‘Ceil’ by Harold Brodkey

Ceil by Harold Brodkey, 1983

The magic trick:

A deeply personal, self-enclosed family study

The narrator tells us in the first sentence that he never knew his mother, Ceil. She died when he was 2. So the rest of the story is him assembling all he can learn about this woman and her family. We get quotes from interviews with people who knew her. We get additional research. We get his own interpretations of the story and opinions about the characters involved. If this sounds very much like something for him and not the reader, you’re right. Brodkey probably is more ambivalent to the reader’s needs than any writer I’ve read. These stories of his seem mainly to be for him. That they get published and presented for an external audience seems like a superfluous step.

In that, though, “Ceil” becomes interesting to that external reader as an entirely personal and self-enclosed history.

And that’s quite a trick on Brodkey’s part.

The selection:

Here is Ceil in America, in Illinois – in a little town of thirty-five hundred – among American faces, cornfields, American consciences and violence; and her earlier memories never leave her, never lose their power among the sophistications of this traveller in her costumes, her days, her mornings and evenings. I think it was like that. Of course, I know none of this part as a fact.

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