Interviews

Donald Barthelme, The Art of Fiction No. 66

Interviewed by J.D. O'Hara

Asked for his biography, Donald Barthelme said, “I don’t think it would sustain a person’s attention for a moment.” He was born, in Philadelphia, deep in the deep Depression (1931) and raised from it in Houston, Texas. There he endured a normal childhood, attended the University of Houston, studied philosophy under Maurice Natanson, and worked on a local newspaper. Then he was drafted, served in Korea, and returned to Houston, which he later left for New York City. There he did editorial work, especially for Location, and his odd short fictions made themselves known. Soon he became the most startling of the staid New Yorker’s regular contributors, and he still is.

He lives in New York City—“I move around quite happily. Alertly, but happily”—in a second-floor apartment in the West Village, cannily located between St. Vincent’s Hospital and a self-confessedly famous pizza parlor. The typical Barthelme interview is terse if not abrupt, but to this one he devoted large chunks of a weekend. He began at a dinner with fellow writer Ann Beattie and others, continued for two days in his spacious living room, and ended symmetrically at an elegant dinner prepared by his wife, Marion.

The talk was continuous and preferably about someone other than himself. He praised many favorite writers, including Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Kleist, Kafka, Hemingway, S. J. Perelman, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Beckett. (“Beckett, I suppose, made it possible for me to write. . . .”) He spoke enthusiastically of philosophers and psychologists, and of many contemporary writers. He refused the role of esoteric writer addressing a coterie audience. (“I assume that they’re kind of worn-down people like you and me . . . plain walking-around citizens.”) And like all sensible artists he fudged the conceptualization of his story writing. (“All the magic comes from the unconscious. If there is any magic.”)

The transcribed interview, with traffic noises, the clinking of glasses, and Marion Barthelme’s cheery voice still echoing in the background, was sent dutifully to the author. Many moons later and after much brooding and revision, the following dialogue emerged, cleansed of mere actuality and posing its figures in no landscape. The Platonic idea of an interview. But one may still intuit the old knobkerrie meditatively rubbed on the sleeve of the rumpled tweed jacket, the smoky setter asleep before the faithful fire . . . and now the writer’s ascetic features, framed in a square Danish Calvinist’s beard, soften benignly as the interviewer ventures his first academic question:

 

INTERVIEWER

You’re often linked with Barth, Pynchon, Vonnegut, and others of that ilk. Does this seem to you inhuman bondage or is there reason in it?

BARTHELME

They’re all people I admire. I wouldn’t say we were alike as parking tickets. Some years ago the Times was fond of dividing writers into teams; there was an implication that the Times wanted to see gladiatorial combat, or at least a soccer game. I was always pleased with the team I was assigned to.

INTERVIEWER

Who are the people with whom you have close personal links?

BARTHELME

Well, Grace Paley, who lives across the street, and Kirk and Faith Sale, who live in this building—we have a little block association. Roger Angell, who’s my editor at the New Yorker, Harrison Starr, who’s a film producer, and my family. In the last few years several close friends have died.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about literary biography? Do you think your own biography would clarify the stories and novels?

BARTHELME

Not a great deal. There’s not a strong autobiographical strain in my fiction. A few bits of fact here and there. The passage in the story “See the Moon?” where the narrator compares the advent of a new baby to somebody giving him a battleship to wash and care for was written the night before my daughter was born, a biographical fact that illuminates not very much. My grandmother and grandfather make an appearance in a piece I did not long ago. He was a lumber dealer in Galveston and also had a ranch on the Guadalupe River not too far from San Antonio, a wonderful place to ride and hunt, talk to the catfish and try to make the windmill run backward. There are a few minnows from the Guadalupe in that story, which mostly accompanies the title character through a rather depressing New York day. But when it appeared I immediately began getting calls from friends, some of whom I hadn’t heard from in some time and all of whom were offering Tylenol and bandages. The assumption was that identification of the author with the character was not only permissible but invited. This astonished me. One uses one’s depressions as one uses everything else, but what I was doing was writing a story. Merrily merrily merrily merrily.

Overall, very little autobiography, I think.

INTERVIEWER

Was your childhood shaped in any particular way?

BARTHELME

I think it was colored to some extent by the fact that my father was an architect of a particular kind—we were enveloped in modernism. The house we lived in, which he’d designed, was modern and the furniture was modern and the pictures were modern and the books were modern. He gave me, when I was fourteen or fifteen, a copy of Marcel Raymond’s From Baudelaire to Surrealism, I think he’d come across it in the Wittenborn catalogue. The introduction is by Harold Rosenberg, whom I met and worked with sixteen or seventeen years later, when we did the magazine Location here in New York.

My mother studied English and drama at the University of Pennsylvania, where my father studied architecture. She was a great influence in all sorts of ways, a wicked wit.

INTERVIEWER

Music is one of the few areas of human activity that escapes distortion in your writing. An odd comparison: music is for you what animals were for Céline.

