Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Tribute to John Barth

I was an English major in college. I studied a lot of Shakespeare and general British and American literature.  It was in college that I was introduced to, and was particularly taken with, modern experimental fiction: Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Faulkner, Nabokov, Pynchon.  After I was exposed to a selection from Lost in the Funhouse in an anthology of avant-garde fiction, John Barth became one of my favorite authors.  I delved into The Sot-Weed Factor, to me a worthy follow-up and companion to Tom Jones.  Then I went backwards to read his two earlier novels, and forward to catch up on what’d come after: Giles Goat-Boy, Lost in the Funhouse, and Chimera.  I was delighted by Barth’s wry sense of humor and inventive use of language, especially because he used those techniques effectively in the service of the story.  I loved his voice and tone, and really enjoyed how he explored concepts of self-consciousness and the complexities of narrative, but most of all I just really loved him as a storyteller.

By the time LETTERS was released (1979), I was primed for it, and I devoured it and loved it.  I was especially taken with its notion of characters from each of his earlier novels writing correspondence to each other, according to a master plan based on the calendars of the months during which it takes place and dictated by the way the letters of the title are spelled out on the calendars.  (My description doesn’t do it justice: the structure works out, I think, so that each character writes to each other character at least once.)  I loved the sheer audacity of the concept and the playful way he integrated all of the events of his earlier novels into a mind-warping meditation on meta-reality as well as a realistic adventure plot centering on the Bicentennial.

After that, I bought and read each of his books as they came out: Sabbatical, The Friday Book, and The Tidewater Tales.  Somewhere along the way to The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, though, I lost interest.  I don’t recall exactly what I was reading at the time, but when I finally got around to checking it out I found that I was impatient with certain quirks of his style that had progressively gotten more cutesy and forced.  I love wordplay as well as the next fellow, but it seemed to be sprinkled rather too liberally throughout every sentence. And while I dug the dual narrators of Sabbatical (a la Ada), if I recall correctly he pursued the same strategy with Tidewater Tales, but to lesser effect.  He was so wrapped up in the mechanics of his storytelling that he was letting it get in the way of his stories.  At any rate, I stopped following him after that.  It wasn’t so much a giving-up as it was an extended shrug.  I was vaguely aware that he was continuing to publish but I had other fish to fry.  

At some point over the next decade I did check out Once upon a Time, and while it was enjoyable (don’t get me wrong: all of Barth’s writing is fun to read at some level), it ultimately left me cold; I wanted to love it and ended up just liking it.  So once again I stopped.

Then, maybe four years ago or thereabouts, I stumbled on a cheap used copy of Further Fridays, his second book of essays.  I dipped into it, thoroughly enjoyed it, and decided to go back and catch up on everything I’d missed:  On with the Story, Coming Soon!!!, The Book of Ten Nights and a Night, Where Three Roads Meet, and The Development.  At the same time, I went back and reread some old favorites: Sot-Weed, Funhouse, and LETTERS.  I discovered that what blew me away in my twenties was less compelling for me in my fifties.  Not that I didn’t enjoy reading them: Sot-Weed in particular was loads of fun, even though its plotting and surprise turns of events seemed overplotted and forced, whereas it was particularly those aspects of it that delighted and amazed me the first time around.  (I understand that it’s in development as a 12-hour miniseries directed by Steven Soderbergh: that’s promising, and hopefully the length and format will help them do it right and treat it with the love and respect it deserves.)

LETTERS, however, deeply disappointed me.  The conceit didn’t impress me, it bothered me.  The plot seemed forced and uninteresting. It just didn’t overwhelm me the way it did when it first came out.  Parts of it were okay, and the new character of Lady Amherst was lively and feisty in a way the alumni of his previous fiction weren’t.

By this time, the definitive English translation of the 1001 Nights (translated by Lyons and Lyons) had come out, and I finally read the whole damn thing (I had started the Mathers translation years ago, but the English translation of a French translation just wasn’t cutting it).  The Lyons version is brilliant: fluid, compelling, unexpurgated, uncondensed...and highly pertinent to my Barth project, obviously.  The Arabian Nights is a major touchstone for Barth’s work, serving as the background (and, in the case of Chimera and Somebody at the very least, the foreground) of his work.  Immediately upon getting through that, I returned to the Dunyazadiad section of Chimera and found it delightful.  Barth really went to town with the framework notion and the aspect of tales-within-tales-within tales in both Tidewater Tales and Somebody.  I haven’t reread these yet; I am really looking forward to them--I suspect they are both much better than I remember.

But back to the catch-up phase: again, as with the rereading, I had mixed feelings about the newer works.  I love how he writes about the Chesapeake Bay, and his forays into more “realistic” short story writing over the last decade are delightful.  (I like all kinds of fiction but I tend to get impatient with short stories.  I am primarily a novels guy.  But for whatever reason I love Barth’s short stories, especially in The Development.)  However, for me, Coming Soon!!! was almost unbearably unreadable.  It exhibits many of the tics and qualities I had grown weary of in his writing: cutesy self-conscious narrators, ramblings about the mechanics of storytelling to the detriment of the story, and whimsical wordplay.

Rereading The Friday Book (which includes the seminal 1967 essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” as well as its 1979 companion piece, “The Literature of Replenishment”) and Further Fridays before delving into Final Fridays (which just came out last year), I was further impressed and truly delighted by how thoughtful and provoking his essays are, especially his essays on literature.  He must have been a fantastic teacher and mentor for all those writing students he had over the years.  I can attest to his wonderful public speaking ability, as I was lucky enough to see him read selections from Sabbatical in Richmond in 1983.  (He autographed my copy of the album of his reading from Giles Goat-Boy; as you can see above, I am a lousy photographer.)  I came away from the essays in the Friday books excited about reading and with tons of ideas about what to pursue next.  His non-fiction writing turns out to be some of his best writing.

His latest novel, Every Third Thought (the title, of coursing, quoting Prospero in The Tempest), is effective, moving, and touching.  As the narrator grapples with old age, explores the concept of losing his wife and soul-mate, and dives into complex explorations of language, narrative, and the act of writing creative fiction, Barth demonstrates with skill and verve so many of the ideas he has explored in his essays and previous fiction.  It really is a deeply moving book, made all the more poignant by its ambiguous ending-- and by the essay “The End? On Writing No Further Fiction, Probably” in Final Fridays, where he basically says his muse has dried up and he can’t write fiction anymore.  Can this be true?  Will there be no more fiction from the seemingly endless font of stories and ideas from this masterful writer?  

The thought is crushing.  Because in spite of my disappointments and frustration with his writing, I know that those problems are mine and not his.  I know that his style of experimentation is somewhat out of fashion.  He was more respected in the ‘60s and ‘70s (Chimera won the National Book Award in 1973).  It’s easy to see why he’s not thought of as much these days, when there’s so much twaddle out there that passes for literary criticism, like this:
Literary tricks really are for kids, and once you realize that it’s harder to do the straight story, the obfuscations and labyrinthine justifications of the game player seem like a bit too much protestation, no? (N. Thomson)
It’s a shame, really, because Barth is one of America’s greatest literary thinkers and writers.  His is a friendly voice, a voice of wisdom and humor that was deeply influential on me, in that way that only writers can be at a certain stage in life.  I have no idea what he’s up to now, but I hope his muse has not deserted him.  So here’s a tribute to you, Mr. Barth: thank you for all your work.  Thank you for a life devoted to literature.  Thank you for the nudges and shoves to other great works of literature out there to discover.  And most of all, thank you for all the stories.  

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting, Sam. Sadly, I have not read any of Barth's work, although you have talked about him before. This post is a useful starting point!