The first thing one might remark about Harry Mathews is that it is virtually impossible to describe his writing in a really satisfactory manner. For his writing is utterly particular, emphatically its own thing rather than any other thing. It is moreover elusive, interrogative, sleek, and agile. The best way to account for it, I suppose, would be to reproduce it in its entirety, from first word to last. That would be a most interesting and illuminating exercise, without a doubt; but it is clearly impractical (and undoubtedly illegal) here.
One can say that he was an experimentalist, someone who was committed to exploring the boundaries of his art, continually putting those boundaries to the question in order to demonstrate that the vital horizon of literature is far broader than one might have imagined it to be. In that sense, Mathews takes his place in a tradition of twentieth-century American prose experimentalists, among people such as Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, William Burroughs, William Gaddis, David Markson, William Gass, Gilbert Sorrentino, John Barth, Walter Abish, Robert Coover, Ronald Sukenick, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, and Rikki Ducornet. Like many (if not all) of those figures, Mathews was an internationalist, someone who felt as at home in Paris or Venice or Dorset or Lans-en-Vercors as he did in New York, his birthplace. The fact that he died in Key West makes a great deal of sense, because Key West, as everyone knows, is located at the very edge of the world.
Quintessentially American but at the same time deeply internationalist: where many people might see contradiction, Harry Mathews found complementarity. It is safe to say that he learned as much about his craft from Proust, Joyce, and Kafka as he did from Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. And it also should be noted that those two traditions, the European and the American, broadly conceived, cohere and enrich each other in Mathews’s work, in the kind of “infinite conversation” that Maurice Blanchot points toward as the highest function of literature.
Harry Mathews was a writer’s writer—and if that term seems a little bit belated in our vexed and dithering present, it is no less apposite. He was surely influenced by two French writer’s writers, in the first instance at some remove, in the second far more closely. I’m thinking of two “Raymonds,” Raymond Roussel and Raymond Queneau. Today, Roussel is virtually unknown to most general readers, as obscure now as he was during his own lifetime (1877-1933). He is nevertheless a giant of the French avant-garde, the living link between Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Jarry on the one hand, and Dada and Surrealism on the other. His writing is elaborate, intricate, often arduous, always invigorating. Roussel is perhaps best known for his novel Locus Solus (1914), and it is not by chance that Harry Mathews borrowed that title for a literary magazine that he founded, along with John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, in the early 1960s. Roussel was a patrician figure who lived off a private income. He was famously eccentric. Both an accomplished pianist and a champion marksman, he designed what must be understood as the ancestor of the recreational vehicle; he imagined a reading machine that would make his own books more understandable; he filed a patent on the use of emptiness. Though not as obviously extravagant as Roussel, Harry Mathews was also a patrician figure, especially among constitutionally impoverished writers. Always well turned out, he was also something of a dandy, and a boulevardier—and once again, one might note just how belated those two terms may seem, right now.
Mathews never met Roussel, of course (he died just three years after Mathews’s birth); but he did come to know Raymond Queneau. Indeed, in 1973, at the invitation of his friend Georges Perec, Mathews joined the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or “Oulipo,” a group that Queneau had cofounded with François Le Lionnais in 1960. From then until Queneau’s own death in 1976, he would see the writer at the group’s monthly meetings, in the company of other young people like Perec, Jacques Roubaud, Italo Calvino, Marcel Bénabou, and Paul Fournel. His association with Queneau and the Oulipo served to confirm a taste for formal rigor that is already apparent in the novels that Mathews wrote prior to joining the group, such as The Conversions (1962), Tlooth (1966), and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1971-72). Crucially, the Oulipo provided Mathews with a theoretical logic for formalist experimentation, one that was firmly based in both tradition and innovation. For if the Oulipo, under the guidance of its elders, was committed to the elaboration of new literary forms, in an aspect of its work the members called “synthesis,” it was no less committed to another aspect called “analysis,” which involved research into the history of formalist expression, and the identification of precursor figures whom the Oulipians wryly identified as “plagiarists by anticipation.”
Another element in the Oulipo’s aesthetic that would be crucial for Mathews was the rejection of inspiration in favor of hard work. The notion of inspiration was firmly entrenched in Romanticism, but it was massively appropriated by the French avant-garde, most notably in Surrealist thought, as the latter is articulated in André Breton’s manifestos. Raymond Queneau had been a member of the Surrealist group as a young man, but he broke with them in 1930; and indeed in that same year he was one of the signatories of “A Corpse,” a pamphlet denouncing Breton’s dictatorial leadership style. The lessons Queneau learned would come to shape the nascent Oulipo in key ways, mostly by counterexample. Thus, where Breton was the undisputed pope of Surrealism, the Oulipo’s leadership model was far more diffused and broadly shared. Thus, while Breton took perverse delight in excommunicating dissident members, the Oulipo explicitly outlawed exclusion, insisting that members always remain members—even after their death. Thus too did the Oulipo take the idea of inspiration out of the creative equation, viewing it as capricious and unforeseeable, a notion that handicaps rather than helps an artist. They replaced it with “perspiration,” with the principles of artisanship and craft. One can see those principles at work in a lot of Harry Mathews’s work, but perhaps most obviously in 20 Lines a Day (1988). His title is borrowed from Stendhal, who famously said, concerning the difficult work of a professional writer: “Twenty lines a day, genius or not.” Mathews took him at his word, and applied that maxim to his writerly practice during what he described as a difficult time in his life, a moment when he had to attend to a great many family preoccupations, while at the same time trying to finish his novel Cigarettes (1987) and struggling to come to terms with the premature death of a man whom he described as his closest friend, Georges Perec.
