Donald Barthelme’s The King: The Manifold Guises of (an) American(’s) Memory
The King (1990) / Le roi (1992) est une transposition du mythe du roi Arthur pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Cet article vise dans un premier temps à montrer en quoi ce roman posthume de Donald Barthelme (1931-1989) peut être considéré comme une uchronie mettant en scène la rencontre de l’histoire et de la mémoire, deux notions pourtant antithétiques. Cette œuvre renferme de multiples influences et se caractérise par la britannicité de son protagoniste et de la plupart des lieux où se déroule l’action. Ainsi, il s’agit également d’analyser comment, à partir du mythe anglo-saxon du roi Arthur et des chevaliers de la Table Ronde, Barthelme (re)crée une œuvre pourtant profondément américaine parsemée d’échos à des textes américains emblématiques ; illustration métafictionnelle de l’argument de Pierre Nora, selon lequel la mémoire se veut à la fois collective et individuelle.
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- 1 Ralph Waldo Emerson, « The American Scholar », an oration delivered on August 1, 1837 before the Ph (...)
« When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world1. »
- 2 Donald Barthelme, The King, New York, Harper & Row, 1990 (all subsequent references are to this fir (...)
- 3 The dichotomy is here one of « Fancy » and « Imagination ». See Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia (...)
- 4 See for instance Caitlin R. Green, « The Historicity and Historicisation of Arthur », accessed Jan (...)
1In The King2, Donald Barthelme’s last work, Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table have been transposed to World War II Britain. From the very way it is built, such a transposition highlights the tension between history and memory. The work oscillates between history (WWII, the Battle of Dunkirk, etc.) and the arts (literature and myths) and subverts the emerging dichotomy: supposedly more factual and objective, history becomes entangled with subjective memory, here embodied by the writer’s work and his response to reading other writers’ books. But these concepts also play on the opposition between the collective and the individual. Memory, insofar as it pertains to individuals, plays a part in the author’s artistic (re)creation of historical battlefields and goes hand in hand with imagination3. Nevertheless, memory usually means a form of remembrance of things that actually happened (historic facts linked to the Second World War in this case), which contrasts with the creative power of imagination governing the writer’s idiosyncratic transposition of the Arthurian myth to the 20th century. The legend of King Arthur is itself a form of memory. Some historians have made claims for his existence, although the attribution of identity is controversial4. Over time, it drifted towards imagination through the deforming power of oral storytelling, and later, of writing and rewritings. A similar process is at work in The King, where Barthelme reimagines World War II through an Arthurian lens.
- 5 Its title comes from Snow White, , Donald Barthelme’s first novel. It is a remark the Seven M (...)
2The aim of this article5 is first to analyze Donald Barthelme’s last book as an allohistory staging the meeting of history and memory, two somehow antithetical notions. I shall also argue that despite the extensive cultural library that goes into the book’s making and the prominence of the English protagonist and setting, Barthelme fashions an American novel from his British materials by featuring emblematic American texts, in metafictional accordance with the argument that memory is both collective and individual.
- 6 After the introductory chapter involving a chorus, Guinevere is listening to one of Haw-Haw’s awful (...)
- 7 Barthelme fought the Korean war, an experience he felt rather uncomfortable with and which only inc (...)
3The King takes place during World War II, right after the Battle of Dunkirk6 (around June 1940). It could have been labeled a historical novel (or novella, rather) had it not staged a major anachronism: the cast of characters includes King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In Barthelme’s work, Arthur has replaced George VI at the head of the English Monarchy. The readers are thus confronted with an allohistory (aka alternate history) where the « what-if » conjecture consists in imagining what would have happened if legendary knights had fought for Britain during the Second World War. WWII is indeed one of the biggest traumas in the 20th century history, just as it was the last to bring US troops to Old Europe. From then on, the strategy changed into an « off-shoring » of wars, as was the case in Korea7 and Vietnam, to name just two major American examples. It is because of this anachronistic temporality that Guinevere is able to critique the mechanization of wars:
- 8 Donald Barthelme, op. cit., p. 46.
I admit I like to see a well-placed buffet on the helm or thrust to the groin as much as any man. But these days that sort of behavior doesn’t, as they say, cut the mustard. What is one knight on horseback, however accomplished, to six hundred aircraft engaged in precision bombing? Not much8.
