Magazine article The Spectator

Having the Last Word

Magazine article The Spectator

Having the Last Word

Article excerpt

Laurence Lerner THIS WILD DARKNESS: [HE STORY OF MY DEATH by Harold Brodkey Fourth Estate, 14.99, pp. 177

The poetry of being recognised and accepted as an important writer in Berlin and then in Venice while I was sickening in some way I could not understand presents to me a dark beauty of complete wreckage.

In the spring of 1993 Harold Brodkey was diagnosed as having Aids. Though he was extremely ill when it was diagnosed, his doctor assured him that with medical help he could have a few years of quite good life. This turned out to be correct, and he lived for almost three years, which he spent writing this memoir, trying to put down as honestly as he could his relationship with his wife, his doctor and his unreliable body.

And does that sentence above suggest that he succeeded? Does it penetrate the intimacies of introspection in a way that can surprise and also convince, or does it suggest a writer skilled at showing off? Brodkey obviously cherished his reputation as a stylist, as a slow brooder who came up with `extraordinary sentences' (the expression is from a reviewer of Profane Friendship, a novel I found unreadably pretentious); he was fastidiously proud of being a success. Poetry for him lay not in the words themselves, but rather in the experience of being recognised.

Not, one would think, a good basis for the clear honesty that such a memoir surely demands. Yet by showing us his sophistication Brodkey can strip it off in front of us with telling effect. One of his odder confessions reveals that until he was 50 he `almost never wore clothes in private'. Such a declaration startles us just because it is so normal to wear clothes; and stylistic undressing can have the same effect. `Much of the time I do nothing,' he writes. 'I lie in bed or on the porch. I stare at death, and death stares at me.' You cannot write a whole book like that, but such a sentence can shock by its appearance among elaborate verbal effects. …

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