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John (Simmons) Barth 1930–
American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
Barth is a major practitioner of the postmodern literary movement known as metafiction. Many of his works may be seen as studies of how fiction is created and how the reader and the text interact. Barth's approach to writing derives from his belief that the traditional novel is unsatisfactory. In his essay "The Literature of Exhaustion" (1967), published in The Atlantic Monthly, he describes the new writer as one who "confronts an intellectual dead end and employs it against itself to accomplish new work."
In his search for new fictional modes, Barth utilizes and parodies traditional forms such as the epic and the epistolary novel. Although the structure of his work varies, there are several common elements: the "protean fictionalizers" or narrators with whom Barth identifies; the black humor, often bawdily overstated; the negative diagnosis of the plight of modern man; the blurring of past and present; and the use of sex as a symbol of human vitality. The settings of Barth's novels range from seventeenth-century Maryland in The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), to a modern-day university in Giles Goat Boy or, the Revised New Syllabus (1966). His main consideration always is how individuals can learn to deal with reality.
Experimentation characterizes all of Barth's work, including his collections of short fiction. Only three of the stories in Lost in the Funhouse (1968) are traditional in form; in the others Barth seeks alternatives to conventional writing and the stories become fantastic creations continually changing shape. In the three novellas of Chimera (1972), Barth makes new use of Arabic, Greek, and Roman mythology to show that myth permeates everyday life.
In his recent novels, Letters (1979) and Sabbatical (1982), Barth again utilizes imaginative techniques. Letters incorporates the main characters from his previous works, adding only one new one who becomes the point where the narrative threads meet. In Sabbatical Barth gives his two main characters more attention and illumination than he has since his early works. Here the metafictional qualities of his work are most apparent, for his two main characters are in the process of writing the book which the reader is reading.
Throughout his career, critics have been divided in their estimations of Barth. While some feel he is pretentious, others praise his verbal agility and his courage to experiment with new forms.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 5; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2.)
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Whether or not we are ever so rewarded, most of us believe we deserve a sabbatical, a time outside the scheme of our lives to rest and ruminate, to reckon how far we have come and, if we're lucky, to recognize where we must go. That's the theory, anyway. It is also the earnest hope of Fenwick Scott Key Turner, 50, and Susan Rachel Allan Seckler, 35, in their seventh year of marriage and in John Barth's seventh work of fiction [Sabbatical], as they cut loose on a year's cruise from their native Chesapeake Bay to the Yucatan and the West Indies and home again.
These two are no idle dreamers, for whom forced indolence would be unnecessary. Fenn, as he's called, is a career CIA officer some years lapsed; in the time since his retirement from active duty he has tried to make peace with himself, if not with the agency, by publishing a devastating exposé of its clandestine services division, one of several such tell-alls to appear in the 1970s. Now he is contemplating his next move. A novel? A professorship? An eternity of sailing?
So too is Susan contemplating her future. She teaches English at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, and carries with her an offer to join the faculty of Swarthmore at sabbatical's end. She also carries a disconcerting urge to bear children before her biological clock runs out. Such are the competing possibilities Fenn and Susan entertain at sea….
Sabbatical purports to be their running notes, recorded during the last weeks of spring, 1980, as their 33-foot sailboat Pokey tacks and reaches its way from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, island by island, toward home. The exact location and nature of "home," to be sure, is one of those vexing uncertainties the narrative entertains.
Although the novel is no retrogression, stylistically or thematically, for Barth, it does respect those rudiments of storytelling Barth has been willing to sacrifice of late. He attends to characters and the illumination of their drama more scrupulously and straightforwardly than in anything he has written since his first pair of novels, The Floating Opera and The End of the Road. As a consequence, Sabbatical lodges itself firmly in our imaginations and memories—and it is a pleasure to read besides.
A significant pleasure is the one the lovers share. Life aboard Pokey is heaven on … well, not even on earth….
