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The Bright Wonderful Surface

Alexis Lykiard

I first encountered Chandler Brossard's work in the late 1950s, when an undergraduate at Cambridge. I've been an admirer of his writing ever since. As a professional writer myself and a European, I feel Brossard's books should be more widely known in my adopted country, England. This, then, is a belated essay of appreciation for a writer who profoundly impressed me on a first reading and whose early novels have in my opinion stood the test of time better than other, more touted, if less substantial, talents.

The half-dozen books I've recently been rereading are: Who Walk in Darkness (1952); The Bold Saboteurs (1953); All Passion Spent— aka Episode with Erika (1954); The Double View (1960); The Girls in Rome—aka We Did the Strongest Things (1961); and A Man for All Women (1966). Three of these are, in their very different ways and styles, minor classics of postwar American writing, while the other three, though bearing signs of haste in their composition, are never less than highly readable.

I managed to read these novels, first time around, in their correct publication sequence, through serendipity—our equivalent of happenstance. A copy of the John Lehmann edition of Who Walk in Darkness, written, according to Seymour Krim, "with the cool eye of a rifleman," and bought for two shillings at a Cambridge market bookstall, was my introduction to an author with—Krim again—"the aware calculation of a deep-sea diver." Both the tattered dust jacket's design and its blurb had a glorious, unintentionally surreal quality that even as a gauche teenager I found irresistible. Here at last, I was promised, was a book about "bohemians in New York's art quarter of Greenwich Village, the young men called 'hipsters' (from the jazz 'term 'hips,' and meaning those who 'possess superior awareness’), and the girls attracted to them, their ritual of boxing and bebop and their addiction to what is euphemistically known as 'tea-blowing' "!

This quaintly inaccurate come-on from the British publisher had me hooked. Was I anticipating another On the Road, which had by then appeared in this country? I don't remember, though I was in no sense disappointed by this very different and historically earlier book. What did surprise me, however, was the sheer quality of Brossard's prose, his book's cool tone and unerring skill: the narrative grip did not relax and the characters were subtly memorable.

The British academic-novelist Malcolm Bradbury writes in an all-too-brief entry on Brossard (Penguin Companion to Literature, vol 3): "His first, under-estimated novel... explores, early, the sensibility of outsider withdrawal from American life, and is managed with great intelligence and fictional awareness." On one level, as the Lehmann edition blurb states, this is "the history of Henry Porter, a young journalist of ambiguous origin who is desperate to establish a place for himself in the sun, and who 'has it in' for Harry Lees, the guileless Harvard aristocrat" The closeness of nomenclature, Harry/Henry, is deliberate: much of Brassard's subsequent work concerns itself with duality and the often schizoid nature of identity. The first-person narrator, initially impersonal, gradually asserts his presence in the novel, embodying a growing stature and increased perception. He's called, significantly, Blake, and Blake himself is in love with—Grace.

For this is a fiction about states of illumination and insight, as its title, neatly spliced from two biblical quotations, implies. Compare "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined" (Isa. 9:2, AV) to "Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday" (Psalms 91, AV). The post-World War II, Cold War pestilence has its counterpart within the individual: a deadly compound of suspicion, cynicism, accidie, affectation. The way out seems to be via a firm moral commitment: lack of belief or faith must somehow be coped with, without resort to religion or even the then increasingly fashionable lay religions, psychoanalysis and existentialism.

