bizarre anecdotes and obscure quotations

January 27, 2017

james-cant-merchants-of-death

In 1962 Random House published a first novel by a thirty-two-year-old American living in Paris named Harry Mathews. The Conversions is an adventure story about a man trying to decipher the meaning of carvings on an ancient weapon, and it unfolds in a succession of bizarre anecdotes and obscure quotations, with an appendix in German. One particularly trying passage is written in a language once popular with schoolchildren that involves adding arag before most vowels. Furthermore is faragurtharaggermaragore and indulgences is araggindaragulgearaggencearagges.

The book was considered groundbreaking by a certain literary set. Terry Southern called it a “startling piece of work,” and George Plimpton published a seventy-page excerpt in The Paris Review. Mathews’s agent Maxine Groffsky, then in her first job after college in the editorial department at Random House, says that reading The Conversions was like “seeing Merce Cunningham for the first time.” But it baffled most of the reading public, including the poor Time critic who complained that the symbolism “spreads through the novel like crab grass.”

Mathews is one of American literature’s great idiosyncratic figures. His friend Georges Perec, who once wrote a novel without using the letter e, has accused him of following “rules from another planet.” He is usually identified as the sole American member of the Oulipo, a French writers’ group whose stated purpose is to devise mathematical structures that can be used to create literature. He has also been associated with the New York School of avant-garde writers, which included his friends John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. After forty-five years of congenital allergy to convention, he rightfully belongs to the experimentalist tradition of Kafka, Beckett, and Joyce, even though his classical, witty style has won him comparisons to Nabokov, Jane Austen, and Evelyn Waugh. Yet while he enjoys the attention of thousands of cultishly enthusiastic French readers, Mathews remains relatively unknown in his native land and language. “When I go into an English bookstore, I always ask the same question,” a Frenchman told me with the sly smile that infects all Mathews fans. “‘Do you have Tlooth?’”

Tlooth, Mathews’s second novel, came out in 1966. It begins with a baseball game at a Siberian prison camp. His next book, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1975), is considered by many to be his masterpiece. Twenty-five publishers rejected it, which isn’t entirely surprising given that half of it is written in an invented pidgin English. Mathews used an Oulipian mathematical scheme to create the plot of his fourth novel,Cigarettes (1987). His last two novels are deceptively straightforward. The Journalist (1994) is the diary of a man obsessed by his diary. My Life in CIA (2005), an “autobiographical novel,” begins reassuringly as a memoir only to devolve into the preposterous, ending with the protagonist Harry Mathews tending sheep in the Alps after attempting murder by ski pole.

In reality, the self-described refugee from the Upper East Side has lived in Paris on and off since the fifties, though he does spend summers in the Alps and he says “there are sheep nearby.” Mathews was born in Manhattan in 1930, the only child of an architect and a cold-water-flats heiress. After dutifully attending Princeton for two years, he dropped out and joined the navy, then eloped at nineteen with the artist Niki de Saint Phalle. He finished his studies at Harvard, majoring in music, and in 1952 moved to Paris where he briefly studied conducting before deciding to write poetry full time. In 1956 Mathews met Ashbery, who was in France on a Fulbright scholarship. The poet introduced him to the works of Raymond Roussel, the early-twentieth-century French avant-gardist. After reading Roussel, Mathews turned to prose.

A novelist, poet, essayist, and translator, Mathews is also the author of many short works, including Twenty Lines a Day (1988), the result of more than a year spent following Stendhal’s dictum to write “twenty lines a day, genius or not,” and Singular Pleasures (1983), a series of sixty-one vignettes describing masturbation scenes. A volume of his collected short stories, The Human Country, was published in 2002.

Susannah Hunnewell
Harry Mathews, The Art of Fiction
Interview in Paris Review, Spring 2007

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