Barthelme, Donald (Vol. 13)
Barthelme, Donald 1931–
Barthelme is an American short story writer, novelist, and writer of children's fiction. His fictional world is surreal and often despairing. Barthelme explores and satirizes the possibilities of narrative form in his fiction, offering on one occasion a questionnaire to his readers with ideas for alternative endings to a story; on another presenting a "story" consisting of a series of numbered sentences. These are perhaps presented in concurrence with Barthelme's philosophy that "the only forms I trust are fragments." (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
[Barthelme] is one of the few authentic examples of the "antinovelist"—that is, he operates by countermeasures only, and the system that is his own joy to attack permits him what an authoritarian system always permits its lonely dissenters: the sense of their own weakness. The almighty state is always in view. So Barthelme sentences us to the complicity with the system that he suffers from more than anyone. He is wearingly attentive to every detail of the sophistication, the lingo, the massively stultifying second-handedness of everything "we" say. Barthelme is outside everything he writes about in a way that a humorist like Perelman could never be. He is under the terrible discipline that the System inflicts on those who are most fascinated with its relentlessness. He is so smart, so biting, himself so unrelenting in finding far-flung material for his ridicule that his finished product comes out a joke about Hell. We go up sentence, down sentence, up and down. What severity we are sentenced to by this necessary satire! That is because Barthelme the antinovelist is based on the perfect inversion of all current practice, and keeps too many records. This is the way Salinger's characters would write if they were writers, for it is all based on books.
Barthelme is funniest and even touching in Snow White, where the multifaceted plenty of sex (as opposed to the old economy of scarcity) does not bring happiness to our...
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[The] obstinate triviality of life increasingly impinges on the literary consciousness…. The modernist sensibility, haunted by a vision of pervasive grayness and (as in Howards End) of a creeping red rust, finds ultimate expression in one of Forster's comments in A Passage to India: "Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it … and a perfectly adjusted organism would be silent." But for all its flat and bitter finality, the remark heralds not silence but a dramatic exploration of metaphysical extremes …; and if Forster fails in his quest for a redeeming order, it is not because of complacence or a willingness to accede to the dailiness of life. Barthelme's ["Critique de la Vie Quotidienne,"] on the other hand …, accommodates itself more easily to the banal horrors of la vie quotidienne. Not that the story is without incident (there is, notably, the moment when the narrator's former wife tries to "ventilate" him with a horse pistol …, but if it is true, as Philip Stevick notes in his introduction to Anti-Story, that "to allow the middle range of experience to co-exist, in a single work, with the extremities of contemporary experience is to do strange things to that ordinariness, to deny it its solidity," it is equally the case that that coexistence may, as it does in Barthelme's fiction, serve to render extremity more ordinary—to deny it, and not the middle range of experience, a...
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Eric S. Rabkin
Donald Barthelme shows us, again and again, that he has a way with words: the way of a stone-cutter. With a deft and dangerous whack at the raw language he suddenly reveals a new facet of the inner mineral. When he has done with his chopping, a gem lies before us—hard and immutable and with the appearance of warmth that light gives, but brilliant for all that. Surely of Barthelme it is true that "Le style est l'homme même" [the style is the man himself]. And what is that style? A despairing playfulness whereby the reading punishes us into understanding. The quote, of course, is from Le Comte de Buffon. In Barthelme's style, that pun itself would fit. The gem may be rhinestone, his detractors would say, but, his admirers respond, in that case the clown is Pagliacci. (p. 232)
Snow White and The Dead Father are both "novels" by virtue of structure, structures that, like Ulysses, recall other structures: the standard fairy tale in the first case, the myth of the Fisher King in the second. But they aren't tight novels at all: their intellectually clear structures organize and justify the placement of parts but do not lend the movement from part to part a dramatic or emotional unity. The burial of the Dead Father, for instance, corroborates the notion that "Repetition is reality" but does not make it feel true. The feelings, in reading Barthelme, accompany the discrete flashes of language. But for me this is...
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Betty Catherine Dobson Farmer
[The human-god-mechanical Dead Father character of Barthelme's Dead Father] offers a multi-faceted study in ambiguity. The Dead Father is "dead but still with us, still with us, but dead…. a sleeper in troubled sleep, the whole great expanse of him running from the Avenue Pommard to the Boulevard Grist. Overall length, 3,200 cubits." The Dead Father is a part of the landscape "from the Avenue Pommard to the Boulevard Grist," just as the Irish giant Finn MacCool is a part of Joyce's Irish landscape in Finnegans Wake….
The close relationship of The Dead Father to Finnegans Wake is obvious from an overt parody of Barthelme's main source for this novel, Finnegans Wake….
