Sunday, June 6, 2021


Donald Barthelme (1931–1989)
From Donald Barthelme: Collected Stories

“The ‘cancellations’ are paintings in which a rendering of a well-known picture, an Edvard Munch, say, has superimposed on it a smaller, but yet not small, rendering of another but perhaps not so well known picture, an El Lissitzky, say, for example the ‘Untitled’ of 1919–20, a rather geometrical affair of squares and circles, reds and blacks. . . .” (from “Tickets”)
     Left: Self Portrait (in Distress), 1919, oil on canvas by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. WikiArt.
Right: Untitled, 1919–20, preliminary drawing for a project commemorating Rosa Luxemburg, pencil, ink and gouache on paper by Russian artist El Lissitzky (1890–1941). State Museum of Contemporary Art, Costakis Collection, Thessaloniki.
In the spring of 1983, the famously reclusive Thomas Pynchon responded to a letter he had received from Donald Barthelme:
By the time your kind invitation caught up with me, it was already too late—on May 17th I was between coasts, Arkansas or Lubbock or someplace like ‘at, so I couldn’t have been there anyway. But thank you for asking me—since I’m feeling more and more these days like a one-shot flash-in-the-pan amateur, it is at least a pleasant fantasy for me to think about mingling with you professional folks.
Barthelme had invited Pynchon to the event that came to be known as the Postmodern Dinner. Barthelme planned it for weeks; it was held at an expensive restaurant in the SoHo section of Manhattan, and the guests comprised a veritable Who’s Who of Postmodernism: Walter Abish, John Barth, Robert Coover, William Gaddis, William H. Gass, John Hawkes, Susan Sontag, and Kurt Vonnegut, as well as photographer Jill Krementz (married to Vonnegut, she took pictures of the guests) and literary agent Lynn Nesbit, whom Barthelme called “the mother of postmodernism.”

The event seems to have been both remarkable and awkward. “I couldn’t figure it out,” Walter Abish told Barthelme’s biographer Tracy Daugherty. Abish had helped plan the dinner, mostly by seconding everyone Barthelme had suggested for the guest list. “You couldn’t take it at face value. Everyone gave a short little speech about their work and their friendship with the other people there. Hawkes was very eloquent, warm and nice. Gaddis was, as always, very quiet. Donald was both withdrawn and a dynamo. He was the center though he didn’t dominate in any way. It was puzzling. I left with questions.” The list of famous writers prompted Pynchon to jokingly wonder if he would be reading about the dinner in People or in The New York Review of Books.

“How different from one another those above-mentioned teammates are!” John Barth later wrote, reflecting on the men who had gathered for both that dinner in 1983 and a symposium at Brown University in 1988. “Indeed, other than their nationality and gender, their common inclination to some degree of irrealism and to the foregrounding of form and language, and the circumstance of their having appeared on the literary scene in the 1960s or thereabouts, it is not easy to see why their names should be so frequently linked.”

One aspect of his writing that distinguished Barthelme from his “teammates” was a sense of humor that found a ready home in The New Yorker. “Barthelme decided that he wanted to be a New Yorker writer when he was a teen-ager,” writes Louis Menand, “and what drew him to the magazine was the humor writing. He loved James Thurber and Dorothy Parker; he thought S. J. Perelman was a genius.” His first piece in the magazine, “L’Lapse,” appeared in 1963 and parodied the screenplay for L’Eclisse, a movie by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. “The humorist is the hiding man in Barthelme’s stories,” adds Menand, “the reassurance that we are in the company of a friendly spirit, someone who knows about more than just collecting rubbish and tearing things up.”

Barthelme published “Tickets,” his last story for The New Yorker, twenty-six years later, and it is the selection that closes the new Library of America volume bringing together 145 of his stories. Kim Herzinger, who edited three of Barthelme’s posthumously published collections, writes that the story “features that numbingly formal, almost-British voice he so often used—a voice we associate with Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, not to speak of that great line of English comic writers from Wodehouse and Sir Henry Howard Bashford to Joe Orton and Tom Stoppard—completely absorbed in its own obsessions, delivered by a character whose unremitting confidence only serves to reveal his incomparable blindness.” In February 1989, after he had been informed that the magazine had accepted the story, Barthelme told Daugherty, “It’s a relief to know I still have some juice.” Six months later, he died from a recurrence of the throat cancer that had hospitalized him the previous year.

Notes: Among Barthelme’s musical references: Carl Orff is a German composer whose works include the orchestral cantata Carmina Burana (1937). Three operas are mentioned: Die Walk├╝re (1870) by the German composer Richard Wagner, La Damnation de Faust (1846) by the French composer Hector Berlioz, and Der Barbier von Baghdad (The Barber of Baghdad, 1858) by the German composer Peter Cornelius.

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