4Indeed, from Arthur and his Knights’ point of view, World War II, with its totalitarian regimes, mechanization and dehumanization, stands as a dystopic world that doesn’t have anything to do with chivalry any longer. So right from the start, Guinevere indulges in nostalgia:
- 9 Ibid., p. 4-5.
The thing I have always admired about Arthur is that he always manages to be on the side of the right. But Jesu, the intrigue! Once upon a time the men went out and bashed each other over the head for a day and a half, and that was it9.
5Her feeling is conveyed in the second part of the passage by the set phrase « once upon a time » and the use of the preterit, implying knightly combat is a long abandoned tradition. The historical period Guinevere and her retinue fit into now clearly belongs to myth. Considering The King as a comedy of intrigue, her commentary is reflective and can be applied to the book as a whole.
- 10 Barthelme’s spelling.
6Even the Grail has changed symbolical value and is now represented by the atomic bomb. Notwithstanding, the word « Grail » is also taken at face value, if one bears in mind the idiom « the atomic bomb is the Holy Grail », as meaning what everybody is after. Towards the end of the book, Launcelot10 and Sir Roger the Black Knight have gathered three equations and as the latter explains in a conference with Arthur and the other Knights:
- 11 Donald Barthelme, op. cit., p. 128-129.
These three equations, taken together, will enable us to build a bomb more powerful than any the world has ever known. […] According to my rough calculations, everything within ten miles or so of the point of impact goes. And you could increase the effect by timing the device to go off in the air, fifty or a hundred feet from the ground11.
7For any late-20th-century reader, such a description cannot but stand as a proleptic vision of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that occurred in August 1945. But Arthur is soon to nip this plan in the bud:
- 12 Ibid., p. 130.
Arthur took the three slips of paper and tore them to bits. « We won’t do it », he said. « I cannot allow it. This is not the way we wage war. » « If we don’t », said Sir Kay, « you may be sure that someone else will. Most likely the enemy. » « That may be », said Arthur. « Still we won’t. The essence of our calling is right behavior, and this false Grail is not a knightly weapon. I have spoken12. »
8The opening alliteration in /w/ reflects Arthur’s firm stance and his intent to hammer his decision into his Knights’ brains. The erratic chronology at stake in The King echoes the craziness and absurdity of wars, hence Arthur’s refusal to use the bomb. To a certain extent, he dooms himself on purpose, all the while remaining faithful to the chivalric code where making war only meant trying to prevent it. Arthur’s failure also metaphorically parallels the decline of Great Britain as a « superpower » and the rise of the USSR and the USA by the end of WWII.
9Another way to depict the absurdity of that war is found in the staging of voices as emblems of propaganda. This is where Ezra Pound and Lord Haw-Haw come into play. In spite of the anachronistic Knights of the Round Table, some of the characters do have a place in the history of the Second World War, as is the case with these two broadcast voices. Their presence within the diegesis is as radical as the discourse they embody: they are never physically present, but are mere voices pouring their abusive ideologies into Arthur and his fellows’ ears. Barthelme’s rendition of Ezra Pound is accurate to the point that Pound’s words are verbatim quotes from his speeches. The third chapter of The King begins in medias res with Pound’s first radio address:
- 13 Ibid., p. 7. For a transcript of Pound’s original broadcast, see Leonard W. Doob (ed.), « Ezra Poun (...)
« The Bolshevik anti-morale », said Ezra, « comes out of the Talmud, which is the dirtiest teaching that any race ever codified. The Talmud is the one and only begetter of the Bolshevik system. » « In a moment he’ll be talking about ‘kikified usurers’ », said Arthur. « One expects poets to be mad, but... » « […] You would do better to inoculate your children with typhus and syphilis », said Ezra, « than to let in the Sasoons, Rothschilds and Warburgs13. »
- 14 Jean Freedman, Whistling in the Dark: Memory and Culture in Wartime London, Lexington, University P (...)
- 15 Ibid., p. 41-48.
