Thursday, September 24, 2009

Barth vs. Nabokov

Not long ago I read every single John Barth book in chronological order, and I didn't like what I discovered. My basic conclusion was that, after a certain point, he started using the same characters, style, and list of obsessions in every single book.

The worst aspects started happening with the publication of "Chimera" in 1972, which introduced the characters he'd beat to death over the next thirty years: a man and a woman, highly sexed and of above-average intelligence and education, engaging in cute and explicit discussions about their sex lives. These discussions are always goofy, alliterative, and full of puns. What's more, the Barth narrative style post-Chimera is almost exclusively expository, and usually the narrator is also the author.

These are perfectly good storytelling techniques in themselves, but my beef is that John Barth used them almost without exception. I found this SO distasteful that I've vowed never to buy another of his books.

This week I decided to re-read Vladimir Nabokov's "Ada or Ardor." I've only read it once before -- about fifteen years ago -- and I remember being totally in love with it...but it's driving me BONKERS.

Why? Because IT CONTAINS THOSE JOHN BARTH CHARACTERS! It is (among other things) the story of the relationship between Van and Ada, two highly-intelligent and highly-sexed individuals who talk endlessly about their sexual relationship in a cute, alliterative, pun-filled way. And it's written in an expository style in which the authors are...Van and Ada themselves.

Seriously, reading "Ada or Ardor" is like reading a long-lost John Barth novel, right down to the fact that the main characters say "et cetera" and "tant pis" (which Barth's characters also do, constantly, pointlessly, in every book).

I said at the beginning of this post that Barth started writing this way in 1972, with the publication of "Chimera." You won't be shocked to learn that "Ada or Ardor" was published three years previously...and that Barth is an acknowledged Nabakov fan.

Now, I don't have PROOF that John Barth enjoyed "Ada or Ardor" so much that he basically spent the rest of his life re-writing it...but it sure as hell seems that way. And do you know what the real shame is? That bastard has ruined this book for me. Every time I read a sentence like this--
Could he find the right words: not to hurt Ada, while making her bed-filly know he despised her for kindling a child, so dark-haired and pale, coal and coral, leggy and limp, whimpering at the melting peak?
--I want to scream and write a hateful letter to Nabakov, even though he did it FIRST. And he's dead.

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