The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … Harry Mathews The Conversions (1962)


‘Harry Mathews is the only American member of the OuLiPo, to which he was introduced by Georges Perec in 1972. He soon invented what came to be known as ‘Mathews’s algorithm’, a formula for arranging material based on the principle of permutation first illustrated by Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes. Both Mathews’s algorithm and Queneau’s sonnets are examples of what the OuLiPo call ‘combinatorial literature’, which might be defined as the business of applying mathematical concepts to uses of language. OuLiPian texts often derive their forms – or perhaps that should be formats – from the permutations generated by a particular concept or set of equations. Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi (1978), for instance, describes 100 rooms in a Parisian apartment block in a sequence that follows the route a knight at chess would have to take to land on the 100 squares of a 10 x 10 chess board without landing on the same square twice. Further, he employed a mathematical formula called the 10 x 10 Greco-Latin bi-square to decree which 42 of a set of predetermined elements or themes would appear in each chapter. Analogous permutations underpin texts such as Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979), Roubaud’s (1967) and Mathews’s Cigarettes (1987).

Cigarettes depicts the world of affluent East Coast respectability into which Mathews was born in 1930. He has not disclosed the law of permutation that governs its intricate set of intertwined plots, but we learn in an epilogue that the novel is in fact the work of one of its characters, Lewis Lewison, an aspiring writer (his first poems are published in Locus Solus, ‘a little magazine whose reputation was unrivalled’), and a no-holds-barred masochist. In one episode the ill-fated Lewis arranges to have himself crucified by a circle of S/M devotees, only to have the police – accompanied by journalists – raid the event just after he’s been nailed to the cross and hoisted aloft. To the consternation of his parents, photographs of their son as aspirant Christ appear on the front pages of the next morning’s papers. In another, Lewis’s sadist lover, the art critic Morris, coats him in quick-drying cement, and harangues him in camp slang:

Even if I don’t like reading you the stations, I won’t spread jam. So please, Louisa, get it and go. You’re a mess, a reject, a patient – I could go on for days. And don’t tell me – I have your nose wide open. I’m sorry. Spare me the wet lashes, it’s all summer stock. Because the only one you’ve ever really been strung out on is your own smart self, and you always will be. Think I’m going to stick around and watch the buns drop? And for what – to keep catching my rakes in your zits? Forget it, Dorothy. This is goodbye. Remember one thing, though. No matter what I’ve said to you, no matter how I’ve turned you out, the truth is’ – Morris’s eyes become wet; he turns a surprising shade of red – ‘the truth is, and I’m singing it out: I lo –’ Morris is staring past Lewis as his voice breaks off. Has he stopped because the telephone is ringing? His colour veers from red to grey. He turns to lean on the back of a chair, except that no chair is to be found where he leans: he sinks to his knees before lying face down on the floor.

‘Lewis eventually manages partially to shatter his concrete shell and telephone for help, but it arrives too late to save Morris, who has suffered a fatal heart attack. Poor Lewis has no trouble, however, in completing Morris’s final unfinished sentence: ‘The truth is, I loathe you.’

‘Mathews’s ‘Autobiography’ (also published in 1987) suggests a number of links between himself and Lewis – for instance, as children both used thieving as a way of securing their mothers’ exclusive love. Lewis’s quest for extreme sensations perhaps mirrors his creator’s impatience with the complacencies of the Wasp milieu in which he grew up (private schools in Manhattan and Massachusetts, followed by Princeton and Harvard, from which he graduated with a BA in music). He, too, scandalised his parents, though rather less dramatically: when he was 19, on a mid-college tour of duty with the Navy, he went AWOL to elope with a woman he’d met on a train, Niki de Saint Phalle.

‘His parents tried to have the marriage annulled, which precipitated a family rift. In 1952, Mathews and de Saint Phalle and their one-year-old daughter set sail for Europe. For a while they lived in Deyá, Mallorca, where Mathews came under the influence of Robert Graves, whose The White Goddess lurks behind some of the arcane mystic lore that turns up in the plot of his first novel, The Conversions (1962). A much greater influence on his early fiction, however, was Raymond Roussel, to whose work he was introduced by John Ashbery in 1956: Roussel’s ‘sovereign genius’, Mathews later declared, ‘demonstrated to me that psychology was a dispensable fashion, that the moral responsibilities of writing did not lie in a respect of subject matter, and that the writing of prose fiction could be as scrupulously organised as Sir Philip Sidney’s double sestina’. Both The Conversions and Tlooth (1966) present the reader with a cornucopia of improbable inventions, bizarre artefacts, linguistic riddles and mind-boggling discoveries, all recounted in a studiedly neutral tone that is at once lucid, precise and wholly unrevealing of its author’s ‘psychology’. Like Roussel’s, Mathews’s multifoliate narratives seem designed to defy paraphrase or explication: the opening chapters of The Conversions, for example, feature a ritual adze engraved with seven cryptic scenes relating to the life of a medieval female saint; a race between three worms whose progress is accompanied by ascending notes blown on ancient serpents; an inset narrative relating the struggle for survival of three enthusiastic amateurs of old German music stranded in the Arctic, where they sing Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott in Schütz’s harmonisation; and a competition between the narrator and the chief of a group of Long Island gypsies, which requires each to hold a terracotta jar filled with boiling water and describe as quickly as they can the scene moulded on its lid:

Of a group of nine men on their knees, clubs laid aside, I said: Victorious Yankees pray for humility.

The chief: From the dead God’s eye swarm fat swine.

My next scene showed two men, one of them looking in amazement at the other, who was chiselling at the bust of an old man set in the middle of a fence. I said of it: Confounding Brunelleschi, Donatello carves a venerable God from a fencepost.

The chief: Cool drink in hand, Somerset Maugham is gently toothdrilled.

‘This particular contest offers a mise en abîme of Mathews’s early prose style: streams of arcane information are fiercely compressed into the fewest possible words; fabulously baroque vignettes succeed each other according to some severe logic of correspondences one can never quite fathom. Both novels make use of comically simple overall plots; the protagonist of The Conversions has to discover the meaning of the scenes on the adze in order to claim an inheritance left him by the enormously wealthy Mr Wayl, while the narrator of Tlooth, once a violinist, seeks revenge on a surgeon who amputated the index and ring fingers of her left hand. Her first attempt occurs in the course of a baseball match in a Siberian concentration camp where both are imprisoned: as Evelyn Roak, the surgeon, steps up to the plate, the narrator, who is catcher, substitutes for an ordinary baseball one with a small bomb concealed in it; the first three pitches are foul, at the fourth Roak swings and misses, and the fifth flies way over the plate, disappearing ‘irretrievably, and with an abysmal liquid reverberation, into a drain’. Much of the comedy in Tlooth and The Conversions derives from Mathews’s ingenuity in fusing the outré and the banal.

The Conversions was first published in instalments in Locus Solus (1961-62), the short-lived magazine edited by Mathews himself (who also funded it with a legacy from his grandfather), Ashbery, James Schuyler and Kenneth Koch. Like most avant-garde magazines, Locus Solus (named after Roussel’s second prose novel, published in 1914, and with an epigraph from his final long poem, from 1932, Nouvelles impressions d’Afrique, was founded primarily as a forum for the work of the editors and their friends. Unlike most other avant-garde magazines, however, Locus Solus (which some enterprising publisher really ought to reprint) was much too cool to bother with manifestos or justifications of its editors’ aesthetic criteria: it neatly sidestepped the war between the ‘cooked’ (the academic and formal) and the ‘raw’ (the bardic and beat) then fissuring American poetry, instead suggesting by example the ways in which American experimental writing could incorporate foreign models without being overwhelmed by them. Issue Two, for instance, was devoted to the principle of literary collaboration, and included, alongside in-house co-productions by its editors, poems jointly written by Fletcher and Shakespeare, by Kakei and Basho, by Coleridge and Southey, by Eluard and Péret, by Cowley and Crashaw, and by Breton and Tanguy, as well as two of the finest works of the then much underrated Ern Malley, a gifted Australian avant-garde writer whose complete works were concocted in a single afternoon by James McAuley and Harold Stewart to parody the pretentiousness of contemporary poetry. ‘La poésie doit être faite par tous,’ as Lautréamont, one of Mathews’s favourite writers, once declared.

