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ANATOLE BROYARD

Jim Burns

 

Recently, I read a small book by the late Anatole Broyard. Called Intoxicated By My Illness, it is an account of how he came to terms with being told that he had prostate cancer and that it was probably incurable. With reflections on the nature of the illness, his relations with the doctors, the reactions of his friends, a couple of surveys of the literature of illness, and a fictionalised account of the death of his father from cancer, this slim book (just 135 Pages) impressed me more than most of the massive biographies, overlong novels, and extended academic exercises, I come across. Broyard was an elegant writer, and his prose, always poised and precise, is a pleasure to read, even if he is dealing with a grim subject. 

But who was Anatole Broyard? I'd guess that few readers in this country will have heard of him, and if they have it may be because of some misleading links to the writers of the Beat Generation. But he was far more interesting than that, and although his output was small he nonetheless produced a body of work which is worth looking at. 

Broyard was born in New Orleans In 1920, but his family moved to New York when he was young. He was educated at Brooklyn College and The New School for Social Research, spent time in the army during the Second World War, and when he returned to civilian life he opened a bookshop in Greenwich Village. His wife later recalled that 'lacking the patience to sit and talk to his customers, he turned to writing essays and stories that were published in literary magazines and anthologies." He soon became part of what was, in Seymour Krim's words, "a highly intellectual but not necessarily artistic group of brilliant minds which roved with barely believable and almost illegal freedom over the entire domain of the thinkable and utterable. Some of these minds - like Isaac Rosenfeld, Dave Bazelon, Manny Farber, Weldon Kees, Willie Poster, Chandler Brossard, Anatole Broyard (plus the occasional appearances of Saul Bellow, Delmore Schwartz, Alfred Kazin, James Agee) and the inimitable Milton Klonsky - were in literature partially or completely; some like Will Barrett, Herb Poster, Clem Greenberg were more interested in 'ideas' than expression. All of us were broadly pert of the Partisan Review and Commentary worlds where ex-Trotskyites, exanarchists, ex-Stalinists (everybody seemed to be an ex something) mingled with fancy Ph.Ds and metaphysical poets to produce that modem eclectic monster who is as much at home with surrealist poetry as British radical politics, with baseball and boxing (the big sport for intellectuals then) as with the foolproof technique for banging a girl."

Krim's description of this milieu is colourful but accurate, though a darker version perhaps comes through in Chandler Brossard's 1952 novel, Who Walk In Darkness, in which a fictional character named Henry Porter is clearly based on Broyard. It is easy to recognise him in this brief passage: "When his money ran out Porter got a job writing promotion copy for a publishing company. On the side he pursued his literary career by writing fiction and book reviews. His fiction was not bad. It did not knock me out, but it was not bad. Three or four of his stories were accepted by small literary magazines. This gave him some literary status. His reputation with women gave him more status though. I had to hand it to him. He could pick up almost any woman he saw." 

Broyard did, in fact, work in advertising in the 1940s and he did have stories published in Modern Writing, Discovery, and New World Writing, three leading pocket-book format little magazines. He also contributed articles and essays to Partisan Review, Neurotica, New Directions, and a glance at the lists of other contributors to these publications will show that he was appearing alongside some of the brightest young writers of the period. It's interesting to see what he chose to write about when not writing fiction, and in a 1950 issue of Neurotica he turned his attention to the mambo, the Afro-Cuban dance then sweeping America. It's significant that Brossard's novel includes a major scene in which Porter and others visit a dance-hall which features authentic mambo music. Porter (Broyard) is portrayed as something of an authority on it. In his article, Broyard placed a sociological emphasis on his description of mambo, looking at the dance element and describing what he saw as its sexual connotations. He took a similar view in a second Neurotica piece, "American Sexual lmperialism" which told how, as the craze for mambo spread, the American dancers began to change its tone as they introduced a different emphasis, in particular a less submissive role for the woman. 