BARTHELME

There were a lot of classical records in the house. Outside, what the radio yielded when I was growing up was mostly Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys; I heard him so much that I failed to appreciate him, failed to appreciate country music in general. Now I’m very fond of it. I was interested in jazz and we used to go to black clubs to hear people like Erskine Hawkins who were touring—us poor little pale little white boys were offered a generous sufferance, tucked away in a small space behind the bandstand with an enormous black cop posted at the door. In other places you could hear people like the pianist Peck Kelley, a truly legendary figure, or Lionel Hampton or once in a great while Louis Armstrong or Woody Herman. I was sort of drenched in all this. After a time a sort of crazed scholarship overtakes you and you can recite band rosters for 1935 as others can list baseball teams for the same year.

INTERVIEWER

What did you learn from this, if anything?

BARTHELME

Maybe something about making a statement, about placing emphases within a statement or introducing variations. You’d hear some of these guys take a tired old tune like “Who’s Sorry Now?” and do the most incredible things with it, make it beautiful, literally make it new. The interest and the drama were in the formal manipulation of the rather slight material. And they were heroic figures, you know, very romantic. Hokie Mokie in “The King of Jazz” comes out of all that.

INTERVIEWER

Are there writers to whose work you look forward?

BARTHELME

Many. Gass, Hawkes, Barth, Ashbery, Calvino, Ann Beattie—too many to remember. I liked Walker Percy’s new book The Second Coming enormously. The weight of knowledge is extraordinary, ranging from things like how the shocks on a Mercedes are constituted to how a nineteenth-century wood-burning stove is put together. When the hero’s doctors diagnosed wahnsinnige sehnsucht or “inappropriate longings” as what was wrong with him I nearly fell off my chair. That’s too beautiful to be real but with Percy it might be. Let’s see . . . Handke, Thomas Bernhard, Max Frisch, Márquez.

INTERVIEWER

Even Autumn of the Patriarch?

BARTHELME

After One Hundred Years of Solitude it was hard to imagine that he could do another book on that scale, but he did it. There were technical maneuvers in Autumn of the Patriarch—the business of the point of view changing within a given sentence, for instance—that I thought very effective, almost one hundred percent effective. It was his genius to stress the sorrows of the dictator, the angst of the monster. The challenge was his own previous book and I think he met it admirably.

It’s amazing the way previous work can animate new work, amazing and reassuring. Tom Hess used to say that the only adequate criticism of a work of art is another work of art. It may also be the case that any genuine work of art generates new work. I suspect that Márquez’s starting point was The Tin Drum, somehow, that Günter Grass gave him a point of departure . . . that the starting point for the essential Beckett was Bouvard and Pecuchet and that Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King is a fantasia on the theme of Hemingway in Africa. This is not the anxiety but the pleasure of influence.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t, then, believe in entropy?

BARTHELME

Entropy belongs to Pynchon. I read recently that somebody had come forward with evidence that the process is not irreversible. There is abroad a distinct feeling that everything’s getting worse; Christopher Lasch speaks of it, and so do many other people. I don’t think we have the sociological index that would allow us to measure this in any meaningful way, but the feeling is there as a cultural fact. I feel entropy—Kraus on backache is a favorite text around here.

INTERVIEWER

Do you see anything getting better—art, for instance?

BARTHELME

I don’t think you can talk about progress in art—movement, but not progress. You can speak of a point on a line for the purpose of locating things, but it’s a horizontal line, not a vertical one. Similarly the notion of an avant-garde is a bit off. The function of the advance guard in military terms is exactly that of the rear guard, to protect the main body, which translates as the status quo.

You can speak of political progress, social progress, of course—you may not see much of it, but it can be talked about.

INTERVIEWER

Well, you’ve established yourself as an old fogey.

BARTHELME

So be it.

INTERVIEWER

Your own influences—whom would you like to cite as your spiritual ancestors?

BARTHELME

They come in assorted pairs. Perelman and Hemingway. Kierkegaard and Sabatini. Kafka and Kleist. Kleist was clearly one of Kafka’s fathers. Rabelais and Zane Grey. The Dostoyevsky of Notes from Underground. A dozen Englishmen. The surrealists, both painters and poets. A great many film people, Buñuel in particular. It’s always a stew, isn’t it? Errol Flynn ought to be in there somewhere, and so should Big Sid Catlett, the drummer.

INTERVIEWER

Why Errol Flynn?

BARTHELME

Because he’s part of my memory of Sabatini, Sabatini fleshed out. He was in the film version of Captain Blood, and The Sea Hawk. He should have done Scaramouche but Stewart Granger did it instead, as I recall.

INTERVIEWER

You have a story called “Captain Blood.”

BARTHELME

A pastiche of Sabatini, not particularly of that book but all of Sabatini. You are reminded, I hope, of the pleasure Sabatini gives you or has given you. The piece is in no sense a parody, rather it’s very much an hommage. An attempt to present, or recall, the essence of Sabatini. Also it hopes to be an itself.

INTERVIEWER

What about the more awkward question of writers standing in your way?

