John Barth, writer who pushed the limits of storytelling, dies at 93


John Barth, who, believing that old literary conventions were exhausted, pushed the boundaries of storytelling with imaginative, intricately woven novels like “The Sot-Weed Factor” and “Giles Goat-Boy,” died Tuesday at a nursing home. palliatives in Bonita. Springs, Florida. He was 93 years old.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Shelly Barth. Before beginning hospice care, Mr. Barth had lived in the Bonita Bay neighborhood of Bonita Springs.

Barth was 30 when he published his sprawling third novel, the boisterous “The Sot-Weed Factor” (1960). He projected him into the ranks of the country’s most innovative writers, drawing comparisons with contemporaries such as Thomas Pynchon, Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov.

He followed with another important work, “Giles Goat-Boy” (1966), which he summarized as a story “about a young man who is raised as a goat, who later discovers that he is human and commits himself to the heroic project of discovering the secret of It was also an erudite and satirical parable of the Cold War, in which the campuses of a divided university faced each other in hostility and mutual deterrence.

Barth was a practitioner and theorist of postmodern literature. In 1967, he wrote a critical essay for The Atlantic Monthly, “The Literature of Exhaustion,” which continues to be cited as the manifesto of postmodernism and which has inspired more than three decades of debate about its central argument: that the old conventions of narrative literary can be, and in fact has been, “exhausted.”

As his main inspiration, Barth cited Scheherazade, the sorceress who wove tales every night to prevent her master from executing her at dawn. He said she was the one who first cast a spell on him when he worked as a page in the stacks at the Johns Hopkins University library in Baltimore when he was a student.

From 1965 to 1973, Barth taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo (now University at Buffalo), where he was a member of a renowned English department that also included critic Leslie Fiedler.

Mr. Barth’s creative output was prodigious: he published nearly 20 novels and short story collections, three books of critical essays, and a final book of short observational pieces. In his teaching and writing, he highlighted the strength of narrative imagination in the face of death, or even simply boredom.

When the university was thrown into chaos by a long and shapeless student unrest in the early 1970s, a young journalist asked Mr. Barth what the experience had taught him.

With the Tidewater accent of his native Maryland, Barth acknowledged that, by temperament, he was not likely to become involved in campus protests and “the casuistry that people develop.” She said tersely that what she had learned was that “just because the situation is hopeless doesn’t make it more interesting.”

Mr. Barth had a distinctive presence. “He is a tall man with a domed forehead; a pair of very large-framed glasses give him a professorial and owlish air,” wrote George Plimpton in the introduction to an article. interview he conducted with Mr. Barth for The Paris Review in 1985. “It’s a cartoonist’s delight.”

“In some ways,” Mr. Plimpton continued, “Barth has been described as a combination of British officer and Southern gentleman.”

John Simmons Barth was born on May 27, 1930 in Cambridge, Maryland, on the Chesapeake Bay, son of John Jacob and Georgia (Simmons) Barth. His father had a candy store. He had a twin sister, Jill, who once told the Washington Post that she had “accomplished a lot of things without trying very hard in school.” An older brother, William, said that when he was a child, John “always had an overactive imagination.” And he added: “What amazes me is how he imagines so much when he has experienced so little.”

In high school, Mr. Barth was drawn to music; He played drums in the school band and hoped to become a jazz arranger. He was accepted to join a summer program run by the Juilliard School in New York before enrolling at Johns Hopkins.

“I found out very quickly in New York,” he said in an interview from 2008“that the young man to my right and the young woman to my left were going to be the true professional musicians of their generation, and that what I expected to be pre-professional talent was actually just amateur talent.”

Mr. Barth graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1951 and earned a master’s degree there the following year. He taught at Pennsylvania State University from 1953 to 1965.

His first published novel, “The Floating Opera” (1956), was narrated by a character who considers suicide out of existential boredom before realizing that this choice would be as meaningless as any other. In 1969, “Lost in the Funhouse,” an experimental collection of short stories by Mr. Barth, was a finalist for the National Book Award. He won the award in 1973 for “Chimera,” another collection.

After the publication of “The End of the Road,” a college novel filled with parodies of psychiatric and academic jargon, in 1958, Barth went in a new, less realistic direction with “The Sot-Weed Factor,” a massive work. picaresque written in Elizabethan style and loaded with word games. It tells the story of Ebenezer Cooke, the “sot-weed factor” (tobacco peddler) of the title, who travels through a sinful world of the late 17th century with his twin sister and his guardian, struggling to maintain the virtue of him.