Morning swims in secluded coves and evening constitutionals on forgotten islets; lunches of grilled lamb chops, cheese, grapes, and cold Saint-Estèphe followed by languid lovemaking and the separate pleasures of The New York Review of Books (for her) and The Tempest (for him, for the hundredth time). It is a wonder their predicament has any urgency at all; it is a delicate accomplishment of Barth's fine novel that it does. (p. 4)
Those who have come to know Barth through his most recent novels should rest assured. Time has not healed his tic of overweening cleverness or his predilection for authorly commentaries on the story at hand. Because this is a record of the couple's sea journey, it is also a record of its own composition. Fenn and Susan argue incessantly about the proper way to tell the story, dispute the timing or pertinence of flashbacks, and remind one another of the literary traditions into which their narrative falls. The novel is littered with footnotes. Reality and illusion, of course, are forever at issue.
Yet the self-consciousness of the sabbatical exercise somehow is congenial to this sort of playfulness. Fenn and Susan have a curious but utterly convincing respect for the story they are making together, as if they had given it a life and will of its own. Indeed, they seem to look to its independent momentum for guidance in the great decisions they must make.
Fenn's career in intelligence is not merely a curiosity of his background. The specter of espionage lurks at every turn in their cruise. Fenn's twin brother Manfred was also an agency operative until he drowned in the Chesapeake Bay from a fall—or a push—from the selfsame Pokey. The resemblance to the real-life death of the CIA's John Paisley under circumstances of like mystery is not merely oblique here; the Paisley saga is laid out in nearly 20 pages of news accounts drawn verbatim from back issues of The Sun in Baltimore.
Barth's fascination with this sort of thing is logical enough. Author and agency share a fondness for elaborate deceptions, and like to muddle conspiracy and coincidence. Such intellectual sport may be said to represent the Washington component of this tale of two cities; the Baltimore component, as you might guess, is straight from the heart—and more knowing and affecting by far.
Susan's mother Carmen is an eccentric restaurateur in the Fells Point section of that city, and the mistress of a household circus. (pp. 4, 12)
Sabbatical, come to think of it, is a long meditation on family, from Carmen's delightful theories about sperms and eggs (that they are our real children, and the fruits of their union actually our grandchildren) to Fenwick's brainstorms about creation and procreation to Susan's outbursts about affairs and abortions—and motherhood….
Has Barth gone all soft and gooey on us after all this time? I think not. Like his characters, he is coming home to primordial things, and understanding them in new ways. Sixteen years ago he published an extraordinary story called "Night-Sea Journey." It is narrated by a sperm—"tale-bearer of a generation"—as it thrashes its way to an inexorable and holy union with an egg, from which will come "some unimaginable embodiment of myself." Sabbatical is a full-length reprise of that story, an examination of mortality and human purpose in the face of humble and ambiguous choices. It wonders aloud whether one's pride and joy in life need be one's flesh and blood, whether being a bearer of tales isn't embodiment enough. (p. 12)
Charles Trueheart, "John Barth: Sailing Inner Waters," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1982, The Washington Post), May 23, 1982, pp. 4, 12.
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After the slow-grinding, interlocking minutiae of Letters, John Barth may have thought that his readers deserved a breather, and he's given them one: Sabbatical. Set largely on a sailboat nosing along the chops of the Chesapeake Bay, Sabbatical is a chummily facetious scribble about a former CIA officer and his sweetie and all the weird, wacky things that happen to them "twixt stern and starboard." Like other Barth novels, this one ladles on the Maryland lore: the tweeting couple is named Fenwick Scott Key Turner and Susan Seckler (nicknamed "Black-Eyed Susan," after the Maryland state flower), and their sailboat is dubbed Pokey, in honor of those two Baltimore legends Francis Scott Key and Edgar Allan Poe. A comical twosome, Fenwick and Susie trade teasing wisecracks like a nautical Sonny and Cher, announcing flashbacks and flash-forwards, unfurling digressive reminiscences, bringing chapters to a close as if cutting to a commercial. (p. 16)
As their voices crisscross on the page, the novel seems to be broadcasting in stereo, with static crackling from each speaker. The static is set off by the noisy busyness of Barth's language: the clever-boots names (Eastwood Ho, Edgar Allan Ho), the sudden bursts of alliteration ("bald, brown, bearded, barrelchested" is how Barth describes Fenwick, while Susan is "sunburnt, sharp, and shapely"), the clickety-clack interior rhymes of—well, this: "Fenwick steadies the tiller in the crack of his ass and trims the starboard genoa sheet for the new tack." Barth also busies up his text with footnotes, mock headlines, and clippings about the CIA scissored from the Baltimore Sun.