BARTHELME

I think deep admirations force you away from the work admired, as well as having the generating influence we’ve mentioned. Joyce may have done this for Beckett, Márquez may do this for young Latin American writers—force them to do something that is not Márquez.

INTERVIEWER

But hasn’t everything been done?

BARTHELME

One can’t believe that because it’s not profitable. The situation of painting is instructive. Painters, especially American painters since the Second World War, have been much more troubled, beset by formal perplexity, than American writers. They’ve been a laboratory for everybody. Some new attitudes have emerged. What seems clear is that if you exacerbate a problem, make it worse, new solutions are generated. Ad Reinhardt is an example. Barnett Newman, proceeding by subtraction, or Frank Stella rushing in the other direction.

INTERVIEWER

Why this constant invocation of the word new?

BARTHELME

It equates with being able to feel something rather than with novelty per se, it’s a kind of shorthand for discovery. Probably a bad choice of words. Rosenberg’s The Tradition of the New deals precisely with the anomalies involved.

INTERVIEWER

Has this anything to do with your continuing attempt to reexamine or complicate your style or procedures?

BARTHELME

You isolate aspects of the process, look at them separately, worry about this and then worry about that. It’s like a sculptor suddenly deciding to use rust. Rust was not appreciated at its full value until rather recently. Roger Angell once asked me why I’d single-spaced a story I’d offered him and I told him that I was trying to keep myself interested.

INTERVIEWER

You said last night that you enjoyed teaching because the young writers talk about their concerns, about what’s happening to them, that you learn from them.

BARTHELME

And they learn from each other. I’ve just read an article that strongly implies that teaching writing is a dismal racket, an impoverishing fraud, and maybe it is as practiced in some venues, but I’d hate this to be taken as generally true. At City College, where I teach a graduate workshop, the writing students are fully the equals in seriousness and accomplishment of the other graduate students. Maybe writing can’t be taught, but editing can be taught—prayer, fasting and self-mutilation. Notions of the lousy can be taught. Ethics.

All of this is new in universities, didn’t exist when I was in school, but it’s hardly a racket.

INTERVIEWER

Your feelings about the new are ambivalent.

BARTHELME

I’m ever hopeful, but remember that I was exposed early to an almost religious crusade, the modern movement in architecture, which, putting it as kindly as possible, has not turned out quite as expected. The Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe and his followers, Frank Lloyd Wright and his followers, Le Corbusier, all envisioned not just great buildings but an architecture that would engender a radical improvement in human existence. The buildings were to act on society, change it in positive ways. None of this happened and in fact a not insignificant totalitarian bent manifested itself. There’s a brand-new state university campus not far from here that the students call, with perfect justice, Alphaville. The architects somehow managed eeriness. Now we find phrases like “good design,” or “planning,” quite loaded, quite strange.

There is an ambivalence. Reynolds Price in the Times said of my story “The New Music” that it was about as new as the toothache. He apparently didn’t get the joke, which is that there is always a new music—the new music shows up about every ten minutes. Not like the toothache. More like hiccups.

INTERVIEWER

Which reminds me: Some of your detractors say that you’re merely fashionable.

BARTHELME

Well, the mere has always been a useful category.

INTERVIEWER

That you’re a jackdaw, and your principle of selection is whatever glitters most.

BARTHELME

I weep and tear my hair. And disagree.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s look at a specific jackdaw’s nest, the barricade in “The Indian Uprising.”

BARTHELME

I don’t see anything particularly fashionable. The table made from a hollow-core door may be a 1960s reference but aren’t people still making them?

INTERVIEWER

But your barricade is not intended as straightforward realism; these things are artifacts of a certain culture.

BARTHELME

An archeological slice. Not much glitter.

INTERVIEWER

Won’t it require scholarly annotation in the future?

BARTHELME

I’d say no. If you read The Swiss Family Robinson and you’re reading about what they unpack from the pinnace as they shuttle from ship to shore you don’t need any footnotes, even though there may be four hundred pounds of tallow in the cargo. You have a vague recollection that it’s used to make candles.

Actually I think the jackdaw business is a function of appearing in the New Yorker with some frequency. People read the fiction with after images of Rolls Royces and Rolexes still sizzling in their eyes. Rare is the reviewer who can resist mentioning the magazine’s ads when talking about the fiction. One is gilded by association.

INTERVIEWER

Suppose we turn things around. Suppose I say that when I read that story I’m not at all concerned about whether people made tables from hollow-core doors in the 1960s. Rather, I’m interested in the speaker, who in the metaphorical context of the story is besieged by Comanches.

BARTHELME

Is besieged by very much more than Comanches, but also by Comanches. He’s not meant to be a walking-around person so much as a target, a butt. The arrows of the Comanches but also sensory insult, political insult, there are references to the war there, to race, to torture, jingoism . . . But none of the references in the story were picked at random, and none are used simply as decor. If they seem random it’s probably because the range of reference is rather wide for a short piece—you have Patton and Frank Wedekind and the seventh cavalry coexisting on the same plane—but the crowding is part of the design, is the design.

INTERVIEWER

What starts your stories off?

