Vladimir Nabokov called Don Quixote a story of hideous cruelty. While I think that this statement is horribly reductive and does the great and beautiful and moving novel a huge disservice, one can still understand where he was coming from; on face value, the knight of the mournful countenance is a mentally disturbed old geezer who is beaten and tricked and taken advantage of. There is a strain of literature, perhaps beginning with Cervantes, that deals with the naive or foolish being put through the wringer. For our entertainment, no less. Indeed, this isn’t specific to novels, or even fiction. Look at TV programmes like I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and its ilk; the most engrossing aspect of those shows is the opportunity to watch a bunch of idiots [who, we at least like to think, clearly underestimated the situation they have signed up for] being physically and mentally tortured.
Other notable examples of literature as hideous cruelty are Voltaire’s Candide, Honore de Balzac’s Lost Illusions, and the novel under review here. In fact, The Sot-Weed Factor is essentially what you would have if you had asked Voltaire or Cervantes to rewrite Lost Illusions, which, like Barth’s novel, deals with a budding poet being introduced to the savage ways of the world. I don’t think that is a coincidence; Barth was clearly paying homage to these great writers, not only by stealing their content but, perhaps most impressively of all, by aping their style:
Is man a savage at heart, skinned o’er with fragile Manners? Or is savagery but a faint taint in the natural man’s gentility, which erupts now and again like pimples on an angel’s arse?
So, yes, like Candide et al, the unfortunate Ebenezer Cooke encounters just about every form of misfortune within the pages of this book. The Sot-Weed Factor is near 800 pages long and so the misery and pain he suffers becomes as attritional and relentless as the sort served up in some kind of art house movie [Requiem for a Dream, maybe. Or Miike’s Audition]. And, yet, I must confess, that far from eliciting my sympathy I thought Cooke, in the beginning at least, a near insufferable, gratingly supercilious moron, and cynically licked my lips at the prospect of his downfall. This is maybe where Barth’s character differs from the characters we have been comparing him to; one roots for Quixote and Candide because we can relate to their aims, because we find them charming and romantic. Lucien is not quite so likeable, but, unlike Cooke, he doesn’t consider himself superior and is prepared to involve himself in the world [which ultimately leads to his ruin]. Ebenezer, on the other hand, is largely unsympathetic because he is so precious; and therefore one wants him to fail, one wants him to see the light, or recognise the truth of the world.
And then he does, and, miraculously, my opinion of the book and the character changed. It was somewhere around the halfway mark I realised that I was for the hapless poet, that I felt for him and his plight, that far from making him bitter, or even more pompous, the disasters that befall him make him more humane, more likeable, and ultimately heroic. What is most satisfying, most original, about The Sot-Weed Factor is this journey, is Ebenezer’s transformation, which is actually the inverse of Lucien’s; the more awful the world reveals itself as being, the more he wades into the slough of life, the more Ebenezer is normalised. In Lost Illusions, however, Lucien starts out full of optimism and humility, only to become corrupted. I liked Barth’s take on this more than Balzac’s; I like the idea that the reality of the world doesn’t have to leave you cynical and mean, but that experience, good and bad, can actually help to shape you in a positive way.
It would have been nice to have ended my review on that positive note, to be able to laud John Barth for bestowing upon America a novel that fills in, to some extent, a space on its bookshelf. Indeed, he has, to a large extent, given us the American novel that it had until this point lacked [with the notable exception of Huck Finn]. However, there is one aspect of the book that caused me some consternation, and it would be remiss of me not to mention it. There is, unfortunately, a lot of rape in The Sot-Weed Factor, and I have a hard time understanding its purpose. Certainly, the rape isn’t gratuitous, but that is almost worse; it is tossed off so frequently and matter-of-factly that I was made to squirm more than if he had laboured over it. At least when a rape scene is gratuitous the author is saying this is significant. Barth appears to use it as a kind of comic prop, and that bothered me immensely, because never, in my opinion, is rape funny. Rape has no comic potentiality. I really don’t give a fuck if that makes me seem humourless or overly-serious. I don’t buy, either, the argument that the author was merely showing us how life was in the 17th century. Was everyone running around madly raping each other in the 17th century? No. Barth was clearly having too much fun, creating scenes in which women are caught – arse invitingly displayed – in the rigging of a ship, for that argument to convince.