BOOK REVIEW / Pseudo-logical pseudo-stages: Natasha Walker on Harold Brodkey, a writer with much talent and greater reputation, but little to show for them. 'Profane Friendship' - Harold Brodkey: Jonathan Cape, 15.99 pounds

THERE WAS a time when it was quite possible to be excited about Harold Brodkey. In 1958, his first book of short stories First Love and other Sorrows was published. Mostly, they were immensely poised and polished with little going on inside them except successful literary pastiche. But there were so many memorable little gestures in them, and one or two of them were so good at voices which Brodkey could not have found easily - the voice of a black maid or a sad mother - that a reputation was made.

When The Abundant Dreamer appeared in 1988, the excitement was understandably greater. The faux-naif style with its reliance on familiar American models had changed. There was already a tendency towards pompous digressions that, like drunken collapses, would leave the reader sympathetic but embarrassed. But at their best the stories leapfrogged your embarrassment with their own sure step. Take the ending of a tale about a film director coming to terms with the death of his grandmother: 'She moves farther from the street, Rome, the camera; alone on the wide Baroque sweep of the steps, she climbs. She climbs with indignation, in solitude. The bystanders grow quiet. They stand silent and involved. Marcus sighs. She mounts, and it is the human spirit mounting. He presses his hands together . . .'

So what if it was overblown? It worked. The story explored all the mushy idealism of a man who confuses poses and pathos, as a film director might, in the most precise and lyrical montage; it teetered daringly, intelligently, between irony and self-exposure.

But already, things had begun to go wrong, because already Brodkey's novel was beginning to be described as long-awaited, announced in different catalogues with different names each season, and critics were beginning to take him up and celebrate his pose as a writer in a way that disregarded his still urgent need to prove himself. People didn't always laugh when he compared himself to Proust and Henry James, even though he still hadn't done anything good in a sustained way. His most unusual story had been the 30-page anatomy of an orgasm, 'Innocence', that was wonderfully like good sex - it came over as slack and breathless but was absolutely determined and rhythmic. But that was the kind of outrageously concentrated achievement that could never work on a larger scale.

His novel, published in 1992, disappointed all these various possibilities and all his readers except those who had loved the pose more than the prose anyway. Why did he abandon everything, the sweet, solemn idealism of his best stories, or the dense particularity of 'Innocence', or even the easy charm of his early writings? To say The Runaway Soul was unreadable was an understatement, it was anti-reader.

That novel took him 34 years to write, and seemed to lay the Brodkey story to rest. But suddenly here is another, which took him one year, fuelling the scepticism of those who felt the delay over The Runaway Soul was not over the writing but just for the hell of it. Profane Friendship is, unfortunately, often indistinguishable from The Runaway Soul in its style. We have the campy italics - 'He had a dreadfully foreign body', 'He would not go to church, but he loved Catholicism.' And we have the excessive abstractions: sensitivity, ignorance, intelligence, rottenness, malleability, longing, corruption, fatedness, readiness, vanity, effrontery, sophistication all on one randomly chosen page. We have the exhausting pussy-footing around an experience, a light or a kiss or a gesture, with piled up adverbs and adjectives that cancel each other out and repeated nouns that are never fleshed out. But this book is much more lucid than The Runaway Soul, in its depiction of a relationship between two boys, an American and an Italian, in Venice, and that lucidity shows us where Brodkey went so wrong.

It wasn't just a literary wrong- turning, a stylistic self-indulgence. It was a real failure of interest in anything more than poses. Sexual poses, aesthetic poses, moral poses, his characters can never rise above them: 'I did not dream of Onni . . .' the American boy muses, 'But if his body could have been flayed and peeled, unwrapped, and a glass forehead replace the skullbone behind the skin above his eyes so that I could have seen his sexual attitudes revealed in a pseudo-logical drama, as in a dream or as in a movie, tiny, bright-colored figures moving on blood-tinged platforms, pseudo-stages, explanatory, gracefully soliloquizing or gesturing . . . then I would have had my strongest desire.'

There's more to human life than this freezingly heartless sense of gesture, and more to literature too. All this insistence on pseudo-logical pseudo-stages makes one suspect, in a tired and angry way, that what one is reading is only a pseudo-novel. It's the product of a man who wanted desperately to write, and made that desire, that pose, stand in for a subject.

This final, disappointing revelation is probably the end of Brodkey's fictional career, although another end to the writing life is still being delivered to us in the disquisitions on his impending death from Aids that are appearing in the New Yorker. It's a tragic story, inimitably American, but when it's all over a lot of people will go back to The Abundant Dreamer and wonder again over those few stories that seemed to promise so much.

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