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“A Book is Like a Time Bomb, and a small, demure time bomb seems to me most efficient of all.” – i.m. HARRY MATHEWS (1930-2017)

*Marking yesterday’s passing of the great (and only) American Oulipian writer Harry Mathews is David Vichnar’s article below, reviewing his novelistic career from the 1960s to the 90s. The article is extracted from the forthcoming study, The Avant-Postman: James Joyce and the Postwar French & Anglophone Avantgarde.

Harry Mathews (1930-2017) was a writer officially Oulipian, who was born in New York, studied music at Harvard University and frequently taught writing in the United States, but from 1952 based in France. As he confided to John Asbery,

in 1952 I ran away from America. Which was not America: it was the milieu in which I’d been raised, and I thought that’s 
what America was, that is to say, an upper-middle-class Eastern WASP environment, which I read as being extremely hostile 
to the poetic and artistic enthusiasms that I felt were most important at that time.[1]

Already influenced by Raymond Roussel’s proceduralism, Mathews gradually came under the influence of the Oulipo group, whose only American member to date he became (in 1973). However, a body of his work predates his accession to Oulipo, significant in its own right so as to set it off as a separate, self-contained period in his overall oeuvre. Symptomatic of his Oulipian turn in 1973 is that ever since the mid-1970s publication of The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium and Other Novels, Mathews has written only two works of fiction that can be loosely labelled as novels, i.e. Cigarettes (1987) and The Journalist (1997), and that neither of these two can be said to follow any strict Oulipian “programme” or “poetic agenda.” Mathews himself has provided the following personal view on his pre- and post-Oulipian development:

How much has the Oulipo mattered to me, and why? It is hard to answer simply, because its influence has been gradual, 
because I had strong non-Oulipian feelings about three of its members, because my devotion to the group involves much more 
than its ideas. […] I had written my first three novels without even hearing of it. […] I was not yet aware of what the Oulipo 
was in fact changing: my understanding of the act of writing. (CPM, 85)

In the many interviews and public pronouncements made over the course of his life, three instances in particular cast light on the significant, yet limited role played by the modernist heritage in Mathews’ understanding of literary history and his own influences. Mathews opens his 1987 interview with John Ash for Review of Contemporary Fiction with acknowledging his debt to Ronald Firbank, about which he is “delighted,” observing that “of course Firbank was the great formal innovator. He invented modernism, more so than Joyce really,” and going on to specify Firbank’s stylistic influence on the example of the opening of his first novel, Conversions.[2] Two years later, in an interview included in Warren Leamon’s book-length study, Mathews specifies the relative importance of Joyce vis-à-vis Firbank more generously:

To my mind Firbank’s superiority resides in this: Joyce’s innovations have affected us mainly in the domain of style and the way 
his material is presented, whereas Firbank transformed the basic narrative procedure of fiction. This is a hastily concocted remark; 
I wouldn’t find it interesting to get stuck in an argument defending it.[3]

Finally, in a 1994 interview with Lytle Shaw, Mathews is again outspokenly in favour of what he sees in Firbank or Kafka as minimalist subversion to Joyce’s medieval monumentality or encyclopaedism:

The "Night Town" scene above all is an extraordinary work of subversion. What struck me in re-reading Ulysses was [Joyce’s] 
encyclopedic view of "reality": if you find a narrative that is valid, you can load it with any amount of cultural freight, 
and the more you load, the truer it will become. In spite of syntactical or rhetorical alertness, in a sense he remained pre-modern 
because of this encyclopedic cast of mind.[4]

This encylopaedism of Ulysses, admirable though it is, by Mathews’ own admission, “isn’t pushing me to see what I can do next.” For the Wake, the praise is similarly limited and qualified: although “fabulous” and “haunting,” some passages (e.g. the whole ALP section) are found “sentimental and self-indulgent.” Moreover, as the interviewer suggests, there looms the sense of Joyce’s texts’ pre-programmed and omniscient nature, which renders the reading experience into a passive one:

