No Ebb in Sight Writer: As a postmodern novelist and as a man, John Barth keeps on an even keel.

September 28, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

CHESTERTOWN — A picture accompanying an article in Saturday's Today section misidentified the river on which John Barth lives. The author lives on the Chester River.

The Sun regrets the errors.

CHESTERTOWN -- John Barth is a happy man who smiles a lot, likes to talk (and listen) and who looks a little geezerish with his whiskers sticking out at you as he knocks back another belt of a crisp pinot grigio.

So what if he's not the literary Wunderkind he once was, and the reviews he receives are not so prominent as they were, or so frequent. There are other considerations: All 14 of his books are in print, or about to be. How many serious authors publishing steadily for 40 years can say that?


He has a National Book Award. He is honored at home and abroad, in large ways and small: He is one of the chairpersons of Baltimore's first book festival, unfolding this weekend at Mount Vernon Place.

He is still regarded among the literary cognoscenti, such as they are, as a prince among the postmodernists of American letters.

And, if that's not enough to breed felicity, as of this writing he is waiting for a hurricane to blow away so he can cast off from this riverside town on his annual sail down the Chesapeake Bay. Clean, uncomplicated pleasure awaits.

Barth's is not a happiness of the occasion. It is a steady state, not euphoric. He's not likely to be in a despairing funk next week, wasn't in one last month. Writers get that way sometimes, when they can't write. When it won't come. Then all the insecurities, the fears that it may never come again, rise up from those places where one had hoped they were tightly locked down. Joseph Heller ties himself in knots. Ernest Hemingway fretted fiercely.

"Hemingway used to put his word count for the day on the wall near the toilet," Barth chuckles over his shrimp. "There's a recipe for constipation."

To Barth, it just doesn't happen.

"I've certainly been stumped and stymied, but the legendary, and I think rather boring, writer's block, I haven't really experienced. I'm patient. When I'm stumped, I'll fiddle around, go cut the grass, go sailing."

He's lucky that way. He has been lucky in other ways and admits it. He missed all the wars his country has been involved in from the year of his birth, 1930. He was too young, too married, too old.

He was lucky when he began as a writer. In the '50s, the big New York trade publishers took chances on first novels. They were proud to introduce new writers. Pride's not much of a factor in the book business anymore. Only money is, the certainty of a big sale.

Appleton Century Crofts took a chance on Barth in 1956. But it was a break that demanded a high price, one that might easily have precipitated a crisis of integrity for the young artist. But Barth was saved by his mature appreciation of where his true interests lay, and it all turned out for the best. Better than best, in fact.

A young man's choice

It had to do with the ending of Barth's first novel, "A Floating Opera." The publisher found it too dark. The author was told to change it. What was a struggling, unpublished young writer to do? Let his main chance slip away?

"I said to myself at the time that in 10 years the novel, like most first novels, will be a dead item and it won't matter that I corrupted a perfect ending. Or it will be around in some paperback edition if my career doesn't become space junk. And in that case, I'll just fix it. I'll have enough muscle."

Muscle he got, and so the original outcome was restored when the book was reissued in 1967. "The book lived," Barth says without a tinge of malicious pleasure. "The publisher died."

Barth is reminded that he is not the only novelist to contrive two endings for the same book. Dickens did it, and John Fowles. Barth doesn't like the comparison. Those men were honestly torn over the question of the perfect denouement. Barth's arm was twisted, and one gets the impression it still smarts.

Barth is a calm man with a soft voice; he glimmers with faculty club polish. It is not easy to imagine him in anger, or in a paroxysm of love. There is a coolness in him which is evident in his prose. One can see he is not the type who would throw over his life's goal for the indulgence of a moment's passionate rejection, which makes his surrender in the case of "A Floating Opera" even more understandable.

Leslie Fiedler, the esteemed critic and author of "Love and Death in the American Novel," says of Barth that "temperamentally, instinctively, he always was much stronger in what comes from the head than what comes from the heart. But what redeems him is that he is very witty about it. Things that could be oppressively cerebral turn out with him to be jokes for the reader."

Barth is uncomfortable with the suggestion that he lacks human warmth. He has been quoted in response: "In art, as in lovemaking, heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal, and so does heartless skill. But what you want is passionate virtuosity."

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