There is a highly-relevant angle to Broyard's writing in these and other pieces from the period. Unlike an older generation of intellectuals in New York he didn't appear to be involved with formal politics, or even all that much interested in the subject. In this he was fairly typical of his generation and it perhaps indicated a "shift of intellectuals away from Marxian and radical political criticism toward non-political cultural criticism." In a short article in New Directions in 1950, Broyard discussed this change of direction. Referring to a piece by Mary Mccarthy about Greenwich village cafes, he mocked her comment about her contemporaries being used to "the battle of ideas and standards," and went on to say: "Marx is passé, the bourgeois already épaté; the students here are from the New School, where they've just been asked "What is the meaning of meaning?" Someone - he's not here - shouted something about the machinery of production, rattled the workers' ghostly chains, but the others know that the machinery of production is for beer and bombs, and they'll take beer. Art ? - the art of self-defence! God -Moloch, the jukebox." It was racy writing, and its sardonic view of the situation suited the mood of the late-1940s and early-1950s when, as Seymour Krim said, everyone seemed to be an "ex-something or other and no-one had much faith in anything. 

Another Broyard piece, "Ha: Ha:," looked at the role of laughter in society, and it said things that still apply today. Commenting on the way in which the accusation of not having a sense of humour is often likely to upset someone, he wrote: "No sense of humour! This dread deficiency must surely find its place in the medical lexicons. Already some initial research has been done on its nosology. Another psychologist, writing on laughter, observed that it is the most psychopathic and the healthiest persons who laugh easiest. Assuming that this is true, I think it would be useful to determine who's who. It would certainly seem that most of us should fall between the two classifications, that, accordingly, laughter should come grudgingly to the majority. The evidence, however, is to the contrary, and this leaves an uneasy choice of interpretations." It was lively and provocative, and Broyard, summing up, indicated that Freud meant more than Marx to his contemporaries: "The twentieth century will be remembered as a century of great concussions. Not the least of these will be laughter. If the nineteenth century was the age of rationalism the twentieth is the age of rationalisation. From one to the other is but a simple slip. In many ways, the nineteenth century was an adolescent period; having outgrown some of his childish illusions, man was beguiled by his comparatively aggressive insights into the truth. By the twentieth century, he has realised that these insights are merely the beginnings of an understanding of his ultimate limitations. As Freud put it, the child grows up only to discover that he will always be but a child to mother Nature. Realising this, he laughs to recover his child's innocuous immunity." 

Broyard's best-known essay, one which was reprinted several times in later years and extensively quoted from, was "A Portrait of the Hipster," published in Partisan Review in 1948. In it, Broyard attempted an analysis and a definition of a new type then appearing around Greenwich Village who had, in his view, been welcomed by intellectuals who "ransacking everything for meaning, admiring insurgence... .attributed every heroism to the hipster.,, But Broyard was less enthusiastic about these supposed new rebels, and saw the attempts to escape from the restraints of society through narcotics, jazz, and general disaffiliation, as merely ways to a new conformity. People who were once shadowy presences in the jazz underground began to take themselves seriously and to crave the adulation others gave them. In Broyard's words: "The hipster promptly became in his own eyes, a poet, a seer, a hero." And he added that the hipster life-style "grew more rigid than the Institutions it had set out to defy. It became a boring routine. The hipster - once an unregenerate Individualist, an underground poet, a guerrilla - had become a pretentious poet laureate." 

Of course, what Broyard was doing, as well as attacking the hipsters, was criticising his fellow-intellectuals for failing to accept that the hipster rebellion was a sham. It was the intellectuals, in their desperate search for types who seemed to stand against the society intellectuals despised, who had idealised the hipster, something which had deep implications for their own state of mind and lack of broad political vision. Broyard's essay was written fifty years ago, and yet it has relevance to current practices where intellectuals try to find cultural heroes amongst pop musicians and the like. 

The magazines which carried Broyard's essays usually mentioned that he was working on a novel, and that portions of it had appeared in various journals. A 1954 issue of Modern Writing printed "Sunday Dinner in Brooklyn," a story which was about a Greenwich Village intellectual visiting his parents in Brooklyn and trying to come to terms with the fact of the growing distance between them. It was a sharply observed piece, and I recall that when I first read It In the 1958 anthology, Protest: The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men, it seemed to speak for and to me in terms of how I felt about my own background, and the way in which I was moving away from it. There were astute little scenes in Broyard's story, as when, on arrival at his parents' house, they rush to find him the book supplement from the Sunday paper, as if to show that they understand his needs. 