‘Like many bilingual writers, Mathews is particularly fascinated by the kinds of collaboration involved in attempts to convert one language into another. Translation figures again and again in Mathews’s work because it fuses the business of reading and writing, and foregrounds the reader’s part in the creation of whatever experience a novel makes possible. Indeed, for Mathews, creation, translation and collaboration are more or less interchangeable terms. This conviction is most fully and elaborately embodied in his third novel, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1975), which is made up of letters exchanged by a married couple, Zachary McCaltex – a lapsed Catholic American librarian – and Twang Panattapam, a businesslike Buddhist from a Montagnard hill tribe. The ostensible plot concerns their attempts to recover a treasure trove from a galleon wrecked off the coast of Florida in the 16th century; while Twang burrows into archives in Italy, Zach hunts for clues in and around Miami. Twang writes a peculiar hybrid English which makes special demands on her correspondent, and on the reader: ‘To raed this has need, not idees but a tenshn (to-trans-late of Twang),’ as she explains in her first epistle. Piecing together her reports on her researches into Florentine politics and history is a bit like working through a history of the Medici as rewritten by an Asian James Joyce. The novel’s eccentric form and use of culturally diverse protagonists allows Mathews to dramatise the sheer messiness of collaborating and translating, the tangents, cross-purposes and missed meanings involved in interacting with another in a partially shared language. As they close in on the map that will lead to the treasure, their investigations begin to throw up all kinds of rarefied epistemological questions, especially when Twang starts reading Wittgenstein.’ — Mark Ford



Harry Mathews @ Wikipedia
Harry Mathews, The Art of Fiction No. 191
Harry Mathews interviewed by Lynne Tillman
The Many False Floors of Harry Mathews
Harry Mathews @ Dalkey Archive
Harry Mathews @ Editions POL
Harry Mathews (1930-2017) and the New York School of Poets
Remembering Harry Mathews @ Bookforum
Tobias Carroll remembers Harry Mathews
Harry Mathews’s Al Gore Rhythms: A Re-viewing of Tlooth, Cigarettes, and The Journalist
Always at play: an appreciation of the late author Harry Mathews
His Own Man | Harry Mathews
Bringing Harry Mathews to PennSound (and you)
Harry Mathews in the CIA
Translation and the Oulipo: The Case of the Persevering Maltese
Buy ‘The Conversions’



Harry Mathews reads “The New Tourism”

Lecture / Reading Harry Mathews Lynn Crawford, 10.10.11, galerie éof, Paris

Harry Mathews l’OULIPO

Harry Mathews on Bookworm

Harry Mathews reads “The White Wind”


Harry Mathews interviewed by John Ashbery
from The Review of Contemporary Fiction


John Ashbery: One is supposed to ask questions about a writer’s work, but I thought I would ask you about your life, which I know very little about. As so often with one’s nearest and dearests, their biographies have enormous lacunae in them. I don’t know, for instance, very much about why you went to Harvard when you did, or why you left it. I don’t know why you studied music. I don’t know why you went to Majorca. If I knew, I’ve forgotten all these things.

Harry Mathews: I think it’s very kind of you to assume why I did any of these things. I went to Harvard because I disliked Princeton so much—I spent a year and a half there. I didn’t leave Harvard early; I actually finished. I think I did two years in a year and a half, or something like that. And I finished college because I thought how much it would upset my parents if I didn’t. It was a last gesture to—

JA: I see, I didn’t even know that you’d finished college, I thought you’d left.

HM: I left Princeton, but I graduated Harvard, in 1952.

JA: I guess I knew that you did two years at Harvard. Why did you leave Princeton?

HM: I disliked Princeton for the reasons many people dislike it—its genteel charm, which seemed snobbish and anti-intellectual.

JA: You certainly don’t get that at Harvard.

HM: I regret my having been at Harvard at that time, in the sense that if I’d had a different attitude I think I would have learned a lot more there. I felt that I was just going through the motions. Fortunately I did learn a lot about music, because most of the courses I took were practical courses in musical theory—harmony, counterpoint—where you had to hand in assignments once or twice a week or fail. But what seemed to me attractive about Harvard, especially in retrospect, was the intellectual life of the students, “among” the students. I was already married and living off campus so I missed most of that, except for my lunches at the Signet, which I liked very much.

JA: Yes—boiled beef, cold potatoes . . .

HM: I didn’t mean the “food”! What was the name of the man who took care of us—Archie?

JA: I think it was, yes . . .

HM: Archie was very kind—

JA: . . . the Mrs. Danvers of the Signet.

HM: I had very little money at the time. He allowed me to simply pay for my lunches without having to pay the dues, or something like that. So I was able to keep up this one link with the—

JA: It must have set you back a good forty-five cents each time you had lunch.

HM: Yes, those were the pre-everything days.

JA: What led you to study music?

HM: Well, I had this little notion—I started writing when I was eleven, writing poetry. I was passionately addicted to it; it was my great refuge through adolescence. I felt it was so valuable to me that I didn’t want that passion to be sullied by exposure to academic treatments of it. In fact neither at Princeton nor at Harvard did I take a single literature course.

JA: Very wise of you.

HM: I felt that way at the time. I have some regrets now, although not too many. Mainly because I’m so unevenly read.

JA: You’re unevenly read in a way that no one else is.

HM: I’ve never read Fielding, or Thackeray. Balzac—or hardly any.

JA: You didn’t have to read Giles and Phineas Fletcher or Roger Ascham.

HM: “Gammer Gurton’s Needle”?

JA: Oh—did you or didn’t you?

HM: I didn’t, no.

JA: Actually it’s very delightful.

HM: It sounded so—it inspired one of my moments of regret about not taking English literature courses. Music had been my first love among the arts, and I was fascinated by it, as I still am. And although that wasn’t my intention, I think it was very useful to have studied it. I gather you feel the same way about it.

JA: Yes, but I haven’t studied it.

HM: You do have a very fine—a “nice” ear.

JA: I feel it’s too beautiful for me to want to know anything about it.

HM: Just the way I felt about literature.

JA: Exactly.

HM: There’s a big difference, though, because no matter how much you learn about music, it doesn’t “tell” you anything about it. You study it through words—you approach it through a different medium.

JA: As a youth, you said, you took refuge in poetry. Refuge from what? The gilded life on Beekman Place?

HM: Please cut that! It’s true, I had an extremely delicious life, but that was my life at home, and perhaps because I was only a child, or for whatever reasons, I found the company of others, especially other boys, quite terrifying and upsetting. I was poor at athletics. I didn’t know how to get along on their terms in any way I knew about. I probably wasn’t as bad as I thought, but anyway I felt socially unhappy. I became very nasty, too. And when I started writing—not when I started, but when I was twelve or thirteen or fourteen, something like that—writing poetry was a great inner (I don’t mean that in any “significant” way), a secret, a private place to go to, as was reading poetry, and reading in general. My dream, I remember, when I went to boarding school, was to have a study all my own, a little nook someplace where nobody could get at me—nobody, like the football coach.