For all its snappy patter and kissy-poo antics, however, Sabbatical soon proves to be a chirruping ode to nothingness…. As in the story "Night-Sea Journey,"… the ruling conceit of this novel of the upward swim of sperm toward ovum, a teeming migration beset with strife…. So the thinning-out of sperm becomes a metaphor for the absurd random chanciness and epic waste of life itself, with an added peril tossed in: abortion…. "Stories can abort, too," Susan tells Fenn. "Plenty are stillborn; most that aren't die young. And of the few that survive, most do just barely." Slain fetuses, decimated sperm—creation in Sabbatical is one long trail of casualties and squelched possibilities.
Sex continues to exact a punishing toll long after all that prepartum turmoil. Pages of squirming detail are devoted to the mutilations of Susan's twin sister Miriam, who one Sunday afternoon in 1968 is gang-raped by a pack of motorcyclists…. [Only] to be tortured again by a "rescuer" who peppers her body with cigarette burns and eventually leaves her kneeling in the dirt, a beer bottle sticking out of her assaulted bottom. Staggering out of the woods, reeking of sweat, blood, and dried urine, Miriam is raped again by a burly dude in a pickup trick.
When Fenwick makes unconvincing clucking noises of concern and tries to subdue Susan's too-graphic account, saying, "The details are just dreadfulness …," she disagrees: "Rape and Torture and Terror are just words; the details are what's real." But the details too are mere words, and the accumulation of sadistic flourishes only serves to distance us from the experience, to turn it into a virtuoso literary exhibition—a novelistic form of knife-juggling. Whether it's a horse being subjected to squealing anguish in Virginie or a woman running a rapist gauntlet in Sabbatical, the horror seems to derive less from life than from the author's desire to furnish his novel with showy scenes of blood and humiliation. The horror is so clumsily and shamelessly stage-managed that you end up feeling not so much pity or terror for the victims (who are simply used as straw dogs), as a mild lurch of disgust at the authors for misapplying their talent so. They give in to sadism dutifully, like apprentice floggers. Perhaps it's fussily old-fashioned of me, but I prefer humming sensations to deadened nerves, pleasure and play to defilement, firm footing to these drifting, sealed-off islands of nothingness. Sade is a master only for those intellectualized out of their wits.
But it would be a mistake to leave the impression that what's wrong with these novels is that they defame the dignity of life (whatever that is) or violate John Gardner's notions of what constitutes moral fiction. Reviewing The Auroras of Autumn by Wallace Stevens, Randall Jarrell praised Stevens's intelligence and cool mastery but lamented that "it would take more than these to bring to life so abstract, so monotonous, so overwhelmingly characteristic a book." What's sapping about these books is that they too are so characteristic. Once again John Hawkes has given us a novel loaded with soiled sex, acres of a damp rot, and bird and flower imagery…. Once again John Barth has tricked up a novel which mimics the stratagems that go into the tricking-up of a novel. (pp. 16-17)
James Wolcott, "Straw Dogs," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1982 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXIX, No. 10, June 10, 1982, pp. 14, 16-17.∗
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"We'll have to stick to the channel," John Barth wrote in his first novel, "The Floating Opera," and let the creeks and coves go by." His new work ["Sabbatical"] explores all the creeks and coves it can, both literally and figuratively. It drifts with what one of its characters calls the narrative tide, it goes back, goes forward, stands still. It begins with a storm at sea, describes an uncanny island not to be found on any chart and records the surfacing of a hefty sea monster in Chesapeake Bay. "Have we sailed out of James Michener," the narrator wonders, "into Jules Verne?"