10If Pound’s presence is less anomalous than Arthur and his Knights’, he is nevertheless slightly anachronistic. The story takes place around June 1940 but Pound only started broadcasting on Radio Rome in 1941. In this respect, Lord Haw-Haw is more accurate than Pound. Haw-Haw was indeed a very popular entity even before the Blitz started. I use the term « entity » on purpose because the identity of « the strangest radio personality during the war » was uncertain then14. In The King, Lord Haw-Haw’s addresses are perfectly in tune with Freedman’s analysis of his role as a radio announcer of Nazi propaganda15, and Barthelme even kept the emblematic « This is Germany calling. » However, they also introduce a more contemporary concern. This excerpt from Haw-Haw’s first speech in the novel illustrates the style and substance of the subsequent ones:
- 16 A similar fact is mentioned by Freedman, though, as she explains, such trivia belong to « Haw-Haw l (...)
- 17 Donald Barthelme, op. cit., p. 87-88.
« Good Evening fellow Englishmen », said Lord Haw-Haw. « This is Germany calling. We wonder a bit, if we may be permitted to wonder, about a country whose queen is, to put it mildly, flirting with indiscretion. […] [And] this shameful game goes on unrebuked by the just censure of honest folk, as sure as the Common clock is five minutes fast16. […] And where is Arthur? Why, sulking in his tent somewhere, looking at himself in the mirror and wondering about the handsome horns which new adorn his brow. Wake up Englishmen! This war is not your war. If you believe this, you’ll also believe that […] sneezing increases the size of the female bust. Good evening Englishmen. Take a look at the Pembroke Common clock17. »
- 18 This leaves Arthur with very 20th century concerns. Answering Sir Kay’s remark, « [n]o one pays any (...)
11Donald Barthelme introduces one more jarring effect here: added to Nazi propaganda is gossip18 about the Queen’s affair with Launcelot. Since the story takes place in Britain, this echoes such tabloids as The Sun and their atavistic taste for gossip though the medium has been displaced from paper to yet another mass medium: broadcast words.
- 19 Sigmund Freud, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, , London, Penguin Classics, 2002 (...)
- 20 Larry McCaffery, The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme and William H (...)
12Finally, in The King, memory is not a mere collection of non sequiturs but a literal and literary re-collection, a « collecting again » in mimicry of the accretive power of memory. In other words, re-collection is a way to re-present memory as fallible and the very trauma represented by World War II may well account for this fallibility. So Barthelme relies on one of the most effective defensive weapons against such trauma: humor19. According to Freudian psychoanalysis, it is employed to release pressure in displacing emotions from distress to a certain kind of gaiety. Barthelme’s use of humor is ambivalent though. If it alleviates the indelible mark left by the atrocities of WWII, humor also has a metafictional value. The most problematic aspect of using myth in postmodern fiction is indeed « a self-consciousness about myth that has reached such paralyzing proportions that most contemporary use of myth is overtly self-conscious and is employed primarily for comic purposes20 ». Thus, Barthelme’s « comic purposes » are expressed through the obvious use of anachronism; the « self-conscious » aspect being embodied by Arthur, who ends up well-aware of being alienated from the time in which Barthelme has placed him. After an interview with a journalist, who reveals that Churchill publicly accused Arthur of being an anachronism, the following private confession takes place; Sir Kay speaks first:
- 21 Donald Barthelme, op. cit., p. 85-86.
« So Winston thinks you’re an anachronism. » « Ah, well », said Arthur. «I wouldn’t be surprised if he was right. God knows I feel like one. I feel old21.»
13Play on scale adds to the comic effect, as Launcelot’s tirade below shows. Echoing Arthur’s mood, his words also alludes to the Knights’ nostalgia for more magnificent times:
- 22 Ibid., p. 38-39.
« Very few people in this world have actually slain a dragon […] what has been actually slain, in almost every case is a lizard […]. One understands that a man does not wish to come home to his castle of an evening and say to his lady, ’God wot I had the fight of me life today […]’ and then have the awful question come, ‘What manner of monster was it?’ and be forced to reply, ‘Lizard’22 ».
- 23 Ibid., p. 72.
14Arthur uses the same process of trivialization a few pages later when he remarks that « [l]obsters are the only thing most people kill with their own hands […] in the modern world23 ». Needless to say, the King’s nostalgia is also evident here.
