First Love and Other Sorrows, 1957, 1986
Women and Angels, 1985
Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, 1988
The World Is the Home of Love and Death: Stories, 1997
The Runaway Soul, 1991
Profane Friendship, 1994
Avedon: Photographs, 1947-1977, 1978 (with Richard Avedon)
This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death, 1996
Sea Battles on Dry Land: Essays, 1999
My Venice, 1998
Harold Brodkey distinguished himself as a chronicler of what it is like to grow up–in his case, Jewish and adopted–in the Midwest. He was born Aaron Roy Weintraub in 1930. His father was an illiterate junk man; his mother was bright, bookish, and fluent in five or six languages. After his mother died (Brodkey was still an infant), his father, unable to care for him, turned him over to Joseph and Doris Brodkey, who adopted him and gave him their surname. Brodkey lost his adoptive parents when he was in his teens: Joseph became an invalid because of a stroke and died five years later; Doris developed cancer one year before her husband’s death and died during her adopted son’s early days at Harvard University. After graduating from Harvard, Brodkey married novelist Ellen Schwann in 1980. They had a daughter, Emily, and made their home in New York City’s Upper East Side.
Although he published relatively little, Brodkey is generally regarded by thoughtful readers as one of the most meticulous literary craftsmen of the late twentieth century. He worked on a huge, Proustian novel with the working title “A Party of Animals,” based on his life from birth to the end of college, for some thirty years. It was finally published as The Runaway Soul in 1991. Portions of this novel, contracted in 1961 to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, appeared first in The New Yorker, New American Review, and Esquire. The work exceeded two thousand pages in typescript, and it was estimated that Brodkey minimally had taken each page through fifteen revisions, some pages through dozens more.
Brodkey’s first book, First Love and Other Sorrows, earned the enthusiastic praise of John Cheever, Mark Schorer, Frank O’Connor, and other well-known figures. Critics were particularly impressed by Brodkey’s ability to structure syntax, commenting often on the intricacy of his punctuation and of its function in creating sentences whose parts interlock with a startling symmetry. Brodkey did not seek in his writing to depict so much as to create experience.
To analyze Brodkey’s sentences is a remarkable experience. Many of them exceed one hundred words. The best of them are structured like Gothic cathedrals: Words dash down the nave to the transept, and flying buttresses of clauses and phrases support their superb equilibrium; the mortar, intricately and indivisibly a part of the total structure, is the conscious, labored punctuation that Brodkey used as no other writers have. Brodkey’s punctuation is never incidental to his words; it is a fundamental part of the total structure he erects, and this structure is always a syntactic structure at which he has arrived consciously. The colon is among his favorite marks of punctuation. He uses it, as one critic has observed, tyrannically.
Brodkey’s most frequently cited story is “Sentimental Education,” an autobiographical piece that depicts the growing together of two college classmates who discover the wonders of their bodies, finally losing their virginity to each other. The sexual imagery is clear yet tasteful and restrained. Brodkey was intricate in his presentation of detail, clinically, objectively recounting all of his own most vivid memories from every conceivable point of view.
Most of his stories, like this one, reveal Brodkey struggling to discover Brodkey. It took him nearly thirty years to dredge up the first twenty years of his own life. Just as Eugene O’Neill retreated into his work space between 1939 and 1941 to confront the pain of his life as he wrote Long Day’s Journey into Night, Brodkey devoted himself to understanding himself, to sorting out all that is Brodkey, all that has gone into framing the being he was.
Brodkey was an intensely private person not because he wanted to project a persona, but rather because he was working full-time to discover the mysteries of his own existence. He shared these mysteries with readers only when he was ready, never until he was satisfied that what he was presenting was valid, honest, accurate. The absolutism of Brodkey’s intellectual integrity causes him to be misunderstood, but his concern was always more with art than with public image.
The first four stories of his First Love and Other Sorrows deal with adolescence and have been widely acclaimed as the best stories in the volume. His protagonist, a universal figure used metaphorically, is nameless. His sensitivity yields him insufferable pain but also enables him to achieve unique insights. Unhappy with his life and his surroundings in St. Louis, he pins his hopes on his intellect, on the sheer power of his brains. Yet that will not erase his childhood; rather, it may possibly assure the childhoods of his offspring. Many of the eighteen stories in Stories in an Almost Classical Mode deal with childlike perceptions of life. Some of the stories are the length of novellas. This tightly packed six-hundred-page book achieves a magnificence of language and interwoven structure.
Among Brodkey’s more notable achievements were his receipt of the Prix de Rome and the Brandeis Creative Arts Award in 1974, and of first place in the O. Henry short-story awards in 1975 and 1976. He also was a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome, of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and of the National Endowment for the Arts. In This Wild Darkness, he recorded in detail his reactions to being diagnosed HIV-positive and presented a chronicle of the progression of this status to full-blown acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Brodkey died in New York City in early 1996 as result of this disease.
Published a year after his death, The World Is the Home of Love and Death is an unfortunate epitaph. Blasted by reviewers for its careless pretentiousness–several stories are so loose and rambling that they seem like unedited rejects from The Runaway Soul–the book’s eleven stories are an uneven testimony to Brodkey’s brilliance.
On the surface, Brodkey was an intensely subjective writer, and his work is undeniably autobiographical. In his short fiction, he examined the entire span of his life microscopically, almost minute by minute, and the examination is so calculatedly detached, disinterested, and unbiased that it becomes an objective presentation of subjectivity. His invention, notable in his singular punctuation, was verbal as well. Brodkey used hyphens profusely to generate adjectivals ten or twelve words long. His narratives, which examine the past in order to understand all time and the inner self, established new modes of seeing and saying.