Harold Brodkey is the biggest question mark in American literature today. He is a full-fledged legend in the upper reaches of American print society. But you may never have heard of Brodkey, and more likely you’ve never read any of his work, even though many inhabitants of our literary world, particularly those closest to its nucleus in New York, write of him as though he were as well known as, say, John Updike. In a brief survey of who’s who among America’s literary heavyweights (fiction division) published in Vanity Fair two years ago, critic James Wolcott saved his most approbatory remarks for Updike and Brodkey–whom he compared, weighing which is the more likely to bear a greater distinction into posterity.

Brodkey is the author of what may be the longest and most eagerly anticipated fictional work in progress since the 20s, when James Joyce introduced the term to describe the published bits and pieces of what finally became Finnegans Wake. Brodkey apparently has been working on his project for over 25 years. Portions of it have been appearing in magazines since the early 70s. These–the visible, dislocated fragments of the manuscript, for a while referred to as “The Animal Corner” and now as “A Party of Animals”–are the basis of Brodkey’s fabulous reputation, the milestones of his singular literary career. They are the evidence of his unique and unmistakable talent; together, they form the growing covenant of Brodkey’s promise to become one of the most important writers of our age.

Brodkey has gradually surfaced into the public’s awareness over the past few years, after spending most of the last three decades in quietly cultivated obscurity. He has always been celebrated by a cognoscenti of sorts that eagerly followed his fitful appearances in print; among his admirers are such high-powered figures as Susan Sontag, Don DeLillo, Harold Bloom, Denis Donoghue, and Gordon Lish. Of late he has published more work than ever before, granted interviews, been photographed, given readings, and generally begun to maintain a higher profile. At the same time he has been the subject of increasing controversy in the pages of literary magazines and newspaper book sections–controversy in which he has actively participated.

The public facts of Brodkey’s life and career are these: He was born in rural western Illinois in 1930. He grew up and attended the public schools in University City, Missouri, in suburban Saint Louis, a bright boy who skipped grades and entered Harvard at 16. He taught briefly at Cornell. Like Updike, another Harvard alumnus of the same generation, he published his first short stories in the New Yorker in the mid-50s. Eight of the nine stories collected by the Dial Press in 1958 under the title First Love and Other Sorrows first appeared in that magazine’s pages; the book is dedicated to the novelist William Maxwell, a former fiction editor there. Throughout his career Brodkey’s work has found a hospitable place in the New Yorker. His most recently published piece, “The Laugh,” appeared in the issue of February 2, 1987.

Brodkey married and had a daughter and was divorced. In 1961 he signed a contract for a novel, his novel in progress, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux. During the 60s he published several more stories, again mostly in the New Yorker, that are much more diverse in style and subject than his earlier work. In those years, he all but disappeared from view, in the public literary world anyway. The work he published in that decade did not receive much attention or acclaim. He mostly supported himself outside of writing, as he revealed in 1977 in Esquire: “I worked. I wore a gray flannel suit. I had an attache case. I got a lot of promotions.”

Brodkey’s remarkable career took off in 1973, the year he first published pieces from his work in progress. Two stories, “Innocence” and “Play,” appeared in the now-defunct American Review. Another, “Story in an Almost Classic Mode,” was published in the New Yorker. They created a stir, and not just because of their often explicit sexual content. In these pieces Brodkey wrote for the first time in the voice that distinguished him as a mature and original writer, not merely a developing talent. About this time the controversy that surrounds him first began, chiefly because of the novel’s failure to appear despite repeated promises that it was forthcoming.

The contributor’s notes in the back of American Review #16 stated that “The Animal Corner” would be published in the fall of 1973; in the back of #17, the notes stated that the novel was to be put out “next year.” No novel appeared: but pieces from it continued to be published, receiving more and more notice and acclaim. In 1975 Esquire published “His Son, in His Arms, in Light, Aloft,” and it was awarded first honors in the annual O. Henry collection. “Verona: A Young Woman Speaks,” also published in Esquire (but not related to the work in progress), was included in the Best Short Stories of 1978 volume.