15As a result, Barthelme’s blend of humor, recollection and historical facts stages the tension between memory and history, as well as the atrocity of the war. Such a blend already reveals some disruptive aspects but there is another jarring dimension of Barthelme’s memory unfolding in The King.
- 24 Liliane Louvel, L’œil du texte, Toulouse, Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 1998, p. 15 (my transla (...)
- 25 Donald Barthelme, op. cit., p. 56. As one may have expected it, Arthur provides the best solution t (...)
16The book as an object is itself a tribute to past forms. The paratext is particularly telling and evidence is to be found as early as the title page. Under the author’s name and the title, an engraved crown is printed with the italicized indication « Wood Engravings by Barry Moser ». In the late 18th century, Thomas Bewick, who devised a technique that made wood engravings easier and cheaper to produce, popularized the technique in Britain. The King echoes 19th century editions of the best-known work of English Arthurian literature, Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), the obvious source for Barthelme’s own rendition, because illustrated editions of Malory’s text became commonplace at that time. The layout of The King also contains an element of medieval tradition: the capital initials appearing at the beginning of each chapter. In the final colophon, not only is the engraved crown reprinted, this is also where the exact origin of these capital initials is mentioned: « The book was set in Garamond with fifteenth-century ornamental initials from the Summa Bartholomaei Pisani ». The layout and illustrative technique are traditional, and so is the function of Moser’s eight plates. Most of them are not disruptive in that they always echo the narrative. They are portraits of the character that is dealt with in the chapter where these engravings appear and can be considered as reading pauses or « freeze frames » since « [inserting an image] within a text breaks the flow of the narrative and generates this ‘freeze frame’ effect which cinema is so fond of24 ». However, one illustration can be considered as disruptive, because it stages an anachronism. In illustration #4, Arthur and his counselors, Sir Kay, Sir Herlin and Sir Lamorak, are inspecting a locomotive « welded to the track25 ». The King’s banners can be seen in the background, and in the foreground (bottom and top left-hand corners) massive parts of a locomotive. The illustration clearly epitomizes the uchronic principle at stake in this transposition of the Arthurian myth. So it comes as no surprise that it was used as the cover illustration.
- 26 Lauron William De Laurence, The illustrated key to the tarot: the veil of divination, illustrating (...)
- 27 Donald Barthelme, op. cit., p. 95-96.
- 28 A shameful representation (lit. a « defaming portrait ») of a traitor, a thief, etc., commissioned (...)
- 29 L. 54-55. It is the first poem in the collection. Ominously enough, it is dedicated to Ezra Pound.
- 30 Tracy Daugherty, Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2009, p (...)
17As far as tradition is concerned, another pertinent reference is to be found in the « Hanged Man » illustration. This engraving being reminiscent of the Twelfth Arcana of a Tarot deck, this time, the allusion has more to do with popular culture than literary and editorial traditions. Barthelme may well have been interested in tarot (he owned a book on the subject26) and used Tarot as an inspiration for his own Hanged Man. Moser’s « Hanged Man » engraving is accordingly reminiscent of the arcana, yet, he represented him naked and turning his back to the viewer. It is in tune with the character in Barthelme’s narrative, who has been undressed and hung for being a « deviationist » because, as he himself puts it, « [w]hatever the common herd is up to, we go athwart it, on principle. Naturally this does not make us loved27 ». His physical position thus literally matches his political posture. Moreover, this can be seen as a metafictional comment because, by inverting the traditional representation of the Hanged Man, this engraving itself is « deviationist », a pittura infamante28 in the most literal sense of the word. Besides, this Hanged Man stands as a reference to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). The arcana is mentioned in « The Burial of the Dead », even though in Eliot’s poem, the card only appears in absentia: « I do not find / The Hanged Man », says Madame Sosostris, the clairvoyante29. This reference is all the more obvious when one knows that the poem is also based on the legend of the Holy Grail and the myth of renewal and healing of the maimed Fisher King to celebrate the coming of spring. According to Tracy Daugherty, The King and its Arthurian background stands as « a mythic and rueful meditation on dead societies and the ‘worrisome’ twentieth century30 », another aspect Barthelme’s book shares with Eliot’s Waste Land.
- 31 The poem includes the former « Morte d’Arthur » and was illuminated in 1912 by Alberto Sangorski (1 (...)
