Stories in an Almost Classical Mode
It is more than a year since Stories in an Almost Classical Mode was published, and the various expressions of dissatisfaction, unease, and enthusiasm that greeted it have since abated. Harold Brodkey’s book of short stories, just published in paperback, can now begin to stand apart from the expectations and posturings that have always seemed to accompany the author and word of his work, for in the career he has mapped out for himself, in the discussion his work has inspired, in the gossip that has accompanied the wait for this, his second commercially published book in thirty years, Brodkey’s personality has seemed inextricably linked to the reception of his work.
Brodkey’s reputation was established with First Love and Other Sorrows, a collection of stories that appeared in 1958 when he was twenty-eight. In the decades since, a number of stories appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, and The New American Review and aroused comment on the “promise” of this American writer. Anticipation also grew with news of a novel begun nearly thirty years ago that has been under contract at three publishing houses. So famous had the prospective novel become that when a draft was delivered to Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1976, its arrival was announced in The New York Times. After being repeatedly listed in publisher’s catalogs, the novel still did not appear; it was then announced that it would be published not by Farrar, Straus, but by Knopf.
Meanwhile, admiring comments from those who had read parts of the novel have alternated with vituperation against its author (he has called those he thinks oppose him “a cordon of enemies”). Harold Bloom has called him “an American Proust,…unparalleled in American prose fiction since the death of William Faulkner”; and Denis Donoghue, who has read part of the novel, said, “It’s a work of genius. There is no one writing in American literature at all comparable.” Brodkey himself has claimed, “It’s dangerous to be as good a writer as I.” Of long delays in completing his novel he told the Washington Post:
If some of the people who talk to me are right, well, to be possibly not only the best living writer in English, but someone who could be the rough equivalent of a Wordsworth or a Milton, is not a role that a halfway educated Jew from St. Louis with two sets of parents and a junkman father is prepared to play.
The novel has not appeared—although there have been reports that 3,000 to 6,000 pages of text exist, being worked over and over. In its stead we have the volume of stories under review, all of them written since the first collection, and chronologically presented, beginning with a 1963 story from The New Yorker, and ending with a sequence of connected stories, one of which appeared in The New Yorker just over a year ago. Many of the stories come from drafts of the novel; others are said to suggest its as yet unfinished form. The reception that the collection received was about as mixed as can be imagined, with many critics attempting to deflate a reputation that they argued had grown out of proportion.
Stories in an Almost Classical Mode is an unsettling book, far different from Brodkey’s first collection. The stories in First Love and Other Sorrows now seem very much of their era, mannered sketches of adolescence and early maturity, told with occasional winks to the reader and hints of knowing irony, reminiscent of Salinger. They include an account of a quarrel between college buddies on a bicycle trip through Europe; a love affair between another pair of highly self-conscious Harvard students; wordy snapshots of early marriage, a first baby, first quarrels. First Love and Other Sorrows seemed an earnest autobiographical book by a young writer who grew up, as Brodkey did, in a small town in the Midwest, was intensely aware of his own high intelligence, and lived in a troubled household before going off to Harvard to begin the trials of romance and middle-class life.
The stories that begin the new book deliberately leave the world of First Love behind. The first five are self-consciously “literary” in ambition, created as if according to instructions by a creative-writing teacher who has urged the student to move away from autobiographical subjects by inventing entirely different perspectives. Brodkey puts aside the persona of the gangly Midwestern prodigy and writes instead about a “serious” film director who discovers something about himself and about acting when his grandmother dies while he is making a movie (“The Abundant Dreamer”). He writes about a seven-year-old girl learning about decadent Venice when she visits her divorced father there (“On the Waves”). He attempts to chronicle the changes in a woman’s mind and character as she passes from youth to late middle age (“The Shooting Range”).
These stories have traditional narratives: the filmmaker is described by a narrator whose account is punctuated by flashbacks; the story of the aging woman unfolds in a flat, wry voice that suggests the author’s detachment, as well as affection; the irony never turns to scorn. But the stories leave us in uncertainty if not confusion. What, for example, are we to make of the cynical film director who is making a stylized film while recollecting his first love affair and thinking of his doting grandmother? The story is full of manipulations, delusions, dreams, and mannered prose, but its elaborate maneuverings leave us with a clearer impression of the author than of his subject.
