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Interview by Donald Barthelme with Larry McCaffery
SOURCE: "An interview with Donald Barthelme," in Partisan Review, Vol. 49, No. 2, 1982, pp. 184-93.
In the following interview, Barthelme discusses his life, his literary influences, his views on language and literature, and his works.
[McCaffery:] You've published two novels, but most of your work has been in short fiction.
[Barthelme:] Novels take me a long time; short fiction provides a kind of immediate gratification—the relationship of sketches to battle paintings. Over a period of years I can have a dozen bad ideas for novels, some of which I actually invest a certain amount of time in. Some of these false starts yield short pieces: most don't. The first story in Sadness—"La Critique de la Vie Quotidienne"—is salvage.
Do stories typically begin for you by landing on you, like the dog in "Falling Dog"?
Well, for about four days I've been writing what amounts to nonsense. And then suddenly I come across an interesting sentence—or at least interesting to me: "It is not clear that Arthur Byte was wearing his black corduroy suit when he set fire to the Yale Art and Architecture Building in the spring of 1968." I don't know what follows from this sentence; I'm hoping it may develop into something. I did know someone who was at Yale teaching in the architecture department at the time of that notorious fire; I'm not sure if the date was 1968, I'd have to check. I don't believe they ever found out who set it; I certainly have no idea. But I'm positing a someone and hoping that tragic additional material may accumulate around that sentence.
At the end of your story "Sentence," your narrator says that the sentence is "a structure to be treasured for its weaknesses, as opposed to the strength of stones." Am I right in assuming that one of the things that interests you most about the sentence as an object is precisely its "treasured weaknesses"?
I look for a particular kind of sentence, perhaps more often the awkward than the beautiful. A back-broken sentence is interesting. Any sentence that begins with the phrase, "It is not clear that …," is clearly clumsy, but preparing itself for greatness of a kind. It's a way of backing into a story—of getting past the reader's hard-won armor. Then a process of accretion occurs, like barnacles growing on a wreck or a rock. I'd rather have a wreck than a ship that sails. Things attach themselves to wrecks; strange fish find your wreck or rock to be a good feeding ground. After a while you've got a situation with possibilities.
Have you ever studied philosophy of language in any kind of systematic way?
No. I spent two years in the Army in the middle of my undergraduate days at Houston. When I came back to the university, which must have been about 1955, there was a new man—Maurice Natanson—teaching a course titled "Sociology and Literature" that sounded good. I enrolled, and he talked about Kafka and Kleist and George Herbert Mead. I wasn't a particularly acute or productive student of philosophy, but in that and subsequent classes, I got acquainted with people Mauri was interested in: Husserl, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and company.
You were originally interested in journalism, weren't you?
It seemed clear that the way to become a writer was to go to work for a newspaper, as Hemingway had done—then, if you were lucky, you might write fiction. I don't think anybody believes that anymore. But I went to work for a newspaper while I was still a sophomore and went back to the newspaper when I got out of the Army. I was really very happy there—thought I was in high cotton.
By the late fifties, when you became editor of the Forum, you were obviously already interested a great deal in parody and satire as literary forms. What so attracted you to this type of writing?
People like S. J. Perelman and E. B. White—people who could do certain amazing things in prose. Perelman was the first true American surrealist—ranking with the best in the world surrealist movement—and West was another. Also, Wolcott Gibbs—all those New Yorker writers. And Hemingway as parodist, like in The Torrents of Spring.
Somewhere along the line you got involved as a director of an art museum. How did that come about?
A peculiar happenstance. I was entrusted with a small museum for a couple of years—the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. They had just lost the director, didn't have a prospect, and I'd been on the board. They asked me to fill in temporarily, which I did for a while, and then they made me director—probably more fun than anything I've done before or since. For two years I mounted shows and developed programs in music, theater, and film. In consequence, I met Harold Rosenberg in 1962. At that time Harold had in mind starting a new magazine, which he and Thomas B. Hess would edit. They needed someone to be the managing editor—that is, someone to put out the magazine—and they hired me.
This was the now-legendary magazine, Location?