JA: Yes. I felt the same way. By the way, when did your parents get this apartment?

HM: I was brought up on East 72nd Street between First and Second Avenues. This place was bought by my maternal grandfather, when my grandmother died. He had a house which he sold in order to move here. My parents already had an apartment here, a smaller one. On the death of my grandfather, my mother inherited this one. My grandfather paid $75,000 for it.

JA: When was that?

HM: In 1952.

JA: Anyway, when did you meet Niki?

HM: When I was twelve years old. Her family and mine were vacationing in the Berkshires at the same time. I used to play with Niki and her brother and the Casadesus sons.

JA: Jean.

HM: Yes, Jean, and the other one I think was called—I can’t remember what he was called. They both became musicians, like their parents. And then Niki and I saw each other intermittently through our adolescence. We didn’t get along very well. And one day I was riding to Princeton—riding back to Princeton from New York on the train, having lunch in the dining car, as you could then do (such a pleasure!)—this extraordinary beautiful young woman walked by and turned and smiled at me. That was that.

JA: It was Niki?

HM: That was Niki. And I immediately set out in pursuit of her. She didn’t dislike this . . .

JA: Since you were on a train, you must have had an easy time.

HM: It took a little longer than the train ride. And then, when I left Princeton in the middle of my sophomore year, I went into the navy. There was then the possibility of enlisting for a year if you were eighteen years old; it satisfied all your military service requirements. While I was in the navy, Niki and I eloped. At the end of that year we went to live in Cambridge together.

JA: Where were you stationed?

HM: I was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, for a while, about which the less said the better, and then I was in the Mediterranean, about which the more said the better.

JA: Then you went to college?

HM: After the navy, I transferred to Harvard and finished there. I was there the spring term of 1951 and I stayed through the summer term and a whole other year, so I was able to do two years in a little less than a year and a half. I graduated in 1952 and went to Europe, with Niki and our first child Laura, who was then a year old.

JA: You went first to Majorca?

HM: No, we went to Paris. At that time Niki was studying acting and I was studying music. My idea was to go to Vienna to study conducting and perhaps play in an orchestra first, so I thought before I got to Vienna I could do with a little training in Paris.

JA: I hear the Duluth Symphony is looking for a principal guest conductor.

HM: I was thinking of something more like the Stadskeller Orchestra in Innsbruck. Anyway, Niki studied acting in Paris; she was bilingual, and she still is. At the end of the following summer she switched to painting. She had a nervous breakdown and it was while she was in a clinic recovering from it that she did her first collages. She gave up a promising acting career, a leading role offered to her in his next play by Marcel Achard, who as you know was a successful playwright; and also a part by Robert Bresson.

JA: I always confuse him with Marcel Arland.

HM: But they’re different.

JA: I know, the other one edits volumes of La Pleiade. I knew about the Bresson.

HM: It was the same role that was offered to our daughter and that she did years later. I forgot to say that after college this great passion for writing poetry started to collapse. To this day I don’t really know why, but it was definitely associated with both the colleges I went to. By the beginning of my sophomore year I’d virtually stopped writing, and within a year of leaving Harvard I’d started again. When Niki decided to become a painter, I told myself how wonderful, I want to do something like that. I’d also realized by that time that the chances of me having a musical career that would really interest me were practically nil because my ear training had been so neglected. It’s hard to make up at twenty-one what you can learn easily at ten. And I really wanted to write again, and so I started writing, first poetry and then prose.

JA: How long did you stay in Paris then?

HM: We were in Paris and Nice for a little more than a year, and then we went to Majorca, where you could then live for next to nothing. Majorca was much less resorty than it is now. There were quite a few foreigners, but they could be numbered by the dozens perhaps, and there wasn’t the great summer influx that there is now.

JA: Is that what made you move back?

HM: No. We lived in this place called Deya, where Robert Graves lived, a beautiful village. There was this artists and writers colony there. It was our first and last experience of an artists colony, and we both found living in such a situation extremely nasty after awhile, although we made very good friends there, one of whom introduced me to you.

JA: Walter Auerbach.

HM: Walter Auerbach, who was living in Barcelona and whom I persuaded to come live in Deya, told me about you and introduced us, I think in the early summer of 1956.

JA: Yes. How did you meet Walter Auerbach?

HM: I met him on a trip to Barcelona. I may have met him in Majorca. I got to know him in Barcelona. In those days you used to go to Barcelona on the overnight boat from Majorca if you wanted to live the life of a real city and a change of scene. We had friends in common. I went to a party at his place and then saw him rather regularly. I can’t remember who the friends were, perhaps Jimmy and Tommie Metcalf, artists living in Deya at this time, perhaps Alastair Reid, more likely the Metcalfs. Walter stayed on. He died in Majorca, he lived the rest of his life there.

JA: Yes. We were at his house together. I was in Chicago a couple months ago where there was a show of Moholy-Nagy photographs and one of them was of Pitt Auerbach.

HM: That was Walter’s first wife. And how did you meet him?

JA: Actually it was through Rudy Burckhardt. Jane Freilicher once said to me—I hadn’t met Rudy yet and she explained about him and said that he was making a movie using people like us in it. “Not only that, but Walter Auerbach is going to be in it. It’s like having G.W. Pabst on set.” So I met him through making the movie. The only thing I remember about it was the day we finished making it we went to, I think, Sheepshead Bay to have lunch at a sort of fish restaurant, and Walter Auerbach emphatically ordered a fillet of sole sandwich.

HM: Was that cheaper than the other dishes.

JA: They were all cheap; it was that he knew exactly what he wanted.

HM: Because he was a genius at living on small amounts of money. He lived on fifty-five dollars and later sixty-five dollars a month for years and years, in what seemed to be great comfort, both in Barcelona and Majorca.

JA: I remember the lunch he served us was something like a brochette of lungs, lights, beef heart. It was rather good. Anyway, I suppose we should talk about your work as well as your life.

HM: I think it’s very interesting to talk about—I mean I’m very willing to talk about my work, but I think people feel that they should ask questions about the work and they’re really interested in one’s life. So it’s nice of you to ask those questions.

JA: No. When I met you in ’56, I think you’d just moved back to Paris.

HM: We’d just bought the apartment—our first apartment, at the Porte de Vanves.

JA: Yes, I remember it well.

HM: Well, are there any things that remain mysterious to you after that?

JA: Outside of the mystery that you’ve always deliberately cultivated, I can’t think of anything.

HM: Yes, I always thought that the principle of my life was to be leaving for someplace else wherever I was and no matter where I was living.

JA: And to arrive at an unspecified date.

HM: Yes.

JA: When I first met you, you were fascinated by Raymond Roussel, whom I introduced you to, I believe.

HM: That’s right.

JA: We must credit Kenneth Koch, however, for the original American discovery.

HM: Yes. I always credit him.

JA: I seldom do. That’s why I was doing so now. And since then you’ve been involved in the Oulipo—and it seems as though the discovery of Roussel’s processes and writing must have been one of the things, perhaps the most important one, that occurred at that time since you’ve evolved more and more towards works that are somehow schematic.

