"Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat."
Robert Frost (1874-1963)
Book InformationBook Information
|"The World Is the Home of Love and Death" by Harold Brodkey
||Published by Henry Holt
|Publication Date: 1998
|Paperback , 384 pages
Reviews by Bookery Staff and friends
If Harold Brodkey had been a recluse, might he have been less of a pariah?
It's hard to know; his brand of truculent narcissism can make itself felt
even at a distance, stifling respect and choking good will. I read with
him once, at the Miami book fair, after which we sat on chairs, I extolling
Marguerite Caetani's hefty, multilanguage Botteghe Oscure, he The
New Yorker, which he described as the best university in the country.
He then, however, reviled the audience, calling them rednecks; some got
up and left. He thought being a pain in the neck an art form he had mastered,
even a form of recognition. He worked by contraries, by which he both rose
His work was unusual, although he was neither a
short-story writer (his stories peter out) nor a novelist (promises, promises).
His true Penelope was not Flaubert, but the wodge, into which he could
fit everything on his mind together with stuff he didn't need. Given something
he could really develop - an angel in Harvard Yard or "A Guest in the Universe,"
one of the eleven stories that make up the posthumous volume The World
Is the Home of Love and Death, a Sunday brunch of sniping literati
- he tuned in on different wavelengths, being specific without being vivid,
getting thick without ever quite making you wish he hadn't. A gifted eavesdropper,
he dealt with the claustrophobia of both urban and suburban life, but was
at his best with sex, or rather what led up to it, surrounded it, served
as its mythos, its rumor, its reputation - even when it never happened
and expired in a cloud of anticlimax.
But as the illustrious wodges pile up, with their
component parts in no inevitable order, you discover that all he wants
is to write, that the act is more important than the organizing or phasing,
plotting or scheming. Brodkey recognized that there isn't much thinking
in American fiction and tried to depict a mind in the act of reasoning
things through in what we might easily construe as a perpetual quarrel
with himself. He remains one of the few - the aesthetic bailiffs - who
remind you about the mind the story comes from: the fable's manger. I think
he, the proud possessor, sometimes too proud, of an intellect in a country
obsessed with success and profit, felt that was enough. For the most part,
to use his own words from "Dumbness Is Everything," he whisper[s] tyrannically,
regally about surprisingly banal subjects (honking a horn, or, more
promisingly, climbing into a clock). At his best, he confronts what he
calls in "Lila and S.L." "a sullen impetus of self-erasure, a vaguely genital
impulse, perhaps toward pain."
The gist of Brodkey was exorcism, riddling himself,
beneath never mind how many masks, of just about any eligible part of him.
That persona is evoked in this collection as well; "A Guest in the Universe"'s
Brr, "an expert in self-presentation and in enraged disguise," is a trickster.
So is the character who says, at the same brunch, "Masturbation, after
all, after the first few times, is largely memory lane plus amendments."
With Brodkey, as with Roy Cohn, who claimed everything in his life as a
business expense, all he says is literary business; he has only one topic:
being Brodkey, which sometimes leads him, as it must, into flamboyant (or
is it flam-buoyant?) turgidity. He can come on as Heidegger trying to be
the Joyce of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as in this
passage from "Dumbness Is Everything":
To be logical is to recognize the
free symmetries, where one act is free-willed, sort of, and the other in
response is not as free to be unsymmetrical, directly or in undermeanings
or overtones. The curious movements of the selves are ambitious - male
free-will ignores her. Female free-will drifts off into fantasy or other
absence: love and flight, the Eurydice thing, not blinking, not looking
back, not holding back.
The subject that tugged
at him constantly was the babyhood and childhood of anyone pretending to
be adult. The miracle and trauma of being dandled affects him all the time;
he's always coming back to it, whatever else the subject happens to be.
The story "Car Buying" gives a copious account of it ("Momma pretty often
displayed me naked to visitors") and in "Jibber-Jabber in Little Rock,"
the ten-year-old "is a troll of a child, squinting, twisted, with no freckles
and nothing impish about him." For Brodkey, as for Wordsworth, the child
is the father to the man, and the parents in his work, scorchingly, trail
clouds of infamy. This creates a problem, for me at least, guaranteeing
the ambivalence of my response: he says so much, with and without warning,
about the same subject that I can't remember where it was, in which story,
which means that I remember some stories for their least consequential
material. At least, when I see a story titled "Waking," I know how many
meanings of the title to be ready for; it works so well on various levels.
Brodkey reminds me of Coventry Patmore (The Angel
in the House) and, whatever else you say about him, he could usually
be caught thinking: an unusual distinction. He remains the seer of infancy,
the gymnast of the pensive, as well as the evangelist of foreplay.
Paul West's new novel is Terrestrials. The government
of France recently made him a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.