"Profane Friendship" captures a city, but it was written to save it.
Harold Brodkey's unusual novel has an unusual provenance: It was commissioned by the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, an organization formed to preserve the heritage of Venice, and the city is a central presence in the book, more changing and more real, in fact, than the people in it. Mr. Brodkey wrote the novel in 1992, and the first edition was published privately as a fund-raiser for the Consorzio.
The narrator is Niles O'Hara, a minor writer and the son of a popular novelist contemporary with Hemingway. Hemingway is described, with an understatement typical of everything in "Profane Friendship," as "lunatic, drunk, vain, power-mad, treacherous and filthy-minded, androgynous, seducible, pathetic and unbearably clever, a towering figure, a genius, and an awful man, who, perhaps because he was rotten, because he had so many aspects of rottenness that he was like a relative, became a truly great media figure, the journalists' Everyman."
The story covers a period of a half-century and chronicles the relationship, in Venice, between Niles and his sexual companion, alter ego, complement and nemesis, Giangiacomo Gallieni, known as "Onni." They meet as boys, and their friendship endures through the shifts of war and aging, different ambitions, careers and lives in the ever-changing and changeless city of "marvelous water-shine and amoral sunlight." At the end, Onni, a world-famous movie star, ravaged by drugs, dissipation, disillusion and old age, but still capable of involuntary acts of genius, is appearing in a film written by Niles.
It is a story almost without incident, or in which incident is incidental. What interests Mr. Brodkey, as in "The Runaway nTC Soul," is painstakingly minute reflection on the meaning of incident -- or of gesture, glance, attitude, pose. Some of the descriptions of Venice are luminous; others are touristy and perfunctory. The same could be said about the descriptions of Onni. "In truth, the single supple filaments of hair and the spread of his eyebrows and the comma-like shadows in his eye sockets and in the flanges of his nose, were a little like written squiggles, bits of an alphabet, bits of words, inanimate bits of design that yet were animate and known as meaning."
We see Onni in more lights, in more times of day, than San Marco, and by the end Onni, the sum of all the world's fantasies about him, is a kind of monument, a stand-in for Venice, whose symbolic importance far outweighs his actual character and significance, or any human interest we might take in him.
Mr. Brodkey's only previous novel, "The Runaway Soul," was published in 1991 after a quarter-century's rumored reputation. Some people found it comparable in reach and grasp to the late works of Henry James; others, more of them perhaps, found it virtually unreadable -- Niles describes his father as a "minor figure of solipsistic masculine narcissism," which is the sort of thing that people have been saying about Mr. Brodkey.
"Profane Friendship" betrays some signs of having been written within a year rather than revised and rewritten for 25. Mr. Brodkey, who is chronicling his fight against AIDS in The New Yorker, was already writing against the clock. The new novel is neither as long nor as difficult as "The Runaway Soul," and in its shifting lights and transparencies it may be better.
Certainly only a writer of genius could have produced some sentences and paragraphs in "Profane Friendship." Mr. Brodkey's strategies are staggeringly varied -- descriptions of sex that are blunt and explicit, descriptions of fantasies that go on for luxurious pages, dialogue that bears little relation to most human conversation, lingering on a detail another writer would hasten past, rushing past what would interest another writer most; the manner is at once sumptuous, self-indulgent and paradoxically spare and pure.
Each sentence takes on its own life, and charges toward an unknown destination, which after a while also becomes predictable. The mannered mingling of these manners might inspire easy parody, but why bother when Mr. Brodkey is so surpassingly expert at self-parody and self-deprecation; he is always there, before you, sometimes grinning, sometimes smirking.
"Profane Friendship" is a celebration of a city and an inquiry into the nature of love ("Love is embarrassing and uncaptioned, what there is of it"). Venice is solidly there. The inquiry becomes infinitely complicated when the other seems little more than a distorted manifestation of the self, like the reflection of a building on shimmering water in changing light. It's not very substantial, but it can be beautiful.
Title: "Profane Friendship"
Author: Harold Brodkey
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Length, price: 387 pages, $23