It’s a passive experience [...]. (In Ulysses that’s not always the case and that’s why I love the “Night Town” scene.) A kind of 
all-knowingness. I suppose someday I will write a long book and everyone can say it’s my magnum opus. But I prefer classical subversion 
to monumentality. That’s why I love Firbank: such explosive froth! There is something about small books – a book is like a time bomb, 
and a small, demure time bomb seems to me most efficient of all. But someday self-interest may beguile me into Grand Design.[5]

All three Mathews’ pre-Oulipian novels start off as seemingly simple quest narratives that become gradually enmeshed in complex realms of arcane knowledge and abstruse erudition. His most common procedure is to break the linearity of the simple framing quest-narrative by insertion of sundry tales within tales, the effect of whose multiplication is to collapse plot into a patchwork of diversions. As quest narratives, each of the first three novels involves the use and reworking of some sort of mythology – with the hindsight of a long-term Oulipian, Mathews discerned in his own preoccupation with mythology an Oulipism avant la lettre, and it is also one that departs from the modernist mythological project:

My first three novels depend on a non-systematic Oulipism, if such a phenomenon exists – a combination of techniques of variation 
and substitution that often determine the nature of narrative materials as well as their use. In The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, 
the accumulation of these procedures has become an omnipresent “table of obligations” (Perec’s cahier de charges): the text is, 
to put it mildly, overdetermined. From The Conversions to Odradek, the use of “justifying myths” in the manner of Joyce and Eliot 
yields to that of “non-certifiable” materials organized in quasi-systematic ways – a tendency pointing eventually to a complete 
Oulipisation. (CPM, 88)

For Mathews, hand in hand with mythology goes the discourse that supplanted it, at least in the European cultural space – as he confided to Lynne Tillman, “the substratum of the first three novels is a religious one.”[6]

In The Conversions (1962), the quest is one after the answers to three riddles contained in the last will of a late millionaire, Mr Wayl, whose vast estate is left to the person who knows “When was a stone not a king? What was La Messe de Sire Fadevant? Who shaved the Old Man’s Beard?” (C, 46). His quest for these answers takes the narrator on a journey both in space and time, into areas of conceptual and factual obscurity (the secret Cult of Silvius being just the most conspicuous among them). The quest turns out futile as, just as he is on the brink of finally solving all three riddles, the narrator learns that “Mr Wayl’s will had been thrown out as a complete hoax” (C, 165). The quest, thus, acquires a sort of twist, as it is the reader’s quest to determine the reasons that motivated the narrator’s quest in the first place. Crucial, in this sense, is the opening scene of the novel, the narrator’s meeting with Mr Wayl and his introduction to the mystical adze that later on forms part of the inheritance. Of the literary inheritance upon which Conversions has drawn, Mathews himself acknowledged his debt to Firbank.[7]

If the first novel was a first step in using the plot as a frame for other stories and games, then in Tlooth (1966), Mathews takes this even further. His second novel can be (and has been) described as an elaborate game, a compound of absurd adventures, faked documents, diagrams and word puzzles, and its very loosely traced plot is that of travelogue-adventure in which all places are very much the same, whether they be called Russia, Afghanistan, India, Morocco, or Venice. These are the locales featuring in the itinerary of the narrator’s quest which takes the form of a crazy pursuit of a certain Dr Evelyn Roak, who is believed to have caused the mutilation of the narrator’s hand. The quest, then, is revenge – and it is a quest from a failed attempt at it to a refusal to take it; again, the quest is incomplete, it rejects to convey any ultimate “message” or “moral.”