BARTHELME

It’s various. For instance, I’ve just done a piece about a Chinese emperor, the so-called first emperor, Ch’in Shih Huang Ti. This came directly from my wife’s research for a piece she was doing on medical politics in Chinatown—she had accumulated all sorts of material on Chinese culture, Chinese history, and I began picking through it, jackdaw-like. This was the emperor who surrounded his tomb with that vast army of almost full-scale terra-cotta soldiers the Chinese discovered just a few years ago. The tomb, as far as I know, has yet to be fully excavated, but the scale of the discovery gives you some clear hints as to the size of the man’s imagination, his ambition. As I learned more about him—“learned” in quotation marks, much of what I was reading was dubious history—I got a sense of the emperor hurrying from palace to palace, I gave him two hundred some-odd palaces, scampering, almost, tending to his projects, intrigues, machinations. He’s horribly, horribly pressed for time, both actually and in the sense that many of his efforts are strategies against mortality. The tomb itself is a strategy, as is the imposition of design on the lives of his people, his specifications as to how wide hats shall be, how wide carriages shall be, and so forth.

“The Emperor” might be considered as another version of the story I did about Cortes and Montezuma, and both as footnotes to The Dead Father, another emperor.

INTERVIEWER

You do your homework, in other words.

BARTHELME

Everybody does, I think. Research yields things that you can react to, either accept or disagree with. My Montezuma and Cortes are both possibly nobler figures than responsible historians would allow, but I hope not implausible. There are conflicting versions as to how Montezuma died. I have him killed by a stone flying through the air, presumably from the hand of one of his subjects. The alternative is that the Spaniards killed him. I prefer to believe the former.

INTERVIEWER

You take the Cortes-Montezuma friendship to have been a reality, not just a matter of political manipulation?

BARTHELME

There seems to be little question that Cortes was a master manipulator. Still, he seems to have been genuinely impressed by Montezuma. Bernal, as you read his account of the conquest, enlarges in a very respectful way on Montezuma’s qualities, as priest-king at the center of an elaborate religious/political establishment, about which Cortes was wonderfully obtuse. It’s as if you marched into present-day Salt Lake City at the head of your brave little group, listened politely and with interest to a concert by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, sitting in the front row, and then whipped out your sword and claimed the state of Utah for Scientology.

INTERVIEWER

Suppose a reader took the story’s limousines and detectives to mean that you’re being comic about it?

BARTHELME

The limousines are only a way of making you see chariots or palanquins.

INTERVIEWER

What about the woman’s golden buttocks?

BARTHELME

            A way of allowing you to see buttocks. If I didn’t have roaches big as ironing boards in the story I couldn’t show Cortes and Montezuma holding hands, it would be merely sentimental. You look around for offsetting material, things that tell the reader that although X is happening, X is to be regarded in the light of Y.

INTERVIEWER

Aldous Huxley argued that Ophelia could not appear on stage naked. He opposed the necessary conditions of tragedy to those of comedy, instancing the scene in Tom Jones in which Sophia Western falls off her horse, baring her comely buttocks to the admiring lookers-on.

BARTHELME

I can imagine a tragic nakedness, even on the stage. A little hop past the pathetic.

INTERVIEWER

Why don’t you write tragedy?

BARTHELME

I’m fated to deal in mixtures, slumgullions, which preclude tragedy, which require a pure line. It’s a habit of mind, a perversity. Tom Hess used to tell a story, maybe from Lewis Carroll, I don’t remember, about an enraged mob storming the palace shouting “More taxes! Less bread!” As soon as I hear a proposition I immediately consider its opposite. A double-minded man—makes for mixtures.

INTERVIEWER

Apparently the Yiddish theater, to which Kafka was very addicted, includes as a typical bit of comedy two clowns, more or less identical, who appear even in sad scenes—the parting of two lovers, for instance—and behave comically as the audience is weeping. This shows up especially in The Castle.

BARTHELME

The assistants.

INTERVIEWER

And the audience doesn’t know what to do.

BARTHELME

The confusing signals, the impurity of the signal, gives you verisimilitude. As when you attend a funeral and notice, against your will, that it’s being poorly done.

INTERVIEWER

Once you’ve written a story, is there anyone to whom you show it?

BARTHELME

First to my wife; if she has a bad reaction, then I go back and wonder what I did wrong. Occasionally, I’ll show something to Grace Paley. The scene in The Dead Father where Tom and Julie make love I showed to Grace because I’d never written a sexual set piece before. She said she thought it was okay.

INTERVIEWER

Why do writers have such a hard time writing about sex?

BARTHELME

Faint equivalents can sometimes be found. In the passage mentioned I relied on verbal extravagance, but a cold extravagance. Or it can be rendered obliquely—an adolescent’s mental image of his or her parents making love, which must be something on the order of crocodiles mating.

INTERVIEWER

When you’ve finished a story you send it to Roger Angell at The New Yorker.

BARTHELME

Yes. He often makes very acute suggestions, usually criticism of particular lines.

INTERVIEWER

Do they ever turn anything down?