- 32 Though in Twain’s story it is a contemporary American who suddenly finds himself in Arthur’s Court.
18If the engravings and general layout of the book seem to revive the medieval tradition, the length of the story departs from, disrupts and even defies the traditional renditions of the Arthurian myth. Even compared to more recent rewritings, Barthelme’s novella is incredibly short. For instance, think of T. H. White’s quadrilogy, The Once and Future King (1958). Not only is it an impressive four-volume work, it also is one of the first to introduce World War II within the Arthurian myth: Merlin, who ages backwards, is able to warn Arthur against the future of mankind by alluding to WWII. From this perspective, Barthelme’s rewriting is not absolutely innovative. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s « Morte d’Arthur » (1835), « The Epic » (1842)31, and Idylls of The King (1859-1885) may also come to mind. All three poetic works involve a contemporary rewriting of the Arthurian story, at the source of which stands Malory’s aforementioned Le Morte d'Arthur (1485). Moreover, the brevity of Barthelme’s book even sparked one reviewer’s imagination. In the May 18, 1990 issue of Entertainment Weekly, L. S. Klepp oxymoronically labeled The King one of Barthelme’s « short longer fictions ». Last but not least, as an American rewriting, The King also has a place in a long lineage, from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)32 to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973):
- 33 Andrew E. Mathis, The King Arthur Myth and Modern American Literature, Jefferson-NC, McFarland, 200 (...)
The depiction of the Grail as an object of destructive potential is a grave variation on the medieval versions of the story, but this characterization does not begin with Barthelme. Indeed, the association is seen in several post-war pulp-fiction novels, for instance. But it is likely that the text exerting more influence on Barthelme was Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. The basic Grail element in this 1973 novel is Tyrone Slothrop’s quest in the final days of World War II to find Rocket 00000, one of the V-2 rockets that the Nazi Germany had been firing at England since 194333.
- 34 Though the novel echoes Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, this final exchange sounds more like Puck’s las (...)
- 35 Ralph Patrick, « Modern meets Medieval on ‘The King’’s Field », The Atlanta Journal, May 20, 1990, (...)
19In transforming the Grail into a bomb, Pynchon made a 20th-century innovation Barthelme continues. But the latter’s atom bomb is even more destructive and difficult to quest than Pynchon’s. Nevertheless, the Arthurian matter by no means exhausts the proliferation of possible influences and it seems there could be as many in The King as readers reading it. For example, Tracy Daugherty sees the excipit where chorus-like unnamed characters tell of Launcelot’s sitting and dreaming under an apple tree as an echo of both Apollinaire’s The Poet Assassinated and Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream34. Reviewer Ralph Patrick, however, perceives a reference to a popular WWII song from the 1942 movie Private Buckaroo « Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree (with Anyone Else But Me)35 », performed by the Andrews Sisters.
20If these two instances should not be discarded but considered as possible influences, Malory’s and Eliot’s works are more substantial intertexts. But in my opinion, there is yet another intertextual reference shining through Barthelme’s The King: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s « American Scholar » (1837). The Emersonian voice is embodied by a minor character: Walter the Penniless. He is minor in that he only appears twice in the novel, but is nonetheless given a whole chapter and an illustration. The character is half a preacher, half a tramp, as suggested by his very name and Moser’s engraving, in which he is dressed in rags and holding a crucifix. Walter the Penniless takes his name from Gautier Sans Avoir, Lord of Boissy-Sans-Avoir, Ile de France, who died in 1096. Though the leader of the « Peasants’ Crusade » (aka the people’s Crusade) in the First Crusade does not appear in Malory’s text, in The King, he is the first to claim the anachronistic value of Arthur and his Knights. He also praises the rise of the « downright maladroit » in what may seem a Communist-like fashion:
- 36 Donald Barthelme, op. cit., p. 37.
« The way I see it », said Walter the Penniless, « the old order is dead. Finished. We don’t want the extraordinary, as represented by you gentlemen and your famous king, any longer. It is a time for the unexceptional, the untalented, the ordinary, the downright maladroit. Quite a large constituency. All genuine certified human beings, with hearts and souls and all the rest of it. You fellows, worshipful as you may be, are anachronisms36. »
21In rejecting the Knights as « the old order » and as « anachronisms », Walter the Penniless scorns their quest and even turns it into a Quixotic one. If we bear in mind that his historical counterpart was engaged in an equally futile endeavor, Penniless’s argument sounds rather ironic.
