(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Harold Brodkey 1930-1996

(Born Aaron Roy Weintraub) American short story writer, essayist, novelist, poet, and memoirist.

Brodkey is acknowledged as a formidable stylist whose prose is characterized by grandiose metaphor, intense lyricism, and minute descriptions of emotions and events. In his fiction, Brodkey generally eschews plot and linear time, preferring instead to produce accumulations of insights and feelings about small but important incidents in the lives of his characters. Most of his writing is concerned with reconciling personal tragedy through reminiscences of his childhood and adolescence, during wich Brodkey endured the death of his mother and adoptive parents. A major theme in Brodkey's fiction involves the loss of innocence and the struggle to regain grace.

Biographical Information

Born on October 25, 1930, Brodkey grew up in Alton, Illinois, a small town about twenty-five miles from St. Louis. Much of Brodkey's work draws from his childhood experiences and familial relationships with his adoptive parents and sister. In 1948 he enrolled at Harvard University and earned his B.A. in 1952. His first collection of short stories, First Love and Other Sorrows (1957), garnered favorable critical attention. In the next few decades, he published short fiction, poetry, and essays in such periodicals as the New Yorker, Esquire, and the Partisan Review. He was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1984 and a Guggenheim fellowship in 1987. Brodkey worked as a staff writer at the New Yorker from 1987 until his death from complications from AIDS in 1996. He wrote about his illness and impending death in a series of autobiographical essays that appeared in the New Yorker and were collected in the volume This Wild Darkness: Story of My Death (1996).

Major Works

The nine stories in Brodkey's initial collection, First Love and Other Sorrows, are composed in the slick, realistic manner characteristic of fiction published in the New Yorker, where eight of these pieces first appeared. Brodkey utilized events from his own life to depict familiar experiences of childhood, college romance, marriage, and parenthood. All of the stories in his next collection, Women and Angels (1985), focus upon the emerging consciousness and imagination of Wiley Silenwicz, a sensitive prodigy who serves as Brodkey's persona. Wiley reappears as the protagonist of his long-awaited novel, The Runaway Soul (1991), which appeared to mixed reviews amongst literary critics. Another collection of short fiction, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode (1988), contains twenty-five years of previously published work and exhibits radical changes in his writing, from carefully-crafted tales of middle-class Jewish life to highly metaphorical, visionary stories that attempt to recreate the sensations of childhood and adolescence. Brodkey's long-time love of Venice inspired Profane Friendship (1994) the story of an intense love affair with an American novelist and Italian actor. His firsthand account of his impending death from AIDS, This Wild Darkness is considered one of Brodkey's more accessible and powerful achievements.

Critical Reception

Although some critics faulted Brodkey for inadequate plot and character development and a narrow range of subject matter, others lauded his ability to render nuances of perception and complex psychological and moral states. Reviewers have expressed mixed opinions on his highly personal, almost confessional style: some have commended his unflinching and powerful insights on every aspect of his life; others consider it self-indulgent, frustrating, and tedious. Yet most critics contend that his treatment of such common life experiences as childhood, sexuality, adolescence, marriage, and parenthood is unique. He has often been compared to Marcel Proust in his interest in every minute detail of his life and his utilization of memory in his work.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

First Love and Other Sorrows (short stories) 1957

Women and Angels (short stories) 1985

A Poem about Testimony and Argument (poetry) 1986

Stories in an Almost Classical Mode (short stories) 1988

The Abundant Dreamer (short stories) 1989

The Runaway Soul (novel) 1991

Profane Friendship (novel) 1994

This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death (memoir) 1996

The World Is the Home of Love and Death: Stories (short stories) 1997

My Venice (essays, short stories, memoirs) 1998

Sea Battles on Dry Land (essays) 1999

Sean French (review date 6 October 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: French, Sean. “Scientific Fiction.” New Statesman & Society 2, no. 70 (6 October 1989): 44.

[In the following review, French offers a laudatory assessment of The Abundant Dreamer.]

