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.

There is space here only for the scantiest in dication of the way the novel works. Lady Amherst, an Englishwoman of aristocratic descent, has been the consort of some of the century’s greatest novelists. Now nearing 50 she has become Acting Provost of the Faculty of Letters at Marshyhope State University in Maryland. Having written to John Barth inviting him to accept an honorary doctorate of letters from the university (an invitation he declines), she continues the correspondence to relate the progress of her love-affair with her colleague, and Barth’s friend, Ambrose Mensch. A rival candidate for the doctorate is Andrew Cook, ‘self-styled Laureate of Maryland’, an appalling versifier and a devout right-winger – though some suspect that these manifestations may be the ingenious cover of a dangerous revolutionary. Cook himself, of course, A.B. Cook VI, is one of the novel’s seven correspondents, but properly speaking he enters the proceedings only half-way through the narrative. Before that, he has been represented by his ancestor, or previous manifestation, A.B. Cook IV (b. 1776), who writes for his unborn child a detailed account of his protean involvements, as forger, impersonator and double agent, in the American wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. If Cook provides a voice from history, another of the letter-writers, Jerome Bray, essays a maniacal commentary on the future. He has programmed a computer to analyse all the elements of existing fiction in order that the limitations of the genre may be transcended, or that the genre may be superseded.

That paragraph of summary might be lengthened by a foot or so without providing much further illumination for the prospective reader. The novel is far too long, complex and bizarre for even a preliminary synopsis to be feasible. But perhaps two further observations should be made. Letters incorporates, among other materials, a comic and parodic Marylandiad. It also offers, through the comments of Ambrose Mensch and the Author, a pretty detailed account of the genesis and evolution of the whole project and a series of hints as to how it should be read.

Letters is about the relationship of the past and the future: about the inevitability of re-enacting the past and the possibility of learning from it and improving on it. It is as though John Barth had set out to answer, at the mid-point of his career, the question: why am I the kind of novelist I am? The various ideas, characters, literary strategems that he has previously generated and continues to generate are products of his own history, of his country’s history, and of the history of letters. Could he write differently? This novel seeks to establish what history might permit. A related theme is the inter-involvement of fact and fiction. The novelist has traditionally stiffened his narrative with ‘realistic’ elements; equally, history has often been redirected by ‘fictions’ in the form of rumour, forgery or false report. Where does Life end and Art begin?

The most pressing application of these various questions is to the future of fiction itself, and the future of John Barth as a writer of fiction. His attempt to produce one more masterpiece in what may be a worn-out literary mode is represented metaphorically by the strenuous efforts of the potent but dubiously fertile Ambrose Mensch to father a child on Lady Amherst, representative of the Great Tradition. The end of the novel leaves gracefully open the question of his success, though he and his lover are hopeful. It is for the reader to decide, so to speak, whether Tinkerbell is pregnant.

Since much of the author’s art lies in the use of motifs, in recurrence and pattern. Letters accumulates meaning as it goes along. Future research students (who are no doubt already forming a queue) might profitably prepare a first set of index-cards on the Alphabet. Anagrams, Bellerophon, Bonaparte, Camera obscura, Cancer, Dido, Fathers (and sons), Marshes, Maryland, Mimicry, Mortar. Numbers, Perseus, Realism and Revolution. Further themes will emerge on rereading.

But the word ‘rereading’ reminds me that this review as it stands so far, while, I hope, presenting a fair description of the novel, makes no reference to the most obtrusive aspect of my own response to it. Reading Letters was sheet drudgery. I was bored and irritated to the point of groaning exasperation. And since this is a work to which a manifestly gifted writer has devoted ten years of his life it seems necessary to try to justify so hostile a reaction.

The novel is crowded, overcrowded, with ideas, allusions, ‘meanings’. Each of the main characters is likely to drag a tin-can trail of aliases, doubles, symbolic identities: thus Lady Germaine Gordon Pitt. Lady Amherst; or Jeannine Patterson Mack Singer Bernstein Golden. Each of the stories involves a formidable exercise in expository explanation. The author has grossly miscalculated the amount of pure information that a reader even a well-disposed reader – can be expected to assimilate. Paragraph after paragraph, sentence after sentence, is clotted with detail. I heard Denis Donoghue remark on the radio that to enjoy Letters one must ‘swing with the language’. There is something in what he says: it wouldn’t be difficult in demonstrate that the novel contains passages of marvellous prose in a variety of moods and styles. But, more characteristically, the pressures of inclusiveness make the language swing as soporifically as a hammock. A not untypical sentence from Lady Amherst runs as follows:

For scarce had I aired against my tenancy the provostral chamber (can you name another university president who smokes cigars?) when there was conveyed to me, via his minatory and becorseted derriere garde, my predecessor’s expectation, not only that I would appoint at once a nominating committee for the proposed Litt.D. (that is, a third member, myself being already on the committee ex officio and Schott having appointed, by some dim prerogative, a second one Harry Carter, former psychologist, present nonentity and academic vice president, Schott’s creature), but that, after a show of nomination weighing, we would present to the board of regents as out candidate the ‘Maryland Laureate’ himself, Mr Andrew Cook.’