Just as Joyce's abbreviation for his mythical Earwicker hero, HCE, is an acronym for Here Comes Everybody or Everyman, Barthelme makes the Dead Father the all-inclusive embodiment of Everybody's idols. (p. 40)
Barthelme achieves an effective "cosmopolitanization" or world application of the Dead Father figure by taking him from the narrow confines of the Avenue Pommard and the Boulevard Grist and making him the embodiment of world idols through the use of a wealth of [mythological, biblical, and literary allusions]…. (p. 41)
In addition to the worldwide mythological, Biblical, and literary allusions that Barthelme used, he "globalized" the Dead Father by using, inconspicuously...
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I doubt that Donald Barthelme's new collection [Great Days] will alter significantly anyone's perception of this accomplished miniaturist. His admirers can again enjoy the delicacy with which he picks his way through the detritus of our civilization, marvel at the many voices he commands, and renew their appetites for the surreal morsels he serves up. Those who have been less impressed in the past will find yet another occasion to shrug. The one really innovative feature of Great Days is Barthelme's use, in seven of the pieces, of a staccato dialogue form in which two speakers bounce phrases off one another at high speed; sometimes the phrases answer each other, often they do not. Uninterrupted by narrative or description, the dialogues vibrate at high intensity, achieving a strobe-lit effect that can be pleasurably nerve-wracking. Fortunately, the pieces stop short of a sensory overload.
In "The Crisis," the dialogue really consists of the juxtaposition of two monologues—one that comments on the progress of a rebellion, another that rambles on inanely, frequently mouthing platitudes…. Toward the end of "The Crisis," the monologues converge slightly. Meanwhile, their incongruities have reflected that quality of twitchy contemporaneity to which Barthelme is so perfectly attuned.
The most ambitious of the dialogues is "The New Music," in which riffs and flights of language create an extraordinary...
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["Great Days"] is bare Barthelme at his best, quite inimitable, with a new kind of calm confidence, a new depth of subject, and no pictures. And, one hopes, his imitators in disarray; for it should now be clear to everybody that nobody can write a Barthelme story as well as he can.
What are the present stories about and what are they like?… Two pieces—the one about Cortés and "The Death of Edward Lear,"—have historical referents. One piece, the author says, is an objet trouvé from "Godey's Lady's Book," 1850, slightly altered by him. One, "Tales of the Swedish Army," seems like an earlier, wackier Barthelme. A number of stories impressively challenge formal problems—for example, "Concerning the Bodyguard."
The bodyguard: new fact of modern life, therefore typical Barthelme subject. An ordinary writer of fiction, imagining a bodyguard, would give him a name, a past, would follow his life, report his conversations and thoughts, invent a little disturbing event or two to dramatize his spiritual condition, and end with a climax of triumph or failure, some moment of bodyguard truth. Barthelme instead writes six pages of questions…. (pp. 1, 36)
Readers will read for profit; they will also read for prophecy. So uncannily tuned is Barthelme's sense of what's happening in our times, in our world, he even picks up eerily on what will happen, as in one dialogue, "Morning," one of the seven...
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Barthelme's new collection of short fiction, aptly titled "Great Days," is built on [the] notion of routines and how to play them….
In all cases, the emphasis is on doing a routine, playing out situations as if they were vaudeville acts. In their least pretentious form, bits like these need only the two voices of straight man and comic, and in "Great Days" Barthelme tries his hand at keeping everything else out of the way.
When the technique works, Barthelme's sentences bounce off each other like overpacked dodgem cars, but only because they are strong enough to run on their own, unhampered even by quotation marks (he uses the European style of dashes instead). Seven of the 16 stories in "Great Days" are written this way, and their effect is to underline the purely verbal comedy of Barthelme's art, which now reads like the swiftly bantered exchange in a high-toned knock-knock joke.
Three of these new dash-dialog stories lead off the volume. From there, Barthelme moves through nine pieces written in the various styles of his six previous collections: dramatized cliches, comic exaggerations, wacky anachronisms, and even traditional storytelling with just a few elements deliberately askew.
But from these nine more familiar fictions, neatly framed in the book's center, it's easy to see that their most important element is voice, whether in expressed or implied dialog…. [The volume's...
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Joe David Bellamy
When we look back on this period, will the work of Donald Barthelme seem the forerunner of a whole new variety of consciousness or merely a particularly skilled and elegant example of decadence? Great Days … is another emotional and linguistic demolition derby in the characteristic manner: whimsical, elusive, and miraculously inventive.
Barthelme's aesthetic elevates the liberation of pure imagination above all other notions. Bringing novelties into being is his primary objective, and he faces the task with the surefootedness of a tightrope walker and the precision of a clock-maker. He believes utterly in the delights of mind-travel and in the healing powers of dreams. Art, as it embodies these modes, is one of the new human activities, he seems to be saying, to save us from despair.
