Harry Mathews was a writer that I began reading earlier this year in conjunction with a lot of Oulipo writing that I was doing for the project that eventually became The End of Oulipo? The first Mathews I read was The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, and I knew almost immediately that I was in the presence of something special. After that I went on to The Conversions (wild and stunning), Cigarettes (his masterpiece), My Life in CIA (very good), The Journalist (likewise), and Tlooth (yes). I also, along the way, began reading his collected stories and essays.
As a result of all this reading I wanted to share my enthusiasm for Mathews, which was how the idea of the symposium that runs in the current issue of The Quarterly Conversation came together. Right away, as I began contacting people to contribute, it was very clear that I was not alone. All the contributors were quite enthusiastic to share their love of Mathews with readers of The Quarterly Conversation—they wanted to write about him just to spread the love and convince more people to experience these books—and I think that’s the sort of thing that speaks to just how influential and superlative of an author Mathews is. I’m pretty sure that at least three contributors to the symposium have had their own writing strongly influences by Mathews, and perhaps more.
I hope all this effort is convincing at least some of you to read Mathews.
The readers of The Conversions in the early 1960s found the book impenetrable, despite its short length. If it’s hard to situate a novel like The Conversions in the American tradition today, then when it was originally published this would have been almost impossible. In 1965, Richard Kostelanetz, perennial champion of the avant-garde, declared it to be “overly incoherent, possibly absurd” in a piece looking at Thomas Pynchon’s recent novel V., (a book with a quest narrative that points back to The Conversions). Kostelanetz recognizes a fleeting resemblance, not least in the title, to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955), though the way that Gaddis’s protagonists agonize through religious symbolism and ideas from The Golden Bough is a world away from The Conversions seemingly flippant narrator. Mathews didn’t fit in the tradition of the American novelist: he was trained in music and had spent the past ten years in Europe interacting with visual artists (his first wife, Niki de Saint-Phalle, became a prominent member of the nouveaux realistes) and poets.
Ed Park covers Mathews’ first three novels, The Conversions, Tlooth, and Odradek Stadium, re-released as one volume, which Park bought used:
These days I like to misread the ending of Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” by thinking that it’s a statement about when a certain book intersects with a reader’s life. Had I come across TSOTOSAON a little earlier, I might not have taken notice; a little later, who knows? 1997: Both Mason & Dixon and Underworld came out that year, but it was Mathews’ three-book brick—patiently traveling through time—that changed the way I thought about literature.
We have two essays on Cigarettes, a novel that Jeremy Davies rightly notes is Mathews’ most Oulipian (by his own admission), yet is also a book that “a writer like Edith Wharton would admire.” This is not an exaggeration: here Mathews shows how the experimental and the realist can be wed harmoniously, very, very harmoniously. This is a breathtaking book that must be read.
You might be familiar with Laura Bohannan’s famous article “Shakespeare in the Bush,” which relates her frustrated attempts to demonstrate the universality of certain “great tragedies” by explaining the plot of Hamlet to the elders of an African tribe (and itself resembles the set up for a Harry Mathews story, for example “The Dialect of the Tribe”). The elders tell her that she is wrong about most of the plot, for surely it could not have happened that way. (Why shouldn’t Claudius have married Gertrude? And of course Laertes was responsible for Ophelia’s death, for with Prince Hamlet in love with her, no other suitor would take her; better to sell her body to the witches to ameliorate this loss of income . . .) There is something of this same reordering of assumptions in Cigarettes. Mathews is shuttling between his two tribes (that he was born into, and then that he adopted), speaking a language and telling a story that is, or so the scholar-graduate intends, not only comprehensible but affecting to both. Yet each tribe will interpret the stations of Cigarettes’ plot differently—what discomfits the one might well amuse the other; and then the motivations of the characters and their author too will come across differently depending on your assumptions as to the function of fiction: A means of transmitting sentiment? A game? A panacea, an emetic, a tool with which to learn about humanity or else about the culs-de-sac in its only manner of meaning?
A D Jameson also concerns himself with Mathews’ amazing rejuvenation of plot in his essay on Cigarettes:
One might more broadly argue that one of Modernism’s legacies has been to render plot something vulgar, more appropriate for popular genre works than artistic literature. Hence the truism that one should read fiction not to find out what happens (since any sophisticated reader understands that these stories are all invented), but rather for Hawkes’s verbal and psychological elements: complex characters bobbing in a sea of lyric descriptions, wordplay, themes and motifs, and the dazzling execution of poetic constraints and concepts (which can structurally replace plot). Such fiction’s worth, we’re told time and time again—as though we keep forgetting—that the words on the page are just words on the page, “mere language.” At best, we’re given guilty apologies for plot, as I was when I asked a college professor what he thought of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, which he was reading for the first time: “I don’t know yet. I’m still reading it for the plot, and I know that’s not what matters.”
Even Harry Mathews has said “I think situations are more important than plot and character.” And while his 1987 masterpiece Cigarettes is, at first appearance, a collection of situations, reading it quickly reveals that one of its chief pleasures is the (re-)construction of its plot: learning who its characters are, what they do, and how they are related.
Then Laird Hunt celebrates Mathews’ genre-bending novel-cum-memoir, My Life in CIA:
To write “Harry” in this note and not “Mathews” is to refer to the narrator of My Life in CIA and not the author of My Life in CIA, with whom the narrator nevertheless should be and is throughout the book most certainly confused.
My Life in CIA is set in the early 1970s, just after Mathews was elected to the Oulipo (for years he was referred to as its only American member) and during the United States–endorsed, if not sponsored, coup that overthrew the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile and installed military strongman Augusto Pinochet. This was an event that devastated Chile and sent unsettling ripples through the world, and these ripples quickly reached Paris, where post-war tensions between the left and the right were being energetically released.
During this period, Mathews spent time pretending to be a CIA agent. The idea was that rather than argue against the widely circulating rumor that he worked for the Agency, he would play it up. So he did things like draw strange chalk symbols on walls and take staged delivery of mysterious packages in public places and practice “evasive driving techniques.”
John Beer covers Mathews’ poetry, whose spirit, he rightly notes, informs his fiction:
If Harry Mathews is esteemed predominantly for his masterful fiction, it is nonetheless as a poet that he ventured upon a writing career. The marriage of form and content evident in the inventions of Tlooth or Cigarettes emerged from the discovery, as he puts it in a 1987 interview with John Ashbery, that prose could be written with the same arbitrariness as poetry. This discovery is traceable back to his initial encounter with the work of Raymond Roussel. Tempting as the separation of genres may be, it constitutes in regard to this writer’s works an absolute error.
And finally, Oulipo author Daniel Levin Becker (the second American Oulipian, after Mathews) writes about one of Mathews’ stranger works, Selected Declarations of Dependence, which involves an Oulipian form: the perverb:
But perhaps a partial reconciliation can be found in Mathews’s work with the perverb, of which he is not the inventor but is the Oulipo’s most committed practitioner. The perverb is a form rooted very close to the lining of everyday life, at least provided you accept that proverbs are commonplace bits of language — not altogether free of artifice, per their origins, but without the sort of artifice on which novels are constructed. It takes two or more proverbs or maxims or bromides or saws, such as
It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity
It’s not the size that counts, it’s how you use it
and intermingles them to make
It’s not the size that counts, it’s the humidity
It’s not the heat, it’s how you use it