The metaphors, as Barth said of his earlier use of them, are not gratuitous, and that's putting it mildly. "If life is like a voyage," we read in "Sabbatical," "a voyage may be like life." "Not the least of sailing's pleasures, in our opinion, is that it refreshes, by literalizing them, many common figures of speech: one is forever and in fact making things shipshape from stem to stern, casting off, getting under way…." Barth's list lumbers on ("making headway, giving oneself leeway"), tilting a promising thought toward pedantry. The implication is that symbol and reality, unlike broken Humpty Dumpty, can be put together again. In practice, reality comes off handsomely—the boat, the bay, the weather, clothes, flesh, language, the looks and gestures of people—while the symbols clank like loosely stowed gear.
"Sabbatical" recounts the end of a voyage made by Susan Seckler, a literary academic who is wondering whether to return to teaching and/or have a child, and Fenwick Turner, her husband, a former C.I.A. man who has written, in the manner of Philip Agee, a scathing book about the Agency—his heart divided, as he says, between patriotism and dismay. (pp. 1, 24)
[The] story fills up with the rough contemporary world. The West sinks into the sun, as Susan puts it. Does the Company have a new drug that can induce utterly convincing heart attacks? Fenwick has had two episodes; his friend and former colleague dies of one in the course of the book. Calm conversations hide secrets; it becomes increasingly difficult to tell a promise from a threat. Susan and Fenwick know their sabbatical is over, yet are grateful for the breathing space. They are conscious of their luck, their privilege: "We are reasonably healthy, reasonably successful, reasonably well off … unpersecuted, unoppressed, and still in love after seven years of marriage: the favored of the earth."
Is this enough? Perhaps nothing is enough—the suggestion runs through Barth's fiction from its beginnings. But Susan and Fenwick survive—she an abortion and he his fear of losing her—and make their anxious homecoming into a story, and their story into a shelter. It is this story we read, with Susan and Fenwick telling it and talking to us about it—about the story and about making the story. The author, far from being the demiurge of this world, is their puppet…. Mostly Susan and Fenwick speak as we ("My hat is off to us. Well done, us").
This sounds elaborate (it is elaborate), but it reads easily enough and persuasively makes the story seem to belong to its inhabitants. Fenwick's and Susan's energetic worrying about each other and the significance of things is attractive, and the book obviously represents the sort of spilling over of personal fact into fiction that Barth spoke of in "Letters": "What's involved here strikes me less as autobiography than as a muddling of the distinction between art and life."
But there is a flatness in the book that these likable characters cannot redeem. Partly this is the result of the heavy-handedness that is felt everywhere. "That storm blew up like a sawed-off simile," Fenwick says. Mock solemnity keeps turning into the real thing: "To Susan's mind, it is appropriate that, in a manner of speaking, we are involved in a nighttime voyage, one common feature of wandering-hero myths."… [The] book's gravest pretension … is to surround the literal voyage with homilies about the stream of life and the sea of the womb ("Sperm swim up; ova float down"), about forks in the river and shoals in a charted course ("To go forward, we must go back"). "The road is better than the inn," Fenwick thinks, switching his imagery to land; Susan says to her mother, "Life is too strange, Ma!" Platitude upon platitude. The problem is not that Barth fails to deliver grander meanings but that he looks so hard for them, so restlessly tries to convert a modest and engaging trip into a wind-filled portent. (pp. 24-5)
Michael Wood, "A Metaphoric Novel of the Sea," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 20, 1982, pp. 1, 24-5.
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With Sabbatical John Barth confirms that he has joined the ranks of the Old Poops. A useful category this, invented by Kurt Vonnegut for purposes of self-description. OPs are writers who once upon a time were prodigally talented, funny and full of bright and savage ideas, but have now "mellowed" into premature anecdotage; cuddly, avuncular, sermonizing old buffers, whose main text is how, once upon a time … etc, since of course OPs are nothing if not self-aware. Self-awareness was one of the tricks that made their writing so exciting in the 1960s, and now it provides them with a kind of narrative afterlife, "on in death like hair and fingernails" as Barth wrote less than ten years ago in Chimera, his last book before the onset of OP-hood. OPs have not become conservative exactly, but they're into conservation; in fact their central preoccupation is survival, simply going on (and on).
