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Guest Post, by Brian Kiteley: A Sentence About a Sentence I Love

From Donald Barthelme’s story “Terminus”:

“Naked, she twists in his arms to listen to a sound outside the door, a scratching, she freezes, listening; he’s startled by the beauty of her tense back, the raised shoulders, tilted head, there’s nothing, she turns to look at him, what does she see?”

I’ve done no research into this story, which is in the collection 40 Stories, so I am only guessing, but I imagine it is about Don’s third wife, the Danish woman who went mad and killed herself, whom he married only when he discovered she was pregnant with his first child (breaking his second wife Helen’s heart), and the breathy, comma-ridden, paratactic phrases indicate a kind of helter-skelter rush of associations, rather than a story’s narrative arc, while the quiet moment, “there’s nothing,” is isolated from its neighboring clauses only by commas, but it is more important than those commas would tell us (the list of fragments functions as a way of democratizing them—there is only that one semi-colon, before “he’s startled by the beauty of her tense back”); one might ask why that phrase merits separation by a semicolon, a punctuation mark Barthelme explicitly disdained, and the answer may be that it is a subtle, tender sliver of narration in the midst of other material that resists narrative’s push and pull.

Brian Kiteley, author of The River Gods

6 thoughts on “Guest Post, by Brian Kiteley: A Sentence About a Sentence I Love

  1. There are only a handful of lines that have stuck with me such that I can type them into Google with enough fidelity to produce their source — and one of them is from Barthleme. It’s from “Game” in Sixty Stories:

    “Although now we are not sure what is oversight, what is plan.”

    I think the comma here also provides a “sliver of narration” like the one you describe. The entire story is available — illegally, I’m sure — online: http://www.latexnet.org/~burnt/Game.html

  2. I’m curious as to why you read the woman in the story as being Birgit Egelund-Peterson. If the story’s autobiographical, the woman is described as being fairly American, and aggressive: “When she walks she slouches, or skitters, or skids, catches herself and stands with one hip tilted and a hand on the hip, like a cowboy; she’s twenty-six, served three years in the Army, didn’t like it and got out […]”. She has a psychiatrist, but that struck me as being something hip (the “delightful” psychiatrist doesn’t strike me as being all that serious a one—more like a travel agent or impresario).

    I always read the story as being about an affair between an older man and younger woman, as many later Barthelme stories are. Initially, the narrator intends to protect and provide for her: he gives her his scarf, and punches a hole in her Gold Card so she can wear it as a necklace. And he’s older, married, and apparently a financial consultant some kind. (I love the revisionist progression in the line, “He’s wanted in Flagstaff, at a succulent figure, more consulting, but he doesn’t want to do that any more […].”)

    But the woman quickly proves that she’s much stronger than he is, more vital and vibrant—free-spirited, and the one who’s going to leave him (which she seems to do, at the end). He puts on a good show, warning her that this will be a brief affair, and that “I’ll be going away”—but he doesn’t really mean it. She’s the one who nonchalantly replies with things like, “it will be good to have you gone.”

    Meanwhile, the narrator steadily reveals how he’s obsessed with having gotten older, focusing on his glasses and teeth and “the gray in his hair” even as she (mockingly?) calls him “Red Head.” (Barthelme was a redhead.) His aging body stands in clear contrast to her youthful one, which the narrator is constantly observing. (Note too that he becomes jealous when he catches her “not staring” at a young blond man—which he apologizes for, even though he’s supposedly learned to nor say forgive me.) All in all, despite being “lean,” he’s something of a sad sack.

    Finally, he resolves to forget about her and move on, as he initially planned to (early on we see him “plotting his next move”), but he finds that he can’t—because he has been totally seduced by her youth, her sexuality. Her mere mention of buying a new nightie (“maybe a dozen”) is enough to keep him hooked, hanging on. He’s learned nothing from his prior experiences with other women, even though it will devastate him: “He has fallen out of love this morning, feels a refreshing distance, an absolution— But then she calls him amigo, as she accepts the flowers, and says, not bad, Red Head, and he falls back into love again, forever. She comes toward him fresh from the bath, opens her robe. Goodbye, she says, goodbye.” Read this way, it fits very well alongside Paradise (1986), and the 80s “Bishop” stories.

    Incidentally, the Hôtel Terminus was the name of the Gestapo headquarters in Lyon where Klaus Barbie, “the Butcher of Lyon,” set up shop—it’s there that he personally tortured and murdered Jean Moulin. (See Marcel Ophuls 1988 documentary Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie.) One might wonder which one of those two Barthelme imagines the narrator to be—and which one the woman.

    (Actually, I don’t think it’s anything that misogynistic; rather I read Barthelme as ironically implying that the narrator is not Klaus Barbie or his like, despite initially fancying himself as a cold-blooded lady-killer. He plays a similar trick in “Captain Blood,” which appeared alongside “Terminus” in Overnight to Many Distant Cities.)

  3. Why step into the muddy puddle of hubris with a six paragraph summary of a story when the point is this lovely notion of the sliver of narrative, in this sentence that for any other writer but Barthelme would come across as not-so-nearly non-referential.

    1. Hi Jess,

      I analyzed (not summarized) the story because I wanted to clarify a reading of it. And I did that because I fail to see how the story is about “the Danish woman who went mad and killed herself.” I’ve never heard that reading of “Terminus,” and I’m curious as to how it can be read in that way. I’m certainly open to the interpretation, but I’ll scratch my head and confess that, at the moment, I’m just not seeing it. (It so happens that this story is rather dear to me, and I enjoy talking and reading about it. So I’m looking forward to discovering a new reading of it!)

      Hubris has nothing to do with it, muddy or otherwise. Since Brian Kitely is something of a Barthelme scholar, I’m hoping he’ll enlighten me as to how he came to this reading.

      I’ll also confess that I have no idea what “sliver of narration” (or “sliver of narrative,” as you’ve already revised it—actually, “notion of the sliver of narrative”) means. The entire sentence is narrative; the entire story is narrative. Certainly the story makes extensive use of ellipsis, and condenses several months of an affair into four pages—but those are fairly commonplace narrative techniques. (This is to say, I don’t see how this semicolon is “in the midst of other material that resists narrative’s push and pull.”) And I have no idea how a lone semicolon is or can be narrative, let alone a sliver or narrative, subtle and tender or otherwise.

      No doubt part of my problem here is that I’ve never been much of one for metaphorical criticism—a failing on my part, I’m sure. (I also have no idea what “not-so-nearly non-referential” means. I was never good at puzzling out double negatives.)

      Incidentally, there are plenty of other semicolons in the story. Are they narrative slivers as well?


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