Harold Brodkey has an extraordinary, almost subterranean, reputation among a small group of readers and critics in the United States. This seems strange at first because, though Brodkey must now be in his fifties, his reputation is based on a virtual handful of short stories as well as the rumours about a novel that Brodkey has been working on for many years.

Furthermore, the subject matter of this, Brodkey's second collection of stories [The Abundant Dreamer], is the standard fare of modern American short fiction, especially that which appears in the New Yorker: the love affairs and family relationships of wealthy, East Coast, highly educated, often Jewish people.

Also, like his fellow New Yorker contributor, John Updike, Brodkey is little interested in matters of form. There is no writing about writing here, no preoccupation about the artificiality of the fictional form. In an old-fashioned way, Brodkey is using his literary tools to explore reality.

It all seems very traditional but it is Brodkey's very ordinariness that makes these stories so startling. “His Son, in His Arms, in Light, Aloft” consists of nothing but a man's...

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Edward Rothstein (review date 15 February 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rothstein, Edward. “Look Homeward, Angel.” New York Review of Books 37, no. 2 (15 February 1990): 36-41.

[In the following review, Rothstein places Stories in an Almost Classical Mode within the context of Brodsky's oeuvre, deeming it an “unsettling book, far different from Brodkey's first collection.”]

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 comment 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 snap-shots 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.

The ego here is as enormous as the obsession, the effort as evident as the perception. There is something awkward about the narrative even when it seems to work: we are never permitted to forget the fictional energy being expended, and are meant to admire it as much as we are to be drawn to its object. The erotic event becomes an expression of ego and industry even in the prose used to describe it; its intricate machinery is made more artificial by the self-conscious mixture of conversational and high-flown prose.

But the story is also meant, as it proclaims, to define something new in Brodkey's fiction. It is something to be found in the contrast between the illuminated apparition of Orra as people see her—her beauty is legendary, we are told, her very name a Hebraic allusion to light—and the darker world of consciousness behind that light; the contrast, that is, between the face she presents to her lover, and the hidden face he is pridefully obsessed with bringing to light through the “vast spreading darkness and silence of sea”—his portentous metaphor for Orra's inner physical and mental world.

The preoccupation with bringing the hidden internal life of the mind to light haunts every story Brodkey has written since “Innocence.” All are connected in one way or another to the same central characters, and are mostly told in the voice of Wiley Silenowicz—a man of many wiles, a sort of Ulysses of inner space, as one story suggests. Wiley is the narrator who brings Orra to orgasm, a climactic event, which, other stories suggest, is part of a longer biographical odyssey that takes its traveler through the torturous lives of a grotesque family.

We piece together a history, which varies from tale to tale only in small details. Wiley's mother dies before he is two, bringing to an end a fragile, almost Edenic life. His father, a nearly illiterate junkman, a “squirrel-faced clown” who once committed murder, beats the infant into a sickly silence until the child is literally sold into adoption. Wiley nearly dies; he refuses to eat, vomiting everything fed him. A nurse gives him her unqualified love, and saves his life, and then she is dismissed, partly out of jealousy, by the adoptive mother. The adoptive parents have their own sordid past—including the mysterious deaths of two infants, at least one left in the care of an older daughter, Nona, whose greatest pleasure in life seems to be to inflict pain. Wiley's stepmother, Lila, is a self-confessed failure as a mother but demonically proud; his father, S.L., is a buffoonish businessman who feels threatened by the preternatural intelligence of his adopted son. By the time Wiley has survived his early years and has, by growing up in this household, come to his peculiar understanding of the ways of the world, Lila and S.L. also die in great pain, the mother after extended suffering. Wiley goes on to Harvard, we surmise from these tales, where he tries to bring Orra to orgasm, and where he also bears the indelible marks of his past.

These accounts seem close to autobiographical truth—Brodkey, in interviews, has suggested as much—and in one story, “A Story in An Almost Classical Mode,” Wiley is put aside and a very similar child named Harold Brodkey takes over. We are, I think, to take these stories less as fictional constructions than as attempts to discover some personal truth. They do not present themselves as fiction; and the facts presented are disturbing: Nona physically tortures her infant brother, bloodying his skull; the mother wrestles mentally with her growing son, demanding his sacrificial homage; the nurse sings to the infant Wiley, coaxing applesauce into his bile-filled mouth. We often read not out of novelistic curiosity but out of some other urge, more troubled and troubling, which approaches voyeurism.

