Friday, 13 August 1999
John Barth: The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991)
Review number: 311
John Barth's writing, though always worth reading, suffers from several faults. The most important of these is perhaps the way that everything else he has written pales into insignificance next to Giles Goat-Boy. In that novel, he handles his themes more tellingly, with a background more extraordinary, than in the other novels he has written, and by making it partly an allegorical account of the Cold War increases its interest.
A second problem in Barth's writing is in his obsession with his major themes. These are to do with the nature of fiction, the various people involved in narrative art (author, reader, characters), and the relationships between them and the rest of the world's literature. Thus, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor takes the form of a narrative within a narrative within a narrative within a narrative, the third story about the subject of the outermost story. (The character named Behler tells a story about Scheherezade telling a story about Behler telling a story about himself). This is inspired by the structure of the Arabian Nights, which frequently uses the device of characters in one story telling other tales.
The Arabian Nights form one obvious part of the relationship of this novel with world literature in general. The innermost story juxtaposes the tale of Sindbad the Sailor's seven voyages with the life of the American author William Behler, who has found himself stranded in the world of the Nights after nearly drowning in a sailing accident. Each section has a series of interludes which tell the story of the developing relationship between Behler and Sindbad's household, and contain the tales told by Sindbad of his own voyages. Each is then followed by Behler's retelling of part of his story - and thus the narrator of the outside level is also a narrator of the innermost stories. The structure is further complicated by resonances between Behler's life and aspects of Barth's, making the whole thing a commentary on the storytelling process and the way in which the author is usually both part of and separated from the stories s/he tells, particularly in a first person narrative.
The use, and retelling, of the stories of Sindbad from the Arabian Nights is similar to the adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus the King in Giles Goat-Boy. Like Barth's earlier reworking, Sindbad's tales are twisted, used to produce moral lessons distinctly reminiscent of Tristram Shandy (Sterne is clearly an influence on Barth) and show the main characters of the tales in a far less positive light than in the original.
Another important theme in Barth's writing is the character of the innocent. He is of course the stock in trade of the satirist, enabling the writer to point out the absurdity of human affairs with ease. Behler is not quite such an innocent as the central character of Giles Goat-Boy or The Sot-Weed Factor, yet he has a naivete shared with both of them.
The third problem in Barth's writing is its lengthiness. The complex structure of The Last Voyage needs a considerable length to work itself out; to tell Behler's story straight would probably require many fewer pages than the five hundred and seventy actually filled with twenty-eight interludes, two introductory sections, and a conclusion. In Giles Goat-Boy the length does not feel like a problem, yet here, and even in The Sot-Weed Factor, it is tempting to begin skipping pages.
It is really, then, the grandeur of the design and the fact that it does not succeed as well as the author's best work that stand against this novel. It contains entertaining ideas, such as the description of a dancer speaking by her art rather than words (another facet of Barth's fascination with the mechanics of narration), Sindbad's duplicity, and Behler's revelation to his then wife of his infidelities not through his guilty appearance but by writing a series of best selling articles about it.