both himself and the New Yorker, such as in a string of preciously insubstantial vignettes penned for "Talk of the Town"; a superannuated New Journalism'style piece on the Academy Awards; pompously irrelevant analyses of the 1992 presidential campaign (Bush as Coriolanus?!); and a review of a biography of Walter Winchell (Brodkey seems to sound a covert endorsement of then New Yorker editor Tina Brown). Even when he suggests an intriguing parallel, such as that between the scandal-wrecked personae of Woody Allen and Charlie Chaplin, he always nudges his insight into sub-Proustian "fine" writing. It's a genuine relief to finish the post-William Shawn New Yorker sections here on celebrity and politics and Brodkey's impersonal "personal" essays, and get to his attentive, if diffuse, pieces on literature in the book's final quarter. The collection's stand-out is not his extended, name-dropping reminiscence of Frank O'Hara in the previously unpublished "Harold and Frank"; rather, Brodkey's narcissism and competitiveness are there at their worst. Instead, his review of an imposingly large John O'Hara short-story collection at once serves up an acid critique of genteel fiction, as epitomized (ironically) by the New Yorker, and a shrewd analysis of authors' attempts to attain literary immortality—or fame, at least. A test of Robertson Davies's plea that people's bad journalism should not be held against them. Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 1, 1997

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THIS WILD DARKNESS by Harold Brodkey
Released: Oct. 1, 1996

With remarkable grace and stunning bravery, Brodkey (The Runaway Soul, 1991, etc.) chronicles his own harrowing slide into illness and death. At first glance it seems an obvious—and cruel—irony that recording the ``passage into nonexistence'' should fall to a writer whose lifework was so vibrantly obsessed with chronicling the self. Yet it's difficult to imagine a writer better equipped to accomplish that grim task than Brodkey, whose restless intellect and elegant, precise language bestowed an almost physical beauty on the abstraction of human consciousness. From the time he was diagnosed with AIDS, while editing his novel Profane Friendship in the spring of 1993, until his death earlier this year, continuing to write—to convey order on formlessness—seems to have been not only an anodyne but a constant, sustaining desire for Brodkey. This book, portions of which appeared in the New Yorker, is many things: a journal that catalogs the daily indignities (the countless pills, the loss of strength and independence, the vagaries of public perception) attendant on AIDS; a memoir poignant with self-doubt and regret; a calm meditation on (and preparation for) death. For all his prickly combativeness and wounded vanity, Brodkey doesn't rage at the dying of the light. He saves his greatest bitterness and vituperation not for death, but for certain elements of New York life, especially for the city's ``literary empire-builders and . . . masters of fakery.'' Yet throughout his illness he remains devoted to the city, to his wife, Ellen Schwamm, whose ministrations and love are of immense importance and comfort to him, and ultimately to himself and his work. ``If I had to give up what I've written in order to be clear of this disease,'' he declares near the end, ``I wouldn't do it.'' Deeply affecting—a haunted, haunting work that penetrates with starling directness to the very core of the human mysteries: how to live, how to die. (First printing of 50,000) Read full book review >
Released: March 1, 1994

An exploration of love that slides tissues of earthly friendship and love under the Brodkey microscope and finds the cell walls of the human soul. In 1993, Brodkey announced in The New Yorker that he has AIDS. As in The Runaway Soul (1991), Brodkey deals in shadings, quarter tones, nuances, and half-gestures that plant a raw reality on the page, a Nowness, that stops time and fixes each slice of feeling into a still-life in painterly words. Patches arise that are often as hard to grasp as Henry James's late style, the reader's brain a sieve through which pass drenches of sensation, coloring thoughts without actually forming them. Setting his story in Venice, Brodkey conjures up the city in ravishing descriptions, ever coming up with immensely striking sentences amid his more remote effects: ``One desires a naked world of love to replace the one of lonely dailiness, a world which has a heat of emotion and genital heat, and such warm, shocked brightness spreading through it that it might as well be Hell.'' We follow the birth of love in Niles O'Hara, son of a best-selling novelist who lives in prewar Venice and is a friend of Hemingway's; birth of family love and adoration of his nursemaid Zilda, and then of his love for fellow student Onni Galliani, which revives after the war when the O'Haras (minus Dad) return to Venice; birth of love as male sex play and profane friendship with Onni; love becoming love/hate as Onni turns into a monster, and later into a dead soul as a world-famous actor who envies Niles his life as a writer. At story's end, after a glorious picture of bustling street life in Venice, Niles says, ``I regret the disappearance of my life.'' Spirited originality that will take time to sink in. Read full book review >
THE RUNAWAY SOUL by Harold Brodkey
Released: Nov. 14, 1991

Brodkey's long, long, long-awaited first novel that could not possibly live up to expectations—and yet, largely, does. One must forgive Brodkey or oneself for not being able to take in every page of this 800-page novel with equal thirst. Tedious passages, reread later, spring to life—and some remain tiresome (for now). The story focuses on the childhood, youth, and first marriage (not in that order!) of Wiley Silenowicz, a Missouri genius, and the role of his hideously vile-tempered sister Nonie as a shadow in all people Wiley meets or marries. Earlier sketches seen in Stories in an Almost Classical Mode (1988) are mere charcoal prefigurings of what appears here—and seem pared and objective set beside the bathyspheric subjectivity of the novel. The plot?—a psychic web of small electrical events feeding and racing everywhere, and never stated formally. Nothing happens now: every action arrives through a veil, often at merciless length. Wiley, at two, has been adopted by S.L. and Lila of St. Louis, who have a blood-daughter, Nonie, 11 years older than Wiley. Nonie, who must give pain to be alive, rules the roost, and we follow her demonic life until her death by fire in her early 40s (Wiley tells this story, a hugely askew elegy, nearly 20 years after her death). Events include baby sensations as S.L. lifts up Wiley and walks about filling him with fatherly advice; Lila's fabulous car accident as she forgetfully drives her Buick into a bus, flees on three-inch heels wearing a fox neckpiece; masturbation solo and in tandem; vast sex scenes, one at 14, his first coupling (almost), which is forever interrupted by Nonie, and a later sexfest with his deliberately inorgasmic wife Ora; trips with a homosexual older cousin; and separate death-scenes for S.L. and Lila, which spread all over the novel. Forget the Proust comparison. Brodkey is himself, and many pages here have the deep-rolling profound thrust, painterly originality, and lightning-bolt flash of great art. But many readers will fade early. Read full book review >