Eitan Frankel's introduction to John Barth

Why am I here delivering this introduction?

To answer this question, I want to take you back to a Monday a few weeks ago when Al dedicated our class to the seniors present; a group that included me.  On that day, we were discussing Giles Goat Boy.  As I am sure many of you know, in this 710-page novel, George, a goat-boy, embarks on an epic quest to grasp the meaning of graduation.  Intertwined with his adventures are a series of political, religious, and historical allegories; (Pause) but it was the quest that captivated my attention.  Just as George was trying to understand graduation from New Tammany College – what it meant not to be “flunk-ed” - I was trying to figure out what “commencing” from this university really entailed.  And when I finished the novel, I felt “pass-ed”; I thought that I understood the meaning of Mr. Barth’s mantra that “Failure is passage,” and that I comprehended the significance of graduation: that graduation was not about fixing everything and becoming a perfected product, but rather about recognizing and embracing one’s own faults.

But when Al began our 3-hour class session with the question, “Do any of the seniors in the room have any thoughts they want to share?” my answer was pure “flunk-edness,” -- and not in a good way.  I mumbled something generic – that I was both excited and nervous about graduating -- but it was clear that I had failed to fathom the wisdom that Mr. Barth and George had tried to impart on me.  Fortunately, I would be given a second shot.

Fast-forward two weeks in seminar time, and 40 years of Mr. Barth’s illustrious literary career, and I was surprised and greatly pleased to see that Mr. Barth was still struggling with the very question that I had failed to answer: the question of closure.  While The Development, a collection of short stories, and Every Third Thought, Mr. Barth’s most recent novel, had traded the university for a gated community on the Maryland shore, both works still dealt with approaching the “end of a road.”  Any attempt to succinctly summarize Mr. Barth’s work would be futile because his writing is often concurrently epic, tragic, comedic, serious, honest, deceptive, multi-layered, literal, challenging, experimental, paradoxical, and inspirational -- but a common theme does underlie his work.

Mr. Barth insists on asking the difficult questions, and manages to do so in a way that brings insight to the most clich├ęd topics.  Rather than accepting conclusions as foregone, his writing dissects the processes – (Pause) what does it mean to age, to commence, to write a novel, to narrate a story, to come to the end of one’s career -- even to die?  The answers to these questions aren’t ever easy, or even possible to determine, but Mr. Barth skillfully reveals the paradoxes of life—coming and going, success and failure, life and death.  In The Development, a loving, aging husband and wife commit suicide because neither can imagine living life without the other; I couldn’t help but empathize with their desperate plea of love.  In Every Third Thought, the narrator, G.I. Newett, continually struggles with his insignificance as a writer: his first thought fails, his second thought fails, and his third thought? – well, it is unclear that he ever formulates a concrete third thought that will allow him to compose the novel that will justify his literary career.  Newett’s novel remains unfinished—a testament to the insatiable desire of the narrator to succeed.  It is this candor that I much admire and have found so exciting and inspiring in Mr. Barth’s writing.  Never before have I been so skillfully guided through a series of events that have given me insight into the concurrent and often paradoxical hardships, joys, tragedies, positive memories, mishaps, and emotions associated with entering the winter phase of life.  Mr. Barth doesn’t shy from questions because they are too complex or too uncomfortable; instead, throughout his career, he has taken the questions that other people refuse to ask -- let alone answer -- and has turned them into whole stories.

The past month was quite a test of endurance: in four weeks the members of the Fellows seminar read The End of the Road, Giles Goat Boy, The Literature of Exhaustion, Lost in the Funhouse, The Development, and Every Third Thought.  And while I couldn’t imagine myself saying this when I was entrenched somewhere around page 300 of Giles Goat Boy, by now I can emphatically say that I wish we had read more.  Throughout college I have read and read and read, but never before has a single writer forced me to rethink my assumptions about such a vast array of topics: from literary elements such as authorship and narration, to existential dilemmas such as identifying meaning at the end of life, Mr. Barth has truly done it all.  While over the four years that I have traversed from Commencement Gate to Graduation there have been times when I have questioned whether I was on the right path; now I can definitively say that Mr. Barth’s works have validated my decision to study literature.  His writing has forced me to do a little bit of everything: to struggle, to accept uncertainty, to question the writing process, to question myself – and in the end, I have realized that if graduation can be as meaningful as picking up and reading one of Mr. Barth’s novel, then it will have been a great success.  For this, Mr. Barth, I would like to thank you.

So it is with great pleasure and much honor that I introduce the third Kelly Writer’s House Fellow of 2012 – John Barth.