BOOKS / Playing a waiting game: Harold Brodkey is 63 and has Aids. Half his life was haunted by the promise of a novel that was eventually published in 1991. His new book is published this week

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The Independent Culture
IT WOULD be wrong to say that Harold Brodkey killed himself in the act of publishing, or that he could not survive the testing of his untested reputation, or anything quite like that, but he goes half way to encouraging such thoughts. In 1991, at the age of 61, Brodkey published his famously delayed first novel, The Runaway Soul (commissioned in 1964). Reviewers attacked it - one suggested death would have been a better career move. Less than two years later, Brodkey learnt he had Aids. A virus that, by his calculation, had been in his body for 20 years began to act against him. 'I maybe would have been able to live with HIV,' he says, 'in a kind of diminished way - but the attacks may have broken the system down. I don't know. It seems too much of a coincidence . . .'

Some people publish a novel, are saddened or pleased by its reception, then go on holiday, then write another, have children, write another. Life goes on. But imagine a writer who did not do that. Imagine just one novel; imagine its publication and reception expanding to fill a lifetime; imagine a vast, ridiculous, exhausting palaver going on for 25 years - great advances, sneak previews, mistaken newspaper reports of this novel's arrival. Think what this does to your understanding of a normal relationship between writer and reader, betwen writer and writer, your idea of reputation.

This is what happened with Brodkey. He published some celebrated short stories in 1958, and then the wait began. In New York, the gestation of Harold Brodkey's first novel was a famous, public thing, observed and parodied. (In Jay McInerney's Brightness Falls, the underachieving character of Victor Propp, for whom 'writing was self-inflicted torture, dejuener a blessed relief', was generally thought to be Brodkey-related.) For decades, Brodkey was famous for not having written a novel, and for being treated as if he had written a great one. For a long time, Harold Brodkey had a reputation for having a reputation.

Encouraged by the novelist Ellen Schwamm, whom he married a decade ago, he finished the book. It appeared. Americans, primed to welcome the Great American Novel, found themselves presented with something rather shocking and unpatriotic: a Great European Novel. It was big and difficult, and of an old-fashioned modernity and ambition. In language of constant reappraisal, a narrator whose life story much resembled Brodkey's went on at the reader for about 800 pages. The novel wanted to get to the heart of each fictional moment, to map its past and future, as well as its present. The book was often incomprehensible, and often boring, sometimes not. Sometimes, the reader would find himself face to face with something quite dazzling, and would not be quite sure if this was to do with the text, or just a hallucinatory moment inspired by a state of angry tiredness. The Runaway Soul, to use a phrase as awkwardly out of its time as the book, was avant garde.

Mostly, Brodkey's great novel was received very badly. Reviewers behaved as if they were exposing a serious business fraud. But Brodkey behaved well. According to those who were there, he remained courteous and cheerful, efficient in this freakish new role - the published novelist. But privately, he was exhausted. He travelled around Europe, lecturing and signing: London, Zurich, Barcelona, Vienna. He then returned to New York. 'I just collapsed,' he says. 'I thought it was age - just running out of steam. It was so difficult to write, so difficult to publish . . .'

Brodkey was HIV positive. Last spring, he was struck by pneumocystitis. Previously unaware of his HIV infection - via high-risk homosexual sex - suddenly he was in hospital and almost dying. He has since written: 'I'd never been ill that way. Again and again, it thudded to a level of horrendousness . . . and then thuddingly sank to a worse level still.'

BEFORE he talks, Brodkey has to finish his treatment. He has 'skin things and hair things and eye things . . . but not an illness'. The nurse who should have left by the time I arrive, hasn't quite. Brodkey's wife Ellen welcomes me into their apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and takes me into the living room, where her handsome husband is sitting in a social pose on a beautiful sofa - but with a mask on his face, connected by a tube to a machine that is feeding vapourised drugs into his lungs. The nurse is chatting in a cheerful way. It's impossible to organise an introduction under these circumstances, so Ellen Schwamm sits me in a chair facing the sofa. The room has a view south, simple wooden furniture, a big portrait of George Washington, decoy ducks.