“The book is a direct satire of humanity in general and great romance in disguise.” Edmund Fuller wrote in a New York Times review, “made with meticulous skill in imitation of 18th-century picaresque novelists like Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne.”

And he added: “For all the vigor of these models, we have to return to Rabelais to match his unbridled obscenity and his eschatological joy.”

“The Sot-Weed Factor” was, Time magazine said, “that rare literary creation: a genuinely serious comedy.”Credit…double day

Fiedler, Barth’s Buffalo colleague, said “The Sot-Weed Factor” was “closer to the great American novel than any other book of the last decade.” Time magazine called it “that rare literary creation: a genuinely serious comedy.”

Barth made another gamble with his next book, saying it would be “an improved Bible.”

“What I really wanted to write after ‘The Sot-Weed Factor’ was a new Old Testament, a comic Old Testament,” he told an interviewer.

What emerged was “Giles Goat-Boy,” the story of a young man who, after recognizing that he is a human and not a goat, seeks to promote moral behavior on the west campus of a university and redeem his students by reprogramming a computer. , WESCAC, which dominates that part of campus, even as the machine finds itself in a dangerous confrontation with the equally threatening EASCAC, a deus ex machina that controls life on east campus.

The book was generally received with enthusiasm and won Mr. Barth new admirers. But he was also criticized for what some called artifice and stratagem. While Newsweek said it “confirms Barth’s position as perhaps the most lavishly talented comic novelist writing in English today,” Michael Dirda, writing in The Washington Post, called him “more than a little over the top and too clever by half.” “.

The criticism would continue. Writing in The Times in 1982, Michiko Kakutani noted that over the years Barth had been “praised, on the one hand, for creating daring and innovative texts” and “condemned, on the other, by critics as disparate as John Gardner and Gore Vidal, for substituting high-tech literary tricks for real characters and moral passion.”

Barth was clearly sensitive to such views and apparently addressed them in one of his best-known statements: “My opinion of technique in art is that it has the same value as technique in love-making. That is to say, sincere ineptitude has its charm and so does soulless skill, but what is really needed is passionate virtuosity.”

He defended his use of postmodern resources such as jokes, irony and exaggeration to point out, comment and even ridicule and undermine a narrative. He insisted that such techniques provided the tools to replenish and build on what he considered the moribund realism of the 19th-century novel.

When asked by a Bookforum interviewer in 2004 if he read his reviews, Barth responded: “Oh, sure. As I used to tell my mentees, intelligent praise is what is most desired. If you can’t receive intelligent praise, you will receive stupid praise. If you can’t receive stupid praise, then the third best option is intelligent criticism. And, of course, the worst thing is the stupid criticism.”

He especially disliked being accused of writing parodies. He once told Esquire magazine that the word “parody” sounded like imperfectly repressed flatulence.

Barth often touched up his own work and prepared revised editions of many of his books. One of his novels, “Letters” (1979), consisted of letters addressed and sent to the characters in his previous novels. He revisited the essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” in another essay, written in 1980, titled “The Literature of Replenishment.” His “Tidewater Tales: A Novel” (1987) was conceived as a reflection of “Sabbatical: A Romance,” published five years earlier. Both were about couples on a sailing trip, but with key characters making opposite life decisions.

Mr. Barth’s novel “Coming Soon!!!” (2001) was a riff on his first book, “The Floating Opera.” It was a writing contest between an elderly writer identified only as the “novelist emeritus” and a student in the writing department at Johns Hopkins, where Barth had taught from 1973 to 1995.

As he grew, so did his characters. “The Development” (2008) was a set of linked stories about the elderly residents of a gated community called Heron Bay Estates. In these stories there were toga parties and good humor, but also pain and loss. One story was titled “Assisted Living” and another, “The End.”

His latest book, a collection of short nonfiction articles, “Postdata,” was published in 2022.

Mr. Barth married Harriette Anne Strickland in 1950. They had three children, Christine, John and Daniel, and divorced in 1969. He married Shelly I. Rosenberg in 1970. In addition to her, he is survived by their children.

Barth often sailed on the Chesapeake, as did many of his characters. He regularly played drums with a neighborhood jazz band in Baltimore.

He confided to Ms. Kakutani that his experience of the world at large had been somewhat limited. She said that she had “led a serene, quiet and absolutely non-Byronic life”.

Michael T. Kaufmanformer Times editor and correspondent, died in 2010. Alex Traub and Orlando Mayorquin contributed reports.

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