Yes. It was meant to be not just an art magazine, but an art-and-literary magazine. We were able to publish some wonderful material—some early Gass, some of John Ashbery's work, Kenneth Koch's stuff. It was supposed to be a quarterly, but in fact we published only two issues. Tom and Harold were not worried about putting the magazine out on time and certainly never put any pressure on me. We waited until we had enough decent stuff for a good issue. That experience was a great pleasure—listening to Tom and Harold talk. But getting back to the museum, it was a very small place. My responsibility was to put some good shows together, mildly didactic, modestly informative. So I had to study quite a lot very fast to be able to do this—to make intelligent or useful shows. Luckily, I've always gotten along well with painters and sculptors, mostly by virtue of not asking the wrong questions of them.
It's been my experience that asking a painter what his work "means" is considered to be in bad taste. This seems to hold true for writers as well.
It's a separate study, "How to manifest intelligent sympathy while not saying very much." The early sixties were, as you know, an explosive period in American art, and I learned on the job, nervously. Just being in the studio teaches you something. I'll give you an example: when we were doing Location I went over to Rauschenberg's studio on tower Broadway with Rudy Burkhardt, the photographer, to take some pictures. Rauschenberg was doing silk-screen pieces, and the tonality of these things was gray—very, very gray. I looked out the windows and they were dirty, very much the tonality of the pictures. So I asked Rudy to get some shots of the windows, and we ran one of them with the paintings. They were very much New York lower Broadway windows. A footnote.
Your narrator in "See the Moon?" comments enviously at one point about the "fantastic metaphysical advantage" possessed by painters. What is he referring to?
The physicality of the medium—there's a physicality of color, of an object present before the spectator, which painters don't have to project by means of words. I can peel the label off that bottle of beer you're drinking and glue it to the canvas and it's there. This sort of thing is of course what Dos Passos did in the Newsreels, what Joyce did in various ways. I suppose the theater has the possibility of doing this in the most immediate way. I'm on the stage, and I suddenly climb down into the pit and kick you in the knee. That's not like writing about kicking you in the knee, it's not like painting you being kicked in the knee, because you have a pain in the knee. This sounds a bit aggressive, forgive me.
Another aspect of painting that seems relevant to your fiction is the surrealist practice of juxtaposing two elements—different sorts of language—for certain kinds of effects in fiction or poetry.
It's a principle of construction. This can be terribly easy and can become cheapo surrealism, mechanically linking contradictions. Take Duchamp's phrase, in reference to The Bride and the Bachelors, that the Bride "warmly refuses" her suitors. The phrase is very nice, but you can see how it could become a formula.
How do you avoid falling into this trap in your own work?
I think you stare at the sentence for a long time. The better elements are retained, and the worse fall out of the manuscript.
There is a tendency in the painting of this century to explore itself, its own medium—the nature of paint, colors, shapes, and lines, rather than attempting to reproduce or comment on something outside itself. This tendency seems relevant not only to your work, but also to that of several other important writers of the past fifteen years. Is this a fair analogy?
It is. I also think that painting—in the sixties but especially in the seventies—really pioneered for us all the things that it is not necessary to do. Under the aegis of exploring itself, exploring its own means or the medium, painting really did a lot of dumb things that showed poets and prose writers what might usefully not be done. I'm thinking mostly of conceptual art, which seems to me a bit sterile. Concrete poetry is an example of something that is, for me, not very nourishing, though it can be said to be explorative in the way that a lot of conceptual art is explorative. I can see why in some sense it had to be done. But perhaps not twice.
What about some of the "New-New-Novelists" in France—Pinget, Sollers, Baudry, LeClezio? They seem to be trying to push fiction to the same limits of abstraction that conceptual artists have pushed toward.
Of a work like Butor's Mobile, after a time there's nothing more you can say than "I like it" or "I don't like it"—the stupidest of comments. A more refined version is "I know this is good, but I still don't like it." And I think that this is a fair comment. There are more récherché examples of this kind of thing. Triquarterly did an issue a while back, entitled "In the Wake of the Wake," featuring several gallant Frenchmen whose work I'd seen in scattered places. The emphasis was towards "pure abstraction." For me this is a problem since they get further and further away from the common reader. I understand the impulse—towards the condition of music—but as a common reader I demand that this be done in masterly fashion or not at all. Mallarmé is perhaps the extreme, along with Gertrude Stein. I admire them both. But I don't have any great enthusiasm for fiction about fiction. Critics, of course, have been searching for a term that would describe fiction after the great period of modernism—"postmodernism," "metafiction," "surfiction," and "super-fiction." The last two are terrible. I suppose "postmodernism" is the least ugly and most descriptive.