Presenting themselves as versions of the horrific truth, as reconstructions of times past, these later stories are hardly “classical” in narrative or shape. Most do not have plots with conflicts or problems to be resolved. More often they are overflowing records of experience—not just the experience of the characters, but the experience of the narrator in attempting to reconstruct their experience. Wiley spins out five pages on a fight he had with his mother when he was five, twenty pages on Orra's orgasm, twenty-five on the sensations of riding a bicycle with a friend. The storytelling is obsessed, contorted, tireless; images and clauses accumulate. Being on one's knees before an event means one has less peripheral vision. These tales can make the reader feel like a prisoner in an airless cave, forced to watch the shadows on the wall, trying—with Brodkey—to imagine the source of the light.

There are times when we wonder if there is any light at all. “Largely an Oral History of My Mother” begins:

There is something odd about voices in memory—thinking of memory as a chamber, a state or condition of mind, and the mind's running like a machine or a track star, that sort of state: the voice in there,...

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Gabriel Josipovici (review date 15 November 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Josipovici, Gabriel. “Straining after Glory.” Times Literary Supplement n.s. (15 November 1991): 5-6.

[In the following mixed review, Josipovici considers The Runaway Soul an ambitious but deeply flawed novel.]

Harold Brodkey is a very modern phenomenon. For over twenty years he has been famous in literary circles not so much for what he has written as for what he has been in the process of writing, a massive novel for which publishers have been giving him large advances but which he has been unable or unwilling to finish. Now at last it is out, and we can all decide for ourselves what the emperor's clothes are made of.


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Robert M. Adams (review date 21 November 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Adams, Robert M. “A Good Minestrone.” New York Review of Books 38, no. 19 (21 November 1991): 3-5.

[In the following positive review, Adams provides a stylistic examination of Brodkey's The Runaway Soul.]

Harold Brodkey's big book The Runaway Soul appears before us trailing a long prepublication history, many high commendations, and a counterfoil of questioning if not derogatory comments. Associated and overlapping materials have already been published in two collections of short stories (First Love and Other Sorrows, 1958, and Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, 1989). There has also been an extraordinary amount of gossip and...

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Patrick Parrinder (review date 21 November 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Parrinder, Patrick, “An American Genius.” London Review of Books 13, no. 22 (21 November 1991): 23.

[In the following derogatory review, Parrinder disparages The Runaway Soul as “formless, plotless and graceless.”]

‘This man has been called America's greatest writer,’ boasts Cape's press release. ‘On the evidence of two collections of short stories, he has been compared to Proust, Wordsworth and Milton.’ After more than twenty-five years' labour, he has finally published ‘the most eagerly awaited first novel of all time’. Sadly, The Runaway Soul is only the most overweight first novel of all time. A sort of Midwestern version...

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Paul Binding (review date 29 November 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Binding, Paul. “Worlds Turn.” New Statesman & Society 4, no. 179 (29 November 1991): 40.

[In the following review, Binding offers a mixed assessment of The Runaway Soul.]

The great contemporary American psychologist, James Hillman, sees soul as “the poetic basis of mind” that converts “events into experiences” and stands in intimate and perpetual relation to death. “The soul is not unconscious … The psyche is constantly making intelligible statements.”

Such thinking surely permeates Brodkey's long, ambitious, questing novel. With indomitable energy, it attempts to find how events, whether “true” or not, are...

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Merle Rubin (review date 18 December 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Long-Awaited Novel Flatly Fails to Deliver.” Christian Science Monitor 84, no. 17 (18 December 1991): 13.

[In the following review, Rubin asserts that “The Runaway Soul turns out to be as bad as the most pessimistic critic might have predicted.”]

Reviewers seem to have been sharpening their knives in anticipation of the almost comically long-delayed debut of Harold Brodkey's first novel, which has finally been published after nearly 30 years of writing and revising. Brodkey was accorded the status of being an important writer working on a major novel for some three decades, with only two collections of short stories (one published...

