Heide Ziegler: Perhaps the most striking feature of your writing is the importance you give to the past. In The Sot Weed Factor you are concerned with the historical past; in Lost in the Funhouse and Chimera with the mythic past. But it is the twentieth-century mind that is at work in all of your novels. In which way do you believe that the past relates to the present in your fiction?

John Barth: The Latin motto of one of the characters in the work in progress [LETTERS] – he is an industrialist borrowed from my first novel, The Floating Opera, who has expanded his pickle business into chemical fertilizers and freeze – drying – Praeteritas futuras stercorat: The past shits up the present. His PR man changed that to Praeteritas futuras fecundat: the past fertilizes the present, a proper motto for a chemical fertilizer firm, I suppose. But in LETTERS – and I think this applies to the other novels as well – any historical or mythic past that haunts, craps up fertilizes the present is an emblem of our personal past. The theme, certainly of the Perseus story, certainly of the Bellerophon story [two of the three novellas in Chimera], and most certainly of LETTERS, is the comic, tragic, or paradoxical re-enactment of the past in the present.

Bellerophon is a good example: he attempts to become a mythic hero by perfectly imitating the ‘programme’ for mythic heroes. Of course, that doesn’t work, and he finds that by perfectly imitating the model of mythic heroism, what he becomes is a perfect imitation of a mythic hero. My characters in the new novel, LETTERS, will act out, whether they know it or not, Marx’s notion that historical events and personages recur, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. This is also what happens to Perseus in Chimera: his attempts to re-enact his heroic past become farcical, a fiasco. It is only when he reassesses his situation (with the help of Calyxa and eventually Medusa) that he is able to elevate his re-enactment into something greater: which, if not heroic, is at least more personally successful.

HZ: That implies, then, that it is important that the hero character overcomes his past in the end, doesn’t it?

JB: Indeed, it does.

Try to imagine a chambered nautilus whose prior chambers are accessible: a creature who carries its past on its back but isn’t confined strictly to the present room of that past. He can move freely into past rooms, using what’s there to energize and inform the present.

That’s the optimistic view. I am reminded, though, of a statement by D’Arcey Thompson, the English biologist who attempted to describe organic growth and form mathematically. He points out that it is only the very lip of the shell of marine molluscs that is alive and generative; the rest of it is dead material. He also remarks that it is not the snail that shapes the shell, but the shell that shapes the snail. I think that applies in an obvious way to ourselves: our thirties are a product of what we were in our twenties and what we were in our teens. But we are not just product. Our past lives a more or less active half-life in us, let’s say, but we’re continuously reshaping and reinterpreting it, restructuring it: re-orchestrating it, if you like.

HZ: Does this mean that we approach the past as something like a game?

JB: Oh, indeed so! Somebody in The Sot Weed Factor – Burlingame, I think – says that the past is a clay that, willy-nilly, we must sculpt. And sculpting is play as well as work.

Heide Ziegler: The most astonishing trait, to me, in your recent novel LETTERS is what I would like to call your new flirt with realism. A realism, however, which, although it refers to recognizable times and places, even to strictly autobiographical details, is, at the same time, less past-oriented than it is ‘mildly prophetic’. Does this ‘realism’, then, define a special relationship – a dialectic – between the fictional and the factual?

JOHN BARTH: It’s been a while since I wrote any fiction that has to do with the here and the now, with recognizable places, and with characters characterized in the fashion of traditional bourgeois realism. The other thing, the dialect – the contamination of the real by the fictitious and of the fictitious by the real – is one of the main lines of the plot. Do you remember, Heide, Borges’s remark that among the four characteristics of the fabulous in fiction is the contamination of reality by dream? We just have to change the terms: the contamination of reality by fiction. But Borges himself, I think, sometimes includes in that notion the contamination of exterior reality by the imagined, by fiction, and, as witness the story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, the reverse process, where the fictitious begins to contaminate the real. Yes: if that convention is not the backbone of the novel, it’s certainly part of the armature of the theme and of the action. But, as you have seen, the whole mode of operation of that novel is the re-orchestration of old conventions, beginning with the convention of the epistolary novel. The dialectic between the fictitious and the real is a convention that goes way back past the modernists; it’s at the heart of Don Quixote. When you said earlier that you found an element of the prophetic in the novel, I wondered what you meant.

HZ: I thought it meant that, once written, fiction can, in a sense, influence the subsequent life of its author. In this sense, couldn’t we say that the relationship between the fiction an author writes and his own life is a precarious version of ‘life following art’?

JB: Precarious but real. And while that prophetic aspect is not at the heart of the novel, it certainly spooks around the corners and margins. The theme of LETTERS is re-enactment; and re-enactment is a phenomenon at least as full of hazards and perils as of opportunities.

Prose Feature: John Barth
Letters from LETTERS