The award of lifetime for Barth Books: Lannan Foundation salutes Maryland fiction writer for achievement with $100,000 prize.

October 06, 1998|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

John Barth, the Maryland novelist and dean of post-modern American writers, was honored yesterday with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the private Lannan Foundation.

The honor carries one of the largest purses in literary circles -- $100,000. It has been given annually since 1987 by the Santa Fe-based foundation to signal excellence in English-language fiction, poetry and nonfiction.

Barth, regarded as a master technician of the language as well as a distinguished storyteller, established himself in the 1960s by breaking out of the bounds set by modern writers such as James Joyce. Always, his work has been intellectually weighty and infused with the absurd or funny. As a result, many of his books have been best sellers.

Thanking the Lannan Foundation yesterday, Barth, 68, displayed his signature wit:

"... I am, of course, delighted to receive the Foundation's 1998 award for Lifetime Achievement, which I assume means 'Lifetime Achievement Thus Far' -- since I'm still happily at work," he wrote.

In a brief phone conversation from his home, Barth said he preferred not to discuss his new fiction project because "to natter on about work in progress is to tempt the muses." He works from 8 a.m. to noon, as he has every day of his career. He lives in Chestertown with his wife, Shelly R. Barth, retired faculty member at St. Timothy's School in Stevenson.

A Maryland native and professor emeritus in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, Barth has devoted much of his career to regional subjects.

Jean McGarry, a former student of Barth's who is now chair of the Hopkins Writing Seminars, said yesterday that her former mentor became a key figure in 20th century letters by reintroducing in a most artful way the self-conscious narrator. That is, the character who points to the artifice of the story. She likened this experiment to television sitcoms in which characters refer to people playing characters in other television shows.

"The character knows that you know that they know that this has been written by somebody and it's not real," she said.

Even though Barth experiments, she added, "what comes across is the man."

Reading one of his books is "like having a narrator smart, sensitive and on your side ... he never lets you down."

Notwithstanding brisk sales attributable in part to what McGarry calls Barth's "affectionate tie with his readers," the author has sometimes been criticized as labored and unnecessarily complex.

"In his fascinated commitment to the art -- and to the criticism -- of storytelling, he has no rival," Amherst College English professor William Pritchard wrote in the New York Times in 1987. On the other hand, Pritchard wrote, some of Barth's books "sit on the shelves as monstrous curiosities, tomes that only an English professor, and not all of them, would take down and spend time with."

Barth's first novel, "The Floating Opera," was nominated for a National Book Award when it was published in 1956. In his 40-year career, Barth has published 14 books, including nine novels and two volumes of short stories. Many of his books were best sellers. A volume of novellas, "Chimera," won the National Book Award in 1973.

As an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins, he became enchanted by masterpieces such as "Arabian Nights," sometimes called "One Thousand and One Nights," in which Scheherazade tells story after story to the king to save her own life. He went on tell stories as a kind of game himself.

In "The Friday Book, Essays and Other Non Fiction," Barth says of his life's work: "We tell stories and listen to them because we live stories and live in them. Narrative equals language equals life: to cease to narrate ... is to die."

The Lannan Foundation is the legacy of the late financier J. Patrick Lannan, a self-educated man with a passion for the visual arts and poetry. Its literary program was designed to preserve "the wholeness, clarity, and strength of the English language."

Candidates are recommended to a committee of writers, editors and publishers.

According to Saskia Hamilton, director of the Lannon Literary Program, so many individual members of the committee had read Barth "for a long, long time," that when he was nominated, they immediately decided to honor his lifetime of work.

Books by Barth

John Barth yesterday received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Fiction. His work includes novels, novellas and essays dating back to the '50s:

The Floating Opera (1956)

The End of the Road (1958)

The Sot-Weed Factor (1960)

Giles Goat-Boy (1966)

Lost in the Fun House (1968)

Chimera (novella, 1972)

Letters (1979)

Sabbatical: A Romance (1982)

The Friday Book (1984)

Tidewater Tales (1987)

The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991)

Once Upon a Time: A Floating Opera (1994)

Further Fridays (1995)

On With the Story (1996)

Pub Date: 10/06/98

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