Gargoyle 15/16cover photo (The Immeasurable) by Haig Shekerjianpublication date 1/27/1981
Michael Brondoli was born in Waynesboro, Virginia, in 1948; attended DukeUniversity (B.A. 1970). He claims to have discovered two places ideal forthe story-telling life: Istanbul, Turkey (where he lived for two years),and Dare County, North Carolina. His stories tend to take place in oneor the other. He is currently writing a novel that takes place in bothand living in New York City. His books are Smithsburg (Treacle Press,1976) and The Love Letter Hack (Paycock Press, 1979). A short story, “Showdown,” publishedin Shenandoah last year, was picked for inclusion in the 1980 PushcartPrize. This interview was begun in Washington during the blizzard of ’79and completed by mail this spring. Paycock Press will bereleasinga 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 casecan be made–a case has been made many times, most notably by Denis deRougemont and Indries Shah–that the notion of romance in the Western worldcan be traced back to Arabic poetry, especially Sufi poetry. In back ofthat in turn were various early schools of dualistic thought, Persian,Indian, also pre-Islamic in the Arab world, These were philosophical constructswhich used human love as a metaphor for the yearning for wisdom, or evenunion with God. A bedouin yearning for his gazelle-like lady is actuallya soul yearning for reality, etc. These themes were picked up by the Troubadours,carried into the courtly romances–but still with an understanding of thecoded nature of the story line. Then through the centuries we lost theallegorical understanding. In the 20th century people have come to relationships,marriage, toting all this metaphysical baggage but not realizing that thebags are empty. The result is frustration, a feeling of failing short,of being ripped off. So, roughly, the Turkish letter writer in the storyrepresents the lost understanding. The American student represents theignorance. The hack writes phrases of love for money; the student believeshe 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 shouldstop right here. My knowledge comes from translations, ideally comparinga couple of the same piece. I do know modern Turkish, but Turkish poetrynowadays is a different ballgame, political, or autobiographical in themanner of most modern poetry although poets like Nazim Hikmet use someof the old motifs. I used to have a record of Ruhi Su verse sung by YunusEmre, 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 theseare influences. But for The Love Letter Hack, translations of Rumi’s Masnavi andof some Ottoman poetry are the sources that show up here and there. Rumistarts 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 haveno idea what it might be, we don’t have the tools, we’re not interestedin the discipline–it’s like trying to pump up a truck tire by blowinginto it. Rumi’s love for Shams-i-Tabriz inspired everything he did fromthe day they met: the desire and admiration of one man for another, theexhilaration of this–a sort of Jack Kerouac/Neal Cassady relationship,if that’s not stretching the point ridiculously. But the ultimate concernis 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.” Forthe complications of a love affair, “He blamed–but that was not theword–the promptings and colourings of language . . . He felt himself .. . betrayed by metaphors and exaltations that, acquired young, could neverbe eradicated.” However, this comes from a minor and almost dimensionlesscharacter; he in effect illustrates the aridity of a life without romanticnecessities. For the main characters, romance serves more as a kind ofmetaphysical proving ground–often in clearly marked stages. The processis ultimately unsuccessful, in fact tragic, but illuminating in some sensefor both the characters and the reader. In thinking of both The LoveLetter Hack and “Showdown,” your story in Shenandoah,I wonder if, or how, you feel the personal–personal love–does participatein metaphysical constructs? Or is this a question best dealt with by fictionitself?
Brondoli: It goes without saying that there’s something more than physicalfacts, proximity, pheromones, etc., to personal love. I understand thatmany people get involved in relationships that defy all reason–I’ve neverbeen involved in one of these myself–but what could be more metaphysical?I like your phrase about romance as a “metaphysical proving ground.” That’swhat it was for the Islamic poets, and it remains one of the strongestliterary conventions; although now it’s more a ground on which it is provedthat there are no metaphysics. My favorite contemporary example is probablyJaimy Gordon’s novel Shamp of the City-Solo, a real send-up of themaster-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 hackfinally advocates?
