Aids claims Brodkey, 'America's Proust'

Click to follow
HAROLD BRODKEY, the American novelist who died of Aids-related illnesses at his Manhattan home on Friday, was a literary phenomenon. For much of his career, he was famous for not having written a novel.

Described by critic Harold Bloom as "the American Proust", the 65-year- old author kept the world waiting 32 years for his first novel, The Runaway Soul (he wrote only two). During all that time, he used his unabashed self-assurance and great personal charm to stoke the fires of his own legend - so successfully that he was accepted, at his own estimation, as the Great American Novelist-in-waiting.

This reputation rested on a fairly slender base: a first book of short stories, First Love and Other Sorrows, published in 1958, and a long career of fine contributions to the New Yorker magazine. In 1993, in a remarkably brave article, Brodkey wrote that he had Aids and was dying. He contracted the disease, he believed, almost 20 years earlier, during one of a number of homosexual relationships in the 1960s and 70s.

His article provoked an extraordinary response. "Nothing I have ever written," he told the Independent on Sunday journalist Ian Parker, "has been admired as much as the announcement of my death."

The literary world loves a sacred monster, but even so Brodkey's earlier self-promotion made him, from a distance, rather hard to like. In interviews he would offer such autobiographical titbits as the fact that his childhood IQ test produced a result so high that "they brought in a battery of psychologists who said I was from another planet".

When a second collection of stories, The Abundant Dreamer, was published in 1988, D J Enright wrote a critical review in the New York Review of Books, and Brodkey replied with a 9,000-word diatribe, accusing Enright of personal malice.

After the first 25 years had elapsed, his publisher Random House got tired of waiting for the novel. The author and his non-existent book were notorious, parodied in other novels. Jay McInerney is one of several who were supposed to have based a character on Brodkey. But as Brodkey moved through three or four other optimistic publishers, still with the great work undelivered, his advances kept going up and up.

And when The Runaway Soul finally appeared, in 1991, its reception was mixed: Salman Rushdie was among those who defended the book, calling it "an epic of the interior world... worth a hundred safe little well-made books", but many others seemed ready to pay the author back for his years of self-promotion and comments often verged on the vicious. One American critic is reported to have said that "death would have been a smarter career move".

It's unlikely that even the cruellest critic would have made that remark two years later, when Brodkey announced that he had Aids. He faced the knowledge of his own demise with good sense: "I don't think the death sentence bothers me. I don't see why it should more than before. I have had little trouble living with the death warrant aspect of life until now."

Brodkey's childhood had been blighted by the death of his mother when he was only two and the deaths, only a few years later, of the distant cousins who became his surrogate parents. Much of his best fiction arose from the pain of that early double-orphaning. In his writing about his own death, he showed the world extraordinary courage.