That friendship, between a French war orphan and an American who had enjoyed both fortune and privilege, was in many ways a curious one. But clearly it was a powerful, rewarding relationship for both Mathews and Perec. They translated each other (Perec translated both Tlooth and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium into French); armed with cigarettes and drink, they spent whole days listening to Wagner’s Ring cycle; and beyond a doubt, each made the other a better writer. By his own account, Perec’s death from lung cancer at age 45 hit Mathews very hard indeed. Working through his mourning over a period of several years, Mathews remembered his friend in a text entitled Le Verger (1986, translated two years later as The Orchard), as moving an elegy from one writer to another as one is likely to find. In that text, Mathews borrowed a technique that Perec himself had borrowed from an American writer named Joe Brainard, which consists of prefacing each utterance with the phrase “I remember.” The vignettes that Mathews are brief, laconic sketches—but they are no less pungent because of their formal concision. One of them, near the end of this short book, serves to put on display the impulse that animated the project as a whole: “I remember experiencing great happiness on the day in June, 1975, when I realized I loved George Perec without reservation.”
That moment is a startling one in which Mathews focuses closely and largely without embellishment on raw truth. It is all the more astonishing in view of the fact that such moments are relatively rare in his work. That is not to say that Mathews was uninterested in “truth”; but it is legitimate to point out that he was skeptical of it—or at least of the easy ways in which we commonly understand it. In the penultimate chapter of Tlooth, for instance, he causes a saturnine doctor to declare: “My dear, in medicine the truth is a goal one cannot attain.” Rather than truth itself, Mathews was interested in the construction of truth, the transformation of truth, the translation of truth—and perhaps indeed more interested in those very principles themselves than in the way they inflect “truth” or the “real” or “life” or “experience.” For those latter things belong to the domain of things that are, whereas construction, transformation, and translation are all matters of becoming, and Harry Mathews was far more interested in becoming than in simple being.
One of his Oulipian texts illustrates that point nicely. Entitled “Mathews’s Algorithm,” it outlines a process whereby given elements of a literary text (alphabetical letters, or words, or phrases, or even paragraphs) are arranged in a table, whose order is then subjected to predetermined permutations, furnishing new kinds of textualities. The claims that he stakes for his literary machine are strikingly bold ones: “The algorithm can make use of existing material as well as of material specially invented for it [. . .]. It can be used both to decompose (or analyze) texts and to compose (or invent) them. [. . .] It is capable of dealing with fragments of letters, either graphic or phonetic. as well as their component parts, not to mention amoebas, molecules, and quarks. It can juggle not only episodes of fiction [. . .] but entire books, indeed entire literatures and civilizations, planets, solar systems, galaxies—indeed anything that can be manipulated either in its material or its symbolic form.” It is important to recognize, however, that Mathews’s purpose is centered upon the theoretical rather than the practical dimension of his machine. That is, his principal concern is not the texts that can be derived from it, but the model itself, its combinatorial potential, its power to transform, and thus its consequences for the way we understand literature and its crucial process of becoming.
In a similar perspective, one should note Mathews’s skepticism of the sign, and most especially the literary sign. “But whut do you dou with the significant?” muses a character in The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium. “A road sign say, Miami 82 mile. What re-ality do this indicate? Miami? The distans be-tween the sing and the sity? The location of the sign? The semi-ottic (?) re-ality, the mmediate realita, posit a structsure . . .” Mathews was certainly not alone in questioning the sign during the early 1970s, but I feel that his skepticism is more radical than that of many of his contemporaries. It was certainly more sustained, and the fact is that he found ways to turn that skepticism to immediate artistic purpose in his writing. Throughout his career, he put the very idea of meaning on stage, causing it to perform in different ways, following a variety of scripts, in order better to understand both what is essentially reliable in that notion and what is demonstrably hollow.
In regard to translation, Harry Mathews might be described as a fundamentalist, a true believer and a crusader. In “The Dialect of the Tribe,” a text included in Country Cooking and Other Stories (1980), he has this to say: “The longer I live—the longer I write—the stronger becomes my conviction that translation is the paradigm of all writing. To put it another way: it is translation that demonstrates most vividly the yearning for transformation that underlies every act involving speech, that supremely human gift.” Once again, quite patently, it is a matter of becoming: the very idea of translation suggests that things may be articulated in different ways, that signification is dynamic rather than static, that what we are is less important than what we do. The lesson is a welcome one, not least by virtue of what it suggests about our status as readers, and about the way we ought to come to literature, as active participants in the construction of meaning, rather than as passive consumers.
For my own part, I feel that such insistence on mobility lies at the very center of Harry Mathews’s particularity. He is a mercurial figure, an artist constantly on the move, and thus largely unseizable in any definitive way. Rereading him is a pleasure—and, at times, a revelation. It obliges one to think of him kinetically, putting literature to the question again and again, always taking literature seriously but at the same time pointing out its ludic vocation. It is bracing to see the way he mocks the conventional boundaries between fact and fiction in a text like My Life in CIA (2005). It is amusing to watch him speculate about literature and its uses in Singular Pleasures (1999). It is bedazzling to see him juggle the small and the large, the subject and the object, the momentous and the trivial in The Journalist (1994). It is agreeable to imagine him traversing literary space in the broad, easy stride of a fictional character like Larbaud’s Barnabooth or Perec’s Bartlebooth, an individual who stoutly refuses to be confined to the world in which he was conceived.
Warren Motte is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado. He specializes in contemporary writing, with particular focus upon experimentalist works that put accepted notions of literary form into question. His most recent books include Fables of the Novel: French Fiction since 1990 (2003), Fiction Now: The French Novel in the Twenty-First Century (2008), and Mirror Gazing (2014). He lives in Boulder with a wife, two sons, and a couple of dogs, in a house full of books.