BARTHELME

Of course. Sometimes a piece has not been thought through by its author, sometimes they’re just wrong. I’ll look at a piece that they’ve turned down very suspiciously, though.

INTERVIEWER

On occasion you have arranged and rearranged stories in a collection up till the last possible moment, and you also make considerable changes in individual stories—notably in “The New Music,” to cite a recent instance. On what bases?

BARTHELME

The order of pieces in a given book is mostly a matter of trying to make sure they don’t get in each other’s way. Much like hanging pictures for a show. Some pictures fight other pictures, not because either is a bad picture, but because the scale fights or the color fights. “The New Music” was originally two stories with the same characters. For the book version I added about six pages of new material, there was more to be said, and combined them. A matter of not getting it right the first time or even the second time.

INTERVIEWER

This is one of the ten or more dialogue stories you’ve done recently. Why dialogues?

BARTHELME

The opportunities are those of poetry without the stern responsibilities. Dialogues are rather easy to write but there are some fine points. The sentence rhythms are rather starkly exposed, have to be weirdly musical or you send the reader off to Slumberland posthaste.

INTERVIEWER

They’re Beckett-y. Are they Beckett-y?

BARTHELME

Certainly they couldn’t exist without the example of Beckett’s plays. But I have other fish to fry. The dialogues in Great Days are less abstract than those between the two women in The Dead Father, which aren’t particularly reminiscent of Beckett and preceded them. There’s an urge toward abstraction that’s very seductive—

INTERVIEWER

Art about art?

BARTHELME

No, I mean the sort of thing you find in Gertrude Stein and hardly anywhere else. Philipe Sollers, the Tel Quel man, approaches it in his book Paradis, of which I’ve read some excerpts in translation. I’m talking about a pointillist technique, where what you get is not adjacent dots of yellow and blue, which optically merge to give you green, but merged meanings, whether from words placed side by side in a seemingly arbitrary way or phrases similarly arrayed, bushels of them.

INTERVIEWER

An example?

BARTHELME

“Petronius mothballs.” Of course you can do this all day long and the results will be fully as poor as the specimen furnished. Still it’s a North Sea to be explored.

INTERVIEWER

A computer could make that sort of combination.

BARTHELME

But the lovable computer doesn’t know when it’s made a joke. The worm in the apple. The only time I’ve ever tried this kind of thing at any length was in a piece called “Bone Bubbles,” which consisted of blocks of phrases which rubbing together had a kind of irritating life. I wouldn’t claim that it was a great success; Henry Robbins, my book editor at the time, wanted me to leave it out of City Life, but it was included, as a sort of lab report.

Computer people have a phrase, “garbage in, garbage out,” which reflects the kind of thinking necessary to their work; artists on the other hand occasionally refer to the “happy accident”—a different style of thinking.

INTERVIEWER

But this is not problem-solving thinking.

BARTHELME

No, it’s not. But the task is not so much to solve problems as to propose questions. To quote Karl Kraus, “A writer is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer.” There’s also an element of reportage, the description of new situations or conditions, but that’s pretty much a matter of identifying them rather than talking about solutions. Baudelaire noticing that the boulevards of Paris were no longer a means of getting from here to there but had become more like theater lobbies, places to be, and writing about that. The search is for a question that will generate light and heat.

All this has to do with a possible extension of means. Abstraction is a little heaven I can’t quite get to. How do you achieve, for example, “messy”? De Kooning can do “messy” by making a charcoal stroke over paint and then smudging same with his talented thumb—in prose the same gesture tends to look like simple ineptitude. De Kooning has a whole vocabulary of bad behavior that enables him to set up the most fruitful kinds of contradictions. It frees him. I have trouble rendering breaking glass.

INTERVIEWER

What about the moral responsibility of the artist? I take it that you are a responsible artist (as opposed, say, to X, Y, and Z), but all is irony, comic distortion, foreign voices, fragmentation. Where in all this evasion of the straightforward does responsibility display itself?

BARTHELME

It’s not the straightforward that’s being evaded but the too true. I might fix your eye firmly and announce, “Thou shalt not mess around with thy neighbor’s wife.” You might then nod and say to yourself, Quite so. We might then lunch at the local chili parlor and say scurrilous things about X, Y, and Z. But it will not have escaped your notice that my statement has hardly enlarged your cosmos, that I’ve been, in the largest sense, responsible to neither art, life, nor adultery.

I believe that my every sentence trembles with morality in that each attempts to engage the problematic rather than to present a proposition to which all reasonable men must agree. The engagement might be very small, a word modifying another word, the substitution of “mess around” for “covet,” which undresses adultery a bit. I think the paraphrasable content in art is rather slight—“tiny,” as de Kooning puts it. The way things are done is crucial, as the inflection of a voice is crucial. The change of emphasis from the what to the how seems to me to be the major impulse in art since Flaubert, and it’s not merely formalism, it’s not at all superficial, it’s an attempt to reach truth, and a very rigorous one. You don’t get, following this path, a moral universe set out in ten propositions, but we already have that. And the attempt is sufficiently skeptical about itself. In this century there’s been much stress placed not upon what we know but on knowing that our methods are themselves questionable—our Song of Songs is the Uncertainty Principle.