Brondoli: The hack advocates the simplest possible understanding of whatit 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 emergeas the one loyal friend in the story. And I wanted his reminiscences ofhis wife to show him to be the one true lover. If a resolution exists betweenthe two impulses–which are . . . on the one hand, a focus on a separatereality, and on the other hand, a need to be fully immersed in the regularlife of all humanity–I think it must be in revolutionary action. I meanrevolutionary 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 thework they thought was changing their society. When that failed so did everythingelse–yet the memory of that sustained them together through the ups anddowns 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 itdevelop 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 lotmore time working on the structure of the piece than on the actual writingof the sentences and paragraphs. The structure I worked on for weeks, andthe 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 structureof 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 outlinedas graphed, peaks, valleys, plateaus, I mean in terms of the prose itselfas 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, TheKiss of the Spider Woman–the perfection of structure in those booksis the vehicle of revelation. It adds a perspective nothing else couldhave achieved. It adds a second narrative to the obvious one. Timing andproportion are constantly taking us deeper into the characters.
Interviewers: Did you begin the book while you were living in the MiddleEast or is that something you did as you came back and began to digestthe experience?
Brondoli: I wrote the story in North Carolina, as a matter of fact, inNags Head. I had lived in Istanbul for a year, come back, and I was planningto go back to Istanbul, which I did, and I wrote this story kind of inanticipation, 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 meetingremarkable men, and women, involved with Rumi. The other times I’d beenmore 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 abilityto 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 bySalinger. That sort of attention to the way people reveal themselves inletters. Of course it is autobiographical in that there were living, breathingmodels 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 sendit out. I read poetry, a great deal, in the hope of acquiring some understandingof magical syntax.
Interviewers: Well, what does the prose form offer, for what you wantto express, that poetry doesn’t. The narrative?
Brondoli: Yeah, it offers narrative, which I understand as a record ofa process towards understanding. Maybe you could say that the fiction writeris more interested in the process and the poet is more interested in theunderstanding itself, the illumination. Language doesn’t seem a valid divider;a story isn’t a flabby poem. Also narrative offers to a greater extentthe chance to conjure up people out of words, and I have a soft spot forthis. More than a soft spot. A child’s delight in reading a passage wheresuddenly you see the person. That’s one of the reasons Ulysses isso great–you get hundreds of these. Any cheap trick of narrative is permittedso long as this is the objective.
Interviewers: Do you find, like Alton Mallone, that the world you createin 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 obviouslypeople hope for that effect. But it’s rare writing that doesn’t pale incomparison even with the language in the real world. I think writers tendto be wild over worldly phenomena, the most trivial things. I guess writingcan enhance by restoring the proper mix of perspectives–closeups and longshots. 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 approachesto the Arabic locales but more fundamental things–of course they’re verydifferent writers . . . the subject is too gigantic. But one common elementis the primacy of the narrator. Set foot outside your native country andthere are no props at all, that’s really a blank page. The narrator hasto do double duty. And on the other hand, somehow just giving the feelingof the place means less in a story in a foreign setting. The ante is uppedon everything.
Interviewers: The tension and conflict in your published work is basedon communication– the romantic idea of human communication vs. impossibilityand eventual failure. The action in Smithsburg hinges on music andBessie Smith lyrics, in The Love Letter Hack it depends on letters,and in “Showdown” it is the telephone calls . . . what you describeas “reading lips over salty phone lines.” Do you always viewcommunication in such a negative sense? Isn’t the desire to communicatethe force behind most writing?
Brondoli: Well, I don’t exactly agree with your analyses of these stories. Smithsburg isabout a moment of communication, two people who are able to trust the personthey need. “Showdown” contains a lot of crossed signals, butthe two men in the hotel room do come to understand something–they don’tput bullets in each other anyway–and the young woman at the bar communicateswith herself finally. The Love Letter Hack ends with the studentand the hack very much connected, at least that’s supposed to be implicitat the end. Their friendship will continue. And maybe the student willcome to understand how to make his relationship worthwhile. I think ofthese 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 eventsin “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 takesplace in Istanbul. On the twenty-year projection scale I want to do a biographyof Sinan, the Turkish architect, and I want it to be a fine piece of work.
Interviewed by Eric Baizer, Gretchen Johnsen, Richard Peabody & Joyce Renwickcirca 1979-80