MY FOUR FAVORITE NEW BOOKS OF 2009, CONT’D
Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme by Tracy Daugherty (St. Martin’s Press, 2009)
I was keen to read this book since stumbling across an advance excerpt in some journal or other (I forget which now). That piece (Chapter 23, “Location”) struck me as not only an amazing bit of biography (offering a revelatory account of Barthelme’s life in New York in the autumn of 1962, when he worked for Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess as the managing editor of the short-lived magazine Location), but also a terrific work of literary criticism. For example, Daugherty reveals that a small passage of the story “A Shower of Gold” (“the typewriter in front of the Olivetti showroom on Fifth Avenue”) has its basis in walks that Barthelme took at the time. Daugherty argues: “What in later years some reviewers and critics would call Don’s ‘absurdity’ was simply alertness and wonder on the streets.” Later on, he demonstrates the extent to which Barthelme’s story “The Viennese Opera Ball” is not only a rewrite of a passage in Henry James’s The American Scene, but also cribs heavily from a Time magazine fashion article: “[Barthelme] saw how the fashion article illustrated James’s theme—how, more than ever, James’s theme was current. Rather than commenting on this, Don produced a collage that demonstrated it.”
This is heady stuff to a Donald Barthelme fanatic—brilliant, even. And to my great delight, the entire book is comprised of meticulous biographical details and related close readings.
For instance, Daugherty seems to know every book that Barthelme ever read, and when he read it. (See, for instance, his accounts of Barthelme’s reading habits during his stint in the Army in Korea.) More importantly, he sees the influences that those authors had:
Like millions of Catholic boys in the 1940s, Don carried a little green book around school: the Baltimore Catechism, a manual of Catholic teaching first published in 1885, which contained hundreds of questions and answers. […]
Q. What is man?
A. Man is a creature comprised of body and soul, and made to the image and likeness of God.
Q. Why do many marriages prove unhappy?
A. Many marriages prove unhappy because they are entered into hastily and without worthy motives.[…] Don could not resist mocking such language, both as a schoolboy and later as a mature writer. The Q & A format would become one of his signature styles, in stories like “The Explanation,” “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel,” “Basil from Her Garden,” and others.
A few pages later, Daugherty notes Frank Sullivan’s own distinctive use of the Q & A format in The New Yorker, in his Mr. Arbuthnot “testimonies”:
Q– Could the atomic age have arrived by any means of any other verb than “usher”?
A– No. “Usher” has the priority.
Q– Mr. Arbuthnot, what will never be the same?
A– The world.
Q– Are you pleased?
A– I don’t know.
Daugherty also sees a great influence in Marcel Raymond’s From Baudelaire to Surrealism (1933, English trans. 1950), a present the author received from his father while in college.
Fortunately, the more that Daugherty reveals Barthelme’s sources and working methods, the more intriguing his subject grows. For one thing, it advances readings of Barthelme and his work beyond the typically vague—and by now predictable—generalizations that he was “a postmodernist.”
Shya Scanlon recently wrote about different ways we might classify authors, mentioning that we can group them according to whom they’re “in conversation with.” One of Daugherty’s more intriguing arguments in Hiding Man is that Barthelme was less a postmodernist (and certainly less a “Black Humorist,” as he was also labeled at the time) than he was a unique amalgamation of mid-1800s Paris Romantic (think Rimbaud, Courbet, Daumier) translated into English by way of American iconoclasts like James Thurber and S.J. Perelman (Barthelme’s devotion to their work going a long way toward explaining his lifelong relationship with The New Yorker). That is to say, late Romantic urban utopians and persnickety American satirists were the authors whom Barthelme was in conversation with—they constituted the tradition that he chose to enter. (Daugherty observes that Barthelme put Rimbaud at the top of a “reading list for young writers,” alongside Beckett, Joyce, and Kafka.)
It’s not my place to judge whether Daugherty’s right, or how his arguments will or won’t alter Donald Barthelme’s legacy (I am not a Barthelme scholar). However, I can speak as a great Donald Barthelme fan—and I was amazed. Since reading Hiding Man I’ve returned to the work of one of my earliest writing heroes with fresh eyes, and found the stories richer and more provocative than at any time since I first encountered them. Would that more literary biographies were so thorough, so passionate, and so revelatory.
Tomorrow: Book #4.
24 thoughts on “My Four Favorite New Books of 2009, #3: Tracy Daugherty’s Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme”
Nice one AD. Have you read Deidra Bair’s book on Beckett?
I…have not! I shall hunt it down.
Thanks for this post. I’m a huge B. fan but still haven’t read the bio . . . just in case Santa is listening. Or Satan. Whoever.
really interesting argument Daugherty’s making there. thanks for posting on this. feel like i need to go back and read some rimbaud and then read barthelme right after.
I’ve wondered about this book, and to hear that it treats with insight some of Barthelme’s influences only encourages me to pick it up. I too wish that literary biographies covered their subject’s reading habits with more depth. Sometimes I wish that that would frame the entire biography, so that it turns into a bibliobiography or something.
Hiding man I just bought. Wow, Between HTML and Other, I actually wonder how to score black tar AND books, but I have indeed done both. Which should be first?
Addicts with library “skunk” access, weigh in.
Sean, John, please do let me know what you think of the bio, when you read it…
(And, John: Daugherty goes into exhaustive detail regarding what Barthelme read, repeatedly summarizing that work and expounding upon its influence—often finding connections to particular stories. It’s all very meticulous and quite thrilling! I can only imagine the research and note-taking that he did…)
There’s stuff in his essays and interviews, I’m sure, but did Barthelme leave behind journals and such where he kept track of what he’d read? Or did he write dates in his books when he’d finished them, as some writers do?
