Gargoyle 15/16
cover photo (The Immeasurable) by Haig Shekerjian
publication date 1/27/1981

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 bereleasing
a 2nd edition of The Love Letter Hack later this year.

Interviewers: Tell us a little bit about The Love Letter Hack.

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

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.

Interviewed by Eric Baizer, Gretchen Johnsen, Richard Peabody & Joyce Renwick
circa 1979-80