The Future of John Barth

Michael Irwin

  • Letters by John Barth
    Secker, 772 pp, £7.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 436 03674 6
  • The Left-Handed Woman by Peter Handke, translated by Ralph Manheim
    Eyre Methuen, 94 pp, £4.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 413 45890 3
  • Passion Play by Jerzy Kosinski
    Joseph, 271 pp, £5.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 7181 1913 4

Offering a critical account of John Barth’s new book within the confines of a periodical review is like trying to haul a whale on board a fishing smack. For the sake of brevity, even my formal description of the work must be brutally oversimplified. It is an epistolary novel, divided into seven sections, one for every ‘letter’ of the title. Each section consists of a series of missives from the same seven correspondents: Lady Amherst. Todd Andrews, Jacob Horner, A.B. Cook, Jerome Bray, Ambrose Mensch and the Author. The last-named ‘character’ is the ‘real’ John Barth, and Lady Amherst is a new invention; the other five are protagonists, or the proxies of protagonists, from earlier works of fiction by Barth. Each of the letter-writers is caught up in a drama of his own, but through the seven stages of the novel these stories increasingly move towards dense interrelationship.

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