Friday, April 7, 2017

Birthday: "I am never needlessly obscure—I am needfully obscure, when I am obscure."


Donald Barthelme, Jr. (1931-1989)

Thirty-five years after his death, Barthelme seems, to many readers, a period piece- a highbrow, print version Andy Kaufman, who left both legions of fans and lots of other people scratching their heads.

Author of over 150 short stories, Barthelme was a post-modernist who wrote incidents rather than narratives. He jumbled together seemingly irrelevant details, often unrelated, then added a conclusion that left one trying to parse one’s way through the plot. He liked putting real and fictional characters in absurd situations (Edward Lear turned into King Lear), sometimes cutting and pasting 19th-century book and magazine illustrations into the writing to provide a plot point, or a counterpoint, or who knew quite what?

His was a non-conventional childhood, as one reviewer explained:

Donald the writer was the first of five children. Four were boys, and three of them became professional writers. Daugherty gives us a picture of the dynamics of this unusual and self-absorbed family, though not quite as sharp a picture as we get from the memoir written by Donald’s brothers Frederick and Steven, “Double Down” (1999), which is the story of a gambling spree they went on after Donald, Sr., died, in 1996. (Frederick and Steven Barthelme lost more than a quarter of a million dollars, which included almost all their inheritance; the binge ended after they were indicted for cheating at blackjack. They were exonerated at the end of a hellish experience.) The Barthelme family “was pretty much a nonstop you-blinked game played by seven people,” the brothers write. “Appearing to be blasé—indifferent, relaxed, casual, unconcerned—was essential protective coloration.” (Even the business of telling a story is treated ironically.)
The one who kept them all on guard was the father, and he seems to have been a piece of work. Donald, Sr., had studied architecture at Penn, and he was a committed modernist, an acolyte of Mies, Le Corbusier, Aalto, and Saarinen. He designed his own home, including the interiors, and if he couldn’t find something that suited his taste—a rug or a piece of furniture—he manufactured it himself. The children participated in this continuous redecoration of their house with enthusiasm, but at the price of being exposed to a lot of ridicule. “Our father was very good at ridicule,” Frederick and Steven report; and it was worst, they say, for Donald and their sister, Joan, who were the oldest, and who “often alluded to the terror of our father’s attention in their childhoods, a kind of vague, best-left-unsaid eyebrow-raising that effectively communicated the terrifying things they had once been subjected to.”
Tracy Daugherty, reviewing a 2009 biography, found Barthelme’s youth its own post-modernist mashup: he

took an interest in the modernist aesthetics of Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. His father gave him a copy of Marcel Raymond's book From Baudelaire to Surrealism, which led to a lifelong interest in avant-garde art. He learned to play drums as a teenager and developed a keen interest in bebop jazz. All of these arts were exploding with experimentation and innovation while the American short story, as Barthelme couldn't help but notice, was still stuck in the Chekhov mode of the 19th century. When he began writing fiction in the late '50s, he harnessed all of these new approaches in the arts to catch fiction up with the modernist program, and then he added his own innovations…[he had a] profound interest in philosophy [and a] the mulligan stew of early literary influences -- Kafka, Hemingway, Perelman, Beckett, Sartre -- nor the sickening diet of B-movies the writer ingested in his 20s, when he was a newspaper reporter. With all this under the reader's wings, it is easier to appreciate the absurdist, sometimes baffling stories that first brought Barthelme fame in the 1960s. In "The Indian Uprising," for example, he blended 19th-century French history with conflicts between the U.S. cavalry and Native Americans and America's involvement in Vietnam, among other things.

Barthelme won a fiction contest in high school and spent the early 1950s studying at the University of Houston- never completing a degree- and working for The Houston Post. In 1953, he was drafted and sent to Korea, arriving the day the armistice was signed. With no war to fight, he was back at The Post within a few months.