HM: This is something that had appealed to me in poetry; obviously all poets who write in traditional forms are involved in this, and I’d also invented ways of doing it in poetry myself. For instance, I wrote a long poem in sonata form. That seemed to be a thing you could do in poetry or at least try out in poetry. I was dying to write prose, but I didn’t know any way of going about doing this in prose. Then Roussel showed me that you can generate prose works with the same kind of arbitrariness that you use in verse. One extraordinary thing about poetry is that, say, if you’re writing couplets, every five feet you have to have a word that sounds like another word, whether that makes any sense or not. You have arbitrary, illogical demands that you have to make on yourself. Roussel showed how this can be done in prose and so for me opened up the whole possibility of writing fiction, which I’d tried before without ever getting any place. I’d always thought that to write fiction you had to write more or less autobiographical stories, or stories of things that you’d observed in the world. It’s terribly hard to do that; at least it was terribly hard for me- to make it sing and glow. I think that’s why Roussel excited me so.

JA: I was very attracted to him when I first read him but probably more the effects that his processes produced almost gratuitously. I’ve never really used very formal devices, although I don’t disapprove of them; but it seems as though by using them you can get a realism, a sort of casual, unbuttoned quality.

HM: I think that’s true. The traditional short story or novel comes out very unlike the way things really happen, as though it were a kind of translation of the world. In Roussel, and in Oulipian work, you’re forced to do things you wouldn’t do otherwise, and this brings a great deal of freshness to them. One thing that I was inspired by in Roussel, most obviously in “The Conversation,” is that incredible voice, that very neutral, apparently indifferent tone in which the most insane things are said. This is one of those effects which is so potent.

JA: The fact that he wrote with a very severe attention to writing with as few words as possible, so that he sometimes wrestled four or five hours with a single word, that produced what Michel Leiris has called prose such as that which is taught in manuals of lycees. He also says it allowed effects of extraordinary limpidity, which I think is a very good word for it. It’s an experience that one can get nowhere else.

HM: Who was it that said to Pasternak—was it Scriabin or somebody playing Scriabin?

JA: Yes, that he should simplify—

HM: No, he said that he had finally achieved utter simplicity in his last works, which were of an absolutely mind-boggling complexity.

JA: I once quoted that passage to somebody interviewing me who wanted some justification for my complexity, somebody not very sympathetic. She said: “Sobering thought.”

HM: It’s a very hard point to get across to a lot of people, that a work is much harder to get if it’s diluted, whereas if you have it exactly the way it should be, it looks very thorny or cranky but in fact it just fits the space it’s taking up. I’m obsessed with getting rid of words, too. Sometimes it seems to me that so much scraping takes place that words end up doing rather interesting things. Perec said when he translated me that I was very hard to translate because I used words “juste a cote leur sens”—just alongside their meaning. Since they were very ordinary words one didn’t really notice this as it took place.

JA: Like what?

HM: I have to turn off this tape recorder. I never can remember when people ask me for examples like that.

JA: No. You were just saying you wished you could understand how your work, hard as it may appear, is really easy to follow.

HM: I think that what matters in writing, as in music, is what’s going on between the words (and between the notes); the movement is what matters, rather than whatever is being said. I like very much what the English composer Birtwhistle—is that his name?—said about his pieces. He said you could change all the notes in it and it would still be the same piece. That really rang a bell when I read it because it could be said about not only my own work but written work in general. What matters is the process and not the substance that the process is using. I think that’s very true of your poems.

JA: Yes, I thought so.

HM: I think that’s what’s hard to . . . Readers get worried about reading something right or wrong, they don’t trust themselves in the act of reading, and so they don’t let that process work for them. They try to piece together a sense by taking out the elements that are used in . . .

JA: That’s certainly particularly true of poetry, where people will go to any lengths rather than actually read the poem, such as read a thick book about it.
What’s the position of Oulipo in France? How’s it regarded by writers in general?

HM: I went to see Michael Leiris, whom you just mentioned a few moments ago. He said,” I’m very interested in what Oulipo does, but don’t you think it’s results are rather mechanical?” You know, he’s very sly. And of course he does his whole—the “Glossaries” he makes up are very Oulipian. I think people who know it from a distance look on it with some suspicion, which is a good thing. I mean, it still has a certain ability to provoke. The position that it claims for itself is slightly suspect. We say that we invent forms (or rediscover old forms) that are very hard to use, very demanding, so that these will be available to other writers, a kind of contribution made to the potentiality . . .

JA: Very thoughtful of you.

HM: Exactly. It’s very thoughtful of us and never really happens. But I think its true activity, which is to experiment in forms rather than in writing, “is” interesting. And if it has to be justified, it’s justified by the writing of Calvino and Perec, people like that.

JA: Don’t be so modest.

HM: Well, nevertheless Calvino is in a class apart.

JA: So are you. What is your standard of a form being sufficiently constricting?

HM: What I say is: a form that makes you write something that you wouldn’t normally say, or in a way that you would never have said it. The form is so demanding that you can’t get around it.

JA: But that’s true of almost any form.

HM: Not really. The sonnet was once difficult, but it’s not difficult any more.

JA: But you would be saying that you could conceivably say something in a sonnet that would not have occurred to you otherwise.

HM: That’s true. I think any form can be “suggestive.” The constrictive part “makes” you —the sonnet wouldn’t necessarily make you write in a way you wouldn’t otherwise, or say something you wouldn’t otherwise. I think the best example is the lipogram and Georges Perec’s book “La Disparition”, which is written without the letter “e.” If you write without the letter “e,” you can say an amazing amount of things, but you use a vocabulary that is so radically different than the one you normally use that you “have” to think about it. You have to be conscious of what you’re doing all the time. I’ve been only able to solve that problem by putting a upturned thumbtack on the e-key of my typewriter. It’s very hard no matter how diligent you are to keep them out—to keep an “e” from slipping in.

JA: I suppose every time you went to use a “le” or “je” you’re forced to rethink the entire language.

HM: Yes, you have to get around that someway, so you find yourself using modes of expression that are unnatural. On the other hand, practice can make you fluent in it; I translated several pages of “La Disparition” without all that much trouble.

JA: You had to use “e’s,” though, didn’t you?

HM: No, without using any “e’s.”

JA: Really?

HM: That’s kind of a double constraint, because you have the constraint of the translation “and” the other.

JA: May we take a break for a while?

HM: Yes, I think it’s time for our dinner.

JA: People always ask me what influence my years in France had on my work. Of course I’m capable of answering, but I’ve often felt that there really wasn’t much influence, except that it’s very nice to live in a beautiful, cultured city with very good food—surely this played as important part in it. But I never felt that French “poetry,” with a few exceptions—Roussel, Rimbaud, Lautreamont, etc. . . .

HM: Reverdy, no?

JA: Reverdy, yes, of course—were very influential. In fact, I’m not sure how influential any of them were. I admire them; they are very great writers. But except for a few fortuitous resemblances to Reverdy or Roussel, they don’t seem to have influenced me directly. It’s almost as though French and English don’t quite mix in a fruitful way. I heard somewhere that Stravinsky wrote his work for violin and piano—a sonata, I guess—because he always felt that the sounds of the two instruments were absolutely incompatible and wanted to see if he could address this problem.

HM: That’s quite true, they go very badly together, despite the literature.

JA: It’s as though French were like a violin and English, or American, were like a piano.

HM: So what is the question?

JA: Do you feel that your work would have been different, or do you feel that living in France has had a direct forming influence on your work?

HM: I think living away from one’s country gives you a difficult privilege. You’re not under the pressure of people publicly succeeding better than you at what you’re interested in; you’re away from that and there’s a relief in that sense. And also you have to be conscious of your own language. You’re forced to be conscious of your language and your writing and your attitude toward writing. As for the Frenchness of that position, I guess really- that Mallarme as an idea was always very potent for me. It wasn’t that Mallarme’s present-day disciples seemed like ones to emulate, but I was living in a country—

JA: The six-words-to-a-page school?

