Harry (Burchell) Mathews Biography
Harry Mathews comments:
Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1930. Education: Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, B.A. 1952. Military Service: Served in the United States Navy, 1949-50. Career: Publisher and editor with John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, Locus Solus, New York, 1960-62; part-time teacher, Bennington College, Vermont, 1978, 1979-80; Hamilton College, New York, 1979; Columbia University, New York, 1982-83; Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1988; Temple University, Philadelphia, 1990. Since 1989 Paris editor, Paris Review, Paris and New York. Awards: National Endowment grant, 1982; Award for Fiction Writing, American Academic Institute of Arts and Letters, 1991; American Award for Literature, 1994. Agent: Maxine Groffsky, 2 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10011, U.S.A.
The Conversions. New York, Random House, and London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962.
Tlooth. New York, Doubleday, 1966; Manchester, Carcanet, 1987.
The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium and Other Novels (includes The Conversions and Tlooth). New York, Harper, 1975; Manchester, Carcanet, 1985.
Cigarettes. New York, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987; Manchester, Carcanet, 1988.
The Journalist. Boston, Godine, 1994.
Selected Declarations of Dependence (includes verse). Calais, Vermont, Z Press, 1977.
Country Cooking and Other Stories. Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck Press, 1980.
Singular Pleasures. New York, Grenfell Press, 1988.
The American Experience. London, Atlas Press, 1991.
The Ring: Poems 1956-1969. Leeds, Juilliard, 1970.
The Planisphere. Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck Press, 1974.
Trial Impressions. Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck Press, 1977.
Armenian Papers: Poems 1954-1984. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1987.
Out of Bounds. Providence, Rhode Island, Burning Deck Press, 1989.
A Mid-Season Sky: Poems 1954-1989. Manchester, Carcanet, 1991.
20 Lines a Day (journal). Elmwood Park, Illinois, Dalkey Archive Press, 1988.
The Orchard (on Georges Perec). Flint, Michigan, Bamberger, 1988.
The Way Home: Collected Longer Prose. London, Atlas Press, 1989.
L'oeil. Paris, L'Oulipo, 1994.
Translator, The Laurels of Lake Constance, by Marie Chaix. New York, Viking Press, 1977.
Translator, The Life: Memoirs of a French Hooker, by Jeanne Cordelier. New York, Viking Press, 1978.
Translator, Blue of Noon, by Georges Bataille. New York, Urizen, 1978; London, Boyars, 1979.
Translator, Ellis Island, by Georges Perec with Robert Bober. New York, New Press, 1995.
Harry Mathews issue of Review of Contemporary Fiction (Elmwood Park, Illinois), Fall 1987 (includes checklist by William McPheron); "Locus Solu et Socii: Harry Mathews and John Ashbery" by Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, in The Continual Pilgrimage: American Writers in Paris, 1944-1960, New York, Grove Weidenfeld, 1992; Harry Mathews by Warren Leamon, New York, Twayne, 1993.
(2000) A constant that has inspired my writing through many years of varied efforts is my original passion for reading. From late childhood on, poetry and imaginary narrative seemed to me to give access to compelling realities that could be communicated in no other way; and of these two, poetry has always had a primordial supremacy. So I think I have tried to bring to my prose writing poetry's intensity and authority, which depend essentially on abstract as opposed to representational elements. This had led some readers to consider me a writer who plays games, an attitude apparently justified by my membership in the Oulipo. To the extent that this may be so, I would like to say that the games are played in dead earnest and that their only purpose is to lure onto the page my obsessive and otherwise indecipherable sense of what is true.
* * *
Harry Mathews takes semiotics out of the seminar and makes it live as fiction. Language is anything but transparent for him. He is not a self-centered performer, or a member of the Look Ma, I'm Writing! school. Nor does he make us uncomfortably aware of ourselves as readers. But (although he ridicules McLuhan) Mathews does treat his medium as his message; language, in its multimeaning, ambiguous, tragicomic potential, is itself his subject matter. His first three novels are in fact intricate allegories of the reader or listener caught in the act of interpretation.
The distinctive appeal of Mathews's novels lies in their extraordinarily rich and playful linguistic texture, rather than in the plot structures that are relatively straightforward and easy to recount. The Conversions begins when its anonymous narrator is given a golden ceremonial adze by a wealthy eccentric named Grent Wayl. The adze is engraved with a series of seven mysterious scenes which the narrator attempts, tentatively, to explain. When Wayl dies, a provision in his will turns the narrator's mild curiosity into exegetical zeal, by conferring immense wealth on the person who can answer three riddles: 1) When was a stone not a king?; 2) What was La Messe de Sire Fadevant? ; and 3) Who shaved the Old Man's beard?