In 1961, Barthelme published his first short story; oozing hip and coolth, he was hired as director of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. Luck struck in 1963, when The New Yorker bought a story. The magazine became his home base, though editor William Shawn was never quite sure what to make of his work. A gig editing an influential art magazine called Location followed, and  measure of fame and influence. Louis Menand explained Barthelme's work in this way:

It’s not hard to see why they might have. Barthelme’s first short-story collection, “Come Back, Dr. Caligari” (1964), includes “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph,” which is based on characters from the Batman comics. His first novel, “Snow White,” which came out in 1967, is what they used to call, on the nineteen-sixties show “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” a fractured fairy tale—a modernized and mildly surrealized adult version of an already Disney-ized story. His second collection, “Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts” (1968), includes a story, “The Dolt,” about a man preparing to take the National Writers’ Examination. In 1969, he published, in Esquire, “And Now Let’s Hear It for the ‘Ed Sullivan Show!,’ ” a scene-by-scene report of one of the programs in the manner of an agitated lover of the show. Many of the stories in his third collection, “City Life” (1970), are illustrated with images clipped from old books and magazines. Some of the stories are in Q. & A. form:
Q: Is the novel dead?
A: Oh yes. Very much so.
Q: What replaces it?
A: I should think that it is replaced by what existed before it was invented.
Q: The same thing?
A: The same sort of thing.
Q: Is the bicycle dead?
—“The Explanation”
In one story, the sentences are numbered, 1 through 100. Sections of another are in the form of headlines. And the story entitled “Sentence” is a single (unfinished) sentence that takes up eight pages.
Barthelme incorporates bits from other people’s texts into his stories, and a good deal of his writing sounds like (and some of it plainly is) pastiche, as though it had been composed in the style, or spoken in the voice, of someone else:
Curiously, in some of the most successful projects the design has been swung upon small collections of rare animals spaced (on the lost-horse principle) on a lack of grid. Carefully calculated mixes: mambas, the black wrasse, the giselle. Electrolytic jelly exhibiting a capture ratio far in excess of standard is used to fix the animals in place.
—“Paraguay” (1969)
Songs are always composed of both traditional and new elements. This means that you can rely on the tradition to give your song “legs” while also putting in your own experience or particular way of looking at things for the new.
—“How I Write My Songs” (1978)
Even when there is straightforward narration or dialogue, the prose typically has a flat, disjointed, deliberately unliterary delivery. The writer seems to be having trouble maintaining his concentration—even the business of telling a story is treated ironically. And the humor is deadpan, as though the sentences were daring you to think they’re funny. (Are you supposed to stare at the soup-can paintings, or are you just supposed to laugh? Which would be the wrong reaction?)
Edward looked at his red beard in the tableknife. Then Edward and Pia went to Sweden, to the farm. In the mailbox Pia found a check for Willie from the government of Sweden. It was for twenty-three hundred crowns and had a rained-on look. Pia put the check in the pocket of her brown coat. Pia was pregnant. In London she had been sick every day. In London Pia and Edward had seen the Marat / Sade at the Aldwych Theatre.
—“Edward and Pia” (1965)
The city looked new with tall buildings raised while my back was turned. I rushed here and there visiting friends. They were burning beef in their backyards, brown burly men with beer cans. The beef black on the outside, red on the inside. My friend Horace had fidelity. “Listen to that bass. That’s sixty watts of bass, boy.”
I spoke to my father. “How is business?” “If Alaska makes it,” he said, “I can buy a Hasselblad. And we’re keeping an eye on Hawaii.” Then he photographed my veteran face, f.6 at 300. My father once a cheerleader at a great Eastern school. Jumping in the air and making fierce angry down-the-field gestures at the top of his leap.
That’s not a criticism. We have to have cheerleaders.
—“See the Moon?” (1966)
It can certainly look, in short, as though Barthelme, like Warhol, were simply dropping the question of whether something counts as literature or not, since markers of the literary are impossible to find in his writing. The high-art traditionalist has no place to hang his beret.
As in Beckett, Samuel, the Irishman of Paris whose work changed the literary landscape. Barthelme was torn between his literary father and his real one, who thought Donald, Jr’s post-modernist whimsies a chapter too far.

Honors came: a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1966; a National Book Award for his only children’s book, in 1972. He was a director of PEN, and the Authors’ Guild, and held a seat in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Barthelme could be gnomic in his discussions of his own work, as a 1981 Paris review interview showed:

Reynolds Price in the Times said of my story “The New Music” that it was about as new as the toothache. He apparently didn’t get the joke, which is that there is always a new music—the new music shows up about every ten minutes. Not like the toothache. More like hiccups.

Which reminds me: Some of your detractors say that you’re merely fashionable.
Well, the mere has always been a useful category.

That you’re a jackdaw, and your principle of selection is whatever glitters most.

I weep and tear my hair. And disagree.

Let’s look at a specific jackdaw’s nest, the barricade in “The Indian Uprising.”

I don’t see anything particularly fashionable. The table made from a hollow-core door may be a 1960s reference but aren’t people still making them?

