Last words & epigraphs
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The Context of Romance
An Interview with Michael Brondoli
Michael Brondoli was born in Waynesboro, Virginia, in 1948; attended Duke University (B.A. 1970). He claims to have discovered two places ideal for the story-telling life: Istanbul, Turkey (where he lived for two years), and Dare County, North Carolina. His stories tend to take place in one or the other. He is currently writing a novel that takes place in both and living in New York City. His books are Smithsburg (Treacle Press, 1976) and The Love Letter Hack (Paycock Press, 1979). A short story, "Showdown," published in Shenandoah last year, was picked for inclusion in the 1980 Pushcart Prize. This interview was begun in Washington during the blizzard of '79 and completed by mail this spring. Paycock Press will be releasing a 2nd edition of The Love Letter Hack later this year.
Brondoli: It's a story of romance. It takes place in Istanbul. A case can be made--a case has been made many times, most notably by Denis de Rougemont and Indries Shah--that the notion of romance in the Western world can be traced back to Arabic poetry, especially Sufi poetry. In back of that in turn were various early schools of dualistic thought, Persian, Indian, also pre-Islamic in the Arab world, These were philosophical constructs which used human love as a metaphor for the yearning for wisdom, or even union with God. A bedouin yearning for his gazelle-like lady is actually a soul yearning for reality, etc. These themes were picked up by the Troubadours, carried into the courtly romances--but still with an understanding of the coded nature of the story line. Then through the centuries we lost the allegorical understanding. In the 20th century people have come to relationships, marriage, toting all this metaphysical baggage but not realizing that the bags are empty. The result is frustration, a feeling of failing short, of being ripped off. So, roughly, the Turkish letter writer in the story represents the lost understanding. The American student represents the ignorance. The hack writes phrases of love for money; the student believes he writes them for love.
Interviewers: What Islamic poetry has influenced you?
Brondoli: The most influential poet on the story was Rumi, who was Persian, who emigrated to Turkey, to Konya, and founded the Mevlana order of dervishes. Understand I don't read Arabic, Persian or Ottoman Turkish so I should stop right here. My knowledge comes from translations, ideally comparing a couple of the same piece. I do know modern Turkish, but Turkish poetry nowadays is a different ballgame, political, or autobiographical in the manner of most modern poetry although poets like Nazim Hikmet use some of the old motifs. I used to have a record of Ruhi Su verse sung by Yunus Emre, and I have a book of Hacibektas, who founded a later order of dervishes. The novelist Yasar Kemal uses the old poetry and tales constantly. So these are influences. But for The Love Letter Hack, translations of Rumi's Masnavi and of some Ottoman poetry are the sources that show up here and there. Rumi starts with human passion but the real subject is the philosophical constructs--
Interviewers: That have nothing to do with the--
Brondoli: No, it's not that they have nothing to do with day-to-day life. Most people still feel the need of a little something extra, but we have no idea what it might be, we don't have the tools, we're not interested in the discipline--it's like trying to pump up a truck tire by blowing into it. Rumi's love for Shams-i-Tabriz inspired everything he did from the day they met: the desire and admiration of one man for another, the exhilaration of this--a sort of Jack Kerouac/Neal Cassady relationship, if that's not stretching the point ridiculously. But the ultimate concern is the possibility of transcending one's self through love for Allah.
Interviewers: In Shirley Hazzard's new novel, The Transit of Venus, a character describes literature as "a good servant but a bad master." For the complications of a love affair, "He blamed--but that was not the word--the promptings and colourings of language . . . He felt himself . . . betrayed by metaphors and exaltations that, acquired young, could never be eradicated." However, this comes from a minor and almost dimensionless character; he in effect illustrates the aridity of a life without romantic necessities. For the main characters, romance serves more as a kind of metaphysical proving ground--often in clearly marked stages. The process is ultimately unsuccessful, in fact tragic, but illuminating in some sense for both the characters and the reader. In thinking of both The Love Letter Hack and "Showdown," your story in Shenandoah, I wonder if, or how, you feel the personal--personal love--does participate in metaphysical constructs? Or is this a question best dealt with by fiction itself?
Brondoli: It goes without saying that there's something more than physical facts, proximity, pheromones, etc., to personal love. I understand that many people get involved in relationships that defy all reason--I've never been involved in one of these myself--but what could be more metaphysical? I like your phrase about romance as a "metaphysical proving ground." That's what it was for the Islamic poets, and it remains one of the strongest literary conventions; although now it's more a ground on which it is proved that there are no metaphysics. My favorite contemporary example is probably Jaimy Gordon's novel Shamp of the City-Solo, a real send-up of the master-apprentice nexus of sexuality and wisdom.
Interviewers: Is there some sense in which a broader, less strictly personal, romantic context could help us resolve the conflict? Is this what the hack finally advocates?
Brondoli: The hack advocates the simplest possible understanding of what it is to be human. For him this is the only workable approach to mutuality. Naturally this includes a very dry-eyed acceptance of solitude and pointlessness. This may sound a little pessimistic but it is what enables him to emerge as the one loyal friend in the story. And I wanted his reminiscences of his wife to show him to be the one true lover. If a resolution exists between the two impulses--which are . . . on the one hand, a focus on a separate reality, and on the other hand, a need to be fully immersed in the regular life of all humanity--I think it must be in revolutionary action. I mean revolutionary each according to his or her gifts. If not guns then stories. The hack and his wife had their happiness when they were immersed in the work they thought was changing their society. When that failed so did everything else--yet the memory of that sustained them together through the ups and downs of the rest.
