Baumbach, Jonathan 1933-
BAUMBACH, Jonathan 1933-
PERSONAL: Born July 5, 1933 in New York, NY; son of Harold M. (an artist) and Ida Helen (Zackheim) Baumbach; married Elinor Berkman, September 10, 1956 (divorced, 1967); married Georgia A. Brown, June 10, 1969 (divorced, May, 1991); children: (first marriage) David, Nina; (second marriage) Noah, Nicholas. Education: Brooklyn College (now of the City University of New York), A.B., 1955; Columbia University, M.F.A., 1956; Stanford University, Ph.D., 1961.
CAREER: Fiction writer and educator in English and creative writing. Stanford University, Stanford, CA, instructor in English, 1958-60; Ohio State University, Columbus, instructor in English, 1961-62, assistant professor of English, 1962-64; New York University, New York, NY, assistant professor of English and director of freshman English, 1964-66; Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Brooklyn, NY, associate professor, 1966-70, professor of English, beginning 1970, director of MFA in creative writing, beginning 1975, professor emeritus; The New School University, New York, NY, faculty member, 2004. Member of board of directors, Teachers and Writers Collaborative, NY, 1966—. Fiction Collective, cofounder, 1974, codirector, 1974-78, currently member of board of directors. Visiting professor, Tufts University, 1970-71, University of Washington, 1978-79 and 1985-86, Princeton University, 1990-91, Brown University, 1994. Military service: U. S. Army, 1956-58.
MEMBER: National Society of Film Critics (chair, 1982-84).
AWARDS, HONORS: Young Writers Award, New Republic, 1958; Yaddo fellowship, summers, 1963, 1964, and 1965; National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship, 1969; Guggenheim fellowship, 1978; Ingram-Merrill fellowship, 1983.
The One-Eyed Man Is King (play), first produced at Theater East, New York, NY, 1956.
The Landscape of Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1965.
(Contributor) W. R. Robinson, editor, Man and the Movies, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1967.
(Editor, with Arthur Edelstein) Moderns and Contemporaries: Nine Masters of the Short Story, Random House (New York, NY), 1968, republished as Moderns and Contemporaries: Twelve Masters of the Short Story, Random House (New York, NY), 1977.
(Editor and author of introduction) Writers As Teachers/Teachers As Writers, Holt (New York, NY), 1970.
(Editor) Statements: New Fiction from the Fiction Collective, Braziller (New York, NY), 1975.
(Editor, with Peter Spielberg) Statements 2: New Fiction, Fiction Collective (New York, NY), 1977.
The Return of Service: Stories, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1979.
The Life and Times of Major Fiction: Stories, Fiction Collective (New York, NY), 1986.
A Man to Conjure With, Random House (New York, NY), 1965.
What Comes Next, Harper (New York, NY), 1968.
Reruns, Fiction Collective (New York, NY), 1974.
Babble, Fiction Collective (New York, NY), 1976.
Chez Charlotte and Emily, Fiction Collective (New York, NY), 1979.
My Father More or Less, Fiction Collective (New York, NY), 1982.
Separate Hours, Fiction Collective Two (Boulder, CO), 1990.
Seven Wives: A Romance, Fiction Collective Two (Boulder, CO), 1994.
D-Tours, FC2 (Normal, IL), 1998.
B, Low Fidelity Press (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor of over eighty short stories and numerous articles to periodicals, including Esquire, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Partisan Review, Chicago Review, TriQuarterly, and Nation. Movie reviewer, Partisan Review, 1973-82. Contributor to anthologies, including O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories, and Best of Esquire. Manuscript collection resides at the Boston University Library.
SIDELIGHTS: In his first book, The Landscape of Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel, experimental writer Jonathan Baumbach examines the works of a number of postwar American novelists. "Baumbach explored each novel," wrote Larry McCaffery of the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "in terms of how it portrays the nightmarish conditions of contemporary society and how each individual protagonist attempts to carve his own niche, or openly rebels against these conditions." In contrast to the novelists of an earlier generation, who expressed the nightmarish quality of society "in terms of social defeats and victories," Bernard McCabe explained in Commonweal, the contemporary novelists Baumbach studies express it "in terms of the Self." It is this psychological approach that especially interests Baumbach. The novels he examines, Baumbach clarifies in his study, are concerned with "the confrontation of man with the objectification of his primordial self and his exemplary spiritual passage from innocence to guilt to redemption." Of particular importance to Baumbach, McCaffery reported, is "the way in which [these novels] make manifest the inner worlds and secret lives of their protagonists."