The point is not merely that the sentence is overloaded: it is overloaded with mutually antagonistic materials. The expository stuff elbows out the stylistic nuances. From the narrative point of view, the writing at this point seems unnecessarily fussy and affected. From the point of view of ‘language’, the wedge of information lies heavily in the sentence like the sad heart of an ill-baked cake.

Another miscalculation concerns the narrative incentives that a work of this scale ought surely to offer the reader. Language alone won’t keep him turning the pages, or make him remember who is who, and who is writing to whom, and why. Letters contains virtually no dialogue: page after page is a solid rectangle of prose. It lacks any visual element: the author is almost consistently resolute in his intention to imitate not life but documents. There are no characters, and hence there is little narrative interest, in the accepted sense. But here John Barth, like a number of other contemporary writers, seems to be inconsistent. It periodically emerges that the conventions of character and story, though tacitly or explicitly flouted, are assumed to be in some sense operative. It is assumed, for example, that a reader will at a given juncture feel sympathy for a character who has hitherto functioned merely as an idea, or will respond to a given scene as climactic in the conventional sense, even when the antecedent narrative steps have been obtrusively theoretical. But fictive illusion is difficult enough to create and sustain: it can’t be switched on and off like a tap. One is persuaded to respond to Letters as to an elaborate structure of ideas. That structure sags or collapses under its own weight, and cannot easily be propped by intermittent erections of dramatic or psychological scaffolding.

The academic reviewer is bound to feel a twinge of guilt in being bored by this novel – a guilt springing partly from the consideration that if people such as himself don’t enjoy so abstract a work no one else is likely to, and partly from the thought that there is (God knows) an awful lot of interpreting and explicating work here which he hasn’t yet done. Letters is a novel by an academic for academics. It is like the inside of a television set, an impressive piece of apparatus, ribbed and dotted with connections and resistances, apt theme for a course of lectures on electronics – but where is the sound, or the picture?

Peter Handke, the Austrian playwright and novelist, has already won a reputation here, thanks particularly to the film version of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. The Left-Handed Woman, written in 1976, is a short, sombre, enigmatic work, a succession of sharp-eyed fragments. Marianne, the heroine, has a sudden ‘illumination’ that her husband will one day leave her, so immediately suggests that he should do so forthwith – a suggestion which he immediately accedes to. He also accepts her advice that he should move in with their son’s school-teacher, Franziska. The rest of the novel is a series of vignettes from Marianne’s new life alone with the child. She is seen shopping, working at her typewriter as a translator, taking her son to the cinema or the zoo, receiving visitors. There are hints that she is seeking to discover her essential sell, to define herself in relation to her relatives, her environment, her career.

What gives the book its energy, its edge, is the curt descriptive precision of the individual scenes – a quality which seems to have been well caught by the translator. The visual detail seems to invite cinematic transcription. One can see that The Left-Handed Woman, with its still interiors, brief, intense social encounters and melancholy urban scenes, could make a disquieting, atmospheric film. But there is a limitation in the author’s method which seems closely related to a limitation in many of Antonioni’s films. In theory, the substance of the novel gives rise to its form: the dislocations in the story, the absence of circumstantial or psychological explanation, derive from the emptiness, the incompleteness or incoherence, of the characters and relation ships. But there is always a danger that the method may backfire, that the reader may come to feel that the raw material of the novel derives from the author’s preoccupation with a certain form, with certain images. The Left-Handed Woman is too elegant, too tailored. It expounds most successfully moods of isolation or alienation which everyone suffers at times, but which are normally qualified by a host of circumstantial or emotional considerations that are omitted here. Peter Handke’s novel is impressively true to certain fragments of experience at the expense of neglecting the larger context from which those fragments must derive their significance.

Jerzy Kosinski is another writer who deals in fragments. Passion Play suggests that he may do so largely as a means of disguising his lack of capacity to tell a story, to write dialogue or to create character. The comment may read like a sneer but is not intended to be one. In The Painted Bird, by means of strange images, and a strange juxtaposition of images, Kosinski created very successfully, and without recourse to conventional narrative means, a nightmarish world of wartime violence and pursuit. He has a great gift for creating memorably unusual or grotesque self-contained episodes.

In Passion Play, however, he is badly off-form. The hero of the novel, Fabian, is a travelling mercenary, a polo-player. Well, not exactly a polo-player, because he has been all but excluded from the conventional game. He makes a living by writing books about horses, giving riding lessons, and backing himself in one-to-one confrontations against rich polo-players. The book reads like a desperate attempt to legitimise authorial fantasies. Fabian is seen as a latterday Knight, riding alone, upholding his own anachronistic standards. But he emerges as a self-regarding bore, numbly concentrated on defeating his opponents and seducing women. Kosinski (like Barth) invents a page or two in the modish novelistic insurance policy of anticipating criticism. The books that Fabian writes seem to have had very much the same reception as Kosinski’s novels. There is praise for ‘audacity of technique’, but a feeling that his work is too pessimistic, too bleak – offering ‘a brutal excess of case histories that passed the bounds of credibility’. Kosinski seems to imply that his fiction might be rejected as depicting too starkly the violence and cruelty of life. But I found this novel resistible not on those grounds, but because the images it presents are banal – ‘ruptured veins... pulverised bone’, solemn sexual couplings in a variety of gear. Passion Play is a ponderous sonata on two notes. An author with any sense of humour would surely have had to abandon it mid-way in a fit of the giggles.