In 1976, according to an article in the New York Times, Brodkey had turned in a 2,000-page manuscript to Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Still the book did not appear. Brodkey’s association with Farrar, Straus and Giroux came to an end, and his contract was picked up by Knopf. Around that time, at the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s, Brodkey remarried and stopped publishing for a few years. Over the past five years or so, a flurry of new pieces has shown up, in such magazines as Vanity Fair and the Partisan Review as well as the New Yorker.

All of the published pieces together probably amount to no more than a small fraction of the ultimate A Party of Animals, and Brodkey himself has indicated that he has had to revise them considerably in dislocating them from their places in his larger narrative. But judging from this evidence, the book will be the story of Wiley Silenowicz, a character whose life bears an unmistakable resemblance to Brodkey’s own. Of course this conflation of author and narrator promises to be one of the novel’s major concerns, but in a subtle, indirect manner, somewhat as it is in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past–with which it will surely be compared because of its length, its autobiographical nature, and certain of its literary strategies.

The core of Wiley’s story is his family, and its tyrannical bonds of blood and love. His natural mother, Ceil, dies before he is two; his natural father, Max Stein (a character Brodkey seems to have written very little about), gives the boy up to an affluent couple for “three hundred dollars and the promise of a job in another town.” Stein “was a minor gangster off-and-on, a gambler, a brawler–it depends on the date what it is he was: a semi-pro boxer for a while known for the brutality of his attack.” This first set of parents, Wiley’s natural parents, are Russian Jewish immigrants; his maternal grandfather was a rabbi, as were generations of his ancestors. The second set–the couple who raise him, Lila and S.L.–provide him with a new name and a sister ten years his senior, Nonie. They too are Jews, but nonobservant and almost totally assimilated.

The Silenowicz family fortunes decay. Within a few years of Wiley’s adoption, S.L. is ruined and the family is forced to move from their spacious home on the Mississippi to a small apartment in suburban Saint Louis. The tenuous unity among them begins to deteriorate. Terrible illness, death, and bitter, irrevocable hostilities beset the survivors. Wiley leaves home to attend Harvard, where he falls in love with and marries a woman named Ora Perkins. In Brodkey’s published work Wiley appears at his oldest, 26, in a piece entitled “What Going Out Without Ora Is Like: Johnno: 1956”; he is living in New York and beginning to establish himself as a writer.

“A Party of Animals” may again be nearing some state of completion, and Brodkey has perhaps substantiated that possibility by publishing more and adopting a somewhat higher personal profile. Excepting portraits exhibited by Richard Avedon in the mid-70s (which, as his friend Donoghue has written, “both breached and enhanced” his invisibility), no photographs of Brodkey seemed to exist until 1985, when Vanity Fair published a full-page shot by Hiro accompanying the pieces called “Falling and Ascending Bodies.” Since then Brodkey’s words and image have been cropping up more and more frequently.

In addition to several new “A Party of Animals” pieces, Brodkey has published a number of poems and essays. One essay, “Reading, the Most Dangerous Game,” which originally appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review in November of 1985, was cited for recognition in the inaugural Best American Essays collection (1986); another, published this year in the Partisan Review, centered on the prospect of nuclear apocalypse. Brodkey posed in an Issey Miyake sweater for a fashion spread in last summer’s special fiction issue of Esquire. In the first months of 1987, the debut issue of Quality (the now-aborted project from Time, Inc.) featured an article on Brodkey’s collection of early American art.

As an act of good faith, perhaps, or propitiation, in 1985 Brodkey even published a book–a three-piece collection, Women and Angels, put out in a limited edition of 3,000 copies by Jewish Publications. Two of these pieces, “Ceil” and “Lila” (a revision of “Story in an Almost Classic Mode”), were first published in the New Yorker, while the third, “Angel,” had not previously appeared in print. Last year First Love and Other Sorrows was reissued in paperback as part of the Vintage Contemporary series.

Thus are Brodkey’s readers occupied while they anticipate the publication of the completed novel, and thus are the circles of his admirers and detractors widened.