In his own novels, Baumbach also explores "inner worlds and secret lives," but does so through innovative narrative structures. Baumbach's narratives have "placed him in the company of our most serious experimentalists," Jerome Klinkowitz explained in The Life of Fiction. The similarities and interrelationships between memories, dreams, our perceptions of the real world, and the images of popular culture are constant concerns in all of Baumbach's fiction. With his first novel, A Man to Conjure With, Baumbach "immediately established the shifting terrain of dream, memory, imagination, and public nightmare that his fiction would explore," wrote McCaffery. Ironically, it is the most conventional of Baumbach's novels. As Klinkowitz explained, "There is experimentation [in A Man to Conjure With], but within traditional bounds; there is nothing unrealistic in the book except the character's dreams, which are clearly identified as such."
In the novel, Peter Becker tries to restore his marriage after being separated from his wife for many years. By piecing his life back together, Becker also hopes to reestablish a sense of personal identity. Speaking of Becker, Baumbach told John Graham in The Writer's Voice: Conversations with Contemporary Writers, "It's as if all the details will add up to a picture of himself. And then, he can look at himself as he was. He has the idea, perhaps, that the man he was at twenty is still somewhere there, all the potentiality that was there at twenty and forgotten and lost. To look at himself at twenty is to come back there and start again, to recoup what he's lost."
"Much of the action," observed Klinkowitz, "takes place in Peter [Becker's] dreams, and his character is defined by them." Klinkowitz noted that Baumbach uses dreams in this novel to study the workings of the human imagination and to determine how dreams are expressed in language. While Haskel Frankel of the New York Times Book Review admitted that "there is no question as to the author's talent, sensitivity, control, and intelligence," she also maintained that A Man to Conjure With "adds up to nothing. We are introduced to a man by someone we respect, asked to study the man carefully—and then are never told the point of our studies." However, S. L. Bellman of the Saturday Review stressed the importance of the protagonist's dreams. This novel, he wrote, "has the character of a weird Freudian nightmare that involves no stage effects or supernaturalism whatever." Also writing in the Saturday Review, Henry S. Rasnik found the novel to be "an ingenious portrait of a schlemiel-Everyman cracking up," while Emile Capouya of Book Week related that "Baumbach writes with great elegance and wit. . . . He is inventive and amusing."
The dreams found in Baumbach's next novel, titled What Comes Next, "are indistinguishable from life," Klinkowitz wrote, since the protagonist, a college student named Christopher Steiner, is going mad. There is no specific catalyst for his madness. He is simply reacting to his society. "Too much violence in the street. Sex, bombing, suffocation, rape. Too much madness," as Baumbach describes it in the novel. The narrative is structured to reflect Steiner's deteriorating state of mind, interweaving his dreams and hallucinations with the real events around him. "Baumbach's short-jabbing prose, skirting the necessary edge of hysteria thrusts the violent city at us. . . . Throughout the novel Baumbach works to dissolve ugly fact into fantasy, fantasy into fact, so that the nightmare and the reality are convincingly one," explained McCabe.
C. D. B. Bryan of the New York Times Book Review compared Baumbach's handling of What Comes Next to the work of Nathanael West. "Baumbach's writing," Bryan stated, "like West's, is finely chiseled, keen and tough; his images are violent and garish; his hero, like [West's character] Miss Lonelyhearts, is obsessed by nightmares. . . . [But] Baumbach's value as a writer is that he makes the insanity of his hero seem appallingly sane."
In Reruns, Baumbach's narrator is again concerned with reassembling his life into a meaningful pattern. The narrator describes himself as "a hostage to the habit of rerunning the dead past in the cause of waking from the dream." Organized into a series of thirty-three short chapters—each a "dream-exorcism," as John Ager remarked in the Carolina Quarterly—the book presents the record of a man's life as a month's worth of short films at a cinema. Some experiences are redone several times in different ways, as if the narrator were attempting to change the past through the power of his imagination. "These 'reruns,'" McCaffery explained, "are nightmarish, frantic, often violent episodes . . . whose characters and events are generated from a wide variety of cultural clichés, fairy tales, stories, and movies. This is a world of terror, loneliness, and absurdity." Irving Malin of the New Republic expressed a similar opinion: "Usual routines are destroyed; only explosive energy remains. . . . The confusion, violence, humor, and madness are mixed so quickly that we . . . are overwhelmed."
By using cinematic techniques in Reruns, wrote Michael Mewshaw in the New York Times Book Review, Baumbach attempts to capture in prose "the kind of simultaneous vision a movie or painting can express. He wants to show us objects and characters from mutually exclusive perspectives, to stretch our understanding of time and expand our comprehension of emotions so that contrary feelings will spring from the same experiences." Malin also saw the cinematic presentation as important to the novel's theme. "Baumbach," Malin observed, "asks important questions: does the individual gain self-knowledge by confronting his popular culture? What exactly is the value of dream (fantasy) in creating identity?" In Reruns, and the following novels, Babble and Chez Charlotte and Emily, McCaffery reported, Baumbach explores "the role of the media (especially cinema) in creating societal norms and the individual's notion of self."