Another Broyard story, again clearly part of his novel, was called "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" and describes the way the narrator encounters an old friend and realises how little they now have in common. The friend is locked into a pattern of work, home, marriage, and all the other involvements that creep up on people. And he's shocked when told that the narrator is "going to school,,, and doesn't appear to have any ambition to settle into a career or marriage. The narrator, for his part, wonders what has happened to change the man he once knew into the one he sees before him: "I ran my eyes over his pearl-gray suit with its broad lapels and tried to picture him seven or eight years before: the fine, tough, tight laugh he had, the restless originality which showed in his clowning ...He was the handsomest guy in our bunch, wiry, with a laughing ferocity in his face that wrinkled his lean cheeks. We used to wear each other's clothes, but now he outweighed me by twenty pounds, he didn't have that hungry, starving-for-life look any more." 

The novel was never finished, or at least was never published, though some other excerpts from it did get into print. "What the Cytoscope Said" appeared in Discovery in 1954, and is the story later used in Intoxicated By my Illness. It is about the death of Broyard's father, and the way in which the event makes the son re-examine their relationship. Another story, "The Choice," which was in the 1960 anthology, The Beats, has a son visiting his father in hospital and trying to make a decision to ease the older man's suffering by leaving an overdose of pills within his reach. Both stories are tightly written and raise serious questions about how we deal with death. As Broyard says: "Expecting the worst - that's another phrase for you. We never expect the worst." 

The inclusion of fiction by Broyard in two anthologies which were widely linked to the Beats probably caused some people to think that he was part of the movement. But, as mentioned earlier, he was a member of a broader group of Greenwich Village intellectuals, and his tastes and activities were not those of the Beats. What little he seemed to have in common with them related to the feeling of alienation that comes through in his writing, and which was a not uncommon factor in much fiction of the late-1940s and early-1950s. But Broyard's alienation, if it was that, was an intellectual position, one which enabled him to cast a critical look at the world. He had no liking for Beat excesses in both life and literature, and could be highly critical of both Kerouac and Ginsberg. In a review of Visions of Cody he said: "The irritating thing about both Ginsberg and Kerouac is their habitual assumption that only they and a few of their friends have known reality, and the rest of us will have to find it in their books." He also added some comments about the Beat taste for spontaneity:

"Kerouac can describe people and places, but what he cannot do is find anything meaningful for them to do in those places. Usually, they get drunk or high, have maudlin conversations and leave for another place where exactly the same thing happens. Regarding these conversations, I would like to propose, once and for all, a pox on spontaneity in fiction: spontaneity is a psychological, not a literary, quality. Though it may sometimes be pleasant to experience spontaneity it is almost never interesting to read, and while I'm at it, I'd like to point out that there are all kinds of spontaneity, good and bad, and the notion that what comes naturally is naturally welcome is one of the great idiocies of our age."

Broyard's life after the 1950s largely revolved around teaching - at The New School, New York University, and Columbia University - and book reviewing. He was a reviewer for The New York Times for many years, and for long periods wrote a daily review for the paper. A collection of some of these reviews, published under the title, Aroused By Books, included just over one hundred from the three hundred he wrote between 1971 and 1973. A rate of production like that, as anyone who has written regular book reviews will know, uses up a lot of time and energy. It can lead to other work being neglected, and Broyard was said to be still working on a novel when Aroused By Books was published in 1974. But he does seem to have genuinely loved books and writing, and his reviews are not simply summaries of plots and subject-matter but do instead try to say something of value about the work. His style was brisk and to the point, as befits reviews published in a daily newspaper, but he still managed to be insightful in a few sentences. A review of Bernard Malamud's novel, The Tenants began:

"In his new novel, The Tenants, Bernard Malamud has rushed in where angelic liberals fear to tread. In exploring the relation between blacks and Jews - and carrying it to Its implicit conclusion - he has seized contemporary history by the horns. And because he is one of our better writers, his book is more radical than those who call themselves radicals like Saul Bellow in Mr Sammler's Planet, like Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man, Malamud goes beyond the rhetoric of the revolutionaries to the very root of the matter, to man's inhumanity not only to others, but to himself."

Writing about Anais Nin, Broyard remarked that, "turning her into a vogue may be the best solution to the ungallant task of evaluating her critically," and looking at a book about Dada and Surrealism, he said: "Dada was not so much a school of art as a parodying of all schools. But, since brevity is the soul of wit, the Dadaists soon exhausted their material, and in the early twenties Surrealism was born. Surrealism set itself the task of cleaning out the attic and the closets of the modern imagination." It was crisp, perceptive reviewing, not designed for a specialist audience, and with some inevitable limitations resulting from the need to keep to a few hundred words. But Broyard always made good points, as when he said: "Breton was himself the most surrealist feature of the entire movement; totally humourless and pedantic, he had a compulsion for issuing manifestos. He was constantly defining and redefining their position - while the Surrealists as constantly ignored or transcended these definitions." These words came back to me during a recent visit to a Surrealist exhibition in Paris where the poems and paintings often went their own way despite what the manifestos said. 

