Academic journal article Chicago Review

An Interview with John Barth

Academic journal article Chicago Review

An Interview with John Barth

Article excerpt

Like Ernest Hemingway, another ground-breaking writer of twentieth-century American fiction, John Barth writes every day, the initial drafts always in pen. He says that his inspiration does not "waft like a gentle whisper from a Greek muse," but resembles, instead, a "rumbling King Kong," a metaphor for self-reference and self-reflection. But unlike his modernist predecessors, Barth has resisted the traditions of twentieth-century realism. Instead, he has collected an eclectic montage, the past with the present, the old story formulas in a postmodern guise, displaying the elements alongside each other to produce a curious image of a world with which we are not always immediately comfortable or familiar. But, then, neither is he, always.

Barth's twelfth book of fiction was released in May 1994 by Little, Brown. The title is classic Barth, disarming but with a cryptic punch: Once upon a Time. And it is the book's subtitle, A Floating Opera, that comes like a finger's light touch, or reminder. Through it he has returned full circle to the riff that set him in search of a new literary form in his first long fiction piece, A Floating Opera (1956). Barth's description of his new novel as "a memoir wrapped in a novel" echoes his generative technique of searching for and therefore redefining the narrative perspective of fiction.

Barth's version of postmodernism is less jagged at the edges than that of some writers in the mode, if it will sit still long enough to be characterized as a mode. He defined his approach in 1967 in "The Literature of Exhaustion" and refined it a little more than a decade later in "The Literature of Replenishment." The heart of his thesis is that the modern genre had been exhausted by the close of World War II. Writers at the turn of the century had picked up the torch of the Romantics and carried it once around the track: "The great project of modernism, the idea of shaking up bourgeois notions of 'linearity,' and 'consecutivity' and ordinary description of character and ordinary cause and effect, had honorably done its job."

Writers after World War II rebelled against their modernist predecessors, realizing that nothing of the human condition was left to report in a modern sense, except through retold tales--which is something like re-tasting a stale raisin cookie that has been belched. New ground had to be broken if a place for literature was to be found in a life that not only sounded a distinctly different tone but one that could not be fully apprehended (a point already made by modern existentialists). And Barth was among the vanguard writers to seek a synthesis of art and life, itself an imitation of an imitation, thus making of fiction something of a two-way mirror through which one peers murkily.

Barth makes this effort by employing repetition and by expanding the formal range available to modern fiction to include such forms as the epistolary novel (Letters), the eighteenth-century adventure novel (The Sot-Weed Factor), and the quest tale (The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor or Giles Goat-Boy). A narrative voice, usually omniscient, is central to traditional fiction, but in his work there is a tension between eliminating the omniscient narrator (since "apprehended" life is at best tentative) and achieving a synthesis towards which the text is headed. Forty years after his initial effort, many of his characters wave at each other from across novels, his house rule being "that no particular reader should have to be aware of their appearance in other books."

A short piece which probably best captures Barth's effort to use fiction to grab life by the scruff of the neck is "Autobiography: A Self-Recorded Fiction," which was part of a monophonic tape series in which he participated in the 1960s. Here, fiction invents itself. As narrator, fiction is dissatisfied with the disturbing evolution of the product and argues with its father (Barth?) and its mother (the muse? …

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