One answer is to find a meaningful identity through style. This usually serio-comic search for style affords the author full scope for presenting and encapsulating his version of the hip and the square, along with a further vision and subdivision of "underground" versus "renaissance" man. Jazz, drugs, petty theft and boxing, for instance, are key style pursuits: they all entail varying elements of danger, improvisation and individualistic) testing and/or satisfaction, while representing hip revolt against the square system. The novel's twin, opposed and opposing stylistic camps divide roughly into: (1) Opportunists, Cynics, Dirty Fighters, "Winners": Henry Porter, the envious "illegitimate," a bastard in every sense, including the Shakespearean; womanizer Max; the boxer Phelps; and (2) The Nice Guys, Gentlemen and "Losers": Blake, ingenuous Harry Lees, and the politer of the two pugilists, the stylish yet unsuccessful Coster. Oversimplification, of course, since both groups are themselves, like it or not, outside the bourgeois hierarchy and Brossard deals, too, with what the late George Oppen succinctly defined as "the nightmare of the poet or the artist to find himself wandering between the grim grey lines of the Philistines and the ramshackle emplacements of Bohemia."

There's not much conventional plot: characters drift in and out of each other's consciousness as they do in and out of bars. But Brossard's particular achievement is to make aimlessness itself seem an absorbing form of activity, a paradoxically fascinating and complex state of mind. Blake— jobless, full of literary aspirations and conscience—reads Dostoyevsky and Conrad, yet remains aware that experience doesn't come from books: he sells his, when in debt Scrupulous about debts and relationships alike, Blake pays his dues, and though in love with the symbolically named Grace, doesn't exert his influence to wean her off Porter: it is for her to leave Porter, finally, of her own free will. This is as important or unimportant a narrative "event" as her abortion or the boxing match, as Porter's implacable refusal to admit his own bastardy (he's a cold enough fish anyway, his attitude reminiscent of Iago's "Demand me nothing"), and Harry Lees's very probably fatal mugging.

A bleak moral fable, then, permeated with a distinctive, wry, under-stated humor, and unfolding mainly through dialogue. No words are wasted: physical description of characters is minimal and such description there is is of New York itself, seen as a largely alien, malign, menacing environment It's a pure, almost glacially unsentimental novelistic mode, and in this exceptional and unusual debut Brossard, though already clearly his own man, occasionally resembles another admirable American writer, one also perhaps "caviare to the general"—Paul Bowles.

With Brossard, however, cool style and control do not necessarily lead to the sort of sub-zero puppet manipulation to which Bowles is sometimes prone. Indeed Brossard's second novel, The Bold Saboteurs, was markedly different, more ambitious, freewheeling in scope and style. Here was a feverish Holden Caulfield freaking out of a delinquent adolescence chronicled as hallucinatory Celinean picaresque. No wonder it became a cult book, and no wonder it proved unpalatable to British tastes!

George ("Yogi"), another first-person narrator, is a young thief with the looks of a choirboy ("There's no art/ To find the mind's construction in the face"). Like Blake's in Who Walk in Darkness, his father too is a hopeless drunk. Seeking a mentor, George therefore turns to his elder brother Roland, a useful alter ego and role model, who teaches the boy how to survive in the urban jungle:" 'Be bold, George,' he told me. 'Be definite. Be different in your actions. Don't have the furtiveness of the law-abider. Act like a true thief.' " And: "Roland educated me as a thinker while he was educating me as a thief, and since then I have always associated crime with intellect" The book begins. Genet-like, with a theft—George "coldly excited about what I could steal"—which offers our antihero an epiphany of sorts, albeit an illusory one, the moment he pawns his ill-gotten gains: "I felt now that I was coming up from a deep underground cavern where there was nothing but darkness and moist stone, to the bright wonderful surface of life."

But it is George's own youth and innocence which have already been stolen from him. The novel goes on to explore a main Brossard concern, the underground world of city life and the attempt to find purpose and identity therein or even an escape route from it. Thus: "I never gave my real name if I could help it I always made one up, it was safer that way. Never let anybody know who you really are; you will live to regret it if you do. I had already learned that. I had hundreds of disguises and tricks to fool the unwary, and at a moment's notice I could become a personality chamber of horrors." Whereas children adopt such identity changes as natural in playing games, healthily imaginative activity during the process of growing up, adults pervert the imaginative function not in order to achieve empathy but as a schizoid defense mechanism to protect themselves or gain power over others. Happy, who sexually initiates George and is one of the novel's only magnanimous characters, remarks: "I discovered you can never trust an adult, only children.... Adults are all liars and cheaters but children still believe in the dignity of man." George immediately reacts: "I did not say anything about this. I guessed it might be true for most kids even if it wasn't for me."

