The Friday Book
After the publication of his monumental work Letters: A Novel (1979), when John Barth was asked the inevitable interviewer question about what he was working on, he replied that he was ready for a sabbatical from such sustained impositions on the reader’s attention. Indeed, in 1982, he published a novel entitled Sabbatical. This collection of essays, ranging from one of his first college lectures, given soon after the publication of The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), up to a lecture given in 1983 in Morocco, on his obsessive love affair with Scheherazade, is in many ways a continuation of that sabbatical—a kind of breathing spell wherein he has gone back through more than twenty years’ worth of lectures and essays and pulled them together. It is the first time that Barth has done this, and his admirers, as well as followers of the current trends of postmodernist fiction, should be grateful to have these scattered pieces collected in a single volume.
Barth calls these selections “Friday pieces” for the same reason that J. D. Salinger once called a collection of nine stories Nine Stories—it is the simplest, most straightforward title. Barth explains in his prefatory statement entitled “The Title of This Book” that for the past several years his habit has been to spend Monday through Thursday mornings writing fiction, refreshing himself on Friday mornings with another kind of writing, preferably nonfiction. After playing a self-referential prefatory game with the title and subtitle of his book, as well as writing a preface about prefaces, Barth begins this collection with an essay that he wrote in 1982 for the The New York Times Book Review for a series called “The Making of a Writer.” It is, with the exception of his inclusion of himself in some of his works, the closest thing to an autobiographical sketch that he has written. The rest of the pieces in the collection are arranged in chronological order. The explanatory headnotes that accompany them are helpful in that they give a running commentary on Barth’s development as a writer, from his first real experiment with mythic-historical fiction up to his most recent work. They also express Barth’s often bemused attitude toward his own ideas and efforts as he struggles to come to terms with the metaphysical assumptions and technical conventions of fiction.
Barth announces his continuing point of view about fiction in his opening piece, “How to Make a Universe,” in which he asserts that the novelist is like God and God is like a novelist, for the universe itself is like a novel. Barth makes this venerable notion his own with a vengeance, insisting that the novel is not the view of a universe but rather a universe itself. This is a common theme of postmodernist fiction, from Jorge Luis Borges to William H. Gass. It is a theme that Barth echoes in his best-known essay, “The Literature of Exhaustion,” and its sequel, “The Literature of Replenishment,” both of which originally appeared in The Atlantic. In the first, he pays homage to Borges and Vladimir Nabokov, in whom he perceives sympathy for his own reflexive point of view. This often-anthologized essay, Barth says, has been widely misunderstood, for in it he did not mean to suggest that all subjects suitable for literature have been exhausted, but rather he wants to remind readers of what Borges and Nabokov have always known—that is, that literature springs from the conventions of literature itself and that all writers are annotators of preexisting archetypes. Here Barth also announces his interest, exploited in Lost in the Funhouse (1968), in frame tales (stories within stories) and the notion of infinite regress in fiction—the reflexivity that so fascinates Borges and Nabokov.
Barth intends “The Literature of Replenishment” to serve as a corrective to its famous predecessor. Here, for the most part, is a rather conventional scholarly, critical account of various attempts at defining “postmodernism”—a term with which Barth flirts throughout the essays in this book. Barth believes that postmodernism points to something more than merely an increase in the reflexivity of fiction, more than the pushing of the modernist tenets of James Joyce, William Faulkner, and others to sometimes excessive extremes. He does not, however, make clear what this “more” really is, except to cite such writers as Italo Calvino and Gabriel García Márquez as writers who have been able to synthesize the ancient storyteller’s art and the reflexivity of postmodernism. For Barth, the first requirement of the fiction maker is the ability to tell a...
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