But your barricade is not intended as straightforward realism; these things are artifacts of a certain culture.

An archeological slice. Not much glitter.

Won’t it require scholarly annotation in the future?

I’d say no. If you read The Swiss Family Robinson and you’re reading about what they unpack from the pinnace as they shuttle from ship to shore you don’t need any footnotes, even though there may be four hundred pounds of tallow in the cargo. You have a vague recollection that it’s used to make candles.

Actually I think the jackdaw business is a function of appearing in the New Yorker with some frequency. People read the fiction with after images of Rolls Royces and Rolexes still sizzling in their eyes. Rare is the reviewer who can resist mentioning the magazine’s ads when talking about the fiction. One is gilded by association.

“There’s an urge toward abstraction that’s very seductive—

Art about art?

No, I mean the sort of thing you find in Gertrude Stein and hardly anywhere else. Philipe Sollers, the Tel Quel man, approaches it in his book Paradis, of which I’ve read some excerpts in translation. I’m talking about a pointillist technique, where what you get is not adjacent dots of yellow and blue, which optically merge to give you green, but merged meanings, whether from words placed side by side in a seemingly arbitrary way or phrases similarly arrayed, bushels of them.

He tended to remember slights, like the Reynolds Price episode:

Have you ever been mugged?
Not even in print. (Considers) Once in print, by Gore Vidal. He likes to straighten out us uppity young people.

In The Dead Father you edge into Kafka country and suggest that God has shown himself to be a bad father. But you seem not to believe in God, whereas Kafka did.

Well, actually the Holy Ghost is my main man, as we say. I don’t think I’ve ever had much to say about God except as a locus of complaint, a convention, someone to rail against. The Dead Father suggests that the process of becoming has bound up in it the experience of many other consciousnesses, the most important of which are in a law-giving relation to the self. The characters complain about this in what I hope is an interesting fashion. Cursing what is is a splendid ground for a writer—witness Céline.

Was he an eavesdropper for his art? Sure thing:

Out of context you frequently get instant Dada. I once overheard a woman in a restaurant on Fifty-fifth saying earnestly to her companion, “But Henry, I’ve never taught in the daytime before.” The Teacher From the Black Lagoon.

At the end of the interview, he added:

Peter Yates, the music critic, said that the proper work of the critic is praise, and that that which cannot be praised should be surrounded with a tasteful, well-thought-out silence. I like that.

Today in Literature take a stab at summing up the Big B:

Although Barthelme's eminence in postmodern fiction is beyond dispute, few are brave enough to attempt explaining why. John Barth has talked about "the wit, the bite, the exactitude and flair, inspired whimsy, aw-shucks urbanity, irreal realism and real irreality, wired tersitude, and such Barthelmanic pleasures." William Styron tries this way: "Barthelme, however, happens to be one of a handful of American authors, there to make the rest of us look bad, who know instinctively how to stash the merchandise, bamboozle the inspectors, and smuggle their nocturnal contraband right on past the checkpoints of daylight 'reality.'" Perhaps best to stick to Barthelme's own wild understatement that he was attracted to stories which "at once invite and resist interpretation."
Barthelme was born with the mid-century American writer’s toolbox. He drank too much, was prone to melancholy, and had four wives. He managed his money badly, what there was of it: his books never sold well, and his royalties came to about a thousand dollars a year. He kept up his home and his ex-wives teaching, and when he moved back to Houston with the fourth, in the last years of his life, he was greeted as a rock star writer/teacher. By 1983 his stature was such that he was able to convene “The Post-Modernists’ Dinner, a Soho gathering whose guest list included Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, William Gaddis, Robert Coover, John Hawkes, William Gass, Kurt Vonnegut, Walter Abish, and Susan Sontag.

Of course, by the time a movement is seen to have peaked, it had already peaked. minimalism was the new thing, and Raymond Carver was the coming man. By the time Barthelme died, at 58, in 1989 postmodernist fiction looked a bit like a bookshelf designed by Michael Graves.

Donald Barthelme, Sr died in 1996, and the two other writers in the family- Steven and Frederick, blew almost all their quarter-million dollar inheritance on a gambling binge that got them indicted for cheating at blackjack; acquitted, they made a nice memoir of of it.

Donald, Jr.. left behind four novels, one nonfiction work, four collections of essays, and eleven of stories.

#LiteraryBirthdays #HenryBemisBooks #Charlotte #DonaldBarthelme

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