By John Barth
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1991
ISBN # 0-316-08251-1
573 pages

By John Barth 573 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
August 2008

John Barth is an exceptional writer, one of my favorites. He tells marvelous stories, complicated, dense, very long, filled with esoteric knowledge of the world, brilliant, even original vocabulary, subtle wit, creativity of style, form and word usage which set him apart and above most other serious writers.

I’ve ready four of his other works: The Sot-Weed Factor, Giles Goat-Boy, Sabbatical, and The Tidewater Tales.

Having just finished this current work, I sit here in amazement of Barth’s story-telling ability and his astonishing use of language.

Like the ancient “A Thousand And One Nights,” to which this novel is deeply indebted, “The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor” is a tale within a tale, and includes several tales within a tale within a tale. I believe that is much more than simply a literary device, but reflects Barth’s sense of how we humans understand our lives, at least in remembering and retelling them.

“The Thousand and One Nights” is a Medieval collection of stories from many lands from the Far East through the Middle East. The basic frame of that classic stimulates Barth’s expansive imagination and sparks a not dissimilar setting for his novel.

In the ancient text King Shahryar marries virgins but once having taken their virginity on the marriage night, he then kills them, and soon after takes a new bride who suffers the same fate. He marries the beautiful Scherazade, but on their marriage night she asks if she can tell him a story before they go to sleep (she, knowing her “sleep” will be permanent). He agrees and she tells him a story but doesn’t finish it. Shahryar is hooked on the tale, just as I get hooked on Barth’s tales, and when she is too tired to finish it, he decides to wait until the next night to kill her.

The second night she finishes the first tale and begins a second, but again doesn’t finish it. And so it goes, night after night, and Shahryar is so hooked on the stories that Scherazade lives on. Not only lives on, but bears him children and in the end after the thousand and one nights, has fallen in love with her and no longer desires to kill her.

The Arabian Nights, as the book is also known, tells some famous stories including that of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, and the Seven Voyages of Sinbad. However, in that original story of Sinbad, in the seventh and last voyage, Sinbad tells his story at a banquet to which a guest has been invited, Sinbad the Landsman, a beggar who had turned up in Baghdad.

Now that beggar of last voyage turns out, in Barth’s version, not to be Sinbad the Landsman, but Barth’s main character, Somebody the Sailor, also known as Simon Behler, and Bill Baylor, “New Journalist.” These characters are only slightly disguised as an exaggerated John Barth. I don’t know all the details of Barth life, but it is clear enough that the novel is definitely semi-autobiographical. The fun game is to wonder just what is fiction and what is history.

As the novel opens we find Simon Behler (the names we find used for him include: Bill Baylor, Somebody the Sailor, Somebody the Still Stranded, Bey el Lor, I may even be forgetting others!) at the Medieval home / castle of Sinbad the Sailor in Baghdad. Sinbad is about to host several nights of banquets held prior to Sinbad’s pledging his daughter, Yasmin, to a rich Arab emir – however her virginity is in question. A second, and perhaps primary purpose of these banquets is for Sinbad to attract investors for his seventh and last voyage.

Baylor has been smuggled into the party by Yasmin and her maid. She then challenges her father to allow Baylor to tell stories of his voyages each evening, as Sinbad himself will recount one voyage a night of his first six. When this is greeted with skepticism, she proposes that each evening the group could then vote as to whether or not they want Baylor to continue. Sinbad agrees and it ends up each recount six voyages.

The reader is startled to discover that when Baylor tells of his first of his voyage, it is set in Dorset, Maryland in 1937, Baylor’s seventh birthday! The next three voyages are also of Baylor’s life, his 14th birthday in 1944 when he loses his virginity, his 42nd birthday, the last days of his marriage to Jane Price in 1972 and finally his voyage with his latest lover, Julie Moore in 1980 when Baylor was 50.

But how is this possible? Is medieval Baghdad a dream? Is Baylor’s mind going and is he having hallucinations? Does he time travel? It’s quite a puzzle, and puzzle of puzzles, the question is left unanswered.

Baylor’s fifth and sixth voyages are within a year of the fourth and both take place in medieval times.

John Barth demands much of the reader. We just have to accept this six hundred year time leap like one might not blink in a novel where one day the hero moved from Boston to New York. Further Barth demands a great deal in our attempt to follow the confusing and similar names of the various players and plotters in Sinbad’s court.

However, Barth rewards us with a marvelously told tale that while structurally challenging is funny, very erotic (to put it mildly), clever and filled with delightful word tricks. I particularly loved the many places where he makes verbs out of proper nouns.

His vocabulary, word games and exotic characters, his ability to create such other worldly worlds and pull us into them are evidence of his brilliance as an author.

Perhaps a key to one major theme of the novel is Barth’s notion of the pursuit of serendipity. When he and Julie Moore were sailing in 1980, the voyage which led him to medieval Baghdad and her to her death by drowning, they were heading toward a mythical island of Serendib. However, we are told:

“To sail from Serendib to Basra, one sets a course for Basra, but to sail from Basra to Serendib is quite another matter. As we both know, it is the nature of that elusive island that under no circumstances can it be reached by heading in its direction.”

That notion of serendipity has been important in my own life. I’ve always loved to read, but seldom use typical sources to guide my reading. I don’t use reviewers or reviews. Rather, since the 1950s I’ve reserved that word “serendipity” for the process of seaching for my books to be read. I often wander rather aimlessly in library stacks, book stores, especially used book stores, and book fairs, and lately even on internet book offerings. I prefer the serendipity of stumbling on a book or author which attracts me. I then often return to that author, as I do here with Barth for the fifth time. I also have his long novel LETTERS waiting on my own book shelf.

Perhaps Barth’s notion of serendipity is what led his literary imagination from sailing in 1980 to medieval Baghdad and the court of Sinbad the Sailor.

This novel rank very high on my list, along with the works of Jose Saramago and Robertson Davies, as the best of books I’ve read in the past ten years.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett