Engl 4300
Recent British and American WritersLuke Whisnant

Some Concepts Helpful (or at least harmless) in Reading Donald Barthelme

How to Pronouce His Name Apparently Barthelme never went on the record about how he wanted people to say his surname. After consulting over a dozen sources, I have found three possibilities: "BART-helm" (could this be right???), "BART-hel-me" (rhymes with Bartleby, as in Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener") and the most likely pronunciation, according to the author website Bartelby.com, BARTH-ul-me. To hear an audio wave file of this last version, click on the link; use your browser's "back" button to return to this page.

The Absurd The word itself: "[fm L. ab + surdus deaf, stupid] : ridiculously unreasonable, unsound, or incongruous." As a literary term, "the absurd" denotes narratives, characters, and situations that are illogical, dream-like, or unreal. Often "absurd" stories are nightmare or dreamscape narratives; just as often they are satiric. The basic impulse arises in 20th century literature because of the widespread belief (to be very simplistic about it) that life does not make sense. Events are random and meaningless. Absurdity is a constant theme in Barthelme's work, but the story that addresses it most clearly is "A Shower of Gold." Absurdity, which is primarily a philosophical concept, is closely linked to the artistic concept of--

surrealism : "a modern French movement in art and literature that purports to express subconscious mental activities through fantastic or incongruous imagery or unnatural juxtapositions and combinations." The classic example of a surrealist piece of art is Duchamp's teacup and teaspoon lined with fur. When you look at it, it makes the inside of your mouth cringe--which is what the artist intended. The term "surrealism" as applied to literature is very broadly used. Example: When Gregor Samsa (in the first sentence of Kafka's "Metamorphosis") awakens one morning to find himself transformed into a huge beetle, is it surreal, irreal, or absurd?

collage "[fm F. coller to glue] : 1. an artistic composition of fragments of printed matter and other materials pasted on a picture surface 3. an assembly of diverse fragments." Barthelme has admitted to a "perverse pleasure" in "mixing bits of this and that from various areas of life to make something that did not exist before." An example from "The Glass Mountain": "nightingales with traffic lights tied to their legs." In a widely repeated comment, Barthelme has said that "Fragments are the only forms I trust." His fragments and collages are both linguistic (social-science jargon, for example) and visual ("clip art"). Watch for examples.

"a literary or musical work in which the style of an author or work is closely imitated for comic effect or in ridicule." Parody is humor based on form. "Weekend Update" on Saturday Night Live is a parody of a newscast, for example. Barthelme's stories often draw on earlier literary forms, such as fairy tales ("The Glass Mountain") or novels and stories from previous literary eras ("Eugenie Grandet," "The Phantom of the Opera's Friend"); he also parodies pop culture ("The Joker's Greatest Triumph," a story about Batman, is my favorite example).

: fiction about itself: fiction about fiction. A metafictional author will often remind the reader that she or he is reading a story, written by the author. John Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse" is probably the most famous example.

art for arts' sake:
the opposite of didactic art, this aesthetic theory argues that art does not have to mean; it just has to be. In other words, the purpose of art is to be art, not to instruct or inspire or give a moral lesson.

postmodernism No one knows what it is anymore. It comes after Modernism, and it's self-reflexive, and the rest is up for grabs. But Barthelme is often pointed out as an example of postmodern writing.

Barthelme on "The Ugly Sentence" (--from his introduction to the story "Paraguay" in Writer's Choice) What I like about "Paraguay" is the misuse of language and the tone. Mixing bits of this and that from various areas of life to make something that did not exist before is an oddly hopeful endeavor. The sentence "Electrolytic jelly exhibiting a capture ratio far in excess of standard is used to fix the animals in place" made me very happy--perhaps in excess of its merit. But there is in the world such a thing as electrolytic jelly; the "capture ratio" comes from the jargon of sound technology; and the animals themselves are a salad of the real and the invented. The flat, almost "dead" tone paradoxically makes possible an almost lyricism. I think my Paraguay is an almost-beautiful place.... Every writer in the country can write a beautiful sentence, or a hundred. What I am interested in is the ugly sentence that is also somehow beautiful. I agree that this is a highly specialized enterprise, akin to the manufacture of merkins, say--but it's what I do. Probably I have missed the point of the literature business entirely. But "Paraguay" is for me a hint of what I would like to do, if I could do it.


the opening of "Will You Tell Me?" by Donald Barthelme

Hubert gave Charles and Irene a nice baby for Christmas. The baby was a boy and its name was Paul. Charles and Irene who had not had a baby for many years were delighted. They stood around the crib and looked at Paul; they could not get enough of him. He was a handsome child with dark hair, dark eyes. Where did you get him Hubert? Charles and Irene asked. From the bank, Hubert said. It was a puzzling answer, Charles and Irene puzzled over it. Everyone drank mulled wine. Paul regarded them from the crib. Hubert was pleased to have been able to please Charles and Irene. They drank more wine.

Eric was born.

Hubert and Irene had a clandestine affair. It was important they felt that Charles not know. To this end they bought a bed which they installed in another house, a house some distance from the house in which Charles, Irene and Paul lived. The new bed was small but comfortable enough. Paul regarded Hubert and Irene thoughtfully. The affair lasted for twelve years and was considered very successful.


Charles watched Hilda growing from his window. To begin with, she was just a baby, then a four-year-old, then twelve years passed and she was Paul's age, sixteen. What a pretty young girl! Charles thought to himself. Paul agreed with Charles; he had already bitten the tips of Hilda's pretty breasts with his teeth....


David Lodge on the opening of "Will You Tell Me?"

One of the disorienting features of Donald Barthelme's story is that it skims rapidly over the surface of emotional and sexual relationships that we are accustomed to seeing treated in fiction with detailed deliberation....

Barthelme, who died in 1989, was one of the key figures in American postmodern fiction, whose stories continually tested the limits of fictional form. It is not, of course, only duration which is being handled rather unconventionally in the opening of this story: causality, continuity, cohesion, consistency in point of view--all the attributes that bind together the ingredients of realistic fiction into a smooth, easily assimilable discourse--are also discarded or disrupted....In this story he reports bizarre or alarming behavior in a matter-of-fact, faux-naïf style that owes something to primary-school reading books and children's "compositions" (an effect generated by the simple declarative sentences, absence of subordination, repetition of words in close proximity, and omission of quotation marks). The characters are hardly more defined than Janet and John and their parents [the British equivalent to Dick and Jane --LW], and sometimes seem as witless....In twenty-odd lines we have covered enough events to fill an entire novel in the hands of another writer. This kind of writing does indeed depend on the reader's familiarity with a more conventional and realistic fictional discourse to make its effect. Deviations can only be perceived against a norm.

(--from "Duration," in The Art of Fiction)


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