Interviewers: When you sat down to write The Love Letter Hack, did the whole outline, the whole idea come to you at one time, or did it develop as you started writing it?
Brondoli: No, the outline developed very slowly.
Interviewers: In the course of writing?
Brondoli: No, it was a change for me in that in this story I spent a lot more time working on the structure of the piece than on the actual writing of the sentences and paragraphs. The structure I worked on for weeks, and the text came very quickly after that was established.
Interviewers: Did you structure where all the letters fall in the story?
Brondoli: Yeah, I tried to do it with a kind of geometrical precision. It was a formal exercise.
Interviewers: Could you comment on the relationship between the structure of a composition as such, and that of the events, the narrative, it contains, and/or the experience it elicits from the reader?
Brondoli: It's a musical thing. A narrative can't be so much outlined as graphed, peaks, valleys, plateaus, I mean in terms of the prose itself as well as the events. So that it ends up making a kind of musical sense. For me the master of structure is Manuel Puig--Heartbreak Tango, The Kiss of the Spider Woman--the perfection of structure in those books is the vehicle of revelation. It adds a perspective nothing else could have achieved. It adds a second narrative to the obvious one. Timing and proportion are constantly taking us deeper into the characters.
Interviewers: Did you begin the book while you were living in the Middle East or is that something you did as you came back and began to digest the experience?
Brondoli: I wrote the story in North Carolina, as a matter of fact, in Nags Head. I had lived in Istanbul for a year, come back, and I was planning to go back to Istanbul, which I did, and I wrote this story kind of in anticipation, steeping myself in what I was hoping for. It was out of sync. Not until I returned that third time did I go to Konya and begin meeting remarkable men, and women, involved with Rumi. The other times I'd been more into the, if you'll pardon the expression, hippie side of things. Probably this reverse chronology isn't unusual.
Interviewers: I guess I have to ask--how autobiographical is the character?
Brondoli: Not too much. I think one of my gifts as a writer is the ability to create a certain verisimilitude. I don't know if that's a curse or blessing. If there was a direct inspiration for the story it was Franny and Zooey by Salinger. That sort of attention to the way people reveal themselves in letters. Of course it is autobiographical in that there were living, breathing models for some of the characters. And a lot of the stuff is what I learned, and heard, on travels in the Middle East.
Interviewers: Do you write poetry at all?
Brondoli: No . . . yeah, I write poetry but it's just awful. I never send it out. I read poetry, a great deal, in the hope of acquiring some understanding of magical syntax.
Interviewers: Well, what does the prose form offer, for what you want to express, that poetry doesn't. The narrative?
Brondoli: Yeah, it offers narrative, which I understand as a record of a process towards understanding. Maybe you could say that the fiction writer is more interested in the process and the poet is more interested in the understanding itself, the illumination. Language doesn't seem a valid divider; a story isn't a flabby poem. Also narrative offers to a greater extent the chance to conjure up people out of words, and I have a soft spot for this. More than a soft spot. A child's delight in reading a passage where suddenly you see the person. That's one of the reasons Ulysses is so great--you get hundreds of these. Any cheap trick of narrative is permitted so long as this is the objective.
Interviewers: Do you find, like Alton Mallone, that the world you create in print crowds out the real world? Or does it enhance it in some way?
Brondoli: A lot of New Yorkers read novels on the subway so obviously people hope for that effect. But it's rare writing that doesn't pale in comparison even with the language in the real world. I think writers tend to be wild over worldly phenomena, the most trivial things. I guess writing can enhance by restoring the proper mix of perspectives--closeups and long shots. It's good to see your friends as moving through fables.
Interviewers: Have you been influenced by Paul Bowles? Lawrence Durrell?
Brondoli: Everybody should be. It's not only their various approaches to the Arabic locales but more fundamental things--of course they're very different writers . . . the subject is too gigantic. But one common element is the primacy of the narrator. Set foot outside your native country and there are no props at all, that's really a blank page. The narrator has to do double duty. And on the other hand, somehow just giving the feeling of the place means less in a story in a foreign setting. The ante is upped on everything.
Interviewers: The tension and conflict in your published work is based on communication-- the romantic idea of human communication vs. impossibility and eventual failure. The action in Smithsburg hinges on music and Bessie Smith lyrics, in The Love Letter Hack it depends on letters, and in "Showdown" it is the telephone calls . . . what you describe as "reading lips over salty phone lines." Do you always view communication in such a negative sense? Isn't the desire to communicate the force behind most writing?
Brondoli: Well, I don't exactly agree with your analyses of these stories. Smithsburg is about a moment of communication, two people who are able to trust the person they need. "Showdown" contains a lot of crossed signals, but the two men in the hotel room do come to understand something--they don't put bullets in each other anyway--and the young woman at the bar communicates with herself finally. The Love Letter Hack ends with the student and the hack very much connected, at least that's supposed to be implicit at the end. Their friendship will continue. And maybe the student will come to understand how to make his relationship worthwhile. I think of these as a trio of happy endings.
Interviewers: Is "Showdown" a novel excerpt?
Brondoli: Could be. That is, I'm planning a novel in which the events in "Showdown" play a part, and some of the characters reappear. But much will be made up all over again to fit.
Interviewers: What are your current projects?
Brondoli: The novel I've just mentioned, also a short novel which takes place in Istanbul. On the twenty-year projection scale I want to do a biography of Sinan, the Turkish architect, and I want it to be a fine piece of work.