Yet despite its self-styled "child of the night" affirmation ("I wanted nothing to do with my fellow swine"), the novel is by no means unrelievedly cynical or depressing. It is, for one thing, uproariously funny. Brossard's humor can be sardonic and biting; it ranges from epigram to belly laugh, from black comedy to slapstick. A scene of wild boys running amok predates and upstages Burroughs, and elsewhere Brossard seems in the best of disreputable company: those other literary subversives—Lautreamont, Genet, Henry Miller, Celine—would have welcomed him to their anarchic ranks. There is, as with all these writers, a harsh, unsettling, deceptively casual lyricism: "I rode to the docks and watched the small fishing boats come in and unload their fragrant cargoes of silvery corpses." Norman Mailer commented, circa 1959, that "Brossard has that deep distaste for weakness which gives work a cold poetry." Indeed, Brossard's early fictional characters do inhabit what Mailer in The White Negro calls "that enormous present," in which not only psychopaths but also proto-hipsters are "trying to create a new nervous system for themselves." And Seymour Krim in his shrewd Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer (1969) welcomes "this need for the revelation of being" as "a specifically modern genre," comparing The Bold Saboteurs to Ellison's Invisible Man as "more truly imaginative explorations into the maze of personal being rather than novels in any traditional sense. The story they tell is primarily the psyche's story. The nightmarish sequences... are a testimony to the devilish heat imposed on anyone with imagination who is just being today; it is the slice-of-life technique applied to the pressure-cooked head.... [Invention... is all directed to the description of, and the attempt to find, new colors, new equivalents for the extremity to which the Self has been pushed. Should the word 'fiction' still be used to describe this kind of writing?"

After these first two terrific achievements, Brossard seemed to falter or pause for literary breath. Episode with Erika was the result, a small-scale work, something of a potboiler, which nevertheless pursued the same obsessions and yielded up its particular felicities. Here the boy-meets-girl convention is subverted. The dissatisfied, very square academic narrator, a naif picked up appropriately enough in a library by the eponymous blonde, cannot resist this mendacious Medusa, and comes, finally, a long way from St Louis indeed. Erika reveals herself to be aspiring actress, liar, petty thief, promiscuous doper, bisexual schizo, and the offspring of a nymphomaniac mother and a father on whom she is fixated. After leading the narrator a far from merry dance, she eventually follows that father where our hapless academic—his marriage in ruins, his thesis like his life, a mess—will never be able to find her into suicide.

As Erika warns, "I don't believe in relationships where there isn't any passion, or even violence.... They aren't real." The bloodless narrator, college boy caught up in an inevitably destructive relationship, enjoys the present sex, even when being exploited, without heeding the dangers inherent in this futureless affair. He himself gains perception at a price-used up and, as in the hardback title, "all passion spent." The themes of hip versus square, integrity versus betrayal, and the quest for identity, recur this time against a background of mistrust and loss of belief, of McCarthyism and bogus psychoanalysis. It's lesser work, but contains some lurid and witty touches. I liked especially the writer Cicarelli's sage comments, which seem, I'd guess, to echo their author at that time: "I write under different names, different things, because life today forces you to become a split personality in order to survive. I've written thrillers and pornography under several different pseudonyms, and I also write poetry and serious fiction under my own name. The former writing's for bread and butter, the latter for the soul, if you'll forgive the expression."

