Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews

Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews

by Donald Barthelme
     
 


The wildly varied essays in Not-Knowing combine to form a posthumous manifesto of one of America’s masters of literary experiment. Here are Barthelme’s thoughts on writing (his own and others); his observations on art, architecture, film, and city life; interviews, including two previously unpublished; and meditations on everything from…  See more details below

Overview


The wildly varied essays in Not-Knowing combine to form a posthumous manifesto of one of America’s masters of literary experiment. Here are Barthelme’s thoughts on writing (his own and others); his observations on art, architecture, film, and city life; interviews, including two previously unpublished; and meditations on everything from Superman III to the art of rendering “Melancholy Baby” on jazz banjolele. This is a rich and eclectic selection of work by the man Robert Coover has called “one of the great citizens of contemporary world letters.”

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Barthelmismo" was Thomas Pynchon's term for the disparate writings of Barthelme (1931-89), whose self-reflexive, fragmentary style in such books as The Dead Father and Snow White defined literary postmodernism for a generation of writers born after WWII. This second posthumous anthology of previously uncollected work edited by Herzinger, yields slimmer pickings than The Teachings of Don B., its predecessor. Herzinger opens with two dazzling essays on aesthetics: 1964's "After Joyce," a defense of the artwork as an "object in the world rather than a text or commentary on the world," and 1982's "Not Knowing," which holds that art is a meditation upon the world propelled by questions and riddles. The rest of the book is an uneven hodgepodge, featuring brief, lambent portraits of Barthelme's Greenwich Village that originally appeared in The New Yorker; reviews of books, art exhibits and films; a spirited symposium on fiction with Grace Paley, Walker Percy and William Gass; short essays, speeches and seven lengthy interviews. These sometimes ponderous Q&As, conducted by Barthelme exegetes like Jerome Klinkowitz and Larry McCaffery, Charles Ruas and Judith Sherman, are dead weight compared to Barthelme's essays and fiction. What holds this collection together is Barthelme's rapturous fascination with the visual arts and with language and its adepts (Joyce, Stein, Beckett, Gass, Pynchon, Barth); his cheeky, exuberant voice and "[t]he combinatorial agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they're allowed to go to bed together," he says in his title essay, that "makes art possible." (Aug.)
Library Journal
In his early essay "After Joyce" (1964), the first title in this nonfiction omnibus, Barthelme, America's preeminent postmodern practitioner, made a strong argument for the literary work "as an object in the world rather than a commentary upon the world." The writer, "betrayed by outmoded forms," may find in play "one of the great possibilities of art." A whole generation of writers obliged, among them Gass, Elkin, Hawkes, Coover, Gaddis, and Pynchon. In one of his last essays, "Not-Knowing" (published not long before his death in 1989, at age 58), Barthelme, having shaken off that "rhetoric of the time," admits that much of contemporary criticism robs the work of its mystery, which indeed "exists." These two essays, offered back to back, buoy this collection, which includes later interviews that demonstrate for writing students his methods, influences, etc. Much of Barthelme's New Yorker commentary (on art, politics, living in Greenwich Village) seems dated now. Important for literature collections and writing programs.Amy Boaz, "Library Journal"
Kirkus Reviews
What Thomas Pynchon called "Barthelmismo" is somewhat lacking in the second posthumous collection edited by Herzinger of Barthelme's miscellaneous writings, which here includes film and book reviews, art catalog essays, and New Yorker pieces.

"Barthelme Takes On Task of Almost Deciphering His Fiction" ran the New York Times headline when Barthelme delivered a lecture for New York University's Writer at Work series. That headline could equally well describe many of these abbreviated critical pieces and not wholly forthcoming interviews. The often-reprinted "Not-Knowing" (1982) is a spirited, idiosyncratic analysis of creativity—the search for an adequate rendering of the world's "messiness"—as well as a playful, sometimes self-parodying literary performance piece. The essay contains a short "letter to a literary critic" expressing condolences on the demise of Postmodernism, which Barthelme recycled into an unsigned piece for his favorite publication, the New Yorker. Barthelme's many other pieces for the magazine waver lamely between its characteristic wryness and his own fabulist flair, though there is one happy, humorous piece that purports to answer a Writer's Digest questionnaire about his drinking habits. Barthelme also tried his hand at film criticism for the New Yorker in 1979, but his reviews of Truffaut, Herzog, and Bertolucci are surprisingly heavy going, as are his writings on abstract expressionists and contemporary architecture. Editor Herzinger (English/Univ. of Southern Mississippi) has also included a number of interviews with Barthelme, of widely varying quality. The longest interview, a radio serial chat from 197576, seems dated and pretentious (e.g.: "I would not say that Snow White predicts the Manson case"); the most stimulating is actually the transcript of a 1975 symposium with his peers William Gass, Grace Paley, and Walker Percy.

Though John Barth calls this a "booksworth of encores" in his introduction, many of the pieces seem to be merely magazine outtakes and literary b-sides.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781593761738
Publisher:
Counterpoint Press
Publication date:
01/28/2008
Pages:
352
Product dimensions:
5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

Meet the Author

The late Donald Barthelme was a longtime contributor to The New Yorker, winner of a National Book Award, a director of PEN and the Authors Guild, and a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. His sixteen books--including Snow White, The Dead Father, and City Life--substantially redefined American short fiction for our time.

About the Editor:

Kim Herzinger teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi. He is the author of books and articles on D.H. Lawrence, modern and contemporary literature, Sherlock Holmes, and baseball, and is now at work on a cultural biography of Donald Barthelme.

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