Sunday, April 12, 2015

Kafka Was the Rage by Anatole Broyard

Anatole Broyard came from a French Creole family that moved to Brooklyn while he was a child.  After serving in the Army he moved to Greenwich Village in 1947 to forge an identity for himself with the avante-garde sub culture of artists, writers and musicians, otherwise known as the "Beat Generation".

This was a time when Kafka was the rage, as were the Abstract Expressionists and revisionism in psychoanalysis. (pg.3)

Broyard's book is a memoir of his early years there before he went on to become a critic and essayist for the New York Times.

He writes mostly of his sex life.  First it's with an artist named Sheri who was a protege of the artist Anais Nin.  Broyard moves in with Sheri and they live in her filthy, dingy apartment.  Sheri comes across as someone who never cleans or bathes.  When Anatole asks for the key to the hall bathroom she tells him to use the sink.  When he tells her there are dishes in the sink she responds that they have to be cleaned anyway.  Months later when he moves out he notes that the same dishes were still in the sink.  Ew.

There are other women but it would get monotonous to describe them all.  What I suppose Broyard was trying to present as Bohemian and fascinating comes across as rather boring and not very hygenic.  It's strange because  he seemingly wants to present his life in the Village as one of freedom of sexual repression and intellectual stimulation.  

It's hard to know how intellectually stimulating it was because, while he mentions the bookshop he opened and that he and all his friends discussed Kafka, Hemingway, Mailer etc.. that he attended several classes on pyschoanalysis taught mostly by German Jews who had fled Germany, he never involves the reader in those discussions.  Personally I would have found that a lot more interesting than hearing about how strange and deviant his lovers were.

That begs the question.  He talks of how the forties was a time of unleashing the desires that had been bound by uptight cultural norms.  He is arrogant in his belief that they had so much more freedom than people who limited themselves to monogamy and family.  

Yet none of his relationships sound free.  He is interested in these women for their sex.  He describes nothing else about them except how strange they are.  He portrays himself as a naive inexperienced kid who is used and manipulated by these women. 

Sometime after breaking off his relationship with Sheri,  he visits his parents in Brooklyn to find Sheri there looking at old family albums, sitting on his mother's lap.  His mother doesn't want her there but doesn't know how to extricate herself from underneath her.  Then Sheri pushes the button on the recliner causing both her and his mother to flip backward.  This view of Sheri allowed Broyard's parents to see that she never wore underwear.

It seems to me it is Broyard that is being manipulative.  He wants us to find these women disgusting because he wants to justify abandoning them.  He uses the same strategy in describing the other women in the book.  

He manipulates the reader by what he fails to mention as well.  First of all, he wasn't some kid fresh out of high school.  He was a 26 year old coming out of the army.  Secondly, by the time he moved in with Sheri, he had abandoned a wife and daughter.

I think that freedom, in Broyard's sense, is another word for selfishness.  He waxes eloquent for several pages at how inhibited and repressed the American culture was back then about sex.  He found it impossible to believe anyone could be happy being married with children.

Speaking as a member of the monogamous club, I can attest that his belief is based on a faulty premise.  He proves this himself by showing in his book how empty and self-absorbed he and his social circle was.

He apparently came to this same conclusion because this memoir, which was left unfinished, was published by his wife of 29 years after his death. 


  1. Great commentary as always Sharon.

    You raise some important points here. I am a big advocate of free and out of the box thinking. I am also live and let live when it comes to alternate lifestyles as long as no one is harmed, deceived or manipulated.

    With that, there seems to be a lot of people who justify their own narcism and disregard for others under the guise of false freedom and free thinking. Broyard sounds like one of those people. It sounds like he was deceiving, manipulating and doing harm.

  2. I was going to say, for someone who was against marriage, he doesn't exactly make a great case for being single and liberated.

    And I have to agree with you: I'd be more interested in reading about the psychoanalysis discussions, too, than someone's embarrassing sexual escapades.

  3. Thank you for a great distillation of the work. I do not think I would care to read this one. Perhaps I am a curmudgeonly prude, but I will pass on the fellow's navel-gazing self-indulgences. The title was a hook, but I have avoided being caught.

    1. Hi RT. Well I guess that makes two of us who are prudes. I had always been interested in the Beatniks but I must confess that so far the few books I've read are pretty much the same.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.