What do you think about Philip Roth's famous suggestion back in the early sixties that reality was outstripping fiction's ability to amaze us?
I do think something happened in fiction about that time but I'd locate it differently. I think writers got past being intimidated by Joyce. Maybe the reality that Roth was talking about was instrumental in this recognition, but I think people realized that one didn't have to repeat Joyce (if that were even possible), but could use aspects of his achievement.
One of your most evident abilities is your gift at mimicking a wide range of styles, jargons, and lingoes. Where do these voices come from?
I listen to people talk, and I read. I doubt that there has ever been more jargon and cant of various professions and semiprofessions than there is today. I remember being amazed when I was in basic training, which was back in the early fifties, that people could make sentences in which the word fucking was used three times or even five times.
How did your relationship with the New Yorker begin?
I sent them something in the mail and they accepted it. Agented probably by a nine-cent stamp. Also, once in a while when I was low on cash I'd write something for certain strange magazines—the names I don't even remember. Names like Dasher and Thug. I do remember picking up five hundred bucks or something per piece. I did that a few times. Kind of gory, or even Gorey, fiction.
Have any of these things ever resurfaced?
No. Nor shall they ever.
It wasn't long before the New Yorker began publishing a story of yours almost every month. You didn't develop a specific understanding with them about regularly accepting your work?
I had moved to New York to work with Tom and Harold doing Location, and since I was only working hall-lime on the magazine, I had more time to write fiction. I had and have what they call a first-reading agreement.
Have you had a specific editor working with you at the New Yorker?
Yes, Roger Angell.
Do your stories usually require much in the way of editing?
Roger makes very few changes. If he and the magazine don't like a piece that I've written, they'll turn it down. The magazine sometimes turns down a piece I don't think should be turned down—but what else can I think? Roger is a wonderful editor, and if he objects to something in a story, he's probably right. He's very sensitive about the editing process, which makes it a pleasure.
Do you see yourself working out of some kind of New Yorker tradition?
The magazine in recent years has been very catholic. Anybody who publishes Singer, Merwin, Lem, Updike, Borges, and Marquez has got to be said to be various in terms of taste. Plus Grace Paley and Susan Sontag and Ann Beattie, and who knows who else.
I've noticed that in your last few books you seem to have dropped the interest in typographical or graphic play that was so evident in City Life and Guilty Pleasures. What got you interested in this sort of thing in the first place?
I think I was trying to be a painter, in some small way. Probably a yearning for something not properly the domain of writers. Maybe I was distracted by the things painters can do. I had an ambition toward something that maybe fiction can't do—an immediate impact—a beautifully realized whole that can be taken in at a glance and yet still be studied for a long time. Flannery O'Connor says, very sourly, very wittily, that she doesn't like anything that looks funny on the page. I know what she's talking about, but on the other hand, I'm intrigued by things that look funny on the page. But then there was the flood of concrete poetry, which devalued looking funny on the page.
I recall a comment of yours that you not only enjoyed doing layout work but that you could cheerfully become a typographer. Did you do all your own visual work?
They're mostly very simple collages, Ernst rather than Schwitters.
Have you tried your own hand at drawing?
Can't draw a lick.
At the end of the title story in City Life, Ramona comments about life's invitations "down many muddy roads" that she accepted: "What was the alternative?" I find a similar passivity in many of your characters—an inability to change their lot. Does this tendency spring from a personal sense of resignation about things or are you trying to suggest something more fundamental about modern man's relationship to the world?
The quotation you mention possibly has more to do with the great world than with me. In writing about the two girls in "City Life" who come to the city, I noticed that their choices, which seem to be infinite, are not so open-ended. I don't think this spirit of resignation, as you call it, has to do with any personal passivity; it's more a sociological observation. One attempts to write about the way contemporary life is lived by most people. In a more reportorial fiction, one would of necessity seek out more "active" protagonists—the mode requires it, in order to make the book or story work. In a mixed mode, some reportage and some play (which also makes its own observations), you might be relieved of this restriction. Contemporary life engenders, even enforces, passivity, as does television. Have you ever tried to reason with a Convenience Card money machine? Asked for napkin rings in an Amtrak snack-bar car? Of course you don't. Still, the horizon of memory enters in, you attempt to register change, the color of this moment as opposed to the past or what you know of it.
In The Dead Father, yon deal with the notion that we're all dragging around behind us the corpses of our fathers, as well as the past in general.