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Robert Gorham Davis (review date 30 December 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Davis, Robert Gorham. A review of The Runaway Soul. New Leader 74, no. 14 (30 December 1991): 30-3.

[In the following review, Davis criticizes what he preceives as pretension, posturing, and lack of coherence in The Runaway Soul.]

Harold Brodkey's unreadable magnum opus [The Runaway Soul], a great disservice to literature, consists of 835 remorselessly difficult pages, 600 words to the page, and is so literally weighty that it is best read in bed supported by a pillow. Brodkey has told interviewers that he worked on the novel for 27 years, an average production rate of less than three pages a month. His caterpillar pace has done strange things to...

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Harold Brodkey with James Linville (interview date winter 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brodkey, Harold, and James Linville. “Harold Brodkey: The Art of Fiction CXXVI.” Paris Review 121, no. 33 (winter 1991): 51-91.

[In the following interview, Brodkey discusses his time at Harvard, his creative process, and his attitude toward fame.]

For the past thirty years Harold Brodkey has pursued a path unique in American letters. After publication of a volume of finely made short stories written in his twenties, First Love and Other Sorrows (1958), many of which first appeared in The New Yorker and were acknowledged to be of outstanding promise, Brodkey began composition of an extended prose work, portions of which have been published in...

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David Bromwich (review date 27 January 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bromwich, David. A review of The Runaway Soul. New Republic 206, no. 4 (27 January 1992): 30-4.

[In the following review, Bromwich offers a stylistic analysis of The Runaway Soul.]

The words “narcissist” and “solipsist” are sometimes used interchangeably, but they have very different meanings. A narcissist sees himself in everything. A solipsist sees everything in himself. The narcissist has a chance of becoming a great artist, in genres related to the monologue. The solpsist is more likely to act with some human decency, notwithstanding a certain blindness to the reality of other people. Harold Brodkey frankly presents himself as a narcissist...

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Lorna Sage (review date 1 April 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sage, Lorna. “The World and I.” Times Literary Supplement n.s. (1 April 1994): 21.

[In the following review, Sage submits a favorable assessment of Profane Friendship.]

That he has set this tale in Venice makes Harold Brodkey seem more “placeable” in all sorts of ways. His first novel, Runaway Soul—so long-gestated, so notorious in advance, so aggressively take-it-as-brilliant or leave it—suffered horribly (some thought wonderfully) from his transparent determination to wrestle himself inwardly into the role of the Great American writer. This time he is taking a step back, putting it in a certain perspective—“it” being the same old...

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Colm Tóibín (review date 26 May 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Toíbín, Colm. “Insiderish.” London Review of Books 16, no. 10 (26 May 1994): 7.

[In the following review, Tóibín compares The Runaway Soul to Profane Friendship, maintaining the latter novel “does not match up to The Runaway Soul in style or scope; it is too long and self-indulgent; some of it is only half-imagined.”]

One of the early chapters in Harold Brodkey's first novel The Runaway Soul is entitled ‘The River’. The narrator, after his father's death, returns to a landscape which he had known in early childhood. Some of the prose is plain and clear: ‘At the mouth of the stream, where it emptied into the inlet,...

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Rita D. Jacobs (review date winter 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jacobs, Rita D. A review of Profane Friendship. World Literature Today 69, no. 1 (winter 1995): 137-38.

[In the following review, Jacobs deems Profane Friendship “an ambitious but unsuccessful novel.”]

Set in 1930s Venice during narrator Niles O'Hara's childhood and adolescence, Profane Friendship presents itself at first as a love story that, as it unfolds, becomes an indulgent and obsessive tale of homoerotic fascination. That the setting suggests such a clear allusion to von Aschenbach and Tadzio's journeys through these same canals and dark calles is unfortunate in that Harold Brodkey's novel falls so far short of the magic...

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Hilton Als (review date 24 July 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Als, Hilton. “Birth in Venice.” New Yorker 71, no. 21 (24 July 1995): 88-89.

[In the following review, Als commends Brodkey's unique narrative style.]