22But in spite of their medieval source and communist flavor, the tramp-cum-preacher’s words have a truly American dimension. The passage mentioned above echoes Emerson’s argument in his famous oration, the « American Scholar », where he advocated that not only should the American scholar rely on Nature to gain access to knowledge, he should also pay the greatest heed to « the near, the low, the common »:
- 37 Ralph Waldo Emerson, op. cit., p. 42.
One of [the auspicious signs of the coming days] is the fact, that the same movement which effected the elevation of what was called the lowest class in the state, assumed in literature a very marked and as benign an aspect. Instead of the sublime and beautiful; the near, the low, the common, was explored and poetized. That, which had been negligently trodden under foot by those who were harnessing and provisioning themselves for long journeys into far countries, is suddenly found to be richer than all foreign parts. The literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life, are the topics of the time. It is a great stride37.
- 38 To further complexify the intertextual network, the « downright maladroit » is itself an echo of Ho (...)
23Rephrased in Walter the Penniless’s words, Emerson’s American Scholar would be a « downright maladroit38 ». Creating an echo thanks to the same ternary rhythm, Emerson’s « the near, the low the common » becomes, in the mouth of Barthelme’s character, « the unexceptional, the untalented, the ordinary ». In the light of Emerson’s speech, this exhortation now resounds as a metafictional comment. Praising the Emersonian trinity in a literary work, Barthelme’s Walter the Penniless proves that « the near, the low, the common » have, in effect, been poeticized.
- 39 Gérard Genette, Palimpsestes. La littérature au second degré, , Paris, Seuil, 1992.
24The uncontrollable proliferation of references turns The King into a recycling bin of sorts and transfers the « anxiety of influence » (to borrow Harold Bloom’s formula) onto the readers, who end up infected with a kind of referential paranoia, suspecting that each and every sentence might be a more or less distorted allusion to another text: a hegemonic dictatorship of the hypertext. If the « Medusa of Influence » may beguile us throughout the narrative, as seen, the final episode epitomizes the phenomenon. The text is finally closer to Antoine Compagnon’s « maculature » than to Gérard Genette’s « palimpsest39 »:
- 40 Antoine Compagnon, La Seconde Main ou le travail de la citation, Paris, Seuil, 1979, p. 391-392 (my (...)
Maculature: it is a technical term originating in typography. Since the 16th century, it has meant the stain or the blotch on a sheet of paper; it is a dividing sheet soaking up the surplus of ink, it is blotting paper. […] Now there’s no such thing as writing « in black ink on white paper » for there’s no more white page. […] When another text covers it, the intertext is blurred, blotted as it is by the relics of all the writings whose dribbles it soaked up. Or, more accurately, it is a hollowed-out, a furrowed surface, it is slashed, eroded, scratched and altered by too many « strokes » of the pen, it is the network deeply engraved into any inscription40.
25Mimicking memory as a selective and sometimes unreliable process, the maculature of influence, reference and intertextuality in The King is even fostered by a process of accretion. The surface of the text turns into a kind of magnet where anything can accumulate more or less at random. This magnetic accumulation further increases the tensions between memory, history and the literary past as they are staged in Barthelme’s novella.
- 41 More specifically, see Alfred Lord Tennyson, « The Palace of Art », , Part 1, stanza 1; Part (...)
- 42 Interestingly enough, there is a reference to King Arthur in Tennyson’s poem: the periphrasis « myt (...)
26We have ridden through the lands of the manifold guises of (this) American(’s) memory. These guises are particularly intricate and since Arthur and his Knights do not belong any longer, it seems the bravest knight in this rewriting is the reader. All in all, these « manifold guises » echo the endeavor of Tennyson’s persona in « The Palace of Art » (1833)41 who assembles the most exquisite forms of art to build the soul’s dwelling place and finally acknowledges and attunes to the latter’s call for a simpler place to purge its guilt. Barthelme’s equivalents to Tennyson’s Milton, Shakespeare and Dante would be Malory, Tennyson42, Eliot, Shakespeare, Emerson, Twain, Pynchon, even Pound, and so many more. And to avoid both the guilt of looting the past and the soul’s dissatisfaction, Barthelme provides his « Palace of the Incongruous » with humor, history, mythology and metafiction to help the soul purge its guilt. The King may just as well be considered as a « Temple of Memory » built by Barthelme, not only as an idiosyncratic means to personally cope with the remanence of the literary past and with a traumatic historical event and the atrocity of war, but as a more universal place of remembrance for the reader to visit.