The cold war ethos OPs helped to dissipate in their early, euphoric period of fictive gamesmanship now once again dominates the mental weather. Our hero in Sabbatical, one Fenwick Scott Key Turner, is an ex-CIA man turned aspiring writer, resignedly aware that the Company's account of so-called reality, which had seemed shattered into a thousand and one quite different stories, is well on the way to reassembling itself…. Writing becomes a variety of salvage operation—not, this time, as in Barth's last tome, Letters, a matter of resurrecting all one's old characters and themes and lining them up to be counted, but a smaller scale enterprise, a case of cordoning off a modest corner where the minimal imaginative properties (a Muse, a Mythical Monster) can live.
The official story, as it were, belongs to the CIA. You fit your narrative in the gaps and interstices, and round the edges. So middle-aged Fenn and his newish second wife Susan are discovered, when the book opens, returning from a nine month sabbatical cruise in their sailing yacht Pokey to home waters in the Chesapeake Bay, and looking around for ways of avoiding mainland America, staying metaphorically afloat and offshore.
The sea voyage motif, as Fenn and Susan (who is a professor of Am Lit), are very well aware, is the oldest one in the book, and that is its point. At times of stress it's best, goes the argument, to retreat to the fundamental formulae and reenact the mythic commonplaces. If the metaphors creak a bit and the story line seems a little slack, so much the better; there's something reassuring about being at the mercy of the old pattern, the narrative winds and tides. Why not return to innocence?…
Innocence is hard to come by. All very well for Fenn to antitheorize the life of the imagination—"realism is your keel and ballast of your effing Ship of Story and a good plot is your mast and sails. But magic is your wind"; however, it's not possible to remain out of sight of land. And as soon as you disembark the old Companyspeak starts doing very unrefreshing things to your figures of speech.
Take "cruise", for a start. Or much more sinister, "episode". This artless narratological ploy takes on a whole range of tangled, threatening meanings: for example, the cardiac "episode" or mini heart attack that sent Fenn off on his sabbatical in the first place, and that may, just may, reflect "the Company's rumoured new cardiac arrest capability", since they were naturally not too pleased with Fenn's first venture into the world of letters, a book exposing a small part of their grubby and multifarious dealings. All this we gather by way of "episode". And as the novel gets under way and starts to tack back and forth, more and more terrible and tacky and paranoid possibilities materialize. "Aspiration", as Susan will demonstrate, is a brisk technique for abortion.
The plot thickens alarmingly as we enter "the world of information, disinformation, even superdisinformed supercoded disinformation". Both Susan and Fenn turn out to be twins…. In short (in long, in truth, it's much more complicated) Fenn and Susan are intimately twinned with Right and Left America.
Indeed, since Fenn claims to be descended from the man who wrote "The Star Spangled Banner" (F. S. Key) and Susan, despite or because of being Jewish, inherits a family tradition that she is distantly related to Edgar Allan Poe (hence their boat's name, Pokey) they are obviously doomed to take on board (ho ho) the American Experience. And although all the twins business may sound reminiscent of the pre-OP John Barth, the epic-mocker of The Sot-Weed Factor, in fact it is presented in an unmagical fashion as a tired conundrum, a device for mooring our hero and heroine, against their will, to a past and threatening them with a future.
The more we learn about their family and Company connections the more we realize why they are so anxious to stay at sea or, as Fenn likes to put it, "in medias fucking res"…. A trip through a maze of supercoded disinformation only serves to establish that in the world scripted by the Company no "story" is ever happily resolved, or even resolved at all. To survive imaginatively, creatively, it is necessary to refuse their rotten intrigues: "Reality is wonderful … Dreadful … What it is. But realism is a fucking bore." Thus Fenn will accept his cardiac "episode" as a foretaste of death, but not, for now, part of his story. And Susan will abort the child she has conceived on their cruise because the fiction she and Fenn exist in and on is too marginal to support three-D offspring….
So Fenn becomes a Writer, Susan his Muse/Reader. This way they will cheat time for a while longer—"There will be sex and supper, storms and sleep; with luck there will be some years of loving work and play—and then the end, the end unspeakable." Voluntary sterility, stories about stories about, is it: "The doing and the telling, our writing and our loving—they're twins. That's our story."