Worse: dragging these ahead of us. I have several younger brothers, among them my brother Frederick, who is also a writer. After The Dead Father came out, he telephoned and said, "I'm working on a new novel." I said, "What's it called?" and he said, "The Dead Brother."
Was "A Manual for Sons" originally conceived as being a part of the novel? It seems like a marvellous set piece.
Originally it was distributed throughout the book as a kind of seasoning, but in time it became clear that it should be one long section. My German publisher, Siegfried Unseld, said rather sternly to me one evening, "Isn't this a digression?" I said, "Yes, it is." He was absolutely right, in technical terms.
In The Dead Father, and more recently in Great Days, you strip the narrative almost completely of the old-fashioned means of story development. In fact, by the time we get to the stories in Great Days, what we find are simply voices interacting with one another.
In The Dead Father, there are four or five passages in which the two principal women talk to each other, or talk against each other, or over each other's heads, or between each other's legs—passages which were possible because there is a fairly strong narrative line surrounding them. It's questionable whether such things can be made to fly without the support of a controlling narrative.
Was Beckett an influence in this recent form of experimentation?
Beckett has been a great influence, which I think is clear. But the effort is not to write like Beckett. You can't do Beckett all over again anymore than you can do Joyce again. That would waste everyone's time.
Have you ever tried writing poetry, as such?
No, too difficult. I can't do it. A very tough discipline, to be attempted by saints or Villons.
We've talked about the influence of painting on your work. What about the cinema?
I was bombarded with film from, let us say, my sixth year right up to yesterday, when I saw Wiseman's Basic Training. There has to have been an effect, including the effect of teaching me what waste is. As with painting, film has shown us what not to pursue. The movies provide a whole set of stock situations, emotions, and responses that can be played against. They inflect contemporary language, and one uses this.
Your fiction has often drawn materials from the realm of pop culture—Snow White, Batman, the Phantom of the Opera, King Kong, and so forth. What do you find useful in this kind of material?
Relatively few of my stories have to do with pop culture, a very small percentage, really. What's attractive about this kind of thing is the given—you have to do very little establishing, and can get right to the variations. The usefulness of the Snow White story is that everybody knows it, and it can be played against. The presence of the seven men made possible a "we" narration that offered some tactical opportunities—there's a sort of generalized narrator, a group spokesman who could be any one of the seven. Every small change in the story is momentous when everybody knows the story backwards; possibly I wasn't as bold in making these changes as I should have been.
It's very obvious in Snow White—and in nearly all your fiction—that you distrust the impulse to "go beneath the surface" of your characters and events.
If you mean doing psychological studies of some kind, no, I'm not so interested. "Going beneath the surface" has all sorts of positive-sounding associations, as if you were a Cousteau of the heart. I'm not sure there isn't just as much to be seen if you remain a student of the surfaces.
What function do the lists that appear in your work serve?
Litanies, incantations, have a certain richness per se. They also provide stability in what is often a volatile environment, something to tie onto, like an almanac or a telephone book. And discoveries—a list of meter maids in any given city will give you a Glory Hercules.
Who are some of the contemporary writers you find most interesting?
Along with the South Americans, who everyone agrees are doing very well, I think the Germans: Peter Handke, Max Frisch, certainly Grass, Thomas Bernhard, who did Correction. I think the Americans are doing very well. The French perhaps less so.
Raymond Federman says that while Samuel Beckett had devised a means of taking the world away from the contemporary writer, Garcia Marquez has shown writers a way to reconnect themselves with the world.
I don't agree with Ray that that's what Beckett has done; the Marquez portion of the comment seems more appropriate. I think they've both opened things up, in different ways. Marquez provided an answer to the question of what was possible after Beckett—not the only answer, but a large and significant one. Robert Coover, among American writers, seems to be doing something parallel, with good results.
Do you feel that New York City has helped shape your sensibility over the years?
I think my sensibility was pretty well put together before I came here. Although I've now lived here close to twenty years, I've also lived in other places in the meantime—Copenhagen for a year, Paris, Tokyo. I like cities. But this is a tiny corner of New York, very like a real village village. Once I was walking down Seventh Avenue with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, we'd just finished lunch, and we bumped into my daughter, who was then about eight. I introduced them, and she went home and told her mother she'd just met Hans Christian Andersen. And in a way she had.
Do you see any changes having taken place in your approach to writing over the past twenty years?
Certainly fewer jokes, perhaps fewer words.
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