Only Brodkey’s novice work is readily available, in the paperback First Love and Other Sorrows. Those stories, particularly the five “Laura” pieces that make up about the second half of the book, have that particular sense and savor associated with “New Yorker fiction,” derived as much from the best and most distinctive qualities of writers like Cheever and Salinger as from the worst of their legions of capable, faceless inheritors. Classy, competent, and inoffensive, the stories in First Love are promising for a writer not yet 30, but otherwise unexceptional.

Anyone interested in the evolution of Brodkey’s work beyond 1958 will need a library and the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, or else will have to wait until that work is inevitably published in book form. Eventually all of it is sure to find its way between hard covers: the poems, essays, and all of the pieces related to “A Party of Animals” that will not fit into its final structure, as well as the completed novel itself. (In fact, Knopf is planning to publish next fall a thousand-page collection of Brodkey’s work from the 60s, 70s, and early 80s.)

One thing the oeuvre makes immediately apparent is the clear-cut, decade-by-decade evolution of Brodkey’s style. The stories he published in the 60s are something like the missing link here, because they appear to have been forgotten by even the few who have tried to write about him–pro or con. They vary in quality, but the best of them–“The Abundant Dreamer” (1963) and “Hofstedt and Jean–and Others” and “The Shooting Range” (both 1969)–are rewarding work, and especially gratifying to read in the context of Brodkey’s development. The aloof, contained, and affectionately ironic voice of First Love has been replaced with more open and knowing brands of narration, clearly used with more confidence, and offering far more worldly perspectives.

“The Abundant Dreamer” is the pivot at which Brodkey’s work swings free of its early constraints. A portrait of the artist as a young man, it centers on filmmaker Marcus Weill, an American-born, half-Jewish auteur living and working in Europe. Weill receives notice of his grandmother’s death on the set, and recollects the childhood and youth he shared with her while finishing his day’s work. This story and the later two also yield some of Brodkey’s most beautiful prose, such as this passage from “Hofstedt and Jean”:

“When I was young, I saw people as sheer appetites, fish leaping for flies, smooth, beautiful, and hungry. But I was perhaps appetiteful myself then. I’m older now and I see people as complex things, held in and mysterious, streaked with virtues and ridiculous with vices; I see them perched on time, each on a breaking branch the buds of which are sticky, new always, ready to unfold into green moments.”

The 1969 stories anticipate Brodkey’s later work–especially “The Shooting Range,” a third-person account of a middle-class woman’s life from her college years to middle age, unlike anything else he has ever done. Here he comes as close as any writer ever has to achieving Joyce’s ideal: the writer detached and invisible behind the work, “paring his fingernails.” Still, that piece prefigures many of the concerns occupying him since, in fiction written as “subjectively” as possible.

In the 70s, with the first pieces from “A Party of Animals,” Brodkey abandoned conventional plot and narration to concentrate on capturing the full and various content of life, selecting events that are presented to the reader in overwhelming physical, emotional, and spiritual detail. The narration is offered as process, Wiley literally reexperiencing the events of his life through language, the act of writing, and his matured sensibility.

The tone is bravura, passionate but exacting, aggressive, scrupulous, and daring. He writes about constants of human experience, such as childhood, sex, families, and death, with an entirely new candor and penetration. His style developed an elaborateness that Anatole Broyard in the New York Times said was “like a revenge on carelessness,” characterized by long, mounting sentences, clause after clause marshaled into order by commas, colons, and semicolons, as in this passage from “Innocence”:

“It hurt her; her face looked like something made of stone, a monstrous carving; only her body was alive; her arms and legs were outspread and tensed and they beat or they were weak and fluttering. She was an angel as brilliant as a beautiful insect infinitely enlarged and irrevocably foreign; she was unlike me: she was a girl making rattling, astonished, uncontrolled, unhappy noises, a girl looking shocked and intent and harassed by the variety and viciousness of the sensations, including relief, that attacked her.”

In the 80s Brodkey has developed a style of even greater elaborateness and precision, much as Henry James did after the turn of the century, for the purpose of delving ever deeper and more faithfully into his subject. It is dense, challenging prose; no description or excerpt can really do justice to the relentlessness of its restless, hectoring intelligence, especially as it accumulates page after page. But it is not obscure in the sense that Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and other modernist writers are, or willfully difficult to read. The requirements for understanding Brodkey are a thorough acquaintance with English and a willingness to be led by his completely authoritative and wide-ranging narrative voice.

