The ambition endemic in American writers cripples talent as much as nurtures it. Harold Brodkey was a gifted writer who became virtually a caricature of the American rites of celebrity. Although what he wrote was consistently autobiographical, his work did not suffer from a public confusion of his writing with his personality - as with Norman Mailer. Neither, as a very social member of New York's literary scene, did he opt for a reclusive life which, as in the case of Thomas Pynchon, paradoxically focuses public attention all the more on the writer himself. Instead, Brodkey became famous for what he had not written, and celebrated internationally for the novel that was to come.
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Features Editor Mia Nguyen e-mail. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well. Pretty used to being with Gwyneth.
Regrets that her mother did not smoke. Frank in all directions. Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais. Simply cannot go back to them. Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett. John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion. Metaphors with eyes.
Life of Mary MacLane. Circle what it is you want. Not really talking about women, just Diane. Felicity's disguise. Different from other winters.
Of her own accord. Simone Weil's vague threat. A fresh coat of paint. Lizzy Caplan's eyebrows. Told to believe in the grind. Seven weeks of food. Dorothy Thompson in Vienna. Never ask if he misses us. A fragment or a scrap. Bonhoffer in America. If she learns to skate. Orra Perkins was a senior. Her looks were like a force that struck you. Truly, people on first meeting her often involuntarily lifted their arms as if about to fend off the brightness of the apparition.
She was a somewhat scrawny, tuliplike girl of middling height. To see her in sunlight was to see Marxism die. I'm not the only one that said that. It was because seeing someone in actuality who had such a high immediate worth meant you had to decide whether such personal distinction has a right to exist or if she belonged to the state and ought to be shadowed in, reduced in scale, made lesser, laughed at.
Also, it was the case that you had to be rich and famous to set your hands on her; she could not fail to be a trophy, and the question was whether the trophy had to be awarded on economic and political grounds or whether chance could enter in. I was a senior, too, and ironic. I had no money. I was without lineage. It seemed to me Orra was proof that life was a terrifying phenomenon of surface immediacy. She made any idea I had of psychological normalcy or of justice absurd since normalcy was not as admirable or as desirable as Orra; or rather she was normalcy and everything else was a falling off, a falling below; and justice was inconceivable if she, or someone equivalent to her if there was an equivalent once you had seen her, would not sleep with you.
In the last spring of our being undergraduates, I finally got her. We had agreed to meet in my room, to get a little drunk cheaply before going out of dinner. I left the door unlatched; and I lay naked on my bed under a sheet.
When she knocked on the door, I said, "Come in," and she did. She began to chatter right away, to complain that I was still in bed; she seemed to think I'd been taking a nap and had forgotten to wake up in time to get ready for her arrival. I said, "I'm naked, Orra, under this sheet. I've been waiting for you. I haven't been asleep.
Her face went empty. She said, "Damn you--why couldn't you wait? I was amazed that she was so docile; and then I saw that is was maybe partly that she didn't want to risk saying no to me--she didn't want me to be hurt and difficult, she didn't want me to explode; she had a kind of hope of making me happy so that I'd then appreciate her and be happy with her and let her know me: I'm putting it badly.
But her not being able to say no protected me from having so great a fear of sexual failure that I would not have been able to be worried about her pleasure, or to be concerned about her in bed.
She was very amateurish and uninformed in bed, which touched me. It was really sort of poor sex; she didn't come or even feel much that I could see. Afterwards, lying besides her, I thought of her eight or ten or fifteen lovers being afraid of her, afraid to tell her anything about sex in case they might be wrong.
But what I did for the rest of that night--we stayed up all night; we talked, we quarreled for a while, we confessed various things, we argued about sex, we fucked again the second one was a little better -- I treated her with the justice with which I'd treat a boy my age, a young man, and with a rather exact or measured patience and tolerance, as if she were a paraplegic and had spent her life in a wheelchair and was tired of sentiment.