Broyard published another book in 1980, Men, Women and Other Anticlimaxes, which centred on the life he lived when he moved to Connecticut, and he worked for The New York Times, and carried on writing. His wife noted that, even when he was terminally ill, he managed to juggle the "pain and medication in a way that allowed him to keep writing his weekly column for The New York Times Book Review." He died in October, 1990. 

Obviously, it would be foolish to claim any kind of major literary status for Anatole Broyard. He was a literary journalist, and most of his work - a few excerpts from an unpublished novel, scattered essays, short book reviews - was hardly likely to be remembered, at least by the majority of those who read it. Ironically, the work most likely to have a lasting impact only appeared after his death. I've already mentioned Intoxicated By my Illness, and Broyard's name also appeared on another book, Kafka Was The Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, which was published in 1993. He had worked on it for sometime, and Alfred Kazin remembered that "he was strangely slow and too deliberate in completing it," although Kazin had been impressed by the sections Broyard had shown him. Writing in The New York Times Book Review a month or so after Broyard 's death, Kazin said: "What caught me was not the racy old days in the Village, much as I envied some of his experiences, but the tone, poised without being falsely detached, very comic at times without cheapening some crucial memories The memoir was all representation, all picture. Anatole was certainly bringing all this back from a most unexpected point of view. And one quite at variance with the growling, all too seasoned and debonair New York literary reviewer I had known and read without being unduly impressed. In the memoir Anatole somehow created a new Anatole for me to regard, and this on the basis of Greenwich village memories that elsewhere had become as conventional as life in the suburbs." 

It was Kazin who also recalled that Broyard's "growling intensity.. .had to do with a love of books, the primary books, against which, as a measure and representation of human existence, the life around him often seemed hollow and mean to the point of being disgraceful. I am a writer who has had to earn his living as a professor, and Anatole's burning, grasping insistence upon recalling the immortal life in certain favourite books was in such contrast to most of the professors of literature I knew that I almost felt guilty for not caring.. .as sharply and even accusingly as he did." 

We need people like Anatole Broyard who care about books and writing, and we need to preserve their work and not let it disappear simply because it was not widely praised nor published in large selling editions. I've kept the magazines in which his early stories and articles appeared, and I've got his later books on my shelves, but there are dozens of other novelists, poets, and critics, whose books, once I've read and reviewed them, have been given away or taken to the second-hand bookshops. Anatole Broyard means much more to me than that.

 

NOTES:

The 1950s pocket-book format magazines in which Broyard's early stories and articles were published are difficult to find, but for the record, "Ha! Ha !" was in Discovery 2 (1953), "What the Cytoscope Said" in Discovery 4 (1954), "Sunday Owner in Brooklyn" in Modern Writing 2 (1954), and "For he's a Jolly Good Fellow" in New World Writing 10 (1956). "Sunday Dinner in Brooklyn" was reprinted in Protest: The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men (Souvenir Press,1959) 

"Mambo" was in Neurotica 6 (1950) and "American Sexual Imperialism" in Neurotica 7 (1950). "Village Cafe" was in New Directions 12 (1950) "The Choice" was published in The Beats (Gold Medal Books, 1960), edited by Seymour Krim. "A Portrait of the Hipster' was originally published in the June 1948 issue of Partisan Review, and was reprinted in Jam Session (Peter Davies, 1958), edited by Ralph Gleason, and The Scene Before You (Rhinehart & Co., 1955), edited by Chandler Brossard. A memoir of an encounter with Dylan and Caitlin Thomas appeared as "A Fling With Dylan" in the September 1964 issue of Cavalier.

Aroused By Books was published by Random House in 1974, and Men, Women and Other Anticlimaxes by Methuen in 1980. Intoxicated by My Illness was published by Ballantine Books in 1993, and Kafka Was The Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir by Vintage Books in 1997.


ADDENDUM

BROSSARD & BROYARD

Alexis Lykiard

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 Brossard'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.

This article also appears in Jim Burn’s collection Radicals, Beats & Beboppers available from Penniless Press Publications