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John Barth, one of the great innovators of contemporary novel prose, dies | Culture

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The writer John Barth.Bettmann (Bettmann Archive)

John Barth, one of the great innovators of contemporary novel prose on a universal scale, died last Tuesday in a nursing home in Bonita Springs, Florida, at the age of 93. Immensely influential, the core of his work, made up of twenty titles, including novels, collections of stories and essays, Barth changed, together with writers such as William Gass, Donald Barthelme, Stanley Elkin and Robert Coover, the direction in which he would move. North American narrative from the second half of the 20th century. A literary theorist as well as a narrator, Barth’s impact on both sides of him had a revulsive effect.

John Simmons Barth was born on May 27, 1930 in Cambridge, Maryland, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, an essential reference for his life and work, both dominated by the sign of the sea and the art of navigation, in which he was an expert. . His father owned a candy store. His wrong vocation was music, and although he managed to gain admission to the prestigious and highly selective Juilliard School in New York, he soon realized that he would never get very far down that path, abandoning his dream of becoming a jazz arranger. . Things changed when he enrolled at John Hopkins University, where several factors were determining for his future.

One of them was the course on Don Quixote which he took with the Spanish poet Pedro Salinas. “Salinas and Cervantes helped me understand that dedicating my life to literature was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” he confessed to me in an interview. The other literary discoveries were made during internships that he carried out in the University library. There he discovered books that would mark the course of him as a narrator, such as deeds of romance Latin text composed between the 13th and 14th centuries, or the seventeen volumes that make up The sea of ​​stories, compilation of Sanskrit stories from the 10th century. Other finds were the stories of Boccaccio and above all the English translation of The 1001 nights, made by Sir Richard Burton at the end of the 19th century. The central icon of all of John Barth’s work is the figure of Scheherazade.

“Literature is about 4,500 years old, depending on the definition that each person has of what literature is. What there is no way to know is whether 4,500 years are a symptom of senility, maturity, youth, or if literature is still in its infancy,” he once stated.

As the author of marine fables, Barth is heir to Melville’s Moby Dick y Billy Budd, as well as Edgar Allan Poe’s journey in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. As a theorist, one of his most influential works is The Burnout Literature (1967), apocalyptic text considered the clearest manifesto of postmodernism. The text was misread, being interpreted as another tired proclamation of the death of the novel, when what Barth was actually stating, emphasizing his idea that literature is in its infancy, is that the novel, the most young of the literary genres, he had simply burned through a stage. It was about seeing where to go. Barth himself qualified his ideas about the death and resurrection of the novel in an essay titled The literature of recovered plenitude, published 13 years later.

As a pure narrator, Barth began his career with the trilogy made up of The floating opera (1956), The end of the road (1958), y The tobacco planter (1960). The first two are artistically accomplished works, but existentially suffocating. The miracle occurred with the publication of The tobacco planter, one of the most glorious celebrations ever written about the art of fiction and one of its most brilliant executions. The novel is a gigantic parody in a roguish-burlesque key that mimics the Elizabethan style of authors such as Fielding or Laurence Sterne, narrating the adventures of Ebenezer Cooke, who leaves London to settle in Maryland, dedicated to the tobacco trade. A very enjoyable and hilarious read and considered the author’s masterpiece, The tobacco planter It maintains its freshness intact today.

Con Giles, the goat boy (1966), Barth consolidated his place on the map of American literature, also managing to enter the lists of best sellers. Excellent storyteller, Lost in the haunted house (1968) is a magnificent collection of experimental stories in which technical virtuosity never drowns out the primordial enjoyment that reading entails. In Chimera (1972), a novel that won him the National Book Award in his country, brings together three short novels that reformulate respectively the myths of Bellerophon, Dunyazade (Sherezade’s younger sister) and Perseus. In Letters (1979), an exercise that remembers the Journeys through the Scriptorium by Paul Auster, although they are completely independent creations, Barth summons characters from his six previous books, joining them as another interlocutor.

From there, Barth began to lose his compass somewhat, giving encouragement to those, like Gore Vidal, who said that he got lost in technical juggling. After Sabbatical (1982) published Tales of the tide (1987), a work in which, with the Chesapeake Bay as a background, we witness encounters with characters of such ancient literary ancestry as Odysseus, Don Quixote, Scheherazade and Huckleberry Finn. The titles of later works confirm his tendency to prioritize self-reflective adventure over other components. It is the case of The story continues, The book of Ten and One Nights, Tell me, They have told me the story of a story, As I was saying…

His historical mission accomplished, Barth fell into oblivion, but his influence on subsequent generations of writers remained incalculable. The moment of relief was certified as death by David Foster Wallace. Aware of the need to give Barth a symbolic death if he wanted to be himself, he exorcised him, without naming him, in a short novel titled Towards the West, the advance of the Empire continuesconsidered the road map of the immeasurable The infinite joke. Barth said goodbye to literature when he was already a nonagenarian with literary reflections significantly titled Postscripts (2022).

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