Stories in an Almost Classical Mode

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1841

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...

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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 characters want not merely to possess them but to become one with them. Brodkey first achieved critical recognition with the story First Love and Other Sorrows (the word “other” indicates that love and sorrow are synonymous in his lexicon), and many of his subsequent stories have been variations on the theme of that youthful opus. The theme is that the pain of love is commensurate with the pleasure it brings. Happiness and unhappiness in love relationships are two sides of the same coin: One cannot have one without the other, although everyone thinks that his or her case is the exception. It may be that when Brodkey calls his new book Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, he is alluding to old love tragedies such as those of Romeo and Juliet, Héloïse and Abelard, and Paolo and Francesca da Rimini. It would be fair to say that Brodkey’s stories are “almost” but not completely in this classical mode, because either the star-crossed lovers are not a conventional couple or else the seed of their tragedy is not of the species that will blossom into the antithesis of the love theme in many of the world’s famous dramas, poems, and grand operas.

Several of Brodkey’s stories deal with tentative youthful homosexual relationships. Some, such as the title story of the collection, deal with love-hate relationships between relatives. In a story called “Innocence,” Brodkey does present a conventionally matched pair of young heterosexual lovers, but the last twenty pages describe a type of lovemaking that would be difficult to imagine going on between Romeo and Juliet or immortalized by Pyotr Tchaikovsky in a symphonic poem. In “Hofstedt and Jean—and Others,” the lovers are a forty-five-year-old college professor and a twenty-year-old coed who has developed a crush on him while listening to him read poetry in a course on Romantic literature; the professor goes into the affair knowing full well that it is foredoomed by the age differences. What most of Brodkey’s stories have in common is the premise that human love, like human happiness in general, is a rare and transient phenomenon.

Brodkey has frequently been compared with Proust, a master of prose and one of the world’s greatest novelists. Like Proust, Brodkey is Jewish. He had a sickly, neurasthenic childhood and is abnormally susceptible to pleasure and pain because of his hypersensitive nerves. He deliberately imitates the French master in his attempt to recapture the “specific and volatile” essence of the past—something far beyond mere recollection. He is a perfectionist.

Like Proust, Brodkey has a fascination with femininity and with all aspects of love, including homosexual love. His attitude that love is like a disease, with stages of incubation, crisis, and recuperation, seem to come directly from Proust. One of the outstanding features of Brodkey’s prose style immediately invites comparison with Proust: the bold, inspired use of metaphors and similes, a gift which Aristotle considered the unmistakable mark of genius. Here are a few examples of Brodkey’s striking figures of speech:On his way to see her, not knowing what he would find, his heart and nerves went rackatty-clack like a half-empty train rushing through the countryside at night. He loved and suffered with a singleness of purpose that reminded Avram of the curved, thin legs of French antiques. When we looked at each other, there would be small, soft puffs of feeling as of toy explosions or sparrows bathing in the dust. But her feelings when they were present were very strong, they came in gusts, huge squalls of heat as if from a furnace with a carelessly banging door . . .

It is easy to see why Brodkey has been called “an American Proust,” but the question whether he really deserves to be elevated to that rarefied stratum is moot. On the basis of what Brodkey has published, it is at least premature to rank him with an author such as Proust. There are stylistic similarities, but Proust has had an influence, for better or for worse, on writers all over the world. Proust’s writing has a haunting, evocative, premeditatedly musical quality which Brodkey rarely equals and apparently does not strive for. Brodkey’s prose is serviceable; it does not, like Proust’s, have the power to make the reader thrill with delight at its pure perfection and seeming effortlessness of execution. Brodkey’s prose resembles that of Vladimir Nabokov in works such as Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969) and Speak, Memory (1966) more than that of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981). Except for the occasional striking image, Brodkey’s writing is generally more functional than poetic, probably reflecting a difference in literary values in a different time and country.

Proust’s long, retrospective masterpiece re-creates a whole irrevocably vanished world, with its carriages, servants, fashions, manners, interests, and aristocratic social gatherings. This, after all, is what gives Proust’s work its lasting value and what makes him a “great” writer rather than merely an accomplished craftsman. Brodkey has not shown any outstanding talent for observation of the world around him. He seems tightly locked up inside himself. His stories often deal with only two principal characters in a sort of limbo. When he writes about a love affair taking place at Harvard University, it might just as well be Yale or Princeton or Oregon State. It is impossible to think of a truly great fiction writer whose work does not have a strong feeling of time and place. Opening one of Charles Dickens’ novels, for example, is like opening magic casements on Victorian England. There is nothing comparable in Harold Brodkey unless it is to be found in his long-awaited “Party of Animals,” an immense novel that has engaged his attention for many years.

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.

Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 366

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.

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