The American way of death

This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death by Harold Brodkey, Fourth Estate, pounds 14.99

Harold Brodkey's story, propagated as much by himself as his many acolytes, is well known. The Jewish boy from the mid-west heads for New York, writes a handful of limitlessly promising short stories and then spends the next three decades living off his reputation. Part of this is to do with legendary powers of physical attraction (Brodkey's countless juvenile amours are supposed to have included a fling with Marilyn Monroe). Much more, though, has to do with an unpublished masterpiece - the subject of fevered press and party gossip - whose composition takes up the greater part of its author's adult life.

What follows is a savage parable of literary ambition. The Runaway Soul, finally presented to the critics in 1991, gets indifferent notices. To the indignity of not being acclaimed as a genius (a second novel, Profane Friendship, does no better) is added serious illness, belatedly diagnosed as Aids.

This Wild Darkness, completed shortly before Brodkey's death in January of this year, assembles a number of fragmentary impressions from the last three years of his life. Hospitalisation, diagnosis, rural interludes in upstate New York, a trip to Venice, some valedictory remarks. In life Brodkey's subject was himself, and it wasn't to be expected that death would change the habit of a lifetime. This is not a cheap shot. Brodkey's mission, projected through 40 years or so of contributions to the New Yorker, was to prove both to neutral onlookers and himself that he was a great writer: The story of his death, inevitably, is a desperate final grab for the laurel wreath - part defiance, part bluster and nearly all narcissism.

The sheer scope of Brodkey's self-love may come as a shock to anyone who hasn't previously witnessed the spectacle of an American literary lion preening himself in public. There is, for instance, his habit of considering people mostly in terms of their relation to himself (his wife gets apostrophised as "My human credential"); there are the sexual look- backs ("I cannot find in memory a day in my life without some erotic drama or other"), not to mention some over-cooked epigrams about the human condition: "Life is a kind of horror"; "History is a scandal, as are life and death."

One tries to remember, while reading this nonsense, that these are the thoughts of a desperately sick man dying from an illness whose implications and - Brodkey being Brodkey - mythical properties hung over every moment of his waking life. But one ought also to bear in mind that Brodkey wrote it for publication and that he undoubtedly regarded it as a testimony to his ideals and beliefs.

This isn't to condemn the resulting 177 pages out of hand, or to ignore the inability of the author to answer back. For when Brodkey gets onto the subject of his rural hideaway, figures from his childhood, shared confidences with his wife and doctor (an immensely decent-sounding man named Barry) or some of the differences between Britain and America - whenever he can stop talking about himself in fact - there are moments of awful clarity. Watching part of a bird's flight arc, for instance, "I feel myself shiver and swiftly break into clusters of flight. Sometimes the wind seems to enter me."

At bottom, though, This Wild Darkness is simply another of the many 20th- century exercises in benefit of clergy. Its sub-text, baldly stated, is that one is - or should be - allowed to do pretty much as one likes because one is an artist.

At times Brodkey makes this point directly, as when he tells his wife that "We are cowards and artists and are in flight and are and have to be awful people to get our work done", or decides that "a writer is alone, is a sacrificial beast and madman (or madwoman) and fool". To which you want to retort that no genuine artist ever lost anything by behaving like an ordinary person, and that even Proust presumably breathed the same air as his fellow Parisians.

There is a grimmer truth on display here, however. That is the complete inability of this post-modern, milk-and-water humanism, this refined, urban, liberal sensibility, to come to terms with the simple fact of mortality. Diagnosed as terminally ill, Brodkey records "What was strange was that all sense of presence, all sense of poetry and style, all sense of idea left me".

But what is strange about not being able to bring a sense of style to your own death? Enmeshed in the world of Manhattan literary parties and New Yorker back-scratching (at which he characteristically rails), Brodkey lost touch with the notion of ordinariness at a very early stage in his career. Now that it is over, the temptation to mark him down as another literary casualty laid low by a particular kind of urban artistic life is irresistible.

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