A penchant for projecting my life into the margins of almost any writer's text was tempered when, at the age of twenty-three, I discovered Harold Brodkey's fiction, in this magazine. The publication of his long story “Nonie,” in 1984, alerted me to the presence of one who clearly owned the page his work appeared on:

Did Nonie feel real pain? Nonie was often miserable psychically—and she had bad monthly cramps. She was dramatic over scratches, cuts, her periods, and...

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Andrew Scull (review date 15 November 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Scull, Andrew. “Losing the One You Love.” Times Literary Supplement n.s. (15 November 1996): 15.

[In the following review, Scull unfavorably compares Brodkey's This Wild Darkness to Mark Doty's Heaven's Coast.]

Harold Brodkey was a marvellous person: physically irresistible, profoundly original, immensely intelligent, an extraordinary conversationalist—someone who inevitably incurred the unremitting envy and wrath of many members of the mean-spirited New York literary scene, as well as a well-deserved if insufficient fame that transcended national boundaries. And he was besides “a wonderful and a great writer”. Or so he tells us.


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Colm Tóibín (review date 6 February 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Toíbín, Colm. “A House Full of No One.” London Review of Books 19, no. 3 (6 February 1997): 3, 5-6.

[In the following review, Tóibín offers a mixed assessment of This Wild Darkness.]

Harold Brodkey died of AIDS in January 1996; Oscar Moore died in September 1996. Brodkey wrote about his illness for the New Yorker; Moore for the Guardian. Obviously, when they wrote their articles neither of them knew when they would die, but since each article is dated, it is now possible for the reader of these two books to know how long they have left, and there is a stark, urgent edge to their accounts of what it is like to live with AIDS. They mean what...

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Christopher Cahill (review date 13 September 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cahill, Christopher. Review of This Wild Darkness. America 177, no. 6 (13 September 1997): 35-37.

[In the following mixed review, Cahill asserts that This Wild Darkness “is less difficult than Brodkey's other works, and though it is not his best book it is his most approachable.”]

We won't have Harold Brodkey to kick around anymore. This he makes clear in his first posthumous book, This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death, a series of brilliant, inane, self-absorbed, self-reflective essays and ramblings first published in The New Yorker as he died from complications due to AIDS. Included in the jumble are assorted theories,...

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Heller McAlpin (review date 19 October 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McAlpin, Heller. “Obsession.” Los Angeles Times Book Review n.s. (19 October 1997): 14.

[In the following review, McAlpin views the stories in The World Is the Home of Love and Death as uneven and a disappointing continuation of Brodkey's earlier work.]

Shortly before his death from AIDS in January 1996, Harold Brodkey wrote in his memoir, This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death, that “I don't expect to be understood. I like what I've written, the stories and two novels. If I had to give up what I've written in order to be clear of this disease, I wouldn't do it.”

Thirty years elapsed between the publication of...

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Ronald T. Curran (review date winter 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Curran, Ronald T. Review of This Wild Darkness. World Literature Today 72, no. 1 (winter 1998): 145-46.

[In the following review, Curran considers Brodkey's unflinching and unsentimental exploration of his struggle with AIDS in This Wild Darkness.]

“Being ill like this combines shock—this time I will die—with a pain and agony that are unfamiliar, that wrench me out of myself. It is like visiting one's funeral, like visiting loss in its purest and most monumental form, this wild darkness, which is not only unknown but which one cannot enter as oneself. No one belongs entirely to nature, to time: identity was a game. … At times I cannot...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Dolan, D. J. “Twilight of the Idol.” Nation 262, no. 12 (25 March 1996): 35-6.

Comments on Brodkey's place in contemporary literature and offers personal reminiscences of the author's friendship with Brodkey.

Mannes-Abbott, Guy. Review of Profane Friendship, by Harold Brodkey. New Statesman & Society 7, no. 297 (8 April 1994): 37-8.

Positive review of Profane Friendship.

Mano, D. Keith. “Harold Brodkey: The First Rave.” Esquire 87, no. 518 (January 1977): 14-15.

Explores Brodkey's narrative and poetic style.


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