The stories, too, have an indefinite, melancholy haze about them that seems deliberately created. The author is indeed an unavoidable player in these tales; we can’t help seeing him gesturing above his characters’ heads with startling images, but, as Ann in “The Shooting Range” says of her husband, “It was never clear how much or how little irony he intended.” The stories hint at some feeling or sense that might be far more important than the events they are recounting: now and then airy images, which seem to inebriate even the most sober characters, suggest another, fuzzier world that the author hints has special importance for him.
In “Bookkeeping,” for example, Avram, a literary man who is referred to as “calculating”—he is always weighing choices and their possible effects on his life—meets a woman, a refugee from Germany, who is now suffering the effects of an LSD trip. He takes her to meet another woman friend, who is scornful of anyone who uses drugs; the two discuss not only drugs but also Germany, the Nazis, and the war. The hardheadedness of the second woman turns into easygoing tolerance when she dismisses the evil of the Nazis, while the easygoing woman on LSD is resolutely unforgiving of those who did her and her family so much harm. The conversation is barbed and sometimes witty, but we are never sure what the encounter might signify or suggest, other than the author’s cleverness.
Avram himself has a peculiar way of seeing things, to judge by his extravagant language. He refers to the “touching quality of emotional elegance” in the drugged woman’s husband: “He loved and suffered with a singleness of purpose that reminded Avram of the curved, thin legs of French antiques.” Avram describes the two women he had brought together still more elaborately:
For them, each living moment was muddied by rain from dead landscapes. They received spectral instruction from cemeteries. But no rain fell for him from his well-audited sky.
We might accept Avram’s allusion to thin furniture legs as suggesting singleness of purpose, and we might even be willing to think of these dead landscapes as representing things long past. But the attitudes of Brodkey’s characters toward drugs and Nazism are hardly “spectral.” The mixed metaphors of rain falling with muddied spectral instructions are puzzling: Why did no rain fall for Avram? How “well-audited” could his sky be—if, indeed, skies could be audited at all? The display of imagery seems unsuited to Avram’s character, or his actions, serving only to draw attention to the authorial hand behind him.
Though the title suggests that these stories are, in their clarity and detachment, intended to be classical, the effect thus becomes inescapably “unclassical,” and bewildering. As if aware of these confusions and contradictions, beginning with “Innocence” (1973) Brodkey shifts his approach. “Innocence” is a detailed, first-person account of a protracted session of lovemaking by a young Harvard undergraduate whose goal is to bring Orra, a beautiful Radcliffe student, to her first orgasm. The man tells us that the woman must never know that this is the aim of his psychic and physical exertions; she must have the climax she has steadfastly refused to believe was possible for her. The mixture of secrecy, strategy, manipulation, and male egotism create an eerie world of licks and pokes and guesses and risks, minutely described.
The story can be read as Brodkey’s version of a literary orgasm: an eruption of the concerns that his earlier stories raised in distracting ways. It seemed to have the sort of liberating effect for Brodkey that Portnoy’s Complaint had for Philip Roth. But “Innocence” is devoutly self-conscious in its solemn aesthetic declarations, and entirely humorless. When the narrator announces, “I distrust summaries, any gliding through time, any too great a claim that one is in control of what one recounts,” he is saying that he distrusts precisely the sort of stories he had been writing until now. “Someone who claims to write with emotion recollected in tranquility,” he continues, “is a fool and a liar. I am bored with that and with where that has brought us.”
This is, of course, a familiar call for an art that is submerged in experience: no more all-knowing narrators, no more classically detached authorial reflection and cool recounting of events, no more surveys of lives interspersed with sophisticated asides by the author or images of curved French antiques. Now, as the narrator of “Innocence” writes, in a less than subtle double-entendre, he will admire “the authority of being on one’s knees in front of the event”—absorbed, nearly worshipful before the project at hand, dissecting the psychic nuances of each moment.
What was at stake included the risk that I would look foolish in my own eyes—and might then attack her for failing to come—and then she would be unable to resist the inward conviction that I was a fool. Any attempted act confers vulnerability on you, but an act devoted to her pleasure represented doubled vulnerability since only she could judge it; and I was safe only if I was immune or insensitive to her; but if I was myself immune or insensitive I could not hope to help her come; by making myself vulnerable to her, I was in a way being a sissy or a creep because Orra wasn’t organized or trained or prepared to accept responsibility for how I felt about myself: she was a woman who wanted to be left alone.