Jonathan Baumbach Biography
Jonathan Baumbach comments:
Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1933. Education: Brooklyn College, New York, 1951-55, A.B. 1955; Columbia University, New York, 1955-56, M.F.A. 1956; Stanford University, California, 1958-61, Ph.D. 1961. Military Service: Served in the United States Army, 1956-58. Career: Instructor, Stanford University, 1958-60; instructor, 1961-62, and assistant professor, 1962-64, Ohio State University, Columbus; assistant professor, New York University, 1964-66; associate professor, 1966-70, 1971-72, and since 1972 professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York. Visiting professor, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts, 1970-71; University of Washington, Seattle, 1978-79, 1985-86; Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1994. Film critic, Partisan Review, New Brunswick, New Jersey, and Boston, 1974-83. Co-founder, 1974, co-director, 1974-78, and currently member of the Board of Directors, Fiction Collective, New York; chair, National Society of Film Critics, 1982-84. Awards: New Republic award, 1958; Yaddo grant, 1963, 1964, 1965; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1967; Guggenheim fellowship, 1978; Ingram Merrill Foundation fellowship, 1983. Agent: Ellen Levine Literary Agency, 432 Park Avenue South, Suite 1205, New York, New York 10016.
A Man to Conjure With. New York, Random House, 1965; London, Gollancz, 1966.
What Comes Next. New York, Harper, 1968.
Reruns. New York, Fiction Collective, 1974.
Babble. New York, Fiction Collective, 1976.
Chez Charlotte and Emily. New York, Fiction Collective, 1979.
My Father More or Less. New York, Fiction Collective, 1982.
Separate Hours. Boulder, Colorado, Fiction Collective 2, 1990.
Seven Wives: A Romance. Boulder, Colorado, Fiction Collective 2, 1994.
D-Tours. Normal, Illinois, FC2, 1998.
The Return of Service. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1979.
The Life and Times of Major Fiction. New York, Fiction Collective, 1987.
Uncollected Short Stories
"You Better Watch Out," in Seems (Sheboygan, Wisconsin), Fall1978.
"Neglected Masterpieces III," in Columbia (New York), 1986.
"The History of Elegance," in Columbia (New York), April 1988.
"Low Light," in Fiction International (San Diego), Spring 1990.
"The Mother Murders," in Witness (Farmington Hills, Michigan)Summer-Fall 1990.
"The Man Who Invented the World," in Film Comment (New York), February 1991.
"Men at Lunch," in Boulevard, Fall 1991.
"Stills from Imaginary Movies," in Film Comment, May-June 1991.
"The Villa Mondare," in Mississippi Review, Spring 1992.
"The Reading," in Boulevard, Spring 1993.
"Outlaws," in Georgetown Review, Fall 1993.
"Bright Is Innocent," in Iowa Review, September 1994.
"His View of Her View of Him," in Boulevard, Spring 1995.
The One-Eyed Man Is King (produced New York, 1956).
The Landscape of Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel. New York, New York University Press, 1965; London, Owen, 1966.
Editor, with Arthur Edelstein, Moderns and Contemporaries: Nine Masters of the Short Story. New York, Random House, 1968; revised edition, 1977.
Editor, Writers as Teachers/Teachers as Writers. New York, HoltRinehart, 1970.
Editor, Statements: New Fiction from the Fiction Collective. NewYork, Braziller, 1975.
Editor, with Peter Spielberg, Statements 2: New Fiction. New York, Fiction Collective, 1977.
Boston University Library.
The Life of Fiction by Jerome Klinkowitz, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1977; Writing in a Film Age: Essays by Contemporary Novelists edited by Keith Cohen, Boulder, University Press of Colorado, 1991.
Novels are an attempt to make sense out of experience and to make experience out of sense, to eschew the illusion of verisimilitude, to give form to what never existed, not to imitate life but to re-invent it out of language, to imagine the processes of the imagination, to imagine the imagining of the processes of the imagination, involved with cinema, dream, and memory, and the underground landscape of their conjunction.
No theory informs the work. It is what it comes to. My fiction is the illusion of itself.
* * *
A helpful preface to Jonathan Baumbach's fiction is his critical study, The Landscape of Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel. Baumbach is representative of a new style of novelist (which includes Ronald Sukenick, Jerzy Kosinski, and William H. Gass), having earned a graduate degree before writing fiction himself. Baumbach's thesis, that "To live in this world, to live consciously in this world in which madness daily passes for sanity is a kind of madness in itself," describes a problem for literary art against which he poses his own fiction as solution. "Unable to believe in the surface (the Life magazine reality) of our world," he argues, "the best of the post-Second-World-War novelists have taken as their terrain the landscape of the psyche." Yet for that "landscape of nightmare" writers such as Bernard Malamud and William Styron were still using techniques more appropriate to social realism. In his own work Baumbach has striven to find a new style suitable for the innovative fiction he writes. As he emphasized to an interviewer in 1973, "I'm not just using the dream in the traditional sense, in the psychological sense where it's an almost compacted parable, with special symbols. I'm just trying to find another way of getting at reality. I mean, my sense is that the conventional novel, for me, anyway, is on its way to a dead end. And I'm trying to get at the way things are in a way that no one has ever seen them before."
Baumbach's first novel, A Man to Conjure With, synthesizes various trends outlined in his critical study. Much like William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness, Baumbach's work has a protagonist who moves simultaneously backward and forward in time, carefully orchestrating revelations of plot and character so that the present is gradually understood in a plausible and convincing way. As a result, the narrative is assembled as a psychological collage; only in the protagonist's final act do all the elements become clear. Baumbach's technical achievement has been to find a structural form that reflects this psychological state: a thoroughly spatial novel.
What Comes Next is a more tightly written exploration of this same structural theme. Again the situation is psychological: a young college student, beset by sexual and parental problems, is "flipping out," and Baumbach's novel expresses this confusion by its very form. Violence erupts on every page, though primarily as mental device, since it is usually sparked by newspaper headlines and fantasized incidents. The book organizes itself as a literal landscape of nightmare, as all reference points for the character's reality are located within his own disjointed perceptions. As far as temporal narrative, "what comes next" is created from the workings of his mind.
Baumbach's subsequent work has been even more strongly experimental. His third novel, Reruns, abandons plot and character entirely in favor of dream-like images from movies rerun page by page. Babble, a novel made up of several "baby stories" written through the mid-1970s, is more playful but no less daring in its technical achievement. In order to explore the workings of narrative, Baumbach records the stories his infant son allegedly tells him ("His second story is less fresh than the first, though of greater technical sophistication"; "The robot is after him again, this time disguised as a soda vending machine. 'You can't have any Coke,' the robot says, 'until you wash your face."'). Once more Baumbach has become the critic in order to fashion a new mode for fiction.
Technical resources for Baumbach's developing style of fiction are discussed in his introduction to Writers as Teachers / Teachers as Writers. Here, speaking as both a fiction writer and a literary critic, he reveals that in creative writing classes one can "talk to the real person, the secret outlaw hiding out in the 'good' student." This outlaw quality distinguishes the narrative artist, whose genius is to be in touch with himself or herself, with the personal voice inside that overcomes the "strategies of evasion" which in fact cover up the idiosyncratic qualities of expression (and therefore of beauty and insight). Such expression cannot be taught, but can only be developed in a context whereby the writer-to-be discovers his or her own talent. The strategies for doing this reflect Baumbach's own experiments in fiction: overcoming the fear of being foolish, learning that it is less important to understand something than appreciating how to live with it, and getting to know how to exist in a community with one's readers. In the process, one must fight against "years and years of systematic depersonalization to get at what's unique and alive." Consequently Baumbach and his contributors emphasize the importance of finding one's personal voice, a strategy that informs the later contributions to a fiction anthology Baumbach co-edited, Moderns and Contemporaries, the second edition of which features personally vocal stories by Grace Paley (also a contributor to the writing book) and Donald Barthelme.