HM: Yes, there’s that, and the “I’m not saying what I seem to be saying” attitude towards writing poetry. I felt that I was surrounded by language to which Mallarme had a weird relationship. Mallarme wrote like nobody else; even his letters to his friends are very hermetic and hard to read and don’t sound like the language of his contemporaries or his successors or his predecessors. So that reading Mallarme or Roussel, for whom these comments are true also, in France is inspiring, and in the fact that he has become the father or grandfather of modern poetry there is something that I could look to for inspiration. I think that would have been harder to do if I’d stayed here. For the personal reasons we talked about earlier—we didn’t talk about them so much—those reasons why I didn’t want to come back to the United States: since I’d taken refuge in France the way I’d taken refuge in poetry earlier in my life, it seemed appropriate that there was this utterly committed writer, someone who had gone to an extreme that no writer I know in English had ever done—towards formality, a kind of abstraction.

JA: I always felt that what you say about Mallarme was true of surrealism—that idea of it was actually more important than the works it resulted in. I don’t know whether you were saying that about Mallarme.

HM: No, I love Mallarme’s poetry. And I agree with you about surrealism. Maybe you’re thinking more of what has been made out of Mallarme than what he actually . . .

JA: No, I was putting words in your mouth. I thought that’s what you were saying.

HM: I don’t know that I’d ever actually like to write like Mallarme.

JA: No.

HM: But I think it’s wonderful that somebody did. He seems to have gone much farther than the surrealists, getting to the bottom of the French verse and the French sentence. I think poems like “Le Don du poeme” are extremely moving and irremediably—if that’s the word—mysterious.

JA: Well, what other questions would you like me to ask?

HM: I don’t know. Some more questions that aren’t usually asked in interviews. It’s so nice not being asked, How do I write?

JA:Yes, they always want the recipe.

HM: Perhaps I could say a few words about why I did run away from the United States.

JA: Yes, I’ve never actually known.

HM: 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 the time.

JA: I’m not sure that you misread it.

HM: Maybe.

JA: That was sort of a low point in America.

HM: It was a very bad moment.

JA: Which we seem to be outdoing in the present time.

HM: Except there hasn’t been anything like McCarthyism. There are a lot of things that are awful . . .

JA: The New Right?

HM: Yes, that’s true. But then the values of what is now the New Right were standard. You remember Chaplin being kicked out of the America on the grounds of moral turpitude? Anyway, I’ve never felt that I was anything but an American, even though I’m an American-living-abroad, which I think is an interesting form of the species that can contribute to what’s happening here as much as anyone else. I never have thought of myself as “existing” anyplace else, although I am very happy to have a place in France, you know, to be known to French writers, to have another life. That is very agreeing and sustainable. Although I don’t think that the readier reception by many people in France of what I do means that they understand it any better than people who resist it here.

JA: They probably think that you’re neglected here, as they believe about Faulkner, and therefore they’re going to take you to their hearts, along with Jerry Lewis.

HM: Right. Is there any kind of final thing I could tell you about myself that has been mysterious to you through all these years?

JA: Well . . .

HM: It’s been a very long friendship.

JA: Don’t speak as though it were over, please. One of the minor mysteries of your activities is how you decide how long you’re going to spend in one of your three places.

HM: I sort of schedule it knowing that after a certain time, after a few weeks, I’ll grow attached to the place, so that I always manage to leave when I’m longing to stay a little more. But I’m never sorry to get to the place that I move on to.

JA: That makes sense.

HM: It does?

JA: Well, I could ask you about your future plans, now that you’ve finished your novel and it’s actually being published.
HM: Going to be published. I do have plans for another book, one shorter than “Cigarettes,” which will have the name “Domestic Tranquility,” no, I’m sorry, “Domestic Contentment.” There’s this marvelous old servant woman whom I’ve known for years. I can’t remember—Arielle is her name—

JA: Dombasle?

HM: I believe it’s Arielle Matthis. I’m going to transcribe and edit her memoirs, which she has told me orally.

JA: Is she in Lans?

HM: I don’t think it’s really fair for me to say. I’m sure you’ll like her tales of her life, which are rather para-oulipian, that is to say, all the dramas of which she’s been a witness as a serving woman in the various households in which she’s worked have been resolved by her skill in household tasks.

JA: Does this woman actually exist or is she another creation of your fertile brain?

HM: That’s a distinction I think I won’t make.

JA: Actually that’s the way the—I was again starting “La Vie de Marianne” of Marivaux.

HM: Is that one of his novels?

JA: Yes, it is—a masterpiece.

HM: He’s supposed to be a wonderful novelist, another one I’ve been meaning to read.

JA: He is. And at the beginning the author is speaking and says he’s recently rented a chateau in Brittany, and while rearranging the furniture he came upon a candle box of letters in the cabinet . . .

HM: I see.

JA: . . . which I found curious enough to perhaps merit the interest of the reader.

HM: Do you think this inspired “The Manuscript Found at Saragossa”?

JA: It was kind of a convention of the time.

HM: I see. Yes, it was a pretext for fiction, wasn’t it? Novels were presented as being papers or an account of something discovered by the author in some surprising backwoods.

JA: Did you go and see the Saragossa movie?

HM: No, I only saw it years ago in France. I haven’t seen it here. But if we start talking about movies, we’re never going to stop.

JA: Oh, I thought we’d finished the interview.

HM: No!

JA: I thought it was all over and I could go home.

HM: I can stop it whenever you want. But I was hoping you’d ask a concluding question.

JA: I thought I’d asked several already.

HM: You have, but why don’t you do one more, so that—

JA: Um. (Long pause.)

HM: The tape is still on.

JA: I know.

HM: I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to it.

JA: I was talking to it, too.

HM: Do you think it likes us both, equally? I mean, what are machines for, if not for that?

JA: User friendly?

HM: Impartial love finally realized. (Pause.) Well, let’s leave it at that.

JA: At “what”?

HM: At nothing more than that.




Harry Mathews The Conversions
Dalkey Archive Press

‘At a dinner party hosted by a wealthy New Yorker, a guest receives a gold adze, the coveted prize in a worm race. When the man dies the next day, he bequeaths, according to a stipulation in his will, the bulk of his fortune to the adze’s possessor, provided he answer three mysterious questions relating to the artifact’s history. In his search the owner encounters a menagerie of eccentric personalities: an ancient revolutionary in a Parisian prison, a ludicrous pair of gibberish-speaking brothers, and customs officials who spend their time reading contraband materials. He soon finds himself immersed in the centuries-long history of a persecuted religious sect and in an odyssey that begins in a forgotten fog-covered town in Scotland and ends on the ocean floor off the cost of an uncharted French island.

‘A wild goose chase through a remarkably unusual world, “The Conversions” invites both reader and protagonist to participate in a quest for answers to an elusive game.’ — Dalkey Archive

‘One of the storytelling tactics Mathews is most adept at is providing the appearance of a noir-like narrative, which he employs more as a cover to pull the reader through a much more bizarre and shifting world than they might have expected. Expository premises in Mathews novels rarely play out the way one would expect, often making his scenes work like a series of rooms each with a false floor, underneath which is another set of rooms possibly falling into another—kind of like how dreams continue to spill away from what they appeared to be at first. Even the names of his characters seem like mirages; codes for something else. The Conversions, his first novel, might be the most confounding in this way. The book begins with the gift of a piece of jewelry to a woman at a dinner party. The woman is told that if she can solve the mystery of the relic’s place in history, she will inherit a fortune. As the narrative piles on, each of the woman’s questions opens into even more complicated questions, social histories, and unsolvable maps. The whole book is a puzzle in itself, and the longer you spend trying to solve it, the harder it gets.’ — Blake Butler



The Adze

The wealthy amateur Grent Wayl invited me to his New York house for an evening’s diversion. Welcoming me, he said: The check of our Bea! pointing to his niece, Miss Beatrice Fod, who, accompanied on the harmonium by her brother Isidore, sang to assembled guests.

