One way to measure how great a work of literature is might be to ask how true (or “True,” if one is feeling particularly romantic) the writing is. We can find facts anywhere, but details and data are not the same as art. Great literature happens in the arrangement of that data, by presenting details with the right ear and eye for truth—and also, the good sense to know what to withhold from the audience, who, after all, are a part of the equation. The stories collected in Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows, both inspiriting and crushing, are some of the most psychologically true pieces of fiction I’ve ever read.
First Love collects nine stories, all composed and published in the 1950s; all but one was originally published in The New Yorker. Although discrete entities, the stories function together. First Love is very much a novel-in-stories, with recurring characters, themes, and motifs. Brodkey’s stories document the strange little bubble of time between WWII and the turmoil of the sixties, and his writing, a kind of late modernism, reflects this period, when the ideal of the American Dream began to be redefined in terms of new modes of class and education.
The first few stories in the collection are told from the first-person perspective of an adolescent, likely an iteration of Brodkey himself. Opener “State of Grace” serves as an overture to the collection, introducing a family that will be transposed throughout the tales. There’s the narrator, a sensitive, awkward boy, beginning to feel strains of alienation from his older sister and his mother. Dad is out of the picture, and with him, the family’s fortunes have fallen: big sis is expected to marry the right man for money—and for class.
These themes are explored in greater length in the very-long short story “First Love and Other Sorrows,” a compact little novella, really, that everyone should read at some point. The narrator, likely the same boy from the first story, describes his life at the end of his high school career in St. Louis, as he prepares to move on to college soon. Again, the major explicit conflict of the story revolves around his sister’s romances, as their mother pressures her to marry the right man. The real conflict though is the boy’s emerging realization of his own dramatic detachment from his family; or, more accurately, the young man is coming to realize the underlying instability that adults tend to hide from children. The boy observes his older sister, whom he reveres—
It occurred to me that she didn’t really know what she was doing; she was not really as sure of everything as she seemed. It was a painfully difficult thought to arrive at, and it clung to me. Why hadn’t I realized it before? Also, she sort of hated me, it seemed to me. I had never noticed that before, either. How could I have been so wrong, I wondered. Knowing how wrong I had been about this, I felt that no idea I had ever had was safe. For instance, we were not necessarily a happy family, with the most wonderful destinies for my sister and me. We might make mistakes and choose wrong. Unhappiness was real. It was even likely…
The narrator’s epiphany is articulate and crushing and wholly real: it documents the ugly realization that the fantasies of a middle class childhood — “happily ever after” — are, indeed, mere fantasies. Brodkey twins this moment in another epiphany at the end of the story that I would love to discuss but fear spoiling; suffice to say that the final line of the story, forever etched in my brain, is simply one of the finest and most fitting moments I’ve ever read.
The next story, “The Quarrel,” finds our young hero, a bit more jaded, off to Harvard, where he falls in with a bitter rich kid named Duncan; they quickly make it their business to despise everything, adopting (unearned) world-weary poses and contrarian natures. Against the advice of their families, the two take a semester off college to tour Europe, spending much of their time bicycling across France. The story documents the kind of friendships that many young people emerging from adolescence engage in: fierce, passionate, identity-defining relationships that always buckle under their own weight. Hence—
Duncan enjoyed Pernod. It made me sick. Duncan hated talking to people. I talked to everyone. My French vocabulary was better than Duncan’s. His pronunciation was better than mine. I became terribly adept at not irritating Duncan before breakfast. I couldn’t see that he appreciated any of this, or that he responded with any similar awareness. For the fiftieth time, I thought him unfair. The moment came when I could no longer stand the sound of his voice, or his ideas. After traveling with him day and night, without a break, for fifty-three days, I felt my senses suffocating in an awareness of Duncan.
“The Quarrel” perfectly captures the strange paradoxes of youthful, immature friendships that can’t survive; reading it forced me to remember myself at eighteen, and to recall a friendship similar to that between the narrator and Duncan, an intense friendship that burned out bitterly and quickly, yet nevertheless helped me to define myself.
“The Quarrel” is the last story in the collection written in first-person perspective; indeed, Brodkey’s narrative shift signals a shift in development; as his characters age (as they do through the collection), he allows himself to step outside of them a bit, as if the psychological pain he explores is almost too much to bear. “Sentimental Education” tells the story of an intense first love (the male lead seems like another iteration of the narrator from the first three stories). In a free indirect style, Brodkey glamorizes, valorizes, and satirizes the young lovers, all at once, exploring the passion and shame and confusion of early adulthood. Here, he describes what happens when the pair begin a sexual relationship—
Their first dip in sensual waters left them nonplussed. They didn’t know what to make of it. They tried to persuade themselves that something had really happened, but the minute it was over, they couldn’t believe they had ever done such a thing. They rushed into further experiences; they broke off in the middle of embraces and looked at each other, stunned and delighted. “Is this really happening?” they both asked at different times, and each time the other said, “No,” and they would laugh. They knew that nothing they did was real, was actual. They had received a blow on the head and were prey to erotic imaginings, that was all. But at the same time they half realized it was true, they were doing these things, and then the fact that they, Caroline and Elgin, shared such intimacy dazed and fascinated them; and when they were together, they tried to conceal it, but this indescribable attraction they felt for each other kept making itself known and draining all the strength from their bodies.
“Sentimental Education” retraces the fallout explored in “The Quarrel,” as the young lovers inevitably fall apart.
After this love story, Brodkey shifts his attention to a character named Laura (or, in one version, “Laurie”), who seems to be a version of the narrator’s sister from the first few stories. The five Laura stories are much shorter than the other narratives. These tightly detailed miniature portraits trace the development of Laura as she chooses the man her mother didn’t approve of; this plot is very much in the background of the stories, though, an implicit detail that nevertheless hangs over Laura’s psychological development. The Laura stories seem to trace what it means to grow old but not mature. They recall the narrator in “First Love and Other Stories” epiphany that adulthood might be a murky or unhappy place. “Laura” documents postpartum depression and “Trio for Three Gentle Voices” subtly explores the ways in which parents seek to avoid repeating their own parents’ mistakes. “Piping Down the Valley’s Wild” is a simple, elegant story about Laura’s husband’s college roommate coming over for dinner. Reading it, I experienced an uncanny transposition, as if I were observing a reinterpretation of something I experienced a few weekends ago. The story ends with another sad epiphany—
She just wanted this day to go on forever and ever, unending, with all its joys intact, and no one changing, nothing new happening, just these same things occurring over and over. Because how did you know happiness would come back? Or if it came back, that it would be as good as this? Laura sighed and wiped her eyes surreptitiously. The trouble with being happy was that it made you frightened.
This realization again encodes the paradox of adulthood, pointing toward its radical instability. To grow up, in Brodkey’s terms (terms I again point out strike me as utterly true) is to face irretrievable loss at every single moment, even as you gain new friends, new lovers, or new children. The joys of life are predicated on the necessary loss of these joys: existence costs.
First Love and Other Sorrows is a book that deserves more attention. In its spirit and art, it matches (and perhaps surpasses) other mid-century American narratives like The Catcher in the Rye or The Glass Menagerie, and in its spare, precise, minimal style, it points toward the later fiction of writers like Raymond Carver. This is a beautiful, sad book, the kind that leaves a deep impression. Very highly recommended.