The characters and situations of popular culture form an important part of Babble, the adventures of a baby-hero. Because the novel is narrated by a three-year-old, the conventions of fairy tales, comic books, and television are often used to tell the story; these, after all, are the storytelling techniques most familiar to a small child. In this way, McCaffery thought, Baumbach investigates "the process whereby language is discovered and narrative patterns are imposed."
In contrast to Baumbach's previous novels, the distinctions between dream and reality are irrelevant in Babble since the baby narrator can make no such distinctions when relating his adventures. Fact, fantasy, and dream are intertwined into "a kind of surreal Bildungsroman," as McCaffery described the book. Although the novel uses "the episodic form of Reruns and the beleaguered protagonists of [the] earlier novels," Thalia Selz wrote in fiction international, "a transformation takes place in attitude. Baby, whom we seem prepared to label a clown, manages through patience and stratagem, to remain a hero in a dangerous world."
Like Reruns and Babble, Chez Charlotte and Emily is a fragmented narrative constructed much like a film montage. As Irving Malin wrote in the Hollins Critic, it is a series of "stories within stories, boxes within boxes. The narrator writes about a couple; the couple write or fantasize about another couple; the third couple in turn have novelistic tendencies." All of the stories thus related are strongly reminiscent of the cinema, partly because the characters restage and reshoot scenes in varying ways, as might be done while making a movie. Other characters have the names of famous movie stars, while certain plot elements have their parallels in old movie scripts. The importance of these cinematic references, McCaffery pointed out, lies in the characters' abilities to use their imaginations to restructure their world. "All these stories," McCaffery stated, "are evidently metaphorical reflections of inner tensions, desires, and personality traits. . . . Through the agency of imagination and metaphor, . . . Joshua and Genevieve perpetuate themselves and their relationship, make love, and communicate."
In the 1982 novel My Father More or Less, Baumbach explores the complicated relationship between a long-separated father and son. According to McCaffery, writing this time for the American Book Review, the author seeks to develop "a fictional structure which can probe beneath the surface of our waking lives and awaken the intuition." Baumbach's next work of long fiction, Separate Hours, describes another muddled relationship—that of husband and wife psychotherapists who analyze the deterioration of their ill-starred marriage. Using a variety of literary techniques, including multiple narrative voices and a simulated cinematic recreation of the couple's conflicts, Baumbach creates "a curiously bracing novel of dissolution," noted Steven G. Kellman in the New York Times Book Review.
Seven Wives: A Romance features the narrator of Reruns conducting a cynical review of his seven failed marriages and fearing that he is the target of a murderous plot by one or more of his ex-wives. Catherine Bush, reviewing the work in the New York Times Book Review, suggested that Baumbach's female characters "never breathe with the suggestiveness of life beyond the page. . . . Nor does [the narrator's] obsession with them ever quiver with a sensuality that would allow us to feel him saturated by their presence." In the end, the reader is left wondering whether the protagonist has "learned anything from his misadventures." Bush concluded, however, that this may be just "what Mr. Baumbach intends."
In his 1998 novel D-Tours, protagonist Max Million tries to find his way back to the Paradise Hotel where he last left his dying lover years ago. As another of Baumbach's characters wanders through a variety of movie genres—science fiction, kung-fu, horror, film noir, and even slapstick—Max becomes involved in several different plots whose only common thread is his presence within them, making the novel almost appear as a collection of short stories. The novel was inspired by photographer David Axel Baumbach's series Stills from Imaginary Movies. A Publishers Weekly critic described D-Tours as "painfully postmodern," maintaining, "As Max declares from the outset, clichés are what make up his existence. Instead of reinventing and illuminating them, however, Max is doomed—as no character should be—to repeat them." Similarly, Steve Tomasula commented on Baumbach's use of movie genres in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, stating that "[the novel's] weakness is that in episodically taking on all of these genres, the point to which the gags are put isn't so much developed by the book as used as a framing device." However, Tomasula concluded, "When the story does come out the other end of its murder and chase scenes . . . it borders on the profound . . . [and] forces the reader to reconsider the episodes as cultural consciousness, autobiography, memory—the constituent components of self."
Baumbach's fictionalized memoir B is the failed attempt of the writer B to record the story of his life in a memoir. Sexual relationships and literary mishaps permeate the novel, which is more a collection of fourteen individual stories than a fluid novel in the traditional sense. In B's prologue, the author wrote, "When I reached fifty, turned that mortal corner, I decided it was time to tell my own story unmediated by metaphorical disguise. Mainly I was blocked on a novel I had started two years ago and needed to try something else to get out of my funk. I imagined in telling the story of my life I would rediscover pieces of myself I had lost, which might have some interest to readers who had a similar sense of incompleteness and dislocation. . . . If not exceptionally unusual, my life at least had been eventful. I had been married three times and in love (in the illusion of) at least seven others; I had four children; I had lived passionately (some of the time, much of it in the imagination); I had served in the army (between wars); I had written a number of books. And if not that eventful, at least my life had been substantial and serious. Or so I believed or mostly believed or aspired to believe. It was possible that the memoir I was positioned to write was a story of self-deception. . . . My failures were what gave my life the shape and dazzle of fiction. I continually found new ways to deceive myself into making what turned out to be a mistake."