With this in mind, I never did find a copy of Brossard's other 1954 novel, The Wrong Turn, written as "Daniel Harper," but its title makes me want to read it. (The same applies to the later Did Christ Make Love?) Next then, far livelier and highly provocative, The Double View (1960)—an underrated and extraordinary novel which anticipates the whole new ethos of the sixties. Dealing and double-dealing with sanity, madness and death, with violence and identity and the violence done to identity, it packs far more novelistic punch than many other longer, better-known works of the period. In its hundred or so pages Brossard, cleverly adapting and compressing his style to accommodate varying narrative viewpoints, stream-of-consciousness and energetic action, often all but simultaneously, races along at full throttle. A brilliant little book, which would probably have been hailed as a masterpiece had it been translated from an obscurer European language. Given the prevailing postwar trend in English-language novels towards pomposity and formal elephantiasis, I imagine it slipped past the majority of critics and readers of the so-called serious novel. One George Perkins, for example, in a generally unenlightened article on Brossard in Contemporary Novelists, considers it "reads more like the scenario for a novel than a completely realized work." A mistaken view.

The epigraph from Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy should alert the reader this is updated, novelized Jacobean drama from a novelist who also writes plays. Crime, orgy, madness, and death jostle in a fragmented, almost hysterical if undeniably compelling vision whose darkness is illumined with lightning flashes of fitfully incisive poetry. The action begins in an asylum and ends with rape, a shoot-out, an escape from the asylum and a near-knifing that turns into a frenzied, open-ended kinesis. Brossard might equally well have chosen some lines from Vendice's famous Act 3 speech "Surely we are all mad people, and they/ Whom we think are mad, are not we mistake those; / Tis we are mad in sense, they but in clothes." True, no one is sane or whole or escapes unscathed: Carter Barrows, on the run, lays down the knife and rejects the revenger's primitive role. More of a revenger's tragicomedy, you might say, but no less impressive for that.

Two further novels complete Brossard's published fictional output of the sixties—closing what might be called his early cycle or first phase, for those keen on categories. These novels of expatriates, The Girls in Rome and A Man for A ll Women, are competent, readable and full of accurate insights, if ultimately unambitious.

In the former—a Roman bildungsroman—Jason, yet another American innocent abroad, loses bitchy wife to playboy Italian aristocrat, meets the traditional tart-with-a-heart, and leaves Rome sadder and wiser. Local colour is well applied: this being fifties Italy, there are thinly disguised glimpses of Barbara Huttons and Rubirosas, the Wilma Montesi scandal, dope racketeers and the ICP growing in strength. But there's nothing new in the Jamesian loss of innocence plot, and A Man for All Women is altogether tougher, better handled.

Here William Carter, via his new identity as Guy Hobson, gigolo and home a femmes of the title, lives a double life in Paris, mingling with the idle rich who themselves lack identity as they warily flock together—the women he preys upon "dressed to a point of almost unbearable smartness." Smartness in any sense, though, is never quite enough. Hobson's proverbial choice is none at all, and after various thrillerish ramifications involving smuggling political refugees, fights and violent death, Guy, almost penniless, must leave Paris, his dismal future one of diminishing returns. It should be clear from the foregoing that Chandler Brossard's fiction is, as he himself has written, "concerned with those experiences which society forbids or which one lies to oneself about... the reality of the spiritual-cultural underground. .. what I would call hallucinatory fiction." He challenges "the concept of identity in western society as represented in its fiction." I think he is absolutely right to question "the validity of individual identity," and in his later books, especially Wake Up and Raging Joys he goes on—excitingly, boldly, and hilariously as ever—to try to prove his contention that "we are flowing in and out of each other at all times. Identity is simply a kind of negotiation individuals make with other individuals to give each other the illusion of separate independence."