Another characteristic obvious in Brodkey’s work as a whole is his obsession with certain material, with reworking it, re-creating it, bringing it to the point most closely approximating his personal concept of perfection–whatever the cost. As with so many writers, his work will ultimately connect, be of a piece; all of it will essentially be about the same things, the same people, the same places–like Joyce’s Dublin, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, and Proust’s Paris and Balbec.

These obsessions are already evident in the stories collected in First Love. The circumstances of the family in the title story correspond to those of the Silenowiczes. The relationship between the narrator and a much younger playmate in “The State of Grace” reappears in “Play,” published nearly 20 years later. The bicycling figures of Wiley and his friend Jimmy in “Falling and Ascending Bodies” dimly suggest the two older boys cycling through France in “The Quarrel.” “His Son, in His Arms, in Light, Aloft,” Brodkey’s award-winning piece of 1977, is transmuted into 1985’s “S.L.”; little remains the same except for the presence of a father carrying a two-year-old son, and the steady remembrance of a view from behind their house of the sun setting across the river.

When Women and Angels appeared two years ago it received almost no public recognition, except for two reviews that amount to attacks, not so much on the work itself as on the man perceived to be behind it. Leon Wieseltier’s piece, in the New Republic of May 20, 1985, alternates wildly between assault and near-veneration; he calls the first two pieces in the book “some of the ugliest construals of human relationship that I have ever seen,” but then claims that “Angel” is “one of the most astonishing pieces of prose I have been blessed to discover. . . . I know of nothing like this in the literature of the day.” D.J. Enright’s review in the New York Review of Books, September 26, 1985, is so vitriolic and so willfully evades the substance of Brodkey’s efforts that Brodkey was provoked to respond. In a letter to the editor he defended himself from and attacked the legitimacy of Enright’s criticisms.

The controversy continues to grow. The Washington Post published a profile of Brodkey on February 19, 1986, by David Remnick. The article contained more information about Brodkey’s life and career than had ever before appeared in print, and the author’s appreciation of Brodkey’s virtues bordered on the rapturous. A month later, in the same paper, Jonathan Yardley published a piece, “Harold Brodkey and the Cult of the Self,” that takes Brodkey to task for a number of transgressions, chief among them his “unabashed self-preoccupation” and his unwillingness to present the finished novel in its entirety before the public. Last April, the Chicago Tribune‘s John Blades contributed one of his weekly columns to the debate; it contains less than five lines of commentary on Brodkey’s actual work.

In the first issue of Gordon Lish’s new magazine, the Quarterly, Brodkey responded to Yardley’s piece with a bitter, mocking ten-page rejoinder. Most important, he points out that “since 1958 I have published the equivalent of one middle-sized novel each decade. I’m not hiding from anyone.” What’s lost sight of in all of the excitement over Brodkey and his legendary manuscript is the formidable body of work he has already created. It’s impossible to write responsibly about Brodkey–at this stage, at least–if your conception of literary accomplishment is limited by the width of a hardcover binding. The bedrock of Brodkey’s reputation is his work; the rest is little more than gossip.

At the end of his piece in the Quarterly Brodkey writes: “I am willing to be judged finally on what I have published so far. It would have been far too difficult to grow to the age I am without publishing sufficient work for that willingness to be the case when I haven’t published the book and when the work involved in publishing it is so onerous.” Perhaps “A Party of Animals,” when it is published, will establish Brodkey as a literary giant for our age, and not just a peculiar, obscurely celebrated master. Perhaps it won’t; perhaps, as some believe, it will never appear at all.

This isn’t the time or place for a thorough explication of Brodkey’s work; that task will probably occupy generations of graduate students to come. Most literary arbiters will be unwilling to consider his achievement until the novel is complete and published, or he dies. But the work is there; more is on the way; and soon it will be easier than ever to gain access to it. Read it, and see for yourself.

First Love and Other Sorrows by Harold Brodkey, Vintage Contemporaries, $5.95.

Women and Angels by Harold Brodkey, Jewish Publications, $30.00.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Troy Thomas.