I showed her no sentiment at all. I figured she'd been asphyxiated by the sentiments and sentimentality of people impressed by her looks. She was beautiful and frightened and empty and shy and alone and wounded and invulnerable like a cripple: what more can you do to a cripple? It was a fairly complicated, partly witty thing to do. It meant I could not respond to her beauty but had to ignore it. She was a curious sort of girl; she had a great deal of isolation in her, isolation as a woman.
It meant that when she said something on the order of "You're very defensive," I had to be a debater, her equal, take her seriously, and say, "How do you mean that?
All right, I'll adopt that as a premise. Of course much of what we said was incoherent and nonsensical on examination, but we worked out in conversation what we meant or what we thought we meant. I didn't react to her in an emotional way. She wasn't really a girl, not really quite human: how could she be? I figured I had kept her from being too depressed after fucking -- it's hard for a girl with any force in her and any brains to accept the whole thing of fucking, of being fucked without trying to turn it on its end, so that she does some fucking, or some fucking up; I mean, the mere power of arousing the man so he wants to fuck isn't enough: she wants him to be willing to die in order to fuck.
To be fucked when there's no drama inherent in it, when you're not going to rise to a level of nobility and courage forever denied the male, is to be cut off from what is inherently female, bestially speaking. I wanted to be halfway decent company for her. I don't know that it was natural to me. I am psychologically, profoundly, a transient. A form of trash. I am incapable of any continuing loyalty and silence; I am an informer. But I did all right with her. It was dawn, as I said. We stood naked by the window, silently watching the light change.
Finally, she said, "Are you hungry? Do you want breakfast? She cut me off and said with a funny kind of firmness, "No! Let me go and get us something to eat. She dressed and went out and came back.
While we ate, she was silent; I said things but she had no comment to make; she ate very little; she folded her hands and smiled midly like some nineteenth century portrait of a handsome young mother. Every time I looked at her, when she saw I was looking at her, she changed the expression on her face to one of absolute and undeviating welcome to me and to anything I might say.
So, it had begun. She hadn't come. She said she had never come with anyone at any time. She said it didn't matter. She said she had never come, not once in her life, and that she didn't need to. And that I mustn't think about whether she came or not.
I'm not selfish that way. I could see that she had prowled around in a sense and searched out men and asked them to be lovers as she had me rather than wait for them or plot to capture their attention in some subtle way; and in bed she was sexually eager and a bit more forward and less afraid than most girls, but only in an upper-middle-class frame of reference was she a sexual tigress. It seemed to me--my whole self was focused on this--that her not coming said something about what we had, that her not coming was an undeniable fact, a measure of the limits of what we had.
I did not think we should think we are great lovers when we weren't. Orra said we were, that I had no idea how lousy that sex was other people had. I told her that hadn't been my experience. Orra said that coming was a minor part of sex for a woman and was a demeaning measure of sexuality.
Stories in an Almost Classical Mode
Remember the Dirty Young Men? In their company, Philip Roth's Alexander Portnoy, the onanist with the passion for raw liver, and John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, the sympathetic serial adulterer, stand out for having achieved a place in the modern American canon. But plenty of others made their lustful mark during the so-called 60's, the unwieldy era that began in the 50's and ended in the 70's. There were also, for example, Norman Mailer's Sergius O'Shaugnessy, the Greenwich Village bullfighting instructor who sodomized and insulted a college girl to bring her to her first climax, and Harold Brodkey's gentler but no less persistent Wiley Silenowicz, who went to unparalleled lengths to give his intimidatingly beautiful girlfriend the orgasm she claimed she wasn't interested in having.
'I AM ONLY EQUIVOCALLY HAROLD BRODKEY'
New York: Alfred A. Some of the stories in this huge book are short, some are long enough to be called novellas, but all are from the same intense and dedicated mind. They were written over the last 25 years, and mostly appeared in the admirably accommodating New Yorker magazine. No doubt it is to these stories that Harold Brodkey owes his considerable reputation; but there is in ''Stories in an Almost Classical Mode'' fiction that one can hardly imagine finding in The New Yorker - stories important as evidence of the scope and nature of this writer's gifts, which are certainly remarkable, though often a cause of pain to the reader.