The Human Condition: The World is the Home of Love and Death

One of my favorite authors, Harold Brodkey.

A Portrait of the Artist as an Orphan
By Jonathan Rosen
Published: October 19, 1997

Harold Brodkey

The World is the Home of Love and Death Stories.

By Harold Brodkey.

312 pp. New York: Metropolitan Books/
Henry Holt & Company.

”The time-ridden tickling of the air and the rustle of real moments: wakefulness. I open my eyes and light overprints me, the boy in that room, seen-from-years-further-on, visible from the corner of my eyes in the present tense of the memory and from far away now as I write.”

All books, once published, live beyond the protective reach of their creators, but there is something particularly lonely about a posthumous book, arriving in the world a true orphan. There is also something magical, for here is the voice of the author, still speaking after death, reminding us, through its odd persistence, of the mysterious nature of writing. Harold Brodkey, who died last year, was obsessed with his own orphaned state and with the haunting, multiple voices of the past. This gives his posthumously published stories an added poignancy, an otherworldly echo oddly in tune with his literary ambitions.

Though there are a few sketchily executed exceptions, most of the stories in ”The World Is the Home of Love and Death” — certainly the best of them — involve the Silenowicz family, a group that will be familiar to Brodkey readers because it forms the core of his work. There is Wiley, Brodkey’s alter ego, the traumatized orphan who grows into the young, hypersensitive, arrogant author. There is Wiley’s adoptive father, the philandering, loving, irrational S. L., married to the seductive, cynical Lila. And there is Lila’s avenging daughter, Nonie, who appears in only one story here but who inflicts enough damage on Wiley to remain in the reader’s mind for the rest of the book.

It should be added that these character definitions immediately falsify Brodkey’s fictional intent, since the people who inhabit his stories are, like the stories themselves, in a continual state of flux — by turns (and sometimes simultaneously) enraged and gentle, crazy and sane, protective and cruel, abusive and kind. Brodkey is a difficult writer on many levels, and these stories are not always easy to read. Like all his work, they follow the minute shifts in his characters’ consciousness, as well as the shifts in the narrator’s own mind, more than they adhere to any narrative structure. They also feature speculative asides on the nature of memory and, by extension, the nature of fiction itself. The construction of these stories — the collaboration between past and present, teller and subject, real and remembered life — is partly their theme.

At his best, Brodkey makes the reader share his perception that people are only impersonating themselves. His stories have an infectious air, a kind of contagious paranoia. With all his dissecting asides, he forces an uncomfortable self-consciousness on the whole enterprise of reading, as if one had to become Harold Brodkey in order to read him. It’s hard not to feel tyrannized by this expectation and not to resent, as well, other authorial impositions.

But Brodkey’s style is a magnificent achievement. Before his death, the grandiose claims he made for himself and his much-hyped, long-delayed novel allowed some critics to declare that the emperor had no clothes. The truth is that, if anything, the emperor had too many clothes — and the unfortunate habit of wearing them all at the same time. Brodkey captured the inner poetry of consciousness, the outer music of the spoken voice, the vanity of the modern writer, the infidelity of the imagination, the haunting persistence of the past, the painful loss of family through death or the killing insights that come with maturity. Most of all, he captured the child’s world spinning inside the adult mind. Brodkey could do everything — except tell a story. But, as this collection makes clear, that was enough.

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