1 Ralph Waldo Emerson, « The American Scholar », an oration delivered on August 1, 1837 before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge, MA. Reprinted in Orren Henry Smith (ed.) The American Scholar, Self-Reliance, Compensation by Ralph Waldo Emerson, New York, American Book Company, 1911, p. 21-46.
2 Donald Barthelme, The King, New York, Harper & Row, 1990 (all subsequent references are to this first edition).
3 The dichotomy is here one of « Fancy » and « Imagination ». See Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 1817, chap. 13. Wordsworth’s « Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey »,  unmistakably comes to mind as well: « Therefore am I still / A Lover of […] eye and ear, both what they half-create, / And what perceive […]. », l. 103-107.
5 Its title comes from Snow White, , Donald Barthelme’s first novel. It is a remark the Seven Men made after Snow White had them read the immense poem she wrote and told them she couldn’t leave them due to a « failure of the imagination »: « I have not been able to imagine anything better. We were pleased by this powerful statement of our essential mutuality, which can never be sundered or torn, […] not even by art in its manifold and dreadful guises. », Donald Barthelme, Snow White, , New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996, p. 65. It is not so much the « dreadful » as the « manifold guises of art » (of Barthelme’s art, specifically) that are discussed here.
6 After the introductory chapter involving a chorus, Guinevere is listening to one of Haw-Haw’s awful radio broadcasts: « The invincible forces of the Reich », said Haw-Haw, « are advancing on all fronts. Dunkirk has been completely secured. The slaughter is very great. Gawain has been reported captured », Donald Barthelme, op. cit., p. 3.
7 Barthelme fought the Korean war, an experience he felt rather uncomfortable with and which only increased his acid view on wars.
8 Donald Barthelme, op. cit., p. 46.
9 Ibid., p. 4-5.
10 Barthelme’s spelling.
11 Donald Barthelme, op. cit., p. 128-129.
12 Ibid., p. 130.
13 Ibid., p. 7. For a transcript of Pound’s original broadcast, see Leonard W. Doob (ed.), « Ezra Pound Speaking »: Radio Speeches of World War II, Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press, 1978, p. 66-69.
14 Jean Freedman, Whistling in the Dark: Memory and Culture in Wartime London, Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 1999, p. 43.
15 Ibid., p. 41-48.
16 A similar fact is mentioned by Freedman, though, as she explains, such trivia belong to « Haw-Haw legends »: [Haw-Haw’s] reputation for both omniscience and threat was astonishing. He was supposed to have known that Darlington Town Hall clock was two minutes slow […]. Obviously, these « Haw-Haw legends » (as the ministry [of Information] called them) were doing as much harm as the actual broadcasts. See Jean Freedman, op. cit., p. 44.
17 Donald Barthelme, op. cit., p. 87-88.
18 This leaves Arthur with very 20th century concerns. Answering Sir Kay’s remark, « [n]o one pays any attention to Haw-Haw », the King confesses: « I quite disagree with you […]. People hang upon his every word. They find him delicious. The entire English-speaking world believes that Launcelot is sleeping with Guinevere. », Donald Barthelme, op. cit., p. 9.
19 Sigmund Freud, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, , London, Penguin Classics, 2002, p. 226. For a thorough analysis of humor, specifically see chap. VII [F], p. 222-228.
20 Larry McCaffery, The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme and William H. Gass, Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982, p. 139.
21 Donald Barthelme, op. cit., p. 85-86.
22 Ibid., p. 38-39.
23 Ibid., p. 72.
24 Liliane Louvel, L’œil du texte, Toulouse, Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 1998, p. 15 (my translation).
