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Thursday, April 4, 2024

John Barth has died


A photo posted on X by Giles Goat-Girl. The men from left are Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Robert Coover (still alive), John Hawkes, Kurt Vonnegut, Walter Abish, William Gaddis and William Gass. (Source). 

John Barth has died. The New York Times promptly ran a long obit. I read The Floating Opera in college more than 45 years ago, but I haven't gotten around to any Barth since then. 

While I cannot claim that Barth and Robert Anton Wilson knew each other, there are a couple of connections.

RAW was a Barth fan  (From this previous blog post):

"I can't answer Arthur Hlavaty's question about what John Barth thinks of my novels, but I can easily answer his second question. I enjoy Barth's books enormously. I think his Sabbatical covers the malaise of our time better than professional spy-thriller writers like Ambler and Le Carre have ever done. Just because one is never sure if the CIA killed the man on the boat or is trying to kill the hero, Sabbatical leaves one with precisely the sense of uncertainty and dread that has hung over this nation since democracy was abandoned in the National Security Act of 1947 and clandestine government became official.

"Sometimes I find it astounding that we have lived under fascism for 40 years while continuing the rituals of democracy -- and that hardly any 'major' novelist has tried to grapple with this issue. I salute Barth for his subtlety and the eerie atmosphere he creates in describing our increasingly Machiavellian world. To be brutally frank and eschew false modesty, I think only Mailer, Pynchon and myself have captured the terror of the situation as well as Barth did in that book.

"Oh, yeah, I like Barth's other books, too. Sabbatical just happens to be my favorite."

That's from a letter RAW wrote to a Shea zine. And here's something Shea spotted, writer and critic John Gardner comparing RAW and Barth ("reprinted" from an earlier blot post):

 The American novelist John Gardner, author of fiction such as The Sunlight Dialogues and Grendel, also wrote books of literary criticism and writing. He was only 49 when he died suddenly in 1982, in a motorcycle accident. Robert Shea used to read a lot of literary fiction, and books about writing, and he noticed that Gardner had praised Robert Anton Wilson. 

In his newsletter No Governor issue No. 9 (I have all of them available via a link on this page, on the right, under "Robert Shea Resources"), Shea writes, "I've been reading On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner, a very fine writer whose life was cut short a few years ago by a motorcycle accident. (Some time I must vent some of my feelings about motorcycles). To my surprise and pleasure I ran across a nice compliment to two of my friends, one being our own BobW, on page 94. Talking about science fiction (and tell  your snobby friends John Gardner refers to it is "sci-fi") he lists a number of writers he likes and winds up with, 'One finds a fair amount of literary merit in Algis J. Budrys' Michaelmas or the work of Robert Wilson whose novels (for instance Schroedinger's Cat) out-Barth John Barth without sacrificing the primary quality of good fiction, interesting storytelling.' One could do worse than out-Barth Barth. I look forward to the day when a literary critic remarks that some work by John Barth 'almost out-Wilson's Robert Anton Wilson'."


Lvx15 said...

Barth can be laborious, is not for everyone, but Giles Goat-Boy is my fav 20th century novel. His work is was more mainstream than RAW, but no less subversive. He makes more demands of the reader but there is plenty of humor to keep one going.

Anonymous said...

Obituary in the Guardian.