Playing

Robert Taubman

  • Sabbatical by John Barth
    Secker, 366 pp, £7.50, July 1982, ISBN 0 436 03675 4
  • Distant Relations by Carlos Fuentes
    Secker, 225 pp, £7.95, July 1982, ISBN 0 436 16764 6
  • Keepers of the House by Lisa St Aubin de Teran
    Cape, 183 pp, £6.95, July 1982, ISBN 0 224 02001 3
  • An Old Song by Robert Louis Stevenson
    Wilfion Books, 102 pp, £5.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 905075 12 9

‘There was a story that began –’ begins Sabbatical, and the story is then interrupted for two nights and a day by a storm at sea, itself interrupted by a dialogue on Aristotle’s distinction between lexis and melos. Like most Post-Modernist fantasies, Sabbatical takes a lot of unpacking. But this is John Barth in holiday mood, and a virtuoso display of techniques brought together from different kinds of novel is here frankly offered for enjoyment. One of its methods is purely realistic: it is full of information, for instance, about sailing in the Chesapeake Bay. In the summer of 1980 Susan and Fenwick Turner are returning in their cruising sailboat from a nine-month voyage to the Caribbean. Sabbatical is as devotedly a novel about sailing as The Riddle of the Sands; and like that rather staid classic it uses a sailing trip to get its crew involved in a real-life mystery story. Where Erskine Childers was writing about the Kaiser’s invasion plans, Barth is writing about the CIA. An island not on the charts, a shot in the morning mist, deaths and disappearances occur, to a running commentary of texts and footnotes documenting CIA practices. And then there’s realism of a more sociological cast, in a trip ashore to Susan’s family at Fells Point, Baltimore. The period is almost exactly that of John Updike’s last Rabbit novel, and one recognises the same obsession with the placing of America at a moment in time – the stuff in the shops, the news items, the current stresses of family life, the curious national mood of confidence combined with irony, shame and foreboding.

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