Stories in an Almost Classical Mode

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

It is hard to understand what Harold Brodkey meant by titling this collection Stories in an Almost Classical Mode. They certainly do not resemble the stories of O. Henry, Guy de Maupassant, or Anton Chekhov. In 1957, Brodkey published a collection of short stories under the title First Love and Other Sorrows which shows the strong influence of the finely polished stories of James Joyce in Dubliners (1914), a work which is undoubtedly a modern classic; however, the Joycean element in Brodkey’s writing has been diluted over the years, except for a propensity to play with language. The writer whose influence now seems paramount is one who is not associated with the short-story form at all: Marcel Proust. Brodkey, like Proust, is trying to get at the quintessence of experience and usually trying to recapture the past; like Proust, he can also be a bit annoying. The reader must be content, as when reading Proust, to travel slowly up a long, winding road of intricate prose without much assurance of being afforded any very spectacular view when he finally reaches the top. In fact, it is the journey and not the destination that is important. Brodkey’s earlier collection of short stories, which dealt mainly with the pains of an outsider growing up in homely, pedestrian St. Louis, Missouri, were classically clean and simple, but in thirty years Brodkey has come a long way from St. Louis.

One of the stories in the present collection is titled “A Story in an Almost Classical Mode.” It is natural to turn to this one in an attempt to deduce what is meant in the book’s title by the word “classical” and that even more perplexing qualifier “almost.” This is the only story in the collection that is not narrated by an anonymous voice or a fictitious persona. The narrator here is Harold Brodkey himself, and the viewpoint character is Brodkey at the age of thirteen. In other words, this seems to be a slice of undisguised autobiography. Assuming that this is the case, it reveals much about the author—although it does not immediately clarify what “classical mode” the story “almost” resembles.

“A Story in an Almost Classical Mode” is about Brodkey’s relationship with a woman who adopted him when he was only two years old. This woman saved him from almost certain death from neglect and physical abuse; however, she was not by any means a saint. Doris Brodkey is presented as exactly the kind of woman who has made the epithet “Jewish mother” synonymous with emotional bullying. She is always complaining—and she has something to complain about. She is dying of cancer. Her body has been horribly scarred by radiation treatments, and both her breasts have been amputated. Her friends and relatives have abandoned her. Her husband hates her. Young Harold does not like her much himself, but he feels obligated to her and doubly guilty because she is not even his real mother. Since he is her only audience, the whole weight of her guilt manipulation falls on his young shoulders. Finally, he makes a desperate effort to do what she has been asking him to do all along—that is, to put himself in her place. He bicycles into the woods and makes an all-out effort to imagine himself as his foster mother—as a middle-aged woman with no breasts who is dying of cancer. Being an exceptionally imaginative and intelligent boy, he actually succeeds in doing so; it is a kind of religious experience, a horrible epiphany. It leads to an improved relationship with Doris and even causes her to soften in such a way that her relations with her estranged friends and relatives begin to put forth new buds. Yet Harold has had to pay a heavy price for his spiritual gift to her. The story ends with the following words:I had a nervous breakdown when she died. . . . I don’t know all that I gained or lost, either. I know I was never to be certain I was masculine to the proper degree again. I always thought I knew what women felt. Make what use of this you like.

These few sentences reveal much about Brodkey as a man and as an artist. He is not afraid to reveal the naked truth about himself, nor is he afraid of hostile critics who can be counted upon to haul out the usual Freudian platitudes to explain him away. Evidently Brodkey has experienced so much pain and rejection in his lifetime that he thrives on it, like Brer Rabbit in the briar patch.

The single most striking feature of his work is his ability to depict female characters. He seems to have an obsession with women; his male...

(The entire section is 1841 words.)


(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Most of these stories, originally published between 1963 and 1988, though sometimes in significantly different form, will be familiar to readers who have followed Brodkey’s strange career. (About half of the stories first appeared in THE NEW YORKER, and several have been chosen for annual anthologies of outstanding stories.) Still, it is difficult to judge a writer’s work when it is scattered in periodicals. STORIES IN AN ALMOST CLASSICAL MODE will allow readers to make their own judgment: Is Brodkey, as his partisans declare, a genuinely major writer, or is he, as some skeptics have suggested, merely a creature of hype?

The truth, it may be, lies somewhere in between. The eighteen stories collected here, presented in the order in which they were written, are animated by a powerful intelligence and a distinctive style. Brodkey’s forte is the probing analysis of personal interaction, a kind of running commentary registering every nuance of motive and action. “She is speaking -- in a chatty, sort of pushily intelligent voice: she is playacting intelligence.” That is from a story called “Largely an Oral History of My Mother": Brodkey examines himself and others with merciless detachment and with a fineness of discrimination that sometimes becomes fussily obsessive (“largely” an oral history; stories “almost” in a classical mode: everything qualified to the point of pretension).

Brodkey’s greatest weakness is his excessive preoccupation with power. Family life (the area for many of these stories), social intercourse, sexual experience--wherever he turns, Brodkey sees a primal struggle for power. Not infrequently, this relentless emphasis becomes suffocating; the reader puts the book down for some fresh air. For all that, STORIES IN AN ALMOST CLASSICAL MODE is a book that no one who cares about contemporary fiction will want to miss.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. October 9, 1988, p. 91.

Chicago Tribune. September 25, 1988, XIV, p. 5.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, August 1, 1988, p. 1077.

Library Journal. CXIII, October 1, 1988, p. 100.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 25, 1988, p. 3.

The Nation. CCXLVII, October 17, 1988, p. 348.

The New Republic. CXCIX, October 24, 1988, p. 30.

New York. XXI, September 19, 1988, p. 54.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, September 18, 1988, p. 3.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, July 29, 1988, p. 221.

Time. CXXXII, October 17, 1988, p. 81.

The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, September 18, 1988, p. 5.