One of the games played by Mathews in this narrative is obscuring the narrator’s gender – whose incipit successful wooing of Yana (a woman) establishes the narrator’s falsely assumed masculine identity, which only the concluding proposal of marriage to Joan (a man), and his calling the narrator “Mary,” restores her feminine gender. One of the chapters, “Spires and Squares” (T, 63-71), contains a witty debunking of one of the text’s key preoccupations: code deciphering and cracking. There is the mysterious message containing the inscription “r e s,” accompanied by the incomplete sentences: ‘The Mother cannot … her Son. The Son … his Father. The Mother … their Spirit.” This message is exposed to many elaborate exegetic tools, including Biblical and Christian allegorical reading, res qua res, etc., only to be found discovered as an incompletely copied text taken from a German grammar textbook. In fact, the fabric of the novel’s plot is interwoven with a plethora of heretic or cultic conceptual frameworks – Fideism, Resurrectionism, Darbyism, or Nestorianism, all having to do with the medieval attempts to solve the problem of the trinity’s hypostatic union. The language of Tlooth undergoes distortion in some of its most explicitly erotic passages, where it seems to result from an intensification of experience and sensory perception on the part of the narrator who, in the following scene, is writing (and living) a pornographic screenplay. “Bewildered with desire,” the narrator’s language goes from fairly minor departures from standard spelling (“She ceemed exsited”) to some witty double entendres (“I followed her into the atartment” [T, 120]) to full-fledged systematic (and largely phonetic) distortion of the written language:

‘Yeu. Kwik and kan yoo raiz yoohr as u lit’l? Uy waunt too prupair dhe waiy.’ ‘Yoo noh darling Uym priti wet dhair aulredi.’ 
‘U lit’l riming nevur hurt eniwun, and dohnt let goh uv mee—Uy dohnt waunt too loos u hair auf dhar ureksh’n.’ ‘Noh, ainjul, noh.’ 
 ‘i held eel while she wifted her shun lit (her pan dlazing her crup bate and so grinly i could hard shoff it) and it was lee, 
when she farted to hum, who with spast kong mugs of her fips and a clangled hie of ‘Flip it, yoo shit!’ drew my sweering seef 
ooss inte the rut famp-hole of her jassness, constreasured by her own savaging reizure of plicter and pain. I uuuuuuuuuuuuucccc 
lought of Dante’s whines at that foment, L’altra piageva sì, che di pietale, &c. (T, 122-3)

The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium is an epistolary novel whose plot is developed by means of an exchange of letters between Zachary McCaltex, a librarian living in Miami, and Twang, his Southeast Asian wife sojourning in Italy, and centres around their treasure hunt. Twang’s letters are written in an amusingly broken Pidgin English, which improves as the novel progresses – it is here that one can again find some witty distorted language effects reminiscent of Joyce’s Wakean project. But the Wake is present on two other levels: the novel opens midsentence of a letter (“…confidence in words, Twang” [O, 365]) and ends with an incomplete letter with no period at the end of it (“I have telephoned but it will not answer, and shall wire but you will not believe it” [O, 554]). Moreover, one of the lesser characters, Lester Greek, is seen at work on a study called The Confidential Walrus, which seeks to establishes “the palindromic precedence of ‘Eve’ over ‘Anna’ in Finnegans Wake” (O, 446-8).

Letter-writing presents, again, not only the form, but also the content of the novel, since much of its plot revolves around and departs from the confusion caused by one letter that goes undelivered – as becomes revealed only in the final letter. Having found out that their correspondence is being opened and read by a third party, Twang sends Zachary a letter secretly apprising him of this fact and informing him that henceforth she will write “fake” letters to which he is to pay no attention, and devises a code by which he is to communicate the date of their next reunion. This letter, as is revealed in a footnote, is returned to the sender due to insufficient postage applied – thus Zachary takes Twang’s nonsense letters seriously, and Twang believes that Zachary’s serious letters are nonsense. It is not until Twang’s final letter, “written in an English that signifies Twang’s conquest of more than language,” that the crucial confusions are clarified.[8] However, the mystery of the title—although now revealed to refer to the ship carrying the treasure in question—is not completely explained away (in a text riddled with “mistakes,” the transition from the Greek Stadion to the Roman Stadium is hardly surprising), nor can it ever be established whether this crucial letter does or does not reach its destination. In Leamon’s estimation, “one thing is certain: not all questions are answered by the title of the novel any more than solving the final riddle in The Conversions answers all the questions in that novel. In fact, the title, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, is, like everything else in the novel, successful on a number of levels.”[9]