25 Donald Barthelme, op. cit., p. 56. As one may have expected it, Arthur provides the best solution to « unweld » it: « ‘Jack it up’, said Arthur. ‘Remove the wheels and attached track. Replace wheels. Replace track. Lower engine, and there you have it.’ », p. 58. This episode may be an oblique reference to René Clément’s 1946 movie The Battle of the Rails. Still, resistance fighting is not at stake here, the sabotage originates in the railwaymen’s strike, as the reader learnt it earlier from Varley and Guinevere’s informal talk (see Barthelme, op. cit., p. 6).
26 Lauron William De Laurence, The illustrated key to the tarot: the veil of divination, illustrating the greater and lesser arcana, embracing: The veil and its symbols. Secret tradition under the veil of divination. Art of tarot, Chicago, De Laurence, Scott & Co, 1918. The reference to this item from the author’s personal library comes from the University of Houston Libraries website, accessed Jan 20, 2014. http://library.uh.edu/record=b3513009~S11
27 Donald Barthelme, op. cit., p. 95-96.
28 A shameful representation (lit. a « defaming portrait ») of a traitor, a thief, etc., commissioned by city-state administrations in Renaissance Italy to use as forensic art.
29 L. 54-55. It is the first poem in the collection. Ominously enough, it is dedicated to Ezra Pound.
30 Tracy Daugherty, Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2009, p. 485.
31 The poem includes the former « Morte d’Arthur » and was illuminated in 1912 by Alberto Sangorski (1862-1932). The book can be read online. http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/illuminated-version-of-lord-tennysons-morte-darthur-1912/
32 Though in Twain’s story it is a contemporary American who suddenly finds himself in Arthur’s Court.
33 Andrew E. Mathis, The King Arthur Myth and Modern American Literature, Jefferson-NC, McFarland, 2002, p. 127. Mathis continues: « The specific Arthurian references that Pynchon makes in connection with the bomb/Grail quest are relatively few and are widely dispersed throughout the text. The earliest comes in a reference to Eliot’s The Waste Land, which, thanks to Steinbeck and other earlier writers, has become a principal intertext for American writers of Arthuriana. »
34 Though the novel echoes Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, this final exchange sounds more like Puck’s last speech in A Midsummer’s Night Dream: « Think... / That you have but slumb’red here / While these visions did appear. / And this weak and idle theme, / No more yielding but a dream... »; Tracy Daugherty, op. cit., p. 487. Note to page 487 reads: « Apollinaire also once wrote a fantasy about King Arthur set in a futuristic London. His novella, The Poet Assassinated, ends with an elegy for a hero beneath a tree. », p. 547.
35 Ralph Patrick, « Modern meets Medieval on ‘The King’’s Field », The Atlanta Journal, May 20, 1990, Donald Barthelme Papers, courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.
36 Donald Barthelme, op. cit., p. 37.
37 Ralph Waldo Emerson, op. cit., p. 42.
38 To further complexify the intertextual network, the « downright maladroit » is itself an echo of Horace’s Aureas Mediocritas, or the « Golden Mean » in English (see Ode 2.10, l. 5-8). Ironically, Walter the Penniless uses the idiom in its most misleading meaning and literal-null-and-void translation.
39 Gérard Genette, Palimpsestes. La littérature au second degré, , Paris, Seuil, 1992.
40 Antoine Compagnon, La Seconde Main ou le travail de la citation, Paris, Seuil, 1979, p. 391-392 (my translation).
41 More specifically, see Alfred Lord Tennyson, « The Palace of Art », , Part 1, stanza 1; Part 5, stanzas 1 to 3 and stanzas 20 and 21.
42 Interestingly enough, there is a reference to King Arthur in Tennyson’s poem: the periphrasis « mythic Uther’s deeply-wounded son », i.e. Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father (Part 3, stanza 1, l. 1). Gabriel Dante Rossetti also chose this line as part of his illustrations of Tennyson’s poems (1857); the engraving is entitled « King Arthur and the Weeping Queen. » See www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/dgr/hikim4.htmlHaut de page
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Aurélie Delevallée, « Donald Barthelme’s The King: The Manifold Guises of (an) American(’s) Memory », Les Cahiers de Framespa [En ligne], 24 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2017, consulté le 26 avril 2017. URL : http://framespa.revues.org/4340 ; DOI : 10.4000/framespa.4340Haut de page
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