Monday, July 15, 2019

Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir

When I read book reviews in The New York Times many years ago, I was often impressed by those written by Anatole Broyard. He didn't publish many books during his life, but I recently came across this unfinished memoir, which was published three years after he died in 1990. It includes vignettes of people he knew in 1946 and 1947 in Greenwich Village, during the period in which it became a haven for literary and artistic people following World War II. Besides the vignettes, there is discussion of the formation of Broyard's adult identity, the quality of the interactions he had, particularly with women, and an anecdotal glimpse of American cultural history.

While I was growing up in the suburbs, the Village still had a reputation as a hip place, though by then the Beat movement was mostly dead and folk music was more popular than jazz. Bob Dylan made a name for himself there in the early 1960's, and, as far as I know, the Village has been gentrified since then, with high property values. I haven't been there since 2003, when I visited Tony Judt in his office at NYU on Washington Square. As Broyard tells it, the area was poor after the war, and the dwellings consisted of walk-up tenements with DC electricity, which required humming AC adapters to run modern appliances. Though Broyard's discussion isn't particularly sociological, he describes the unusual circumstances created by the end of the Great Depression and the end of the war. With the GI Bill, millions of people simultaneously had opportunities to direct their lives in ways that hadn't been possible previously. Many of them ended up becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers or accountants, but people in the arts crowd tended to descend on the Village. Anïs Nin lived there, and much of the book concerns Broyard's relationship with Nin's protégé, Sheri Martinelli (under the pseudonym "Donatti"). W.H. Auden was in the neighborhood, as were Delmore Schwartz, Dylan Thomas and many others. As I recall, Denise Levertov moved there in 1948, but she never liked the grunge.

I ought to provide a sample of Broyard's writing, which I think is very good, as good as that of any American writer:

One night in the San Remo Bar Delmore Schwartz invited me to sit in a booth with him. He was with Dwight Macdonald and Clem Greenberg. I was flattered. I knew Delmore because he had accepted for Partisan Review a piece I'd called "Portrait of a Hipster."

They were talking about the primitive: Picasso, D.H. Lawrence, and Hemingway; bullfighting and boxing. I was a bit uneasy, because my piece was about jazz and the attitudes surrounding it, and I didn't want to be typecast as an aficionado of the primitive. I wanted to be a literary man, like them. I felt too primitive myself to be talking about the primitive.

Yet I couldn't help showing off a little. I had noticed in taking strolls with Delmore that he was surprised and even impressed by what I thought were ordinary observations. He seemed to see American life only in the abstract, as a Platonic essence. Sometimes he saw it as vaudeville, but he always saw it through something else. He imposed a form, intellectual or esthetic, on it, as if he couldn't bear to look at it directly.

Like many other New York writers and intellectuals of his generation, Delmore seemed to have read himself right out of American culture. He was a citizen only of literature. His Greenwich Village was part Dostoyevski's Saint Petersburg and part Kafka's Amerika. 

I admired his high abstraction, his ability to think in noninclusive generalizations, but I pitied him too. I thought his was as much a lost generation as Hemingway's and Fitzgerald's—in fact, more lost. While the writers of the twenties had lost only their illusions, Delmore, the typical New York intellectual of the forties, seemed to have lost the world itself. It was as if these men had been blinded by reading. Their heads were so filled with books, fictional characters, and symbols that there was no room for the raw data of actuality. They couldn't see the small, only the large. They still thought of ordinary people as the proletariat, or the masses. 

I wanted to be an intellectual, too, to see life from a great height, yet I didn't want to give up my sense of connection, my intimacy with things. When I read a book, I always kept one eye on the world, like someone watching a clock.

Surprisingly to me, to the extent that there is a main theme to the book, it is Broyard's inability to connect with women, no matter how hard he tried. His writing about Sheri is nonjudgmental, yet her behavior seems bizarre to me, and though I couldn't tolerate someone like her now, Broyard expresses very well the angst that he experienced when he tried to develop a close relationship with her. In the end he broke up with her after she had made a suicide attempt without offering an explanation and after she had had him arrested for taking one of his own possessions from her apartment. As a reader, I was reminded of  Andy Warhol's "Superstars" and got the sense that people like Sheri may have prefigured the movement toward empty celebrity in the arts. Broyard doesn't try to outline Sheri's psychodynamics, but I found it difficult to see her as anything other than mentally ill in a significant sense. Though Broyard mentions in passing that he saw a psychiatrist because it was fashionable, mental illness never comes up as a specific topic in the book, but, in the postscript by Alexandra Broyard, his wife at the time of his death, it becomes evident that he found stability later, after he had moved away from Greenwich Village, raised a family and developed a career. My interpretation is that Broyard was very much a down-to-earth person who was thrown off when he placed himself in the milieu of artistic people with unstable personalities. As the first member of his family to take an interest in the arts or graduate from college, he had placed himself in an environment that took more adjustment than he realized was necessary.

There is a lot of discussion in the book about sex; it is done tastefully and usually is related to Broyard's difficulty connecting with women. This is striking to read now, when women are more often seen as the victims of insensitive, self-centered men. In this case, you can clearly see that, compared to Broyard, Sheri and some of the other women he knew were the ones who were emotionally unavailable and perhaps manipulative. Broyard also remarks how different it was before the sexual revolution and books like Portnoy's Complaint. Relationships between men and women were strained compared to later days, and that was an enduring problem for Broyard in this memoir

The style of writing in the book is elegant and literary, but not so literary as to fit Broyard's description of Delmore Schwartz's style. Though I usually prefer more analytical works, this one makes up for it by capturing Broyard's mental state at the time so well that it is absorbing enough in itself. I think this book would appeal more to men than to women, but those women who are interested in broadening their horizons in understanding men surely could benefit from it. My current position is that the gulf between men and women is unbridgeable, but that education and awareness can still improve relations between the sexes. I may read more of Broyard and comment on that later.

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