At night when you’re asleep
Without no pants on
Into your tent I’ll creep
Without no pants on

Such nervous speech! Why should he mind, since the song delighted the company? Mr Wayl was aging, aging; but no-one would take his words lightly.

He led me upstairs to sec one of his new acquisitions. In the library Mr Wayl laid an oblong case of green leather on a white table. Having turned on a ceiling spotlight to illuminate the case, he opened it. A weapon rested on the brilliant red lining, its smooth handle of ash, its billshaped flat blade of gold.

According to Mr Wayl, the instrument was a ritual adze. The side of the bill we had first beheld was plain, but its reverse was chased with wiry engravings, depicting seven scenes. Six had in common the figure of a longhaired woman with full breasts and a face crosshatched for swarthiness. Mr Wayl suggested that the woman was some heroine or saint, and that the engravings told her life. He looked at me curiously while he said this.

Mr Wayl asked me to interpret the series of engravings.

I began with the leftmost scene, in the point of the blade, where the woman stood naked at the mouth of a stream, with a pile of cowrie shells at her feet. The subject hardly suited the life of a saint, but I took it to be a decorative conceit—a quaint medieval mixture of pagan and Christian themes.

To the right of this, the woman stood upon clouds, above a throng of striped men bearing staves shaped like inverted L’s. Below the clouds a disc emanated crooked spikes, while lower still people on the earth raised their hands. This clearly seemed to be the saint’s manifestation, a descent from heaven. The stavebearing figures were angels with pennons, the spiked disc the rejoicing sun.

In the next engraving the woman held one side of a small wreath; a man in simple vestments held the opposite side. I thought this man must be Christ presenting the saint with a crown of holiness.

The fourth scene showed the woman among battling knights, who were drawn gruesome and pathetic. The saint was surely putting an end to some battle, if not to war itself.

Next, the woman appeared outside a burning grove. Within it there were many tormented figures. She lifted her arms in supplication, as would befit one pleading for the damned.

In the sixth scene the woman knelt in front of a mitred priest who stretched his left hand over her. A fire, which I interpreted as a symbol of divine love, burned in the background. I had no doubt the scene showed the saint blessed by some pope.

The woman did not figure in the last engraving, which was decorative, I supposed, like the first one. In it four arrows, radii of one small arc, pointed to symbols representing the quarters of the moon. A bag of fish—possibly a Christian reference—hung below.

Mr Wayl had grown impatient during my remarks. He now exclaimed: You’re as dumb as is!

Excuse me, sir, I said, if your pleasure was marred.

He was suddenly friendly: No one with purple eyes is stupid.

But do you have perfect pitch?

I answered that I had. Leaving the library, he took the adze with him.



As we descended the stairs Mr Wayl stopped me. Listen! Miss Fod was singing:

The second queen was an Amazon
With a terrible spear of brass

Such music! said Mr Wayl. A real old tune—a lass’s tenor. You must recognize it.

I listened:

Whistling the devil’s salvation
In a girdle of crimson cowries
The three queens made thunder
And married them all together

There was applause. Mr Wayl had left me listening; he now stood, encircled by the company, next to his niece and nephew. Following his summons I joined them.

Tonight’s game, he said, will be a race. The contestants are Bea and Is, whom you all know, and-his hand on my shoulder —this gentleman. The prize will be my antique adze.

Servants entered to draw back the curtains at one side of the drawing-room, then to open the sliding panels of glass that formed the wall behind. We overlooked a greenhouse, whose fragrant heat rose quickly about us, but which we could see little of: it was unlighted except for three parallel bands, about two yards long, that were sunk in its floor near us. These shone dull green.

That is the course, said Mr Wayl. The bands, which are covered with a thin layer of salt slime, are lighted from below so that you can follow the race.

The contestants will be represented by these. He held out his opened cigarette case: in it lay small sticks of tobacco-colored stuff with a tuft of tangled white thread at the end of each.

Worms called zephyrs. They are dried out but alive; moisture will quicken them. On the course, which is wet, they will fmd in front of them a trail of their habitual food (tiny pharaohs) that will lead them to the finish.

As for the human contestants, they will do more than watch. Each must accompany his worm’s advance with an ascending major scale, to be played on one of these instruments that as you doubtless know are named serpents.

Mr Wayl detached three S-ish wooden tubes from a wall panel behind him, fitted their lesser ends with silver mouthpieces, and silently demonstrated a scale on one of them, progressively unstopping its six fingerholes. The lowest and highest notes were obtained with all the holes stopped.

It is curious, he said, that the holes are divided into groups of three by a length of wood having no proportion to the acoustical distance between the fourth and fifth notes of the scale. Nor do the spaces between the other holes vary with the interval; the holes are apparently bored for the convenience of the fingers. Yet the results are just. Thus with all holes open: see? With one: re. With three: fa. (Since these are C-serpents, the scale names are true.)

At the beginning of the race each contestant will play the lower do. The course bands are marked with six indentations; as his worm passes them the contestant must sound the subsequent tones-reat the first marker, mi at the second, and so on. Without this accompaniment the worm’s progress counts for nothing. The race will end with the first high do.

Mr Wayl gave us our instruments.

For you, Bea, a fine French example made for the Duchess of Lissixg, who was known as “the Imp Queen”—but I can’t remember the Latin for imp.

Is will have the favorite serpent of Dericar Ciorc, the virtuoso.
And you will have this one. It’s wound with masking tape to cover some disturbing scenes painted on it; otherwise it’s sound. Take your places.

We entered the conservatory and knelt, each with a horn, at the end of our appointed bands. Servants knelt next to us, ready with our quiet worms.

Presently the drawing-room lights went out. Mr Wayl said, Begin.


The Race

Do: unevenly, the three horns gave the note in the near darkness. The servants placed our worms in the reviving ooze. I watched mine through the green-lighted fringe of the foxtail mat on which I knelt: it lay still. To my left Beatrice Fod urged hers on with whispers, then blew a new note on her serpent—a hesitant semitone.

Patience, said Mr Wayl from the threshold of the drawing room.
There was a faint white light in the greenhouse, barely more than a drifting phosphorescence. My worm curled, untangling the bunched thread at his tip in thin exploratory tentacles that looked like rapid-flowering vine tendrils. His tan body was now a pale whitish green. Moving, he glided quick over the green glass in a curious curve. My eyes were already numb from straining in the dim light when he swerved around the first black marker.

ReI sounded clearly; but Beatrice followed only with her faltering C-sharp. There was laughter from the next room. Turning I saw its cause: an old guest sitting in an overstuffed chair nodded drowsily among the onlookers. Some sort of dark blue light had been made to shine on him, and against the faint phosphorescent whiteness that still filled the air he appeared to be covered with thick soot. Despite the laughter, he dozed on.

My zephyr slid swiftly forward. It was then I noticed that the path he had taken was marked by a nearly invisible trail of black: a broken irregular line.

