With John Beer, Robert Burton, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Giles Gordon, Eugene Hayworth, Christine Hume, Jim Knipfel, Ben Marcus, Harry Mathews, Ann Quin, Francois Rabelais, Gilbert Sorrentino, Gertrude Stein, John Taylor, Curtis White
Reading Harry Mathews
Suppose one decided to write a description of some books by Harry Mathews using only the letters of his name. The result might look something like this:
Three hearty treats, these. A smart set trysts. Her mama sees her heart rate waste her. He amasses rhythms as the way that stress may weary, may reset; he strays, smashes what matters. They stay sweet, share merry tears, wash shame away. Where’s "me"? There, where they are. Here.
But why do such a thing? It is disarmingly easy, reading Mathews, to get caught up in the Oulipian spirit, combining as it does the generosity of a pure research program with the slightly mad insistence upon formal pattern, characteristic of the genuine artist. Mathews is the only American member of the Oulipo, the ongoing workshop in the application of mathematical methods, particularly algebraic methods of permutation and combination to literature, which Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais founded in 1960. Member of Oulipo (sponsored by Georges Perec in 1972), editor of Locus Solus (along with John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch), Mathews has managed to construct an impeccable avant-gardist resume. Through the compilation of the indispensable Oulipo Compendium with Alastair Brotchie, Mathews has also provided a resource to ensure the continuing dissemination of both the methods, and more significantly the spirit, of Oulipo and associated movements for future generations. And so, reading him, one can easily come to feel that the finest appreciation lies in making those methods one’s own, by, say, describing Cigarettes using a collage of sentences from various works of criticism about various other books:
Our childhood fascinates us because it is the moment of fascination, it is fascinated itself, and this golden age seems bathed in a light that is splendid because it is unrevealed. Now, this being so, we should ponder the question how does the mind work when the sullen reader is confronted by the sunny book. Our concern here is not with the form but with the nature of the recital of events—or to be more precise with a certain interdependence of nature and form. His sentences do not seem to be generated in the usual way; they do not entail. In order to take advantage of this, readers must learn to do for themselves some version of the work being done word for word in the writing. No longer wow but hmm.
And indeed, as Richard Poirier once said in another context, "readers must learn to do for themselves some version of the work being done word for word in the writing." But do we know yet in what this work consists? Is it enough to be told that Mathews is an avant-gardist of matchless credentials? That The Journalist was plotted with the help of the schema "x mistakes y for z"? Or do such observations serve merely to cover the writing up, providing yet another way of failing to come to terms with the experience of reading Mathews by substituting a conceptualization, a program, a method? Priscilla Ludlam, the scheming assistant of the painter Walter Trale in Cigarettes, is drawn to art history by an urge to explain art away: "Priscilla treated paintings like doors: she wanted to know what lay behind them." Sophisticated readers that we are, we know enough to avoid the biographical readings that Priscilla favors. The details laid out in Mathews’s "Autobiography" (from The Way Home) regarding his relationship with his parents will not dictate our approach to the uneasy parents and children of Cigarettes and The Journalist. But a reading overly attentive to methods of composition threatens to distort just as inevitably. And if we overlook this writing because we know already what we will find there, if our self-assurance blinds us to the thing before our eyes, we will only reenact the dramas contained within the texts themselves. Over and over again, Mathews’s books present the beauty and plenitude of the world; over and over again, this is offset by the inability of human beings to recognize what it is they have.
The dense plot of Cigarettes, for instance, hinges upon layers of deception of self and other. The results approach farce at times, as when Walter Trale leaps to the suspicious conclusion that the dealer Irene Kramer is conspiring with her brother Morris and Walter’s own dealer to swindle him. Angrily confronting them, with his lawyer on the telephone, Walter discovers in fact that Irene has been negotiating to represent him in order to bring him the fame that he deserves. Alternatively, when Owen Lewison sets himself the task of uncovering the string of insurance frauds hidden behind Allan Ludlam’s respectable veneer, we step momentarily into the world of the detective novel.
But the generic pleasures which these deceptions afford conceal a sad truth: these characters, privileged with wealth and talent, continually fail to enjoy their happy circumstances. The projections of desire, fear, shame, and suspicion with which they mask each other block genuine communication. The consequences are most clearly visible in the story of Owen and his daughter Phoebe. Owen visits Phoebe in New York and meets her bohemian set. Initially suspicious, he finds himself enjoying their all-night excursion. The next day, he attempts to interpret what their time together has meant, and hits upon this bleak reading:
Once Phoebe becomes seriously ill, her and her father’s mutual inability to see one another becomes increasingly painful. Until, that is, Phoebe finds a solution—unconditional forgiveness, a theme to which we shall return.
