By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
Illustration by Tavis Coburn
WHEN ANATOLE BROYARD, WHO FOR 18 YEARS HAD been a book critic, columnist, and editor of The New York Times, lay dying in a hospital bed, he read in order to stay alive. Death, for him, was the end of a narrative, and his recourse was to keep reading. In one of his many essays on terminal illness -- his was a battle with prostate cancer -- Broyard describes being winded by the beauty of Shirley Hazzard's novel The Transit of Venus, and considers writing her a letter that says, "I'm eating your book for lunch, and it's making me hungry."
It's typical of Broyard to give his enthusiasm so direct and sensual an expression. Typical too that he would not only imagine eating a book he admired, but would understand how doing so would leave him hungry for more. Broyard craved the precision of the written word. For him, books were like dreams that "seem so unbearably actual because they are cleansed of all irrelevancies." He believed that literature could induce "ontological hot flashes," by which I think he meant waves of fervent recognition that one is, for the moment, alive and kicking.
Devoted as he was to books and no doubt aware of the complexities of readership, I think Broyard would understand the hesitation with which I make known my affection for a certain book of his, one among the four he published. I've developed the unhealthy illusion that I am this book's ideal reader, that I am in fact its sole reader. By telling you the title, I feel as though I'm about to expose and therefore lose the thrill of a clandestine love affair. Reading can be as solitary an experience as writing, and after venturing deep into a particularly affecting book, it's only natural that one would want to share his or her astonishment, read paragraphs aloud to a friend. But there are also books a reader guards, hoarding the writer's words like grains of rice against a famine. There are books whose effect is so personal, so pointed, one comes to believe the pages were written for oneself alone, and that the power of those pages can thrive only in privacy.
Broyard's Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoiris such a book for me -- or was until now. The plot is simple, but the story is not. After serving on a Navy ship in Yokohama, the young Broyard returned to the U.S. in 1946, left his parents' home in Brooklyn, shacked up in the Village with one Sheri Donatti and attended the New School for Social Research on the GI Bill. There, he took classes in psychology from Erich Fromm and art history from Meyer Schapiro, both European émigrés who were earning reputations as two of the most radical thinkers in postwar America. Broyard can be rhapsodic about his education, as when he describes Schapiro's lecture on Picasso: "His voice rose to a cry. He honked like a wild goose. There was delirium in the room. The beam of the projector was a searchlight on the world." Broyard was also an inveterate skeptic, a man "alienated from alienation." He considered himself provincial (born in New Orleans, he was a Creole whose black heritage wasn't revealed until after his death), an outsider among outsiders -- a wonderfully odd vantage point from which to observe bohemian life. Add to this the distance of middle age -- a memoirist's secret weapon -- and you have on one hand a book that refuses to succumb to the zealotry or confusion that may have gripped a younger writer in the midst of great personal and social change, and on the other you have an author who is still on intimate terms with his past, having sifted through his recollections for years, cleansing them of all irrelevancies.
Although Broyard repeatedly pinpoints the drama of his avant-garde education, he also possesses an extraordinary knack for deflating intellectual pretension, as when he describes a friend who gave long-winded philosophical lectures: "He began with a prologue, or a prolegomenon . . . and I listened to it with a detached fascination as he explained, in effect, that his sensibility was bigger than mine." Regarding his initial reason for wanting to learn more about modern art, he says, "I was living with a modern painter, I slept with modern painting. The life we led depended on modern art. Without that, all we had was a dirty apartment."
Sheri Donatti, the painter in question, is perhaps Broyard's most rigorous teacher, embodying, as he puts it, "all the new trends in art, sex, and psychosis." Sheri wears no underwear and seems to invite mishaps that make this fact public, none more hilarious than when Broyard visits his parents and finds Sheri, whom they've never met, sitting on his bewildered mother's lap; as Broyard tries to compose himself, Sheri slowly parts her thighs and toys with the recliner's lever before she and his mother fly backward, legs in the air. An entire chapter is devoted to the night Sheri inexplicably screams during intercourse, a wide-mouthed howl that allows Broyard to "see all the way to the back of her throat, to her uvula." Since she refuses to answer his concerned questions, and since the scream strikes him as more experimental than heartfelt, the writer is left to speculate. "It was only her mouth that screamed. She wasn't like the girl in the Munch painting whose scream occupies her whole face. Sheri looked as if she was gargling. She let the scream out like an alarm clock that goes off when you can't remember why you set it."
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