harold brodkey’s vision: “I am trying to change consciousness, change language . . .”

"be patient with me. most of the furniture in my house comes from a period in american history called The Era of Good Feeling."

 

 

INTERVIEWER

 

What do you hold up as a literary ideal?

 

BRODKEY

Ideals are for greeting cards. I am trying to change consciousness, change language in such a way that the modes of behavior I am opposed to become unpopular, absurd, unlikely. You try to work toward a culture that takes time and conscience seriously ina real way and not as part of a tidal flow of hype.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Is that really your belief?

 

BRODKEY

 

Yes. Be patient with me. Most of the furniture in my house comes from a period in American history called The Era of Good Feeling.

 

. . . . .

 

BRODKEY

 

Writing that is meant solely for the public forum is often less interesting than writing where the writer has invented the public space inside the text, in the tone of the address, in the tone of the language. Public language is never new. But in good writing there is something absolutely new in the tone of what I think of as the public space in which the narrator addresses the reader. In a piece of writing the language runs along on the page and in the mind of a reader; in that language there is no actual physical space, but the language should carry the implication of a physical-social location. If you’ve been to a large Edwardian house you may have seen a small room with a fireplace and a couch, and perhaps two chairs-not a formal, large room, but one where you can sit and talk, where you gossip. Henry James has a tone of address as if he’s arrived at such a house, not his own, and he is seated by the fire; an invisible interlocutor or audience listens closely. Walt Whitman speaks outdoors, it seems to me. The space Whitman suggests is complex and American and I think beautiful and a completely new invention. One thing that is unique about it is that there’s no tinge of social class in it whatsoever. Jane Austen’s writing suggests a drawing-room sort of space; Hemingway’s, on a barstool or in a club car; it changes: he’s complicated. Emily Dickinson creates a marvelous public space, too, and one of the marvelous things about it is that it is so clearly an invention since it isn’t based on being public; it is without a sense of the public. D. H. Lawrence is an absolutely amazing writer, with a fantastic sense of the language, but his sense of public space wavers, and sometimes a whole book or long story of his will collapse when he shifts the public space too drastically and becomes churchly-fascistic, or starts yelling as if in a corral, then muttering in a hallway—no order in it at all.

 

—from an interview with Harold Brodkey in the Winter 1991 Paris Review (Issue 121), The Art of Fiction, No. 126

Brodkey was the author of the short story collections First Love and Other Sorrows, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, and  The World is the Home of Love and Death, and the novels The Runaway Soul and Profane Friendship. The interviewer was James Linville, then the managing editor of The Paris Review.

another diary from roland barthes . . .

“They say . . . that Time lessens bereavement. No, Time makes nothing happen; it only washes down the emotivity of bereavement.”

The Private Barthes

Posthumous publication of the theorist’s journals draws disapproval

 

By Benjamin Ivry

 

Nearly three decades after he was hit and fatally injured by a laundry van in a Paris street, the French literary theorist and critic Roland Barthes still enjoys rare prestige in his native land as well as in the English-speaking world. Generally considered the most readable of his generation of theoreticians, which also includes Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, Barthes has further benefited from being translated into English by the extremely able Richard Howard. Barthes titles that were Englished by Howard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet as well as prolific translator, include Système de la mode (The Fashion System), L’Empire des signes (Empire of Signs), and Fragments d’un discours amoureux (A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments). To this rich legacy may be added two titles that appeared in France last month, amid some controversy: Journal de deuil (Bereavement Diary) and Carnets du voyage en Chine (China Travel Notebook).

 

Journal de deuil, out from Barthes’s longtime publisher Éditions du Seuil, consists of private notes he made after the death of his mother, Henriette, in 1977, at age 84. While neither text radically alters our understanding of Barthes, the Journal de deuil does add documentation about the writer’s deep attachment to his mother, from whose death, he told friends, he was never able to recover. Carnets du voyage en Chine, made also of impromptu jottings rather than the carefully worked out prose that readers of Barthes are accustomed to, is another unusually intimate glimpse into the writer’s daily life, even when bored and out of sorts.

 

Comparisons are inevitable between the Journal de deuil and La Chambre claire, Barthes’s 1980 book on photography, written as he mourned his mother and focusing on a childhood photo of the beloved Henriette. For almost two years, Barthes jotted down observations about his emotional distress, which, as he explains in the diary, he refuses to call bereavement because "that’s too psychoanalytical. I am not bereaved. I am in pain." As weeks go by, Barthes’s feelings remain as intense as ever, as these brief excerpts prove:

 

November 5th

 

Sad afternoon. Quick shopping. At the pastry shop (pointlessness) I buy an almond cake. Serving a customer, the little female employee says, "Voilà." That’s the word which I would say when I brought Mom something when I looked after her. Once, near the end, she half-unconsciously echoed, "Voilà" (I’m here, an expression which we used mutually during a whole lifetime). This employee’s remark brought tears to my eyes. I wept for a long time (after returning to the silent apartment).

 

November 19th

 

(Overturning of status) For months, I have been her mother. It’s as if I had lost my daughter (any greater suffering than that? I had never conceived it).

 

March 20th

 

They say (so Mrs. Panzera informs me) that Time lessens bereavement. No, Time makes nothing happen; it only washes down the emotivity of bereavement.

 

July 29

 

(Saw the Hitchcock film Under Capricorn) Ingrid Bergman (it was made around 1946). I don’t know why, and don’t know how to express it, but this actress, the body of this actress, moved me, has just touched something in me which reminds me of Mam. Her carnation, her lovely, utterly natural hands, an impression of freshness, a non-Narcissistic femininity.

 

Those intimate recollections, as well as others, were not only published last month but also read onstage during a special event at Paris’s Théâtre National de l’Odéon by that theater’s director, the actor Olivier Py. This exposure of personal grief angered Barthes’s longtime friend and former editor at Seuil, the philosopher François Wahl, who told Le Monde: "The publication of Journal de deuil would have positively revolted [Barthes] insofar as it violates his privacy." Wahl is no more enthused by the appearance of Carnets du voyage en Chine (published by Éditions Christian Bourgois), which he describes as "the epitome of an unwritten text, which in [Barthes’s] eyes was a veritable taboo. He possessed absolute respect for writing and its innate logic.". . .

 

—excerpted from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Friday, March 20, 2009

The entire article is available here:
http://chronicle.com/temp/reprint.php?id=q3nn8qtbvfjpcjpf8j2zvzmjphvbssmj