Procreation (look at Plato) is the literal-minded version of the marriage of true minds. When Susan aborts her foetus she fertilizes Fenn, who promptly conjures up in the waters of the bay a bona fide mythical monster to stand in for the children of the flesh. Not, it has to be said, a very convincing monster … but that, we are meant to understand, is hardly the point. For the creative life Barth has in mind is not—he's frank about it—particularly vivid, or inventive, or magical; more a matter of talking about writing and writing about talking, a kind of continuous Creative Writing seminar (Muse and Prof), in which all you do is play with your possibilities.
It is this tone that makes Sabbatical a quintessentially Old Poop product. Prof Susan, who succumbs surely too readily to the suggestion that she's somehow creating Literature by reading it nicely and screwing a would-be writer, is allowed to point out that "stories can abort too. Plenty are stillborn; most die young." But this spooky thought drowns in the narrative sea with barely a plop. So insistent is the propaganda about not rocking the boat that we seem blackmailed into accepting any hint of fictional activity as involving the whole corpus of Literature. Whereas most of the time we are responding to something less grand—vague echoes of earlier Barthian motifs, for example. One is prompted, indeed (if one can contrive to slip out from under the insidious authorial "we") to the thought that his early black comedies (The Floating Opera, The End of the Road) were much more inspiriting and much better written than this post-OP, valetudinarian, chatty stuff. Also, to the realization that the more reverently he talks about the pleasures of the text, the more trivial they seem. Is the Ship of Story really such a fragile vessel? Surely not. It is characteristic of Poopedness to insinuate (cheerfully, in the manner of a good old boy who's faced up to the worst) that tiredness is universal, and that coming clean about it is all there's left to do. Which is not to say that Sabbatical is merely dull or depressing. OPs may be shadows of their former selves, but then their former selves were quite something. Which in its turn is of course one of the most infuriating things about them.
Lorna Sage, "Getting Pooped Aboard the Ship of Story," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1982; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4138, July 23, 1982, p. 781.
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Asked by the editors of the New York Times Book Review … to explain how he became a writer, John Barth gave a surprising answer. "It is my fate and equally my sister's to have been born opposite-sex twins, between whom everything went without saying." But "after circumstances and physical maturation" separated him from his sister, Barth was forced to sail belatedly into society on the changeable winds of language, "talking to the Others, talking to oneself."
Coming from a student or critic, that sort of analysis would undoubtedly seem far-fetched, yet it works as the key to Barth's latest novel, Sabbatical: A Romance. There, Fenwick Turner, the 50-year-old narrator, himself a twin, preaches to his 32-year-old wife, Susan, another narrator, also a twin, that "we literal twins … are each of us the fallen moiety of a once-seamless whole … and our habit of wholeness ought to make us ideal partners, especially for another twin … particularly if our original half falls by the way."
Barth's novel seems deliberately—perhaps too deliberately—built on this psycho-philosophical foundation. As if to prove Fenn's theory, Barth obligingly ensures that Susan's twin sister and Fenn's twin brother do "fall by the way"; the former into drugs and decadence, the latter, fatally, into Chesapeake Bay. This leaves a motley cast of relatives who make brief comic entrances and exits as [Fenwick and Susan] … slowly return to Maryland from a nine-month sabbatical cruise around the Caribbean….
Barth's principal sub-plot is an informal inquiry by the two narrators into the art of novel-writing. As narrators whose conversations are transcribed, Susie and Fenn do not claim to make literary news; they are sailing in the wake of Boccaccio, Chaucer, Conrad, Faulkner. What does distinguish Barth's technique from the strategies of earlier authors is that, unlike most narrators who talk or write to each other, Susie and Fenn normally share a single point of view on a single set of events. Why, then, need their voices be plural at all? Moreover, since they recognize without much debate their literary limitations, those limitations sometimes weaken the novel itself. Temporarily losing his nautical and narrative way at one point, "Fenn is able to shrug and declare that we set our story's ideal course and then sail the best one we can, correcting and improving from occasional fixes in our actual position."
