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 Memoir is 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.”
By now it must be apparent that Broyard is a wizard of figurative language and physical description. “Her waist was so small it cut her in two,” he says of Sheri, “like a split personality or two schools of thought. Though her legs and hips were sturdy and richly curved, her upper body was dramatically thin. When she was naked it appeared that her top half was trying to climb up out of the bottom, like a woman stepping out of a heavy garment.”
BROYARD IS VIRTUOSIC WHEN IT COMES TO DESCRIPtions of sex. “If we didn't have books,” he recalls of those days, “we'd have been completely at the mercy of sex.” Most writing about sex is like chewing food instead of tasting it — all mechanics and no flavor. Not so with Broyard:
Sheri and I began not at the beginning, as I had hoped, but at the end of sex. We arrived immediately at a point where, if we had gone any further, what we did would have had to be called by some other name — yoga, mime, chiropractic, or isometrics.
Most people would say that lovemaking was a defense against loneliness, but with Sheri it was an investigation of loneliness, a safari into its furthest reaches. She had a trick of suspending me at a high point of solitariness when I was in the full flow of that self-absorption that comes over you as you enter the last stages of the act. She would stall or stymie my attempts to go ahead and finish — she'd hold me there, freeze me there, as if to say, See how alone you are! And then I would float above her, and above myself, like an escaped balloon.
Sex with Sheri was full of wreckage. It was like a tenement that has been partly demolished by a wrecker's ball, so that you can see the terrible biological colors people painted their rooms, the pitiful little spaces they chose for themselves. In my heart I thought of her as weird and in her heart she saw me as ordinary . . . all we had in common was desire, perhaps not even that.
Broyard once aptly described himself as a writer for whom sexuality is inseparable from consciousness. It's a good thing that sex with Sheri didn't offer blissful oblivion, because what makes it extraordinary to read about is Broyard's unflagging awareness. Through his physical relationship with Sheri, he explores his relationship to all that is troubling and enticing and mysterious in human nature. A complicated lover, Donatti is the perfect subject for his prose, which is always tactile and alert, cerebral without seeming to belong to the province of thought.
Kafka Was the Rage is a book about the erotics of knowledge both carnal and cultural, and it is one of the most humane and beautifully written books I've ever read. It is also unfinished. Broyard, who put the manuscript aside in order to work on a book about his illness, died before the memoir was completed. The fact that it's unfinished stirs me to a finer appreciation, a greater craving. I ate his book, and it made me hungry.
Bernard Cooper is the author of Truth Serum: Memoirs, Maps to Anywhere and Guess Again: Short Stories. He lives in L.A., and is the art critic for Los Angeles Magazine.