America's Most-Awaited Writer Profits from An Impatient Wife

updated 01/09/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/09/1989 01:00AM

In the dining room of writer Harold Brodkey's Manhattan apartment, there are 11 wooden storage cabinets filled with his work-in-progress. The novel, his first, is 3,000 pages long now, or perhaps 6,000. Brodkey isn't sure anymore: He has been working on it for nearly three decades. He keeps rewriting, and the publishing world keeps waiting and waiting...and waiting some more to see what he will turn out. Since the critics waxed ecstatic over his first book of short stories, First Love and Other Sorrows, in 1958, Brodkey has published very little, but a clutch of eminent literati remains assured of his genius. "An American Proust, unparalleled in American fiction since William Faulkner," proclaims Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale. "A true artist," says writer Cynthia Ozick. "My reputation," says Brodkey, now 58, "is what I've been living on for 30 years."

Ask him how it came to this, and Brodkey may say, "I'm not sure I'm not a coward" or "I associate being recognized with being dead." At the same time, he has grandiose visions of "a Brodkey dictatorship in letters." Afraid that his passionate autobiographical fiction will "change the world too much," afraid that it won't change anything at all, he has long seemed doomed to follow such reticent writers as J.D. Salinger in what he calls "the great American tradition of not publishing." But now, at last, he may be on the verge of conquering what more than one observer has characterized as his "will to fail." Prodded by his wife, novelist Ellen Schwamm, he is emerging from the haze of reputation that has surrounded him for so many years.

This fall, Brodkey finally published his second collection of short fiction, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode. Though he dreads leaving New York, he even let Schwamm convince him that they should go on a nationwide book-promotion tour. Now Schwamm has set her sights on getting Brodkey's famous unpublished novel, A Party of Animals, the book he describes as "an exploration of American consciousness," finished and into print. A critically acclaimed author herself, she put aside her own writing for months, telling Brodkey she would not start again until he finished the first volume of his mammoth work.

The care and feeding of Harold Brodkey is a delicate art, and Schwamm, 54, may be the only person in the world who has mastered it. Intense and ruthlessly introspective, Brodkey is sleepless at night and often disabled by depression in the afternoon. He still mourns the loss of his mother, though she died 55 years ago, and writing—for him a Proustian process of dredging up early memories and setting them down in dense, voluptuous prose—only makes the grief worse. Irresistibly charming when he chooses to be, he wants desperately to be "a nice guy." But in the New York publishing world, Brodkey is known for brutal candor and arrogance—a reputation he believes has been perpetuated by a "cordon of enemies" who are envious of his talent.

Schwamm takes it all in stride. "I would rather be with Harold than not be with him, and I would rather do what he wants if I haven't a strong preference," she says. "For people I love, I learn to step back." She does not consider herself "self-sacrificing," however, and has even begun work on a new novel now that it seems Brodkey is on the road to finishing his. She says she doesn't resent the effort she has already made to get his books published. "I feel," she says, "that this culture needs Harold's work."

Brodkey and Schwamm met 10 years ago in a Manhattan bookstore. He was 48, 18 years divorced, with a grown daughter. He lived the life of a starving artist, selling an occasional story to the New Yorker and other magazines, optioning and reoptioning his novel-in-the-making and getting by on his charm. (He once told an interviewer, "I'm an incredibly good dinner guest. For years I used to be able to eat out every night for free with the best food and the best-looking women.") Schwamm was 45, a mother of 3, married to a wealthy businessman and living a lonely existence in a tastefully appointed West Side co-op. She had just published her first novel, Adjacent Lives, to rave reviews. A friend introduced her to Brodkey because, she says, "he was—and still is—my favorite author, living or dead."

They had in common a sense of being outsiders. After Brodkey's mother died of cancer—a death that Brodkey says left him so devastated he still cannot bear to hear Yiddish, the language she often used with him—Harold's father left his 2-year-old son to be raised by relatives in St. Louis. Ellen's father, a builder, had moved the family to a different town each year of her childhood. Harold had been married at 21 to Joanna Brown, a Radcliffe student he met while he was at Harvard. Ellen had married young as well, straight out of Connecticut College. Their attachment, when they met at mid-life, was almost instantaneous—"like imprinting," Schwamm says. "It was what I was raised to dream about, although when it finally happened I was hardly a princess anymore." Within two weeks of their first meeting, she had left her husband of 23 years.

Harold and Ellen married in 1980, and in 1983 Schwamm published her second novel, How He Saved Her, the story of a woman who leaves her husband and children and runs off with the devil. Though Schwamm says the book is not a memoir, the truth is that Brodkey entered their relationship with a rescue mission in mind: He was determined to amuse the woman with "the saddest eyes in New York." Schwamm had salvation dreams of her own. "I wanted to make him happy," she says. "People tell me, 'Since he's met you, he's a changed person,' and I say, 'Oh, good! "

The Brodkeys have not entirely forsaken their past lives. They still see Schwamm's children, Jennifer, 31, Lee, 27, and Michael, 30. Brodkey's daughter, Temi, now 36 and living in Montana, is one of the few people he trusts to edit his stories. Mostly, though, Brodkey and Schwamm are alone in their six-room apartment. They seldom venture out alone (though they did decide recently, after taking up weight lifting, that it might be refreshing to join separate gyms). "We're attached at the hip," says Brodkey. Their tastes, and even their appearances, have grown increasingly similar. Often they emerge from their closets to find that they look like mirror images: cropped gray hair, black slacks, black shirts. "Sometimes we realize that we're dressed too much alike, and then one of us goes back and changes," Brodkey says. At literary soirees, which they attend often, they stick together, the couple in the plastic bubble. "This kind of closeness is self-reinforcing," says Brodkey. "It drives people away. There's always this cutoff between you and the world."

Such intimacy creates its own brand of anxieties. "What we have is immensely good, and we know it, which is horrible," Brodkey says. "My fear of death is now exceeded by my fear of her death." To ease that terror, they have decided to be buried in a double coffin. Meanwhile, Schwamm does her best to postpone the inevitable. "I get so upset when he eats the wrong things," she says. "I'm trying to keep him alive so he can finish his work." Brodkey claims that she is all that stands between him and oblivion. "Men are constitutionally incapable of keeping themselves alive," he declares. "Left to myself I wouldn't live like this. She's always interrupting me and introducing elements of health."

Into the once lackluster apartment Brodkey has inhabited for 18 years, Schwamm has introduced fresh coats of paint and American country decor. Their lives have taken on a comforting routine. Up between 5:30 and 7, he writes until lunchtime—unless he can't stand the separation. "There have been times when she's writing and I just sit waiting for her to come out," he says. After lunch, Brodkey makes a few phone calls to catch up on the latest literary gossip, then takes the subway to the New Yorker, where he was made a staff writer two years ago.

Despite the steady work, there is never quite enough money, and several rooms in the apartment still need to be painted. Every day Brodkey turns on his fancy new TV—purchased after novelist Don DeLillo, a close friend, advised him that it would create a diversion and stave off his fear of death—and his dreams of being rich. The wildly mixed reviews that greeted Stories in an Almost Classical Mode upset him. Perhaps, he thinks, he should just start writing screenplays.

But on his better days, Brodkey believes that his career in fiction will take off yet, that he isn't just writing to be discovered posthumously. After all, the book tour he took with Schwamm was wonderful, he says, "like being liked in high school." All those adoring readers, turning out to see America's Proust: It's the kind of thing a brooding genius could get fond of. The kind of thing that just might make him want to publish a novel.

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