The riddles all have to do with the engravings on the adze, and all seem to depend upon puns. Along with the narrator, the reader gradually learns of a secret society that has persisted through the centuries despite repeated persecution, a society that, in a ceremony involving the golden adze, crowns its leader King and calls him Sylvius. An impostor named Johnstone once claimed falsely to be Sylvius—hence the "stone" that was "not a king." La Messe de Sire Fadevant devolves upon musical and translingual puns: Sire denotes not a noble title but two musical notes, while Fadevant places a third note in front: fa-si-re. Tracking down a Mass that begins with these notes, the narrator finds that its words shed further light upon the followers of Sylvius. The third riddle stumps him, however, and he abandons the quest, seemingly inconclusively, at the end of the novel.
Mathews' second novel, Tlooth achieved some renown when Martin Gardner described it glowingly in Scientific American. Its narrator and protagonist (whose name and even gender are concealed until close to the end) spends the novel pursuing a fellow ex-convict, for reasons that are tucked away as an aside to a footnote on the first page. (It appears that the object of pursuit, a criminally perverse surgeon, unnecessarily amputated two fingers from the left hand of the narrator, who until then had been a violinist.)
"Texts True and False" (one of Tlooth's chapter titles) litter the trail of vengeance, as do documents in a dozen lingos, clashing symbols, and uncracked codes. "Tlooth" itself, the sound uttered by a bizarre oracle, is, when properly construed, a prophecy that comes true: the narrator, now turned dentist, succeeds in strapping the object of her pursuit into her own dentist's chair. Mercifully for both reader and quarry, no painful drilling takes place, for reasons not to be divulged here.
An epistolary novel, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium presents the letters of two correspondents, Zachary McCaltex, an American treasure-hunter from Miami, and Twang, his obscurely Asian wife, answering in comically bad but meliorative English from various spots in Italy. The two of them are pursuing, by diverse machinations, a fortune in gold hidden in a chest and then lost by the Medici family. Again much of the action consists of the perusal, translation, interpretation, and verification of a host of documents, maps, clues, and false leads. In the very last letter of the book we learn that Twang has actually gotten her hands on the gold, and is about to ship it to Zachary via the freighter Odradek Stadium. Only the novel's title hints at what happens next.
In Cigarettes, his fourth novel, Mathews makes a fresh departure, overlaying his earlier artificial principles of construction with a richly textured family chronicle set among a certain privileged set of New Yorkers in the late 1930s and the early 1960s. The narrative proceeds nonlinearly, by focusing in turn on pairs of characters, at moments of considerable drama in their lives. We have fraud among friends in the insurance business; painters, critics, gallery owners; homosexual couples in scenes of bondage and domination. Schemes and betrayals, illnesses and disappointments make of the novel a quick-paced tumult of emotional highs and lows. Filial guilt and obligation play prominent roles.
One passage in Cigarettes offers a capsule summary of Mathews's esthetic program; ostensibly it describes an art-history essay:
Morris was showing him what writing could do. He advanced the notion that creation begins by annihilating typical forms and procedures, especially the illusory "naturalness" of sequence and coherence. Morris did more than state this, he demonstrated it. He made of his essay a minefield that blew itself up as you crossed it. You found yourself again and again on ground not of your choosing, propelled from semantics into psycho-analysis into epistemology into politics. These displacements seemed, rather than willful, grounded in some hidden and persuasive law that had as its purpose to keep bringing the reader back fresh to the subject.
The intentional fallacy notwithstanding, this passage offers the clearest exposition of Mathews's practice now in print. It is deepened by Lewis's paraphrase: "one can't really describe anything. So you pretend to describe—you use words to make a false replica. Then we're absorbed by the words, not by the illusion of a description. You also defuse reactions that might get in our way."
The characters of Cigarettes, like their namesake, are consumed by a certain self-destructive yet elegant passion. More than their predecessors in Mathews's fiction, they are defined not by their arbitrary utility to a quest pattern, but by their relations of loyalty, betrayal, and abuse. By the novel's end, several mysteries—including the forging of new links between love and language—are illuminated as if by the striking of a match in a darkened room.
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