Life, in other words, can throw art off course. But we know that Barth is doing the steering anyway. Despite all the double talk about doubles talking, isn't this book finally and exclusively Fenwick's attempt to write "for the Others" a fictional autobiography that will stand in place of the child Susan considers having, and thereby immortalize their romance? If so, then Susan and the reader may feel, in the end, doubly duped.
Charlotte Renner, in a review of "Sabbatical: A Romance," in Boston Review (copyright © 1982 by Boston Critic, Inc.), Vol. VII, No. 4, August, 1982, p. 28.
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'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 a 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…. 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.
But this novel is capacious. A legendary sea-monster appears, looking no more out of place than the one in Phèdre. Fenwick and Susan—he an aspiring writer, she a professor of classic American literature—have literary imaginations; and symbolism out of Poe and erudition about luc-bát couplets in Vietnamese oral poetry help to feed the fantasy…. When not fully employed in sailing the boat, they have weird dreams in common, which include flashbacks and flashes forward. Or again, at the same healthy level as the sailing, this is also a love story: a shipboard romance after seven years of marriage…. Realism does its job, so that when they conclude that their story has their love in it, this is convincing. A happy love story is a rare event in the Post-Modernist novel.
Playing like this with mixed modes of fiction tends to foreground, as they say, the author. Barth sidesteps by engaging Fenwick and Susan as supposed authors, as if to divert suspicion of too much authorial cleverness. Even so, the technical aplomb, the stylishness of the cutting between one mode and another, do have the effect of focusing the attention on a game of skill, and of distancing the reader from what isn't altogether play in the book. How truthful is it, for instance, about the United States. The sociological observation and the documentary evidence about the CIA make use of plenty of real facts: but all they can tell us, in their context here, is that the ostensibly real world is even more fantastic than sea-monsters and the novel's other mysteries. Susan and Fenwick themselves have a broad suspicion that 'we have been, in the main, indulging ourselves, amusing ourselves,' and even that 'our years together, precious as they've been to both of us, are themselves a kind of playing: not finally serious …' It shows in the kind of playing which is the story they make of their lives. And this becomes a moral question when the novel touches directly on real horror, as it does in the episode of Susan's sister's rape—which the subtitle calls 'The Story of Miriam's Other Rapes' ('Mim's other rapes! Jesus, Susan!'). This is as full and particular as realism demands, and it sickens Susan, telling it. But for the reader it is horror distanced into fantasy, even into a kind of black comedy. So was the horror of the Dresden bombing in Slaughterhouse Five; perhaps there is no other way of dealing with maximum horror. But here, in a mainly sunny and engaging book, one comes up against a limitation. The note of fantasy looks like an evasion. If the scene belongs perfectly to the tone of the book, that is because the book guards itself against being taken too seriously.
Robert Taubman, "Playing" (appears here by permission of the London Review of Books and the author), in London Review of Books, August 5 to August 18, 1982, p. 19.∗
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1064
In the no man's land of contemporary fiction, Barth has always been a willing occupier of the trenches, a writer concerned both to advance and defend, and this posture has given us works both of great interest and unevenness. His newest, Sabbatical, continues the pattern of engagement and stands as a worthy effort, if a flawed one. As with the earlier novels so with this one: the false starts and rough edges in Sabbatical derive not at all from a lack of skill but rather from the difficulties inherent in juggling diverse rhythms and mixed modes. Some of the features of the new novel remind one of other postmodern writing and also of the asymmetries and unresolved tensions in mannerist art as it sought to move out of the high Renaissance. Sabbatical explores anew Barth's long-standing interest in the way in which writer, text and reader interact, in how these swirling, buzzing energies achieve a momentary stability in a work of fiction. And not unexpectedly, the new novel probes certain genre considerations as well. It is said to be a "Romance" and part of the intellectual game of the work lies in the reader's recognition of how it modifies, negates and parodies this genre. Sabbatical is about a number of matters, and one of these is John Barth on Northrop Frye. Peace.