Within seconds of the treatment's conclusion, the apparatus has gone. Schwamm has cleared away the machine. She has moved the table back to its place. It is like tidying away children's toys after the arrival of guests. The surgery becomes a living room. Harold Brodkey becomes a host, dressed in great style. You might think he was tired, but not unwell.

He talks softly, and he uses the word 'reputation' maybe 10 or 15 times an hour. He says it first within seconds, and then again soon after and then again. Reputation is Brodkey's subject. This is what goes into the fiction - what propels his well-hung, brilliant narrators - and this is how the author talks about himself, sitting in the middle of his pale sofa: I am interesting and different. I do matter. Have people noticed?

'I've been treated so badly, given no prizes, pushed off into a corner . . .' And then: 'In a certain sense I am the literary establishment . . .' He is said to suspect he has been recognised in restaurants when he has not been; he tells you that you are being 'suspicious' when you attempt to discuss his literary technique - but he is not necessarily immodest, and his voice is elegant and ironic and seductive. When quoting him you run the risk of making him sound madly boastful and unattractive, which he is not.

He talks of John Updike, and Mailer and Updike and Bellow and Updike and Updike. Eventually, you say: What is it about Updike?

'It's called loathing.' He laughs. 'I think he's a year younger than me - and much richer, and of course he doesn't have Aids.' Then he says: 'Please don't quote that unless you can make it sound charming.' It was, kind of.

FOLLOWING the experience of The Runaway Soul, Brodkey did not stop publishing. Strangely, he got the taste. Next week, a new novel will appear, Profane Friendship: the second in three years, the second in 64 years. This was mostly written before the onset of Aids, prompted by a financial award from a Venetian institution. It is a love story set in Venice. An American boy and an Italian boy first meet before the war, then again after. They have an intense homoerotic relationship. They meet again many years later when the Italian is an ageing film star: Mastroianni plus Brando.

Up to a point, this is the 'slick glamorous book' Brodkey claims to want to write (the narrator is allowed to generalise, to describe) but he has included a long section of moment- by-moment Runaway Soul-style prose - all pregnant dialogue, syntactical turmoil and italics that alert you to the word in a sentence that should be least emphasised. He 'frees the reference points of language from convention'; and he brings the whole thing to a halt.

It seems likely that Profane Friendship will not have the impact of two other pieces of writing he has published since his bout of pneumocystitis. Last summer, his longtime employers, The New Yorker, received an article that began, 'I have Aids'. (He had originally written it with the intention of sending it only to friends.) This is how the New Yorker's editor, Tina Brown, heard the news of his illness. Was he sure, she asked him, that he wanted it published? He said he was. She rang again the next day. Was he sure? Yes, he was.

The article had a great local and international impact, as did a more recent piece entitled 'Dying: An Update': thousands of letters, many gestures of affection and support; and in their country home in upstate New York, 'The local guys would put a hand on my shoulder, and say (in a kindly tone), 'Boy, you've got a nerve, Harold'.'

Brodkey says: 'Nothing I have ever written has been admired as much (he laughs) as the announcement of my death.'

A little later, in mid-flow, Brodkey stops, and paraphrases himself in a tone of mock self- pity. 'The pathos] 'I have Aids, my contemporaries don't like me, I have no family . . .'.'

IT'S NOT hard to see a connection between Brodkey's curiosity about reputation and a childhood in which his place in the world was far from fixed, where even the word 'mother' was ambiguous. It's not hard to understand the conversational - and fictional - stress he places on attributes that have to be acknowledged by others: height, strength, intelligence and what he calls 'genital standing'. He recalls that once, as a young man, he lay in Central Park, looking up at the sky, thinking, 'If only I'd been tall'. He got up to walk home, and then remembered that he was.

When he was born in 1930 in Staunton, Illinois, Harold Brodkey was given the name Aaron Weintraub. His mother died when he was two and he was adopted by his father's cousin's family. Following his mother's death, he did not speak for two and a half years.

'In the first household there was a red dog and in the second there was a black dog. In the first household I had a brother and in the second I had a sister. And in one I had a tall mother and in one I had a short mother . . . If someone says, 'Go back to your roots, Harold,' my root is silence.'