This article first appeared in The Review of Contemporary Fiction - Spring 1987 Vol VII No 1


 

Books by Chandler Brossard

Who Walk in Darkness (1952, novel)
The Bold Saboteurs (1953, novel)
All Passion Spent (1954, novel)
The Wrong Turn (1954, novel, pseudo. Daniel Harper)
The Double View (1960, novel, pseudo. Daniel Harper)
Episode with Erika (1963, novel)
The Nymphets (1963, novel, pseudo. Daniel Harper)
The Insane World of Adolf Hitler (1966, biography)
A Man For All Women (1966)
I Want More of This (1967)
The Spanish Scene (1968, vignettes)
Wake Up. We’re Almost There (1971, novel)
Did Christ Make Love? (1973, novel)
Dirty Books for Little Folks (1978)
Raging Joys, Sublime Violations (1981)
A Chimney Sweep Comes Clean (1985)
As the Wolf Howls at My Door (1992, novel)


 

17 May 2001

 

The Editor
Times Literary Supplement
Admiral House
66-68 East Smithfield
London El W 1 BX

Dear Sir

I read with interest (NB: TLS, May 11,2001) your columnist J.C.'s perhaps politically correct, yet glibly censorious, comments about the reissued 'uncut' version of Who Walk In Darkness, and the threatened lawsuit against its author, the American novelist Chandler Brossard (1922-93). Perhaps some further biographical information might be of interest to your readers, for in various respects there's more to this story than meets the eye.

Brossard and Anatole Broyard (1922-90) became lifetime rivals, New Yorkers who engaged in an unrelenting personal and literary feud ever since the publication of Brassard's extraordinary 1952 debut. I knew them both, having met Broyard in Spain in 1962 via Milton and Ann Klonsky, while Chandler became a friend in the 1980s. Apart from being exact contemporaries with uncannily similar surnames, both were talented, competitive, charming and highly sensitive to the point of paranoia. If neither was ever satisfied with his achievements (not necessarily a bad thing for a writer), each was aware of being a kind of selfmade American success story - the streetwise kid who transcended early hardship and deprivation.

But B & B alike were grudgingly admired in Norman Mailer's lively but notoriously rancorous Advertisements For Myself (1959): this was when I first heard of either, and Mailer's assessments proved useful and shrewd. Yet Anatole Broyard, despite such praise, never did succeed in producing a novel, however much Mailer for one looked forward to it. Broyard's literary life got consumed by endless reviewing, although his two posthumous autobiographical books, Kafka Was The Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir (1992) and Intoxicated By My Illness (1993) are extraordinary - ruthless, poignant and unforgettable.

It's sad that AB is almost unknown and unread here, for he was a fine writer. CB though, was an even better, far more prolific one - author of many books, including several outstanding novels. Among his earlier work, Who Walk In Darkness (1952), The Bold Saboteurs (1953) and The Double View (1960), are landmarks of the postwar American novel, as I maintained in The Review of Contemporary Fiction's special issue on Brossard (Spring, 1987). Chandler unfortunately never felt he'd received proper recognition. Part of the problem, according to him, was this continuing literary feud with Broyard... When staying with us in Exeter in 1987, Chandler still insisted that Broyard had never ceased to badmouth and block him any way he could! Apparently, such was Broyard's pervasive clout on the NY literary scene that Chandler's later books had difficulty getting published at all. Some of these - such as the blockbuster Wake Up. We're Almost There (1971), and Did Christ Make Love? (1973) - were truly weird, scabrous, hilarious, and original. I tried to help, but no UK publisher could be found. Eventually a small independent Northern firm, David Tipton's estimable Redbeck Press, published several other, shorter works by Chandler Brossard, which remain in print.

Tipton will agree that Chandler could be irascible: in Mailer's early description of him, "a mean and pricky guy who's been around". I'm sure Chandler was no racist. He certainly castigated mere careerism and dishonesty, and is also on record as disliking romans a clef. Maybe he thought there wasn't a need for Broyard, particularly in those circles in which they both moved, to pretend to be what he wasn't?

Finally, it never occurred to me or my friends, back in 1962, that Anatole might be black and (in the then current term) 'passing'; nor would it have mattered. More work by both men should be back in print, uncut of course. With hindsight, it's a pity their longlasting feud seemed to sour both these exceptional talents. As for J.C.'s slick parting shot, "textual harassment", it seems under the circumstances, inappropriate, if not irrelevant,

Yours sincerely

A.L.