Beatrice, in spite of her worm’s advance, could not force her intermittent C-sharp to the desiredre. Is Fod as yet made no sound. My worm touched the second marker. I played

Mi, followed by a sigh of wonder from the watchers, while under my eyes the worm’s black trail suddenly turned a sullen green. Looking up, I saw on the wall beyond the course’s finish the prize adze, flashing red in some beam cast on it from an unseen point. The vision was the color of my inner eye! I nearly forgot to follow my worm; and when I next observed Kim he was already at the third marker.

Fa: my lips and lungs blared the note out while my eyes fixed the fiery adze: hut as I played, it dropped abruptly into darkness. Again there was a bustle in the drawing-room. All now looked towards the glass case, placed on a small stand in the center of the room, where the fifteen-pound Slauss sapphire was exposed. The jewel glowed as if illuminated from within: its clarity was now clustered with entwined tenuous red veins. We beheld it thus for a few moments until we heard an unexpectedrefrom Is Fod’s serpent. As soon as the note was sounded the sapphire turned a translucent black that darkened but did not obscure the red skein within.

When my zephyr attained the fourth marker, I made my only mistake of the race. With, fa I had unstopped the last of the first set of fingerholes. Between it and the next hole lay the abnormal extent of dosed tube that Mr Wayl had mentioned. Uncovering the fa hole I tried to compensate for its position by slackening my lips; I only succeeded in producing a falteringfa diesis.

Every light was extinguished, even the faint green courselights. An unusual darkness suffused the conservatory and the drawing-room. Without color or light, it seemed to have its own thick splendor; and this impression was confirmed when I found that I could still barely discern the line trailed by the advancing worm. I recognized too that this line formed not a haphazard figure, but letters.

I had forgotten to correct my mistake. Only when the silence that followed the sudden darkness had been broken by the embarrassed coughing of Miss Dryrein (Mr Wayl’s secretary) did I remember to play.

Sol: the chocolate-blackness was at once pierced by a moving ray of yellow light.

I call this Midas’5 finger, said Mr Wayl. And in fact whatever the beam touched acquired the lustre and massiveness of gold. The sapphire, the harmonium, Mr Wayl, Miss Dryrein, and, one by one, all the guests were subjected to the illusory transformation. Ima Mutes, the Catalan entreteneuse, was applauded: her evening gown was made of a tightly-coiled spiral of velvet snakes.

The yellow beam was entering the greenhouse when Is Fod sounded his mi. The adze again turned a brilliant red. When the yellow ray came to rest on it, its red did not change to gold but deepened in the midst of a. golden haze.

The light had proved me right: my worm had left letters in his trail—in the reflected yellow they glowed purple. But I had no time to study them. My worm was at the fifth marker.

La. The adze again disappeared, as well as the moving beam. Instead violet light flooded that drowsy guest whom we had last seen covered with soot. This time the laughter of the other guests roused him, and he opened his eyes, which flashed weirdly, casting thin lilac-colored shafts into the surrounding darkness. A girl cried out, O Papa, tu m’fais peur! The old man went back to sleep.

The worm-letters took on yellowness, while the course was black in the violet glow.

Beatrice uttered a final breath into her serpent: still the same quavering C-sharp, dull whiteness guttering for a moment about the violet guest. Balls! We heard a whirring noise and a brief splintering of glass as Beatrice skied her horn through the conservatory roof. Draughts of February air swirled about us.

Mysi was followed at once by Is Fod’sfa. Pink flooded the course, its bands turning blue, the leech’s trail a brighter yellow. At the end of each band a pool of purple light revealed our worms’ goal: spider crabs, with ponderous claws and backs overgrown with trailing parasites. Opposite me the crab, seeing his prey so close, waited, while the one facing Is Fod started at a sluggish pace after his. Beatrice’s worm had already been eaten.

I watched the eyes talks of the waiting crab lower. Just as the nippers pinched the slender swerving body Mr Wayl said to me. Finish. The high do came satisfactorily forth, the air was filled for a moment with a kind of swimming silver, and finally in greenhouse and drawing-room the lights went on. My eyes were tired and blurred. When they cleared, the course-bands were empty of light, leeches, and crabs. There only remained the trail of triturated food and slime my lost worm had left, broken marks of a shiny blackness among which I recognised certain letters:

e as no s ex rex noth Syl i

Get rid of that, Mr Wayl said to a servant. To me: That was not what I meant. I tried to lay down his food so that he would spell… But the result is nothing-fragments.

The race had lasted an hour. Taking my prize with me, I soon left.



p.s. Hey.  ** Steevee, Hi. ‘Last Men from Aleppo’ is playing here now. How was it? I don’t think I know what Steve James has done since ‘Hoop Dreams’. I think there might be a thing or two or three in that gig that you will like when your new computer puts a key in its lock. ** New Juche, Hi, Joe. Christian Bale is an old friend of mine. I understand that the shooting of ‘Rescue Dawn’ was a big, ongoing mess for all kinds of reasons, which I guess I’m probably not at liberty to recount, now that I think about it. But yeah. ** Damien Ark, Hi, Damien! I feel like there isn’t a ‘late’ around here. Time moves intuitively or something. Okay, cool, about the bachelors continuance, and, obviously, admiration to you regarding the possible job. I love Oxbow too. The new album is really beautiful. I feel like it’s their ‘Forever Changes’ or something. Yeah, good music year. Did you like the new Ulver? I wasn’t sure. It’s so pop, but I want to try sinking into it again. No-Man were/are supposed to do the score for a feature film called ‘Weak Species’ — an outgrowth of a short film of the same name — directed by Dan Faltz that’s based partly on ‘Closer’ and on some of my poems. I’m not really sure what happened to that film. The project seemed to be going fairly great guns for a while, but I haven’t heard a peep about it for a couple of years, so maybe it’s dead. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. The Russian interference is talked about here too, but it ended up having no apparent effect whatsoever on the election, so the FN’s set-back is the big talking point, but there’s much worrying that the FN might do well in the upcoming legislative elections, so there’s much strategizing du jour about how to prevent that from happening if possible. ** Dóra Grőber, Hi! Well, it definitely isn’t weird to me. I think of those moods as regroupings because in retrospect that’s always what they feel like they were. Good, the good is already kicking back in. It always does. All you can do during the lag times is try to remember that the good stuff will win. Mm, I think my downtime before the editing starts is just going involve me working on other stuff I need to work on in preparation for the long phase when I’ll be preoccupied with the editing. So I’ll just stick around Paris and try to keep my nose to the grindstone and try not to keep my nose so squashed to the grindstone that I don’t get to have a bit of fun too. Concentrating on SCAB while your writing is defying you is wise. To use a bad metaphor, that’ll just make your writing jealous and eager to seduce you again, I think. Yesterday was pretty uneventful. I can’t think of a thing that’s very interesting to recount. Just working on stuff, texting with friends, this and that. Maybe today will be better. Yours? Was yours better? ** _Black_Acrylic, Thanks, Ben! Yes, the new Actress is really terrific, I agree. I had no idea he was footballer. Seriously? Wow, that’s interesting. Nothing against the brain and creativity of footballers, mind you. I like the Dopplereffekt album a lot too. In fact I was going to include a track off of it in the gig, and I don’t know why I didn’t. Spaced out. ** Sypha, Hi, James. Still mid-to-late period Fleetwood Mac. That taste is really hanging in there. I figured you would be all over the Cosey Fanni Tutti book. Yeah, the only thing I’ve heard and keep hearing about it is how awful it makes P-Orridge seem. ** Misanthrope, Hi. I thought I would throw a few ‘names’ into the gig just for you. Very true about Mr. Dankland’s work. Oh, K & O’s boy, Milo, seems quite pleasant, a potentially very lovely chap, and watching him quickly become more human-like is very interesting. He’s probably making art, yeah. Impossible to tell for sure. But logic says. **  S., ‘Bay bum’, is that what they call you guys? There’s a bay? Like I said or sort of said, I really know next to squat about Florida. Is there some unique quality to Florida boys that caused you to target them with your love? Very glad you’re psyched about your writing, duh. Pollard is a weird guy. A genius from/in Ohio would have to be somehow. The new GbV album might be the best thing Pollard’s done in twenty years, which is saying something. It’s monstrously great. Love from the 8th arr. of Paris. Sunny, 13 degrees C. ** Bill, Hi. Yeah, Oxbow is around, just gradual and meticulous. The new album is very, very good. I don’t have any pix of K, O, and M. But you could go to K’s Facebook page, or, I assume, Instagram, and no doubt see lots of imaginary featuring the members of France’s new power family. Ooh, I completely understand why you couldn’t resist that book. I might not be able to resist it either now that I know it exists. Ooh. ** Okay. I devoted today’s post to the great Harry Mathews who sadly died not so long ago. He’s a must, if you don’t know his work, or, well, even if you do. See you tomorrow.