The infant Brodkey was forced to understand the new language of a new household, and this, he says, later accounted for his great speed at learning. He could decipher. 'I learnt to read in about 30 seconds . . . I was so abominably bright as a child there was no limit to my social acceptability. If I played with a child, went home with them, their mother was immensely honoured.' What does this do to you? 'It fucks you up. Ha] What d'you think? You can see it in the prose.'

Around the age of about 12, Brodkey became 'terribly pretty'. His father by adoption, seriously ill, began sleeping in his bedroom 'and carrying on. It never got very far. I mean, it was more like being army buddies or something. But it was embarrassing. I wasn't trapped. My real father was alive, he would have killed him, I could have gone to him. It's not like a television mini-drama. It was me, and people listened to me. It was a case of being nice to him and bearing it for a while, then saying, 'Look, it's got to stop'. And I did finally. And he started killing himself. He started fiddling with his medicines. He blamed me for his dying, his wanting to die.' A night out was tricky: 'If I went out to spend an evening with a girl, my adopted mother might be suicidal. If I had a close male friend, my adopted father might be suicidal.' He laughs a bit.

He went to Harvard, cheating on the entrance exam - downwards. Once there, 'I didn't buy the text books, I didn't study, and still these grades. When you talked to me, I didn't know anything.' He married his first wife, they moved to New York in 1953, and they had a daughter. Brodkey wrote the New Yorker stories that were later collected in

First Love and Other Sorrows. His literary reputation began.

Following his divorce in 1960, he also seems to have had a rather grand sexual reputation. He hints at literary sexual advances that he had to rebuff - behaviour that partly explains, suggests Brodkey, New York's hostility to him; he has alleged that he was the original for the libidinous devil in John Updike's The Witches of Eastwick; there is also a Marilyn Monroe story: 'Now, where did you hear that? It lasted about 40 minutes . . . Let's not. She's dead.'

He had two long homosexual relationships, one at college, and another in the late Sixties. He was also living with a man in the late Seventies. He dates his HIV infection to a briefer liaison in 1974 (which would mean an unusual, but not unprecedented, length of incubation).

He talks of his gay life as if driven more by intellect and obligation than desire; it may be that Profane Friendship's homosexuality accounts for its quick composition: 'In terms of sexuality, it's more interesting to be party to a woman's orgasm and - it's far more than you deserve to know - the male orgasm doesn't interest me. I never got past a certain point. In literary terms, the homosexual thing is vastly easier to write about. Look, if you imagine, back at your hotel, picking somebody up - if it's a woman it's considerably more shapeless an event than if you pick up a man . . .'

IN RADICAL GAY circles in New York, Harold Brodkey - middle-class, married - is simply 'not homosexual enough'.

'When I wrote the first Aids piece, I just thought of an Aids community, and all of us in one lifeboat, all of us being Tinkerbells: 'Save me] Save me]' It's not like that. There's a tremendous amount of generosity and goodness going on, but rather a lot of competition - and there are political issues. My homosexuality is of the wrong sort, or I'm of the wrong sort.'

He does get involved, but not to the degree that part of him would like to. 'I'd love to have the kind of energy that would let me go out and raise money, charm people, be non-neglible.' He is now not well enough, but he has long distrusted his own inactivity: 'I didn't march in the Sixties. I never played an instrument in a jazz band like Woody Allen or Clinton.'

Brodkey never really travelled. (He is

rather impressed by your own transatlantic journey, and seems willing to be re-excited each time by long-distance telephone calls: 'Isn't modern life astounding]') Instead, he waited, and the world waited, and the big book eventually came.

It's not, he says, like saving lives in the Third World. 'Do that, and you take up a certain amount of space, but the commercial deal with the universe is very clear. Whereas it was never clear in my case. People feel sorry for me that I'm going to die - in some ways it's too late.'

There is an antique sign in the room that reads, 'Deeds Not Words'. 'I get quite weepy,' says Brodkey. 'I'll be lying on the couch watching television, watching a newscast, and Ellen will say, 'What's the matter?' And I'll say, 'I never covered a war.' '

'Profane Friendship' is published on Thursday by Jonathan Cape at pounds 15.99