Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lecture 11

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Wk 6 - Mon (25/8), 3-4 pm lecture: HSB1

John Barth: The Floating Opera (1957) -


The Coastline Measurement Problem

I like to observe to apprentice fiction writers that the coastline problem applies to every story; in fact, it applies to every narrated action within every story. How long does it take Irma to answer the telephone, once she hears it ring? In real life, anywhere from a few seconds up to maybe half a minute, if the caller persists and the answering machine doesn’t intervene; in narrated life, however, whether factual or fictional, the answer depends on the author’s verbal/narrative waypoints. It may take no longer than the space between the word dingaling and the word “Hello?” Or it may take eight wordsworth of space and time: Irma picked up the telephone and said “Hello?” Or it may be that Irma hesitates and reflects a bit on who might be calling; or she may hesitate and reflect a lot – her narrative, anyhow, may do so. Irma may set down her glass of chablis (what brand of chablis? What sort of glass?); she may tap the ash from her cigarette (What brand of cigarette? Tap the ash into what?), reflecting that she would probably be a non-drinker/non-smoker these days if it weren’t that her estranged abstemious party-pooping husband, Fred, always used to nag her so on that subject, and wondering whether that’s Fred calling now, or Fred’s lawyer, or maybe her own lawyer, Rodriguez, whose interest in her own case she’s half afraid is becoming more than merely professional. … Irma’s author may even freeze-frame between ring and response and cut to an extended flashback, perhaps several chaptersworth of retrospective marital case history. Indeed, an entire novel may elapse with Fred (or Rodriquez) on hold so to speak; Laurence Sterne’s account of the biological conception of Tristram Shandy nicely illustrates the coastline measurement problem in its narrative aspect. Likewise these remarks …
– "Ad Lib Libraries and the Coastline Measurement Problem," in
Further Fridays: Essays, Lectures and Other Nonfiction, 1984-1994
(Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 19895), pp.241-42.

Once could argue that The Floating Opera represents the convergence of two great cultural tributaries, both very influential in the early to mid-1950s.

On the one hand, there's the (so-called) Latin American craze - Carmen Miranda, the movies Gilda (1946), The Three Caballeros (1944), Orfeu Negro (1959), etc.

On the other hand, there's post-war Existentialism, as it manifested itself in the writings of Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre (especially the trilogy of novels Les chemins de la liberte [The Paths of Freedom] (1945-49), and Simone de Beauvoir.

The Hispanification of North America

One of my Penn State students .. showed me the way, by introducing me to a turn-of-the century Brazilian writer named Joaquim Machado de Assis, several of whose novels were just then appearing in English translation. I checked Machado out of the Pattee library – first his Braz Cubas (retitled Epitaph of a Small Winner in its English translation) and then Dom Casmurro and Quinças Borba (the latter retitled Philosopher or Dog? in its English version) – and those novels supplied me with model resolutions of a problem whose terms I could not have articulated before it was well behind me.
– "Borges and I: a mini-memoir." in Further Fridays, p.165.

We did not have the term "Postmodernism" in our critical vocabulary back in the 1950s, but Machado's combination of formal playfulness, narrative self-consciousness and self-reflexiveness, political scepticism, and emotional seriousness tempered with dry comedy – they add up to a kind of proto-postmodernism which appealed to me very strongly indeed … Later in my life I learned that behind Machado stands the first English postmodernist novel: I mean Tristram Shandy, no doubt a more brilliant performance than any of Machado's. But much as I honor Laurence Sterne, I have never been able quite to finish Tristram Shandy. there is a larger humanity in Machado de Assis than there is Laurence Sterne; I prefer the kind of technical fireworks that speak to my heart as well as to my mind and my funnybone – formalism with a Latino accent: formalismo.
– "The Spanish Connection." in Further Fridays, pp.44-45.

As well as that, of course, there's the tradition of the minstrel show, popular in the southern States both before and after the Civil War, with its stereotypes of the simple-minded Tambo and Bones, exchanging crosstalk before being called to order by the Interlocutor, a kind of blackface Master of Ceremonies.

Thomas "Daddy" Rice introduced the earliest slave archetype with his song "Jump Jim Crow" and its accompanying dance. He claimed to have learned the number by watching an old, limping black stable hand dancing and singing, "Wheel about and turn about and do jus' so/Eb'ry time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow."

... Slave characters in general came to be low-comedy types with names that matched the instruments they played: Brudder Tambo (or simply Tambo) for the tambourine and Brudder Bones (or Bones) for the bone castanets or bones. These endmen (for their position in the minstrel semicircle) were ignorant and poorly spoken, being conned, electrocuted, or run over in various sketches. They happily shared their stupidity; one slave character said that to get to China, one had only to go up in a balloon and wait for the world to rotate below. Highly musical and unable to sit still, they constantly contorted their bodies wildly while singing.

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