(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Andre Castine, former husband of Lady Amherst?

As T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock would say, “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” John Barth grins slyly at us from the back of the dust jacket of Letters, perhaps because he is anticipating with glee the knots that Letters will tie reviewers into who try to come to terms with a work so vast and so intricate in the space of a short review. Let us try a metaphor. Let us imagine for a moment a juggler holding in his hands seven bright, multifaceted balls. One by one they go into the air, each one catching our attention in its own right, yet all held aloft by the dexterity of the juggler who will never let us hold one in our attention, but who will force us to notice again and again the incredible skill required to keep them all going, up and down, around and around. People who come to fiction for the proverbial “good read” will hate this book; it requires too much concentration, too much extrafictional knowledge. Every time we think Barth is settling down to give us a conventional straightforward narrative, off we go in another direction, along another path of speculation.

Let us consider just a few of Barth’s “balls.” As we may know, the earliest fictional works in English which can without dispute be called novels are the epistolary works of Samuel Richardson, specially Pamela and Clarissa. These are works told in letters; in imitation of them, Barth gives us a new epistolary novel, a work made up of letters. Unlike Richardson’s works, however, Barth’s letters come from more than one person; in fact, there are seven chief letter-writers in Barth’s book. In this sense, Barth’s Letters is both traditional and original, a new variation on the oldest tradition in English fiction. On the other hand, Barth is interested in the nature of fictional characters; do they have existence outside of and apart from the fictional worlds of the individual novels they occupy? To explore this question, Barth uses one character from each of his former works as one of the chief letter-writers in his new novel. Anoter “ball”—is the role of author in a novel as much a fiction as anything else? To explore this, Barth, as The Author, is one of the letter-writers in Letters. We conventionally believe that an author’s characters are under his control; in this work, characters often seem completely outside their creator’s world and act independently of his knowledge, often seeming to contradict his shaping influence.


(The entire section is 1047 words.)