Also, it’s entirely possible to fail to understand or actively misunderstand what an artist is doing. I remember going through a very large Barnett Newman show years ago with Tom Hess and Harold Rosenberg, we used to go to shows after long lunches, those wicked lunches, which are no more, and I walked through the show like a certifiable idiot, couldn’t understand their enthusiasm. I admired the boldness, the color and so on but inwardly I was muttering, Wallpaper, wallpaper, very fine wallpaper but wallpaper. I was wrong, didn’t get the core of Newman’s enterprise, what Tom called Newman’s effort toward the sublime. Later I began to understand. One doesn’t take in Proust or Canada on the basis of a single visit.

To return to your question: If I looked you straight in the eye and said, “The beauty of women makes of adultery a serious and painful duty,” then we’d have the beginning of a useful statement.

INTERVIEWER

Can you point out a specific “too true” evaded in a specific story?

BARTHELME

Perhaps in “The Death of Edward Lear.” Charming into ferocious, Edward Lear into King Lear.

INTERVIEWER

Wordsworth spoke of growing up “Fostered alike by beauty and by fear,” and he put fearful experiences first; but he also said that his primary subject was “the mind of Man.” Don’t you write more about the mind than about the external world?

BARTHELME

In a commonsense way, you write about the impingement of one upon the other—my subjectivity bumping into other subjectivities, or into the Prime Rate. You exist for me in my perception of you (and in some rough, Raggedy Andy way, for yourself, of course). That’s what’s curious when people say, of writers, This one’s a realist, this one’s a surrealist, this one’s a super-realist, and so forth. In fact, everybody’s a realist offering true accounts of the activity of mind. There are only realists.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever been mugged?

BARTHELME

Not even in print. (Considers) Once in print, by Gore Vidal. He likes to straighten out us uppity young people.

INTERVIEWER

In The Dead Father you edge into Kafka country and suggest that God has shown himself to be a bad father. But you seem not to believe in God, whereas Kafka did.

BARTHELME

Well, actually the Holy Ghost is my main man, as we say. I don’t think I’ve ever had much to say about God except as a locus of complaint, a convention, someone to rail against. The Dead Father suggests that the process of becoming has bound up in it the experience of many other consciousnesses, the most important of which are in a law-giving relation to the self. The characters complain about this in what I hope is an interesting fashion. Cursing what is is a splendid ground for a writer—witness Céline.

INTERVIEWER

Beckett’s pronouncements on art imply something curious: that artists who in the past assumed and sought to convey ultimate truths (as Dante did) were quite right, but that in our own time these truths don’t exist and therefore the artist must proceed differently. Do you share that sense?

BARTHELME

In the dialogues with Duthuit, Beckett, as you know, rejects what can be accomplished “on the plane of the feasible”—he seems to be asking for an art adequate to the intuition of Nothingness. I don’t want to oversimplify his aesthetics, about which I know nothing firsthand, but the problem appears to be not one of announcing truths, or that truths do or do not exist, but of hewing to the intuition, which seems central, and yet getting some work done. Beckett’s work is an embarrassment to the Void. I think of the line from the German writer Heimito von Doderer: “At first you break windows. Then you become a window yourself.”

INTERVIEWER

Why do you live in New York?

BARTHELME

Because in American terms, it’s an old city. I think writers like old cities and are made very nervous by new cities. I lived in Copenhagen for a bit more than a year and was very happy there. At moments, in New York, I like all the filth on the streets, it reminds me of Kurt Schwitters. Schwitters used to hang around printing plants and fish things out of waste barrels, stuff that had been overprinted or used during makeready, and he’d employ this rich accidental material in his collages. I saw a very large Schwitters show some years ago and almost everything in it reminded me of New York. Garbage in, art out.

INTERVIEWER

Do you eavesdrop?

BARTHELME

More than is decent. Out of context you frequently get instant Dada. I once overheard a woman in a restaurant on Fifty-fifth saying earnestly to her companion, “But Henry, I’ve never taught in the daytime before.” The Teacher From the Black Lagoon.

INTERVIEWER

You said that you’re working on a novel.

BARTHELME

 Perpetually.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the attraction of the form?

BARTHELME

The sustained involvement with a single project. I don’t find them particularly easy to write. Snow White is strictly speaking a novella, and The Dead Father isn’t terribly long. The new one—the working title is “Ghosts”—will be longer, I think. I’ve made a lot of false starts, souvenirs of which are sometimes published. “The Emerald,” which is about a witch who is impregnated by the man in the moon and gives birth to a 7,335-carat emerald, was going to be a novel. But I couldn’t sustain it, and it finally appeared as a long story.

INTERVIEWER

What’s your greatest weakness as a writer?