I’ve never been meticulous about keeping track of what I’d read until this year. Just a list with dates.
What do you do?
Some of the information comes from letters. And Daugherty seems to have interviewed everyone who ever knew Barthelme.
I’ve tried more than once to keep lists of the books I read, but I am not consistent about it (I usually start and stop books many times before I finish them). I do keep track of every film I see, though, by date. I’m meticulous about that.
I’m sure you’ve seen this? (I’m a big Art Garfunkel fan—more for his acting than his music, although that’s also fine. He seems like quite a character.)
Ha! I have seen Garfunkel’s list and I can’t tell you how I ever got there. I only know his stuff with Paul Simon and not much else. Are you serious about being a fan of his acting?
Oh, yes, I’m very serious! Garfunkel is superb in BAD TIMING—he very much holds his own against a young Harvey Keitel. …But I define good acting as being the right fit for the role. Garfunkel isn’t a powerhouse or anything—he doesn’t rage and roar and chew the scenery—but weakness is precisely what’s required for his turn as Alex Linden. He’s perfect!
(I really am nuts about BAD TIMING, and about Nicolas Roeg’s films in general. No doubt I’ll post about Roeg soon enough. I’m teaching a short class on him early next year.)
Garfunkel is also quite good in Mike Nichols’s CARNAL KNOWLEDGE. He’s overshadowed by Jack Nicholson—who wouldn’t be?—but, again, that’s exactly right for his character. …That film today doesn’t look quite as good as people said it did at the time, but it’s still pretty fine, and the acting is tremendous. (Nicholson’s great, Ann-Margret is great beyond all belief, and Candice Bergen is utterly radiant. Really pretty cinematography and production, too.)
I’ve never gotten around to CATCH-22 (either the novel or the film), but one of these days… Orson Welles is in it, so for that reason alone I must watch it.
Oh! Art Garfunkel was also in BOXING HELENA! No doubt because he was in BAD TIMING. Well, his filmography isn’t very that long, but I think it’s one to be proud of.
If Art Garfunkel ever reads this, know that you have a huge fan in A D Jameson! And your music is all right, too. (No, seriously, a lot of it is lovely.)
I haven’t seen any of those. I liked these lines from BAD TIMING:
When I’m with you I’m with you. I love being with you.
Now what does that mean, ‘With me’, ‘not with me’?
And don’t ever use that word love again and I promise I won’t.
I think that a lot of people dislike BAD TIMING because they view it as when Roeg started to “slip.” That is to say, they want to claim PERFORMANCE, WALKABOUT, DON’T LOOK NOW, and THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH as the man’s masterpieces, then let the rest lie (although some don’t want to include TMWFTE).
I believe this has a lot to do with how frank it is concerning sex, and abusive relationships. Which is what Roeg’s films become increasingly about starting with BAD TIMING (although that theme is present from the start).
Personally, I think that his string of masterpieces includes and extends past BAD TIMING to EUREKA, which I currently consider the greatest unknown film of the 1980s.
And Roeg’s films past EUREKA are also pretty strong: CASTAWAY, INSIGNIFICANCE, and THE WITCHES are all good. (For anyone who liked FANTASTIC MR. FOX and needs more Dahl adaptation: check out that last one! Very good, and very disturbing—the way Dahl should be. Although the last scene is pure nonsense.)
Anyway, BAD TIMING: A SENSUAL OBSESSION is a great film! It’s no surprise that the Criterion Collection snatched it up. (I imagine they’d love to do all of the early Roeg films.)
As some unnamed executive said of it at the time, “It’s a sick film for sick people.” *Precisely!*
As these comment boxes get smaller and smaller I realize that your comments here merit full-on posts of their own. Let’s see some Garfunkel and Roeg love-fests. Well, not between those two, of course.
Sure! Don’t worry—eventually all my posts will be about Roeg…
And all other Big Other posts. Roeg is the the cinematic equivalent of Tlön…
There actually is a Roeg/Borges connection: PERFORMANCE, Roeg’s first film as director, ends with an amazing (and very direct) Borges reference. Although, at the time, that was probably more the doing of Roeg’s co-director, the late and under-appreciated Donald Cammell.
…Interesting where this has gone, considering that the original post was about HIDING MAN. To bring it back a bit, I used the Google search box at Garfunkel’s site to check on whether he’s read any Barthelme. I found no results, but the search seemed a bit wonky (it didn’t find books I know he’s read).
He did read John Barth’s THE END OF THE ROAD, in August 1968.
…Ah. I checked using Google proper, and no Barthelme. In fact, see this:
“He also doesn’t read postmodern fiction—the Garfunkel Library contains no Pynchon or Barthelme. “I tried ‘Gravity’s Rainbow,’ and I thought it was fraudulent,” he said.”
The man has spoken!
(I still love you, though, Mr. Garfunkel!)
I don’t know about that, since the two letters that Roeg needs to spell Borges is “bs”.
Looks like you got the last word up there. Comments only go nine deep.
Ah, I meant to put that above comment here, below John’s. Oh, well.
For anyone interested, this short documentary mentions Borges’s influence on Cammell, Roeg, and PERFORMANCE:
INFLUENCE AND CONTROVERSY: THE MAKING OF PERFORMANCE:
(See 2:24–3:30 in the second part for some discussion of ol’ “Bor-gaze.”)
…I’ve watched this doc (it’s on the DVD) and think it’s OK—a bit clunky (hideous graphics!), but with good info and historical context. But it’s no substitute for the original film.
…The original trailer of which is here:
How I long for the days when trailers could include song lyrics like “faggy little leather boys”…
…not to mention Anita Pallenberg, topless…
…and portly Englishmen taking off their trousers…
I thought you were being tricksy with the Borges reference, but this is even better.