Throughout the 1970s Baumbach continued to experiment with various structures for fiction, including the sub-genre parodies, movie mythologies, and dreamlike obsessions featured throughout his story collection The Return of Service. But it is his fifth novel, Chez Charlotte and Emily, which displays his greatest facility as a writer. Ostensibly the device by which a bored husband and wife communicate with each other (by proposing a narrative and then critiquing it), the novel is actually an excuse (à la The Canterbury Tales) for the telling of stories. Freed from the necessity of plausible context, Baumbach is able to spin out fantasies of shipwreck, sexual adventure, intrigue, and the complexity of human relationships—all as pure writing, justified by the arrangement of the couple's critical debate. Soon the two contexts, critical and fictional, merge—as they must, Baumbach would argue, for it is through works of the imagination that we preserve our consciousness of the world.
His sixth novel, My Father More or Less, experiments with forms of intertextuality to make this same point. Alternately narrated by Tom Terman and by a third-person narrator reflecting the actions of his father Lukas, the novel shows how Tom's visit to his father in London is shaped by the son's memory of his earlier abandonment, while the father's own coming to terms with his son, his mistress, and his employer becomes interwoven with the detective-story screenplay he's been working on. Lukas only superficially controls his film narrative, as its development toward the protagonist's death is impelled by the pressure of events unfolding in Terman's life. But these same events are enriched by the textual experience with his script. At times the writer's role takes over, as when Terman extricates himself from an unhappy situation by "writing himself a few lines of dialogue." For his part, Tom finds himself in a film script situation enhanced by the fact that actual movies have been shot on location in his father's house; but when events threaten, he is able to telephone his father for a rescue, much like a character calling upon the author for relief. That the father is creator of the son helps establish the naturalized quality of Baumbach's narrative. Although as experimentally intertextual as the most sophisticated literary experiments, My Father More or Less reads as accessibly as the most realistic fiction, indicating that Baumbach has found a useful device for bringing innovative fiction back within the literary mainstream.
Comfortable in his style that melds both tradition and innovation, Baumbach uses a range of familiar materials in the stories of The Life and Times of Major Fiction to show how fresh techniques for presentation are available to the writer who both knows the tricks of the trade and appreciates how readers will appreciate their use. His particular genius is displayed in "Mr. and Mrs. McFeely at Home and Away," based as it is on characters from a popular children's show who are, in their televised roles, the quintessence of familiarity, while their lives off-screen are shown as offering a challenge to the imagination, given that on TV the audience's imagining has been done for them. In similar manner, the challenge to write a story about basketball produces "How You Play the Game," an exercise in trying to make a narrative out of what is in essence merely a situation. The author, who is a character in his own story by virtue of having been asked in the first line to write it, struggles to make life as interesting as art, and succeeds only by following the most rudimentary role of fantasy: placing himself in the actual game.
A similar strategy informs Separate Hours, Baumbach's novel in which the long relationship of husband and wife becomes problematic for a novel, because its telling is complicated by the fact that each is a psychotherapist possessed of an entire battery of systems for just such interpretation. As in the basketball story, there are thus two streams to the narrative: action and interpretation. Problems result when one turns into the other. That each character wishes to be the narrator creates a dilemma for the reader in search of a story to be trusted. The dual nature of this and of all narrative is Baumbach's continuing interest, also evident in his experiments at combining photos and text as "stills from imaginary movies." D-Tours returns to the idea of a story-within-a-story, but does so in a manner much simpler than that which readers of Baumbach have become accustomed: this novel is more clearly a series of interrelated stories, united by the character of Max Million, who skips blithely between genres, situations, incidents, and even planets.
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