Famous Last Words

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 22 1996 3:30 AM

Famous Last Words

Harold Brodkey's deathbed memoir.

This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death

By Harold Brodkey

(Metropolitan Books; $20; 177 pages)

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Anyone who lived in New York in the last 40 years, and whose life touched even briefly on that in-town industry of the printed word, had to have heard of Harold Brodkey. Writer and reputation were inseparable from the beginning, no doubt because his self-aggrandizement dovetailed so nicely with the spirit of literary kingmakers around town. It began as an explosion, in 1954, with the publication of his still-astonishing collection of stories, First Love and Other Sorrows. The Big Novel was promised and promised, but it seemed as if it would never come. There were rumors that Brodkey was getting a kind of perpetually renewable advance from his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Fragments of fiction appeared in The New Yorker throughout the '60s and '70s, but they eventually amounted not to a novel but to a second collection, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode (1988). Brodkey began to write an acerbic column about life and letters for the New York Observer, and it was said that this new diversion proved he would never finish the novel.

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Somehow, when The Runaway Soul, a novel of some 800 pages, finally appeared in 1991, it was an anticlimax. Though reviewed positively, it was, even its partisans admitted, perhaps too long, too repetitive, too fragmentary. Literary fashion is elusive; what in the 1960s might have seemed like an apotheosis of modernism had, by the decidedly postmodern 1990s, come to seem old hat.

Then, in 1993, while he was putting the finishing touches on his second novel, Profane Friendship, Brodkey learned that he was ill with AIDS. He promptly published a declaration of his illness in The New Yorker, and, suddenly, he was as fascinating as a train wreck once again. This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death is his final book, a series of diary essays chronicling the two years leading up to his death on Jan. 26, 1996. An agonizing production of willful beauty, it gives the lie to the implicitly posed question about Brodkey: megalomaniac or genius? Because he was both.

Brodkey's account takes us from his discovery that he was ill with AIDS through his prolonged hospital stay with pneumonia, his decision to return home, and the slow months--many in a quiet equilibrium that was not health, but not death either--that followed. During this time, he was able to revisit his beloved Venice and spend a final summer in his country house in upstate New York. Even though we know the end, the story is filled with suspense, and we turn the pages intently. He was too great a writer not to milk the drama of his own demise. Running parallel to the story of the author's dying is that of his relationship with his wife, Ellen Schwamm Brodkey, and the mixture of deathbed wit, tenderness, and sensuality the couple share. The portrait of Ellen is an understated valentine that colors the entire book with almost inadvertent charm.

The great relief here, for reader as well as writer, is that the fictional mask has been cast aside. Brodkey's work was always obviously, insistently, autobiographical--but one could get muddled trying to decide if, for instance, this story's narrator from a St. Louis suburb was the same as that story's narrator from a St. Louis suburb. Although the various narrators might sound exactly the same, they would have different names, and one, a sister. And then there were the confusions among the many Venetian lovers, male and female, and the mystery of the alter ego who directs films. These are, no doubt, parochial concerns, but Brodkey always seemed to be deliberately provoking the puzzlement, coyly playing hide-and-seek with us.

By contrast, it seems calming to Brodkey's voice to find itself in a "true" first person and a lucid present tense.

Medical attention and the horrors of death, great death, amused me in a quiet way. Amused? Well, what do you feel when you're expected to fight an often-fatal pneumonia and you've been sentenced to death already? ... The connection to the ordinary world is broken, yet not entirely. And there is a cartoon aspect: the curses people hurled at you have come true. What do you suggest I do? Be unamused?

There is--unsurprisingly, given Brodkey's reputation--no shortage here of paranoia and score-settling. Brodkey often darkly refers to his enemies: the enemies of his work, of his marriage--the enemies of genius. He manages to get one smart crack in, writing, "I do think about suicide a lot because it is so boring to be ill, rather like being trapped in an Updike novel."

There are also embarrassing--or, if you prefer, honest--references to his being "recognized and accepted as an important writer," to the conviction that his "work will live" after he is gone. He chews over his past, counts up his debtors, enumerates his aches and pains, and worries the issue of subjectivity to the bone. "[A friend] says that I am a monstre sacré but I am not so famous. I am aware of the monstrosity of my own will and of individual will in anyone," he writes. Or, again, "I believe that the world is dying, not just me." Is all this his special megalomania, or just garden-variety egotism? Either way, Brodkey embraces a self-absorption so extreme that it succeeds, paradoxically, in turning him into an Everyman:

My body is to me like a crippled rabbit that I don't want to pet, that I forget to feed on time, that I haven't time to play with and get to know, a useless rabbit kept in a cage that it would be cruel to turn loose.