Barth on Barthelme

April 7: On this day in 1931 Donald Barthelme was born in Philadelphia. Barthelme’s eminence in postmodern fiction is beyond dispute, though few are brave enough to attempt going beyond the author’s own description of his achievement: “stories that invite and resist interpretation.” William Styron describes Barthelme as among the few “who know how to stash the merchandise, bamboozle the inspectors, and smuggle their nocturnal contraband right on past the checkpoints of daylight ‘reality.'” John Barth, a friend to Barthelme and his style, inventories “the wit, the bite, the exactitude and flair, inspired whimsy, aw-shucks urbanity, irreal realism and real irreality, wired tersitude, and such Barthelmanic pleasures.” For example, says Barth, Barthelme’s mastery of the opening line:

“Hubert gave Charles and Irene a nice baby for Christmas.” “The death of God left the angels in a strange position.” “When Captain Blood goes to sea, he locks the doors and windows of his house on Cow Island personally.”

Too, says Barth, all of Barthelme’s writing is blague-free, perhaps as guided by the responses to the reader-friendly questionnaire included halfway through his first novel, Snow White:

  • In the further development of the story, would you like more emotion (  ) or less emotion (  )?
  • Is there too much blague in the narration?  (  ) Not enough blague? (  )
  • Do you feel that the creation of new modes of hysteria is a viable undertaking for the artist of today? Yes (  ) No (  )
  • Would you like a war? Yes (  ) No (  )
  • In an interview in the early 70s, Barthelme indicated that his adventurous, playful style may have been bred in the bone. His father was an architect, and in the late 1930s he built a modernist home in the style of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s famous Tugendhat House in the Czech Republic:

    It was wonderful to live in but strange to see on the Texas prairie. On Sundays people used to park their cars out on the street and stare. We had a routine, the family, on Sundays. We used to get up from Sunday dinner, if enough cars had parked, and run out in front of the house in a sort of chorus line, doing high kicks.


    Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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