Critics reacted strongly—in both positive and negative lights—to Baumbach's tenth novel. "B is a book of blurred boundaries and self-negation," wrote Matthew Flaming in a review of the book on the Word Riot Web site. While Flaming describe B's character as "likeable and fallible and convincing," Flaming found it to be problematic that "over the course of the book, B learns nothing, nothing changes. And the stories that he imagines or wanders through—often the distinction is unclear—seem to be a kind of atrophied realism; revolving around the narrator's self-centered blundering through a string of failed romances, they dissolve into unreconciled alternatives, stop mid-sentence, and do not even imagine that resolution is possible." However, Flaming did point out that some of the chapters were "lovely pieces of work" and that some "come very close to telling something genuinely true and moving about the human condition." One Publishers Weekly reviewer described B as a "sly, diverting read," while a Kirkus Reviews contributor termed it "amusing but short of hilarity." While likely meant to be funny, but probably not hilarious, other critics felt that the novel was no less brilliant than Baumbach's previous works. James Browning of the Village Voice, revealed to readers, "B is the book to read if you're sick of other books, something to beat the worst case of reader's block." Browning felt that the premise and construction of the novel worked. He wrote, "Every sentence . . . works against itself, resulting in stories torn beautifully at the seams."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Baumbach, Jonathan, The Landscape of Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1965.
Baumbach, Jonathan, What Comes Next, Harper (New York, NY), 1968.
Baumbach, Jonathan, Reruns, Fiction Collective (New York, NY), 1974.
Baumbach, Jonathan, B, Low Fidelity Press (New York, NY), 2002.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 6, 1976, Volume 23, 1983.
Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.
Directory of American Poets and Fiction Writers, 2001-2002, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002.
Directory of American Scholars, 10th edition, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Graham, John, The Writer's Voice: Conversations with Contemporary Writers, Morrow (New York, NY), 1973.
Klinkowitz, Jerome, The Life of Fiction, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 1977.
American Book Review, March-April, 1981; January, 1984, p. 7; January, 1988, p. 12; July, 1999, review of D-Tours, p. 27.
Book Week, October 3, 1965.
Carolina Quarterly, winter, 1975.
Chicago Review, autumn, 1978.
Commonweal, September 24, 1965; December 13, 1968.
Contemporary Literature, winter, 1978.
fiction international, numbers 6-7, 1976.
Film Comment, May-June, 1991, pp. 62,64; March-April, 1996, p. 7.
Hollins Critic, February, 1980.
Hudson Review, winter, 1976-77.
Kenyon Review, January, 1966.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1987; March 1, 1994, p. 223; October 15, 2002, review of B, p. 1490.
Nation, December 7, 1974.
New Republic, October 19, 1974.
New York Times Book Review, November 21, 1965; October 13, 1968; October 13, 1974; January 13, 1980; July 27, 1980; June 7, 1987, p. 22; July 15, 1990, p. 10; May 22, 1994, p. 10.
Publishers Weekly, March 12, 1982, p. 76; April 3, 1987, p. 65; July 13, 1990, p. 50; March 28, 1994, p. 91; March 2, 1998, review of D-Tours, p. 60; January 13, 2003, review of B, p. 44.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, September 22, 1998, Steve Tomasula, review of D-Tours, p. 249.
Saturday Review, April 17, 1965; October 26, 1968.
Sewanee Review, July, 1980.
Village Voice, October 31, 1974.
Washington Post Book World, March 30, 1980; May 30, 1982, p. 9.
Euphorbus Arts Publication of Princeton University, http://www.princeton.edu/~euphorb/ (spring, 1991), Jonathan Baumbach, "The Reading."
Frigate Online Magazine,http://www.frigatezine.com/ (April 30, 2004), "Biography: Jonathan Baumbach," and Jonathan Baumbach, "The Pleasures of the Difficult."
Lofi Press Web Site,http://www.lofipress.com/ (April 30, 2004), description of B.
New School University Web Site,http://www.nsu.newschool.edu/ (May 3, 2004), "Faculty."
Village Voice,http://www.villagevoice.com/ (December 16, 2002), James Browning, review of B.
Word Riot,http://www.wordriot.org/ (April 30, 2004), Matthew Flaming, review of B.
Writing Site,http://www.writingsite.com/ (May 3, 2004), excerpt from B.*