BARTHELME

That I don’t offer enough emotion. That’s one of the things people come to fiction for, and they’re not wrong. I mean emotion of the better class, hard to come by. Also, I can’t resist making jokes, although that’s much more under control than it used to be. And of course these weaknesses have to do with each other—jokes short-circuit emotion. I particularly prize, but can’t often produce, a kind of low-key emotional touch that speaks volumes. At the end of Ann Beattie’s Falling in Place, for example, Jonathan’s made a wish and Cynthia asks Spangle what he wished for and the reply is “The usual, I guess.” That’s beautiful.

INTERVIEWER

Is there any subject you’d like to entertain, but haven’t yet?

BARTHELME

We spoke earlier about fear, a tricky terrain. There are things to be said about it. If you go through the psychological literature there’s not much that’s very good—lots of stuff on anxiety, very little on fear. There are aphorisms. Nietzsche said that civilization makes all good things available even to cowards, sound enough but also contemptuous. It’s a difficult subject, but of our moment. Little Redcap once set out with her basket for grandmother’s house in perfect confidence; nowadays we’d send her in a Brink’s truck. This is a strange time. I was in a cab not long ago and the cabbie cut a corner too close and a well-dressed man with an attaché case standing on the corner banged the rear fender with his hand—a very New York gesture. So the cabbie jumps out of the cab ready to fight and the man with the attaché case opens his coat with one hand like a flasher and he’s wearing a .38 in a shoulder holster. This is on Park Avenue!

INTERVIEWER

What did the cabbie do?

BARTHELME

Backed off, quite sensibly. Anyhow, there’s all sorts of fear around and I haven’t even mentioned the contributions of governments. Something to be done there but I haven’t figured out what.

INTERVIEWER

You keep up in philosophy and psychology, do you not?

BARTHELME

Not really. I have a very mercantile approach, I read whatever I think might be useful, might start something. I read other writers to discover what they do well; that helps me, reminds me why I got into this peculiar business in the first place. It’s most unsystematic.

INTERVIEWER

One of your depressed admirers contends that Hogo, in Snow White, told the truth about male-female relationships.

BARTHELME

Maybe a truth. Hogo’s a thoroughly vile creature, or critter, and can be counted upon to take the vilest possible view of things.

INTERVIEWER

He corrupts the seven men.

BARTHELME

He’s taken into partnership; that they’re corrupted is not clear. He’s efficient, a comment on efficiency.

INTERVIEWER

Snow White at once anticipates and superseded much feminist writing. Would you like to say something about its feminist themes? About the replacement of the wicked stepmother with a coeval of Snow White?

BARTHELME

Changing the stepmother-figure was a way of placing the emphasis on Snow White’s network of relationships with the seven cohabitors. Her chief plaint is that the seven of them only add up, for her, to possibly two real men—this arithmetic is the center of the novel, gives rise to the question of what real men are, what the attitudes of the male characters mean. The situation of the horsewife can then be examined in regard to this, the situation of the potential world-redeeming hero examined.

I think that in this book the prose is far too worked, wrought, banged upon, too many jokes—a nervousness on my part that shouldn’t be there. I don’t regret having published it or anything of that sort, but it could have been better.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s look at another passage, this one from “The Rise of Capitalism.” “As a flower moves toward the florist, women toward men who are not good for them. Self-actualization is not to be achieved in terms of another person, but you don’t know that, when you begin.”

BARTHELME

Not a particularly tender passage. My mental image of the voice while writing that piece was that of a loudspeaker rigged to a pole in some sort of re-education camp. Incessant sloganizing, a metallic drone, personal messages mixed with political messages, propaganda, left propaganda, in this case. “Cultural underdevelopment of the worker, as a technique of domination, is found everywhere under late capitalism.” If I may quote.

INTERVIEWER

But it’s not expressed sincerely.

BARTHELME

It is and it isn’t. Everything in the story is true enough, but is undercut by the loudspeaker-like tone. What this means—forgive me for telling you what this means in so many words—is that we all know these propositions are true (I’m referring now to the political propositions) but that nothing, nothing, will be done about them. I think sincerity is betokened by the viciousness of expression; it’s an angry piece.

The lines you quoted are of a different kind—a different kind of proposition not unlike the first kind but having to do with the personal rather than the social. And these sentences work differently. The effect of the first, if any, is generated by its majestic certainty. In the second, “self-actualization” is at once a lump of jargon and one of those puffy ideas that nevertheless has some trace of value. Combine these various tidbits with the other elements of the story and you have—When I was in the army we had these odd platoons called Loudspeaker and Leaflet Units. I never ran into one in the flesh but I conceive of this piece as a Loudspeaker and Leaflet Unit in action. Bravely broadcasting and lustily leafleteering.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve spoken harshly of Snow White’s rococo style and of your admiration for an impoverished kind of writing, but a woman who is impregnated by the moon and produces an emerald-child would not be most people’s example of a stripped-away style.

BARTHELME

Of course that’s the plot, which is quite solidly rooted in anthropology, nothing in it unknown to anthropology. The style is another matter. If you look at it you’ll see that the actual writing is rather bare-bones. Glittering with poverty.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve always thought of the moon as female.