Despair has become one of his favorite subjects for jest. "At dusk medals are awarded those who have made it through the day," someone quips in his story, "The New Music." "The New Music" is a collage of fractured dialogues, where the characters are seen "sighing and leaning against each other, holding their silver plates"—as if to say, "If we're so rich, how come we ain't happy?" Another, more consoling voice chimes in: "Luckily we have the new music now. To give us aid and comfort." The implication is that "the new music" will save us from despair, or "sadness," as Barthelme called it in another of his books; and "The New...
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Barthelme's art is not static. He is an explorer of prose forms. He stays abreast of literary developments in America and elsewhere and his fiction constantly changes to reflect slight changes in the way we experience our lives. Great Days continues where Amateurs, the previous collection, left off; the stories are increasingly clipped, less visual, more difficult. The range of pleasure available upon a first reading has grown even narrower.
As usual, about half of these new stories are baubles, one-notion entertainments…. [They] are crankier, less funny than earlier jeux d'esprit…. The voices in these stories discourse on a variety of topics; non-specific references (her, it, that) allow the topics to be linked together grammatically, a kind of layering of meanings. The stories are open to all suggestions, and can stop on a dime and head in any direction. Even in "On the Steps of the Conservatory" and "The Leap," which read more like ordinary dialogues, the voices make numerous allusions and go off on all sorts of tangents.
It seems natural for Barthelme to be experimenting increasingly with aural forms. His ear for speech is impeccable. Repartee is amenable to his obsessive frivolity with language. His characters are usually cut-outs; this form allows him virtually to dispense with characterization. But most important is the freedom it permits from the strictures of the traditional short...
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In the polysynthetic languages, linguists tell us, a certain world will mean "to throw a slippery object far away," though no part of the word means "throw" or "slippery" or "far." This is how we feel about those literary works of our moment which we distance, if we do not domesticate, by calling them "original": We feel that they are something new and something entire, though we fail to perceive how that new entity is arrived at.
In fact, a better name for original writing might just be "polysynthetic language"—certainly that is how Donald Barthelme's six books of fictions (stories? texts? apostrophes? aporias? no one knows yet what to label them) strike me. I know they have a certain general effect (as of throwing a slippery object far away), but the way this operation is performed is so new to me that I cannot determine the elements, cannot detect the parts that make the cunning device function. The one thing I can tell so far—and this latest book of brief inventions confirms—is that the very brevity for which Barthelme is on the one hand so prized … and on the other hand so taxed …—this very brevity is a signal part of his form….
Great Days, then, is a further installment of Barthelme's characteristic serial. And a particularly rewarding one, because seven of its 16 pieces enact, I believe, a distinct awareness on the writer's part of the responsibilities of his own form….
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Donald Barthelme is more attracted to the indisputable charm of brevity than to the disputable charm of narration. If he has a design upon us, it is that we will be rendered unable to resist the temptation of fondling his sentences. We are to read his 16 stories, collected in Great Days, as we read Shakespeare's sonnets, attending to what they do while they pretend to do nothing more than say: "You, my beloved, have killed me." The stories are brief for the same reason that the sonnets have 14 lines—because that is enough. The discrepancy between the brevity of the event and the amount of verbal business negotiated is part of the appeal in both cases. But "appeal" is the wrong word. I take it back. These stories do not emit appeals. They do not ask to be believed, or even to have disbelief suspended for the duration of the narrative.
It is a shock to come upon a sentence of truth here and there in Barthelme's fiction…. The truth doesn't damage Barthelme's story, I admit, but it encourages a recidivist nostalgia for the conjunction of sentence and event, an emotion generally and firmly held at bay in Barthelme's fiction. If we are to fall back into the habit of believing things and crediting what we're told, there will be no end to our debauchery: In the twinkling of an I we shall be found longing for the old fleshpots of conviction, form, continuity, the priority of beginning over middle and of middle, in turn, over end…....
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[Donald Barthelme's] Great Days, is about success. "Yes, success is everything," says one of his characters, or rather one of his half embodied, half-unrealized voices. The voice goes on:
Failure is more common. Most achieve a sort of middling thing, but fortunately one's situation is always blurred, you never know absolutely quite where you are. This allows, if not peace of mind, ongoing attention to other aspects of existence.
The paragraph illustrates Barthelme's much-praised ability to switch from style to style, from the professorial "absolutely quite" to the bureaucratic "ongoing attention," all within fifteen words, and all while holding things together with an unfaltering sense of rhythm. This is the kind of fingering people expect from a regular writer for The New Yorker, and Barthelme's surrealist intensity never distorts his civilized charm. Indeed, this charm serves as a reminder that surrealists, unlike some other members of the avant-garde, continue to respect the popular myth, the varnished surface and the ordinary human face, with or without skull peeping through the skin….
The technique throughout gets away with calling attention to itself. The stories that are all in dialogue, like the ones in which almost every sentence ends with a question mark, succeed even when, as we are meant to do, we lose track of the characters and...
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