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By John Barth

Original Publisher: Random House, Inc.
Current Publisher: Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Harold Augenbraum writes:

When I was coming of age in the 1970s, if you didn’t read John Barth you weren’t a young reader. I remember my schoolmate Dana Roskowitz astonished that I hadn’t read Giles Goat-Boy and The Sot-Weed Factor, so to avoid the existential fear of ridicule and condemnation, I immediately read both, and became a Barth fan. That led to reading The Floating Opera, The End of the Road (believe it or not, they made a movie out of that one, with James Earl Jones and, if my memory is correct, a small part for Terry Southern), and Lost in the Funhouse. Later I would read Sabbatical, The Tidewater Tales, and The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor. I will admit now (pace Dana Roskowitz, wherever you are) that I haven’t read anything by Barth since Somebody.

I bought a remaindered copy of Chimera in 1974 in a bookstore across Massachusetts Avenue from Harvard University—the good old days before tax laws made publishers pulp the overages instead of remaindering them—and devoured it. What a book. Over the years I remembered the story of Scheherazade the most, probably because I was a kid then and kids are impressed by the naughty bits. So 35 years later I picked it up to see how it aged along with me and Barth himself, and couldn’t put it down. Of the 77 books that have won the National Book Award in Fiction it may be the funniest, and still the most erotic. Barth inserts an awfully Barth-like writer into “Dunyazadiade”, the first of the three stories, as “the genie”, who then becomes the guiding light behind Scheherazade and her sister’s exploits. Sure, story keeps the king from killing Scheherazade, but so does great sex. In the second story, “Perseid”, the mythic hero Perseus is impotent, and Barth creates whole new meanings for the word “stoned”. And finally in “Bellerophoniad”, we encounter the chimera. But, of course, the three-part animal is a chimera, as is the book, in both the ancient and the modern sense, and haven’t we been going round and round with mythic, ancient, and modern sensibilities so that you can’t really tell whose attitude is dominating?

I loved reading Barth because he epitomized the yippie sensibility of homo ludens (Jerry Rubin, where are you now that we need you?). The writer as performer, language as performative. You can read Chimera for its literary game-playing but you would just as well read it ‘cause it just sounds so good. 

Harold Augenbraum is Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, an editor and translator.


Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Brock Brower for The Late Great Creature
  • Alan Friedman for Hermaphrodeity
  • Barry Hannah for Geronimo Rex
  • George V. Higgins for The Friends of Eddie Coyle
  • R.M. Koster for The Prince
  • Vladimir Nabokov for Transparent Things
  • Ishmael Reed for Mumbo Jumbo
  • Thomas Rogers for The Confessions of a Child of the Century
  • Isaac Bashevis Singer for Enemies, A Love Story
  • Eudora Welty for The Optimist's Daughter

Fiction Judges that Year:

Evan Connell, Leslie A. Fielder, William Gass, Walker Percy, Jonathan Yardley

The Year in Literature:

  • The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Patrick White won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:  

  • This was John Barth’s first National Book Award win, though he had been a Finalist in 1969 for a short-story collection, Lost in the Funhouse.
  • Barth is known for the postmodernist and metafictional quality of his work.

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Reader Comments (2)

What about Augustus? John Williams won as well in 1973. Let's not neglect him any more, shall we?

July 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBrad Green

Have no fear, Mr. Williams will be discussed tomorrow. We're posting one winner a day.

July 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMeredith Andrews
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