BARTHELME

The emerald raises the same objection. The mother correctly states that in some cultures it’s been seen as female, in some cultures as male. Moll is a poor witch, a witch in reduced circumstances. She says of one of her spells that it can’t even put a shine on a pair of shoes. She speaks of the scrabble for existence. Magic has been devalued, hardly exists. The reliquary that’s at issue in the piece, which contains the Foot of Mary Magdalene, has barely enough efficacy as a magical object to resolve the plot, in the end. And this general paucity is reflected, I think, in the language.

INTERVIEWER

When you wrote “A Shower of Gold” did you intend to satirize the new values as represented by all these philosophy-prone people?

BARTHELME

Not philosophy prone but jargon prone. Around the time that was written, a debased Sartrean language was on every lip. This was a long time ago, almost two decades ago. Peterson’s barber in the story has written four books called The Decision To Be and the television people are all babbling madly about authenticity. There was a huge amount of this kind of thing collecting in the air conditioning vents, the elephants were throwing it in the air and taking baths in it. . . . The piece was not about values but about language. You could do the same story today and substitute the current vocabulary and very little of the structure of the story would have to be changed. Call it “The Lacanthrope.”

INTERVIEWER

Aside from furnishing you with curiosities of jargon, has any type of criticism or any individual critic ever warned you away from a fault or aided your work?

BARTHELME

Yes. Diane Johnson, in the course of an extremely kind review of Great Days, said that the book had this, that, and no pictures. I had done a number of pieces combining text with collages, Max Ernst collages, really, and I hadn’t realized that the combination had worn out its welcome so completely. I therefore went back into the closet with the collages. Although sometime I’d like to do an entire collage-novel, as Ernst did, just for the exercise. A Closet Edition.

And many people have pointed out that there are too many jokes, and many people have pointed out that everything is too short. I’ve been called a miniaturist, a comment I have difficulty enjoying. I read less criticism now, criticism in general, than in days of yore. Gass’s essays are invariably stimulating, as are Susan Sontag’s. Richard Howard’s criticism is very fine, very acute—he knows how things are done, and even more important, what might be done, with good luck.

INTERVIEWER

Asked what aspect of his work had been sadly neglected, Albert Camus answered “humor.” What would be your answer?

BARTHELME

I don’t think anything’s been neglected. There was for a long time a dismaying identification with the pop artists that still crops up now and then—made me extremely uncomfortable. That seems to have faded.

There’s a degree of confusion among critics about how to deal with “postmodernist” fiction, how to slap a saddle on this rough beast. It’s not unprecedented in the history of criticism. I imagine this will continue for a while.

INTERVIEWER

What’s it like to be interested in politics and be a writer, in a time when poets make nothing happen? How do you feel about your connection with PEN for instance?

BARTHELME

It’s worth the effort, I think. Internationally, PEN attempts to get writers out of jail in cases where they’ve been put away by the government for political or literary activity, as happens all too often with insecure or insane governments. I remember that when Richard Howard was president of the American center he got two Philippine writers out of jail during his trip to Manila—Madame Marcos handed them over with great ceremony during some kind of bizarre state banquet, drew a curtain and there they were. It’s a kind of chipping away at the bad behavior of governments, the same kind of thing Amnesty International does—a consistent effort, year in and year out.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think of publishing? Does Publishers Weekly raise your pulse rate? Or hackles? What about book reviews? If you wrote reviews, about whom would you like to write?

BARTHELME

Speaking as a member of the raw material, I’ve been published well, I think, consistently. There’s no question but that much of what is published in this country is cotton candy and that this cluttering up of the bookstores damages writers. To say nothing of what such a diet does to the brain’s stomach, if you’re a reader. But you can’t complain about this too much; it’s a pluralism that allows R. Crumb and Walter Benjamin and William Gaddis and Julia Child all to live in paperback heaven together. But I’m making a publisher’s argument, which is ridiculous. More shame would be salutary.

As to reviewing, I would have liked, had I had the time, to have written appreciations of Thomas Bernhard’s Correction or Max Frisch’s Man in the Holocene or one of Ashbery’s books—I would have learned something in the process.

INTERVIEWER

In academe the conventional thing is to point to Ashbery’s attention from the media and the awards he has won and to treat this as evidence that poetry has fallen on evil days, that criticism has no standards, and that nobody knows what’s happening.

BARTHELME

Ashbery would be damned difficult to get hold of, if you were a critic. The awards and so on are a sign that people understand that he’s doing something important, even if they don’t understand precisely what. The first time I read The Waste Land, when I was a pup, I hadn’t the faintest idea of what I had in front of me but still said “Zounds!” or whatever. I think Eliot himself wrote about being overtaken by something before you understood it. Also, there’s a peculiar negative reaction to the celebrated that’s ordinary as beans, to be expected.

INTERVIEWER

Presumably a scholar gives the same care to a scholarly article about you that you give to a piece, because that’s his metier.

BARTHELME

Peter Yates, the music critic, said that the proper work of the critic is praise, and that that which cannot be praised should be surrounded with a tasteful, well-thought-out silence. I like that.


Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.