Numerous formal features of Cigarettes, through their defamiliarizing effects, simultaneously invite and resist the responsive attention which I am arguing forms the ethical import of the novel. Mathews has referred to Cigarettes as his only fully Oulipian novel, and the gently skewed syntax of its sentences bears the traces of generation under constraint: "Oliver knew better. No matter what the game, losing streaks come as surely as nightfall, and sooner or later every gambler discovers the martingale. Oliver watched her charm herself with its promise." Sharp shifts in time and narrative focus from chapter to chapter allow crucial scenes to be replayed from multiple perspectives, though without fanfare. We see, for instance, Lewis Lewison’s teenage assault of Priscilla twice, once from the perspective of Lewis’s mother Louisa, and once from that of Priscilla’s mother Maud. The incident has implications for both mother-child relationships, ending Louisa’s complicity with Lewis, and confirming Maud’s distance from Priscilla. Only a second reading will reveal that it is also the event responsible for Lewis and Priscilla’s long estrangement, alluded to earlier in the book. The game of concealment and discovery reaches its apex with the revelation of the narrator’s identity, easily missed, at the novel’s end; this quiet revelation, combined with a rereading of the book’s first pages, forces a revision of one’s estimation of Allan, something of a scoundrel at the end, though admittedly seen only blurred, through a screen door.
The narrator of The Journalist suffers a similar inability to see the events of his life for what they are. After suffering a breakdown, he opts for what turns out to be an impossible solution: he will keep a journal in which he details everything that happens to him, and devise a classification system within which all these disparate goings-on can find their proper place. Unfortunately, he neglects a vital step in this analysis of his life: "Remember Prof. Martinez from our logic course: ‘Understand, analyze, organize!’ Understanding will have to wait." He eventually realizes the logical impossibility of his project, which cannot comprehend the entirety of his experience; the frame that it places around that experience cannot itself be represented:
But he does not give up here. These reflections lead him to construct the mystical possibility of a "J of J," a journal within which his own journal is faithfully contained.
His attempt to construct the J of J does not come to fruition. His behavior becomes increasingly erratic—wreathing the tree in his office’s courtyard with toilet paper, walking around in torn, bloodstained clothes after a late-night accident—and culminates in his surveillance of friends and family, suspecting numerous infidelities, from behind a tree, as in a Shakespearian comedy. The comic trappings prove appropriate. After suffering another breakdown, he learns that his world is a happier place than he had credited it. He is, despite his unreliability, much beloved by his wife, mistress, son, and friends. As in Cigarettes, women especially prove capable of a generosity of spirit that alone can repair the paranoia and misinterpretation to which we all are prone. The narrator’s wife, Daisy, and his mistress, Colette, share the easy wit, cool grace, and wise, forgiving nature of Cigarettes’ Elizabeth, and for that matter of the women in Mathews’s life, as he describes them in his "Autobiography."
This spirit of forgiveness accounts for a great deal of The Journalist’s quotidian utopianism. Another factor is the sensual pleasures to which the novel pays constant tribute. The meals alone make one long to be in France, or at least in a good French restaurant: fresh fruit, cheese, rolls, jam for breakfast, lunches of fried baby perch, cured beef and salad sandwiches, roast chicken or veal cutlets with pan fries for dinner, all washed down with bottles of terrific wine. Erotic pleasure is also omnipresent, though as often in fantasy as in reality: the trysts with Colette, strange sexual dreams, the hard-to-read embraces with Cherry, Paul and Jago’s surreptitious romance. The pleasures of art and culture are presented as continuous with these others, as when the narrator anticipates rediscovering North by Northwest by watching it with Colette. Significantly, the narrator’s attention to these sources of pleasure fades as his obsession with the cataloguing project grows.
Mathews is as attentive to the pleasure of his readers as to that of his characters. Not only does he seduce us with tangled narratives within narratives, every passing waiter ready to provide a fantastic story; he also writes very funny books, containing episodes like The Journalist’s science fiction version of Der Meistersinger, during which the narrator is kept "busy wondering if Eva or anyone else would again take off her clothes." But are these defiantly sunny books, depicting the travails and epiphanies of their prosperous, culturally astute characters, insufficiently attuned to contemporary realities? Politics, everyone knows, trumps love and pleasure these days. The political world’s incursions may seem minor within Mathews’s work: the cultural revolution and wave of executions at the close of Der Meistersinger, or the ravaging wars of "Armenian Papers," in The Way Home. Contained in this last piece, though, are clues to a vision in which a call to see one another with generous eyes, unblinkered by envious rancor or selfish preconception, and an insistence upon the prerogatives of pleasure turn out to be political acts of the first rank. After all, that tale’s Dor, eager to declare the time too late for peace, thirsty to avenge his wronged people, can only bring about another epicycle of slaughter. It is the via negativa of the artist, learning through disciplines of solitude and renunciation to see "our powers for what they are: nothing more than a recognition of helplessness in the face of a destiny that does not exist," that can eventually lead to true liberation. All pleasures are fleeting, a lesson borne out by The Orchard, a reminiscence of Mathews’s friendship with Georges Perec and the latter’s criminally early death. But the lessons of pleasure endure: that one can learn to live free of shame, that there is nothing more important than loving each other, and above all that we should give up despair and embrace hope. Nine months into the Bush restoration, isn’t a politics of hope the most vital gift that any writer can give us? And so what one could write of The Way Home (by applying the procedure, "substitute the dictionary definition for all significant words" to a back-cover blurb) seems equally true of his work as a whole:
This action or act of selecting someone or something of Harry Mathews’s pieces of literary work done, greater in measurement from end to end, in the ordinary form of written or spoken language, without metrical structure, is evidence or proof of his instinctive and extraordinary imaginative, creative, or inventive capacity, having the character or quality of innovating, in one more than six things, structures, or results produced by the operation, action, or labor of a person or other agent, being of a variant or contrasting nature or inclination in a manner inherent in the nature of a thing or person.