  1. Dóra Grőber


    Thank you, it seems like you’re perfectly right. I could continue my book today and I feel a lot more like my usual self! I guess writing really did become a little jealous, haha!
    Sounds like a good plan, about your time before the editing starts! I hope you’ll manage to work on everything necessary and to rest a little too!

    I can definitely say that today is way better than the past few days on my end. As I mentioned, I could finally write and I’m just about to go to this little event where a writer whom I like a lot will talk about her debut book and stuff like that. Her name’s Tibor Noé Kiss. I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow!
    How was your day? I hope it was nice!!

  2. Tosh Berman

    I love the interview or conversation between the two writers. Both are so great. And I like their commentary on Raymond Roussel, who I think is an amazing figure. Mathews, I think needs a big biography. I have a hunch his life was amazing. And I did read the Cosey Fanni Tutti memoir, which is enjoyable, but boy, after reading the entire book I really hated P-Orridge. I’m not a fan of the band in the first place, but I’m curious to read her book, just because who she is, and the importance of that era or time. I wrote a brief review of the book, and some got back to me about the P-Orridge thing, and it seems he is much loved in the community. Or fans of his work. But the main drift of the Cosey book is really putting the knife in P-Orridge. And who knows? It’s her point-of-view, and I know nothing of them. And I think the book could have been edited. It’s a long and big book.

  3. David Ehrenstein

    Harry Matthews’ daughter “Modeled” Guinevere in Bresson’s “Lancelot du Lac”

    Years ago I had copies of “Locus Solus” now lost helas!

  4. Sypha

    It’s funny, in the Simon Ford “Wreckers of Civilization” book about TG there’s a part of the book that deals with P-Orridge’s 1978 suicide attempt in a fairly in-depth style and it mentions how this was triggered by the fact that his and Cosey’s relationship had deteriorated to such a degree that she had ended up leaving their home, but no details were given as to why their relationship deteriorated. As Cosey relates is, on the day she left said home P-Orridge tried to strangle her, threatened physical abuse against her dog, kicked her in the genitals, and later on tried to attack her with a knife. All that is bad enough, but for me the straw that broke the camel’s back was the reminiscence about how P-Orridge once got so irate at one of Cosey’s cats (in 1972) that he threw it hard down a stairwell and nearly killed it (and that he did the same thing to Cosey’s sister’s cat later on!). I think it’s safe to say I don’t see myself spending much money on Gen’s future musical endeavors, that’s for sure. Of course everyone has an agenda but I’ve heard so many nightmare stories about how difficult Gen is over the years that I can kind of believe the bad stuff, to be honest.

  5. steevee

    Before my ability to watch/hear YouTube clips vanished yesterday, I was really impressed by Oxbow.

    Now I have a brand-new computer. Maybe transcribing my Steve James interview wasn’t the best thing to do with it at. first, because I’m making typos left and right and I’m not at all used to computers without mice. There are some of the expected glitches, but basically I needed to be able to watch video on short notice .

  6. Grant Maierhofer

    Hey Dennis,

    Fuck yea! This day rules! This is basically going to be my weekend reading.
    Wanted to stop by because my proposal for a paper/talk on Dodie Bellamy and Sam D’Allesandro was accepted for the New Narrative conference, so hopefully we can meet up if you’re there! Very very excited about it!

    I hope this finds you well!


  7. S.

    im happy as cujo in a sweaty pinto

    the tampa bay is beautiful only about 12 ft deep. on the boys, theyre southern far southern most dumb or pragmatist as rocks. southern surfer boy thing. long story short fell in love with my Florida cousin at university been sold on it ever since. theyre snooty or snotty.

    its great here
    yalls fishing sucks
    im from the ocean lol

    def checking the new GBV. great time for music. Tampas the capitol of death metal. much love

  8. _Black_Acrylic

    I have the day off work tomorrow so will spend some of it devouring this post. Harry Mathews looks to have led a fascinating life.

  9. Jeff J

    Hey Dennis – Nice Harry Matthews day, particularly that interview with Ashbery. I haven’t read this novel by him yet. Been trying to get my hands on a copy of ‘Tlooth’ for a while but apparently it’s slipped OOP and I’ve heard Dalkey has become very slack about reprinting titles.

    Will catch up on the music post soon. Going to see Slowdive tomorrow and been enjoying their new album.

    Saw ‘Things to Come’ the recent Mia Hansen-Love film. I enjoyed it, a very melancholy and carefully observed character study, though somewhat surprised by the rapturous accolades I’ve heard. Have you seen it? Anything new(ish) you’ve seen that’s impressed you?

  10. Misanthrope

    Dennis, Yeah, ol’ Milo’s got no choice, right? Well, of course he does. He may end being a great athlete or mediocre office clerk. All his choosing, as it should be.

    It is really interesting to watch kids grow up, even from month to month, year to year. We always forget how their minds are absolute sponges, and we rarely give them the credit they deserve. I try not to do that, but it’s hard.

    I just say, “Let the children play.”

  11. Kyler

    Hi Dennis, writing late, so hopefully no one else will see this, haha. I just got the last very nice reject on a requested manuscript for my other novel. Wonderful agent, and someone here was repped by her…I’m very disappointed. I contacted the agent who gave me revisions on Red Truck who was almost my agent on that…he’s a neighbor and we’re very friendly, trouble is, he’s had a stroke and I’m not sure how well he is now. But we go way back, so we’ll see….waiting for a few queries still unanswered, but that leaves me with my publisher who offered publication, but he’s moved and I just don’t think his press is a top priority for him now. Not sure I want to go with a small press again, doing everything myself. So I’ll be making a decision soon…this short novel has had so many rejections, but I had an agent on it originally, only she moved away after doing revisions and sending it out to a few. She loved it and I loved her, but she’s gone. I’m just ranting a little, a little drunk and ready for bed. Anything you might offer on this? I’ve always believed in this novel, but it seems to be too literary for many people, and the funny thing is, the recent rejection said she could see the commercial potential in it. So it seems it’s too literary for the commercial people and too commercial for the literary people! Frankly, I think it’s all a lot of BS. Good morning to you Dennis, you’re always the best. Love, K

  12. h

    Hello Dennis,

    Apologies, I missed your blog for about… a week. I should look at it soon.

    I’m sorry I was spaced with work, and forgot about that new narrative conference thing. Ugh. I can’t see you there. Hopefully, another time.

    More soon. Too busy for a while. How is your film editing going?

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