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Tending the Light

May 26, 1996|CHARLOTTE INNES

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

--Dylan Thomas, 1952

****

The Welsh bard went out, raging, at the age of 39. But he would surely have appreciated those venerable, fiery spirits, John Barth and Edward Albee, who demonstrated their formidable creative sparks in the final two sessions of the 1995-96 Contemporary Authors Series at the Huntington Library, San Marino.

Though very different--Barth a groundbreaking, "allegedly postmodern storyteller" (so he says himself), Albee a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (most famous for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?")--these vigorous old scribes both exhibit a brooding yet jocular sense of mortality, and a Dylan Thomas-ish rage against contemporary evils. Barth offers "pained tribute to such comrades-in-literary-arms as Salman Rushdie" (the Anglo Indian writer forced into hiding by Muslim fundamentalist death threats). Albee starts his lecture with a "rant" against censorship, student apathy, and "the religious right, an organization that is neither religious nor right."

Heady stuff for an institution best known for its botanical gardens and exhibitions of manuscripts by writers safely dead. Yet that's actually a misconception the library wants to dispel, says Robert Ritchie, the W.M. Keck Foundation director of research for the Huntington and founder of the Contemporary Authors Series. Partially financed by an anonymous donor, the series simply extends the library's reach as "a great treasure house of other people's creative activity" from collections dating from the ninth century to work just created--"material that we'll be collecting not too far down the pike."

So far the lineup for the 2-year-old series has been impressive and multigenerational: Amy Tan, Jane Smiley and A.S. Byatt in the first year, followed this year by Joyce Carol Oates, Barth and Albee. For the 1996-1997 season, Ritchie is negotiating with Isabel Allende, Barbara Kingsolver, Annie Dillard and Martin Amis (none confirmed as yet). He also wants to host writers in literary genres aside from fiction, such as poetry.

It is John Barth's night. Trim-bearded and colorful in a yellow and mauve paisley tie, the master of the hefty novel ("The Sot-Weed Factor," "Chimera") reads two short stories, exuberant linguistic wild rides from "On With the Story"--his first collection in 30 years--that are nevertheless touched with pathos, a "valedictory mood," prompted perhaps by his recent retirement, says Barth, who is professor emeritus of the creative writing program at Johns Hopkins University in his native Maryland.

Like an Anglican vicar intoning a funeral oration, Barth muses in "The End: An Introduction" on "endings endings, everywhere," from the end of artistic freedom and the supposed "death of the novel, that magnificent old genre that was born a-dying like all of us" to the extermination of tropical rain forests and "once so cosmopolitan Beirut." His second story, "Goodbye to the Fruits," also chronicles the Earth's losses, and bids adieu to its beauties as well, from sumptuous fruits to "Swiss army knives in the middle range of complexity," and "that most supple, versatile and ubiquitous of humanisms, language."

Equally black-humored but more grounded in life's daily mess, Edward Albee, on his night, clearly has endings on his mind too, as he reads snatches of "Fragments" a new play for different voices. His characters air the concerns of old age, incompetent doctors, dying pets, nostalgia for lost innocence, while an Edward Albee voice asks: Has he learned anything? Only that "we might not be responsible for the things that happen to us. But we are responsible for the things that don't happen to us."

Yet the real Albee, handsomely silver-haired, fashionably suited, brims with sardonic life. Writing is still "a discovery" for him, a necessity. "I write plays because I get plays in my head, and I write them down so I can get on with my life. It's so simple."

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