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Monday, July 28, 2014

Smooth Sailing

From the Dais Dept.: A look back in time at an Albany appearance by novelist John Barth, who was here in late 1988 to read from the then-forthcoming The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (my review of which is here).


IT MAKES SENSE for a writer who follows Homeric tradition to be a good storyteller, and novelist John Barth brings the same eloquence to his speech as he does to the words he puts on paper.

John Barth
This was ably demonstrated by his appearance last Thursday (Sept. 29) at Page Hall under the aegis of the New York State Writers Institute. He read from a novel-in-progress titled “The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor,” explaining that, as the book was in its second trimester of gestation, he could safely read from it without fear of spontaneous abortion.

Barth has made a considerable reputation for himself based upon a very diverse body of novels that stretch from the ‘50s to the present. Common to it all is a conscious awareness of the techniques of telling stories. The three novellas comprising “Chimera” featured classic tales retold with the author himself swept through some of the scenes (he appears, for example, to Scheherezade with some tale-telling tips).

“Letters,” published as the 1970s ended, was an epistolary summation of Barth’s work featuring an exchange of letters among characters in each of his previous books, as well as with the author himself.

Two recent novels, “Sabbatical” and “The Tidewater Tales,” were set in the Chesapeake Bay area, where the protagonists (and the author) enjoy sailing; “Somebody” wraps all the preceding together with sailing and storytelling dominating a cleverly devised premise that brings the anyone who is the titular Somebody into an Arabian Nights past.

“I re-re-orchestrated it in a post-modern key,” Barth explained with a grin as he read what he termed an Overture and Aria from the book.

He has created a special place for himself as a comic novelist, with simple wordplay and complicated plot among his ammunition. Who can resist the sparkle of such phrases as “he pursed his lips as he pursed the coin...” or “he lashed himself to a spare spar” or “his daughter sleeved all hands’ tears.” At times, it’s as if Dylan Thomas were writing for Abbott and Costello.

Even better, Barth is a shameless showman who delights in working an audience. And it certainly the shocked the staid academics in the house when he illustrated his description of Sinbad’s daughter, “one seriously beautiful woman,” with an appropriate National Geographic cover.

Better still, he has an actor’s aptitude for assigning voice characterizations to his characters. The presentation was as compelling as a good “Lights Out” drama, but in a comic sense.

Don’t confuse a reading like this with the kind of junk sold for consumption in the car, in which an actor or author reads highlights of a story. That’s a sop for the person incapable of concentrating on a single subject, even an imaginary one.

A good in-person presentation is itself a work of art, and Barth succeeded well: he read for less than an hour, then solicited questions. Nobody had anything of significance to ask.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 3 October 1988

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