The narration of Mathews’ fourth novel, Cigarettes (1987) is structured by the depiction of fourteen character-relationships, prominent among whom is Elizabeth, around whose portrait the other thirteen revolve. In Mathews’ own words, the novel “started as an attempt to solve a specific problem […] how to tell a story about a group of people belonging to the New York art and business world in a way that would allow the reader to make it up.”[10] The narrative covers two time periods: 1936-38 and 1962-3, with no causal connection established between them, the sole link being the portrait of the character Elizabeth, painted in 1936 and copied, stolen, bought, sold, and seemingly (but not actually) destroyed sometime in the 1961-3 period. However, apart from its flirtation with circular structures and haphazard sequencing of events (left up to the reader to “make up”), the constrictive structure in Cigarettes is not syntactic, affecting the “material aspects of language (letters, words, syntax),” but instead semantic, affecting ‘what language talks about’ (subject, content, meaning)” (CPM, 136).

The same goes for The Journalist, Mathews’ latest, 1997 novel, presenting a journal of the protagonist’s daily activities in which he embarks on an elaborate scheme intended to organise his life, reminiscent of B.S. Johnson’s Christy Malry. As Joseph M. Conte has observed, the chief constraint, for both Mathews and his protagonist, becomes the system for indexing lived experience “in the presence of an always unclassifiable ‘other.’”[11] As each subdivision of his categories makes finer distinctions, each leaves behind an intransigent remainder of “other actions and events,” “other matters,” “other people,” until the realisation dawns on him that “it’s not this or that category, it’s the overall problem I can’t master. The more I put in, the more I leave out” (J, 84; 110).

Although parodying and subverting, in his later works of fiction, the modernist obsession with all-inclusiveness, Mathews’ early work clearly partakes of and continues in the footsteps of the modernist “revolution of the word,” reworking the material aspects of language, most outspokenly, in the postmodernist fascination with and critique of the sundry systems of meaning, governance & control that make up contemporary social-political reality.

David Vichnar, Jan 26 2017

[1] “John Asbery Interviewing Harry Mathews,” Review of Contemporary Fiction 7.3 (Fall 1987): 46.

[2] “The sentences are very simple, but there’s something slightly out of kilter about them. There’s something about their lack of emphasis or the way the emphasis falls in an unexpected place. Firbank did this first of course, and it’s almost a source of irritation that there are so many things one can’t do without sounding like him” (John Ash, “A Conversation with Harry Mathews,” Review of Contemporary Fiction 7.3 [Fall 1987]: 21).

[3] Warren Leamon, Harry Mathews (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993) 16.

[4] Lytle Shaw, “An interview with Harry Mathews,” Chicago Review 43.2 (Spring 1997): 36.

[5] Shaw, “An interview with Harry Mathews,” 36.

[6] Lynne Tillmann, “Harry Mathews,” Bomb 26 (Winter 1988-9): 35.

[7] Leamon concurs: “Like Firbank, Mathews creates a world in which all the parts are ‘representational,’ but when put together they come to ‘represent’ something other than what the reader expects. […] Mathews’ style is both limpid and opaque in that there is nothing difficult about the ‘stories’ that make up the novel but how (or if) those stories go together presents great difficulty” (Leamon, Harry Mathews, 33).

[8] “(1) that a letter that never reached its destination has caused great confusion; (2) that the treasure never left Italy; (3) that Twang is the rightful heir to the treasure; (4) that the treasure has been secured and loaded for shipment to Burma on a ship called the Odradek Stadion” (Leamon, Harry Mathews, 72).

[9] Leamon, Harry Mathews, 73.

[10] Ash, “A Conversation with Harry Mathews,” 31.

[11] Conte, Design and Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fiction (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002), 102.


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EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.


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“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?…we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” // Franz Kafka, letter to Oskar Pollack, 27 January 1904
January 2017
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