At plot level the work narrates the adventures of its principals, Fenwick Scott Key Turner and wife Susan Rachel Allan Seckler, as they return from a nine month cruise to the Caribbean aboard their motorized sailboat. The two took their voyage in order to take stock of themselves and life, but they return home to find that some important questions remain unanswered. Reality, Barth pleasantly reminds us, eludes definition just as "real" fictional characters escape the constraints and abstractions of literary typology. In their journey up Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore and home port aboard the Pokey, Fenn and Susan gradually realize that "homecoming" is more a beginning than an ending. Enroute they encounter an uncharted island, a "sea monster," and—more crucially—themselves in their desolation, dreams and love. In the process the reader learns a good deal about the respective families—the mysteries, aspirations and tragedies in the lives of figures such as Manfred, Miriam, Carmen, Dumitru and others—and also about the ravaged, brutal, sterile nature of contemporary America. CIA intrigues (Fenn is a former member), gang rapes, mysterious disappearances and the moral complexities of abortion (Susan's) emerge as manifestations of our waste land, reminders that leviathan swims inscrutably onward. Clearly the "fresh, green breast of the new world" remains as elusive in Sabbatical as it was in Gatsby, but there is a compensation in Barth's novel. Unlike Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby, Fenn and Susan manage to sustain a loving, sexually satisfying and intellectually vibrant relationship. Their "romance" (perhaps the real meaning of the subtitle) endures because of the pair's sense of humor, mutual forbearance and maturity—and of course because John Barth adds to these virtues the mana of art. Susan and Fenwick shape their story as they sail the waters of Chesapeake Bay and Americana; a significant part of their virtu flows from the fact that they are "makers" as well as sufferers.
Sabbatical is a "Romance," then, in the sense that it is an imitation of Romance, mythic and archetypal flights and perchings complete with a hero and heroine embarked on the necessary quest. At this level—perhaps loosely seen as the "allegorical" one—Susan and Fenn are tokens or types acting out their teleological imperatives. But there is more. For Sabbatical is also a novel in which "novelistic" energies assert themselves against the enervation and abstraction of the high mimetic. Fenn and Susan become "real" folk struggling with the unpredictability, messiness and absurdity of a culture deeply out of touch with itself—but still worth redemption. Ironically, it is at this level that the novel begins to lose the vigor it deserves but doesn't quite earn. For all their admirable qualities and the skillful orchestration of their eminently credible navigation of the "real" waters of the Bay, the two main characters tell us more about themselves than we finally want to know and the result is cloying. The heavy foregrounding of Susan and Fenwick is deliberate, a central strategy in the work's aesthetic, but it too often leads to a surfeit rather than to a vital accommodation. Sabbatical simply bogs down at times in cumbersome commentary and flat, somewhat coy, somewhat breezy characterization.
Not surprisingly to readers of Barth's earlier fictions, Sabbatical offers yet a further twist. As suggested above, Fenn and Susan are more than participants in a fictional structure; they also "compose" their own "story" and share their thoughts about this activity with the "reader." "John Barth," the putative author, fades into irrelevance as Fenn and Susan seemingly expropriate more and more of their creator's traditionally granted omniscience. The principals claim their freedom both from the allegorical and the authorial. In effect they become the fabricators of their own life story and thus stand outside both the mythic/Romance dimension of Sabbatical and the novelistic dimension. Real people twice removed from an imaginary voyage, so to speak. With John Barth put out to pasture and the fictive enterprise put on hold, at least temporarily, Fenn and Susan affirm their own being and freedom and immediacy: "The doing and the telling, our writing and our loving … That's our story." As the novel nears its end, the two figures also come to understand that the actual voyaging—not the goal—is what matters. (p. 19)
Critics such as Gerald Graff to the contrary, there is a postmodern movement alive in the world today; and John Barth's newest novel provides evidence of it. Not that Barth is on the frontier of experimentalism but rather that he substantiates and reflects the reality of certain fundamental—if albeit not yet adequately defined—changes, gestures, attitudes. This reviewer for one regrets that Barth didn't succeed better in his newest effort. A novel lives or dies on its ability to immerse the reader in a sustained experience—whether illusional or mimetic or antirealist and refractive—and Sabbatical too often lets its internal dynamic get in the way of this. (p. 20)
Doug Bolling, "Minors from Majors: 'Sabbatical'," in The American Book Review (© 1983 by The American Book Review), Vol. 5, No. 4, May-June, 1983, pp. 19-20.
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