Sunday, November 06, 2016

"Verona: A Young Woman Speaks" (1977)

Read story by Harold Brodkey online.

I know of Harold Brodkey vaguely, by reputation, as a literary wunderkind who stalled in the middle of outsize regard, while attempting to complete a mother of all novels. Promised for some 20 years, A Party of Animals was finally published in 1991 as The Runaway Soul. The reviews were bad. In the early throes of that drama came this story, which won awards and ended up anthologized by Raymond Carver. It's very short, telling the first-person story in memory of an adolescent girl on a Christmas vacation train trip with her family across Europe, from Rome to Salzburg. Brodkey is evidently a painstaking writer because every word feels chiseled from dense stone. It's not easy reading somehow. The language feels tortured and compressed, and the events told don't add up to much. It's a pair of golden Christmas memories that take place in Verona, Italy, one with each of her parents, and then some brief consideration of which was best. It's hard to connect with the narrator—she claims they are poor, or middle class, saying the vacation is a one-time splurge. But they look overprivileged and even worse, if it's pretension. The tone of the narrator is never far from haughty, though it's measured enough to betray insecurities inside of that. But it's not enough. She's not a very interesting person, or we are told too little of her. The incidents have a charming sentimental glow about them. But the tone is always disagreeable somehow, and there's some sense sentimentality is mocked a little. As it should be, no doubt. Brodkey polishes and burnishes his language to a luster, controlling like a poet even the rhythms of the syllables, but the result is that the sense of meaning or connection is obscured. It's all a little pyrotechnical and showoffy in a way, so concerned about getting the tiniest details just so that it forgets about the main void at its heart. Or perhaps it's an intentional void, which I don't think would actually make it any better. I don't know Brodkey's more celebrated short story collection from 1958, First Love and Other Sorrows, which conceivably could help me understand this free-floating fragment better. But I'm not that tempted to investigate further. He reminds me somehow of William Gass, another American writer of great reputation, specializing in the short story, who tends to leave me cold because the writing feels belabored. Maybe they were even the best of friends.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

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