‘Reviewing Harry Mathews is an onerous task, for the review is a taxonomical genre, and Mathews defies classification. Perhaps it is best not to assess his writing but to process it. One could leaf through it using one of his own devices, such as “Mathews’s Algorithm” – a literary machine he invented which recombines given elements according to a simple, elegant procedure. Indeed, Mathews’s texts- which include Oulipian exercises, poetry, translations, reviews, short fictions, memoir, and novels – read as if generated by an algorithm with a few bugs still in it. Mathews has characterized his singular prose style as “thorny,” “cranky,” and “stony.” Yet this writing also possesses a ruthless efficiency; Mathews insists that “in fact it just fits the space it’s taking up. I’m obsessed with getting rid of words.” The resultant work bears traces of an Al Gore rhythm – somewhat monotonic, deceptively bland – but it always remains decidedly, designedly off-kilter. These novels (Tlooth, Cigarettes, The Journalist), which have recently resurfaced thanks to Dalkey Archive Press, unfold in sequences of mechanical, nearly inevitable configurations, while remaining utterly unpredictable.
‘It seems fitting that Mathews’s membership in the Oulipo has always constrained the reception of his work, because even though Cigarettes is Mathew’s “only ‘purely Oulipian novel'”, these books bear shifting, intriguing relations to constraint-based writing in ways that illuminate the very idea of such a practice. Mathews’s work should be situated just to the side of Oulipo, a little “off” from the world of constraints, because it combines an abrupt exactitude with total idiosyncrasy. This merging of the quantitative and the quirky in Mathews’s writing was noted aptly by his famous friend, Georges Perec:
There is something fairylike in Harry Mathews’s novels – I use the word not only in reference to fairy tales (the heroes of these stories attain their goals by means of ordeals similar to those of fairy tales) but to what are known as the “fairy” types of chess, in which players agree to use irregular chessboards, or follow unusual rules (in “Marseille” chess, each player makes two moves at a time), or dispose of new kinds of chessmen (the unicorn, the amazon, the black knight). It is undeniable that the first impression given by Mathews’s books is that of a narrative world determined by rules from another planet, rules that with agreeable liveliness undermine the conventions surrounding our concepts of fiction in general and the novel in particular.
‘Perec’s characterization certainly fits Tlooth to the t not found in Mathews’s name. The blurb on the Paris Review edition deemed the novel a “picaresque account of a bizarre quest for revenge,” but the conventions tagged there explode in a display of discontinuity and incongruity. The tale is told by a seemingly male, then revealed-to-be female, finally possibly androgynous narrator, who seeks revenge on Dr. Roak, who amputated two fingers from the narrator’s left hand, thereby ending his/her career as a violinist. Tlooth begins with a baseball game in a Russian prison camp; after Dr. Roak is released, the narrator tracks her through an otherworldly rendering of the world: from the Russian camp to Kabul to Venice to Milan to India to Morocco to Rome to France. The globe and novel alike become a labyrinth worthy of Daedalus.
‘A synecdoche for the text so viewed is found in the elaborate artifice of Hapi, the vehicle entered in the “‘home-made animal’ race” which enables the narrator’s escape from the camp. The shell of Hapi has a mock-gnostic iconic inscription on the front, a “textual maze” on the right side, a diamond-shaped maze on the back, and “the true text of the maze” on the left side – a text whose directions for navigating the maze conclude, “Then, no matter which turning you took, and it did not matter which one you took, you will have reached the entrance, for the labyrinth leads nowhere but out of itself.” Like the novel, the vehicle is a contrivance built out of operations: superimposing graphic plans and textual instructions on one another yields an itinerary – in the sense of both a journey and its record – which remains identical only to itself. Just as the labyrinth’s user’s manual only sends you back to the labyrinth itself, the plot is resolved only inconclusively, and the text ends with a stark image of shells and rockets exploding: “The labyrinth of their colors sets a dense clarity against the blankness of the night.” Labyrinthine clarity set against blankness: precisely the type of textual configuration Mathews scratches on the empty page.
‘Perec imagines Mathews’s novels being determined by “rules from another planet.” However, the itinerary here seems shaped neither by an alien nor an Oulipian procedure, but after the manner of a Raymond Rousselian textus ex machina, where some association or pun or allusion moves the text from one site/cite to the next. The generative principle brings to mind a scene from Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual: Winckler wants to sort a collection of hotel labels from around the world into some distinct order; having given up chronology and geography as constructive principles, Winckler “would have liked …to link each label to the next, but each time in respect of something else.” Whatever the algorithm underlying Tlooth may have been, it no longer exists; Mathews has admitted that a “hidden pattern” underlies most of his work, but “once the work is written, the pattern becomes irrelevant and of no use in reading the work…it is in no sense the point of the work”. Retrospective detection of the algorithm would prove futile; we would end up like Winckler, who, looking over his labels, realizes that “if you leave the labels unsorted and take two at random, you can be sure they’ll have at least three things in common”.
‘Necessarily ignorant of the novel’s constructive principles, critics seek to categorize Tlooth. For instance, Eric Mottram has compared the novel to Poe’s Pym and Brockden Brown in its use of false documents, puzzles, diagrams, and quasi-learned allusions, and because “the prison/labyrinth/puzzle trope is so fundamental.” Re-viewing it now, it could also be seen as a cross between The Crying of Lot 49 and Wim Wenders’s Until The End of the World – a nested set of stories disrupting a quest underwritten by a revenge plot which wanders across the globe.’ — Paul A. Harris
Harry Mathews Site
‘Tlooth’ @ goodreads
A neverending challenge to the reader: the originality of Harry Mathews.
A Conversation with Harry Mathews By John Ash
The 2462nd greatest fiction book of all time
Harry Mathews, The Art of Fiction No. 191
Harry Mathews’s Al Gore Rhythms: A Re-viewing of Tlooth
On Harry Mathews
The Many False Floors of Harry Mathews
An Interview with Harry Mathews
His Own Man | Harry Mathews
Bringing Harry Mathews to PennSound (and you)
Agent Provocateur: Harry Matthews with Johannah Rogers
Harry Mathews – – The Reading Experience
Our Man in the Underworld
Always at play: an appreciation of the late author Harry Mathews
Harry Mathews: man of mystery and lover of words and language
Oulipo: Official Group Portrait (1985)
Harry Mathews La Traduction
A Tribute To Harry Mathews | The New School
A reenactment of the introduction to Harry Mathews’ novel Tlooth
Reminiscing about Harry Mathews’s The Conversions, Tlooth, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, and Oulipo Compendium.
Harry Mathews interviewed by Lynne Tillman
Lynne Tillman I’m intrigued by your idea that “reading is an act of creation for which the writer provides the meaning.” I wonder how this directly affects your writing?
Harry Mathews I don’t really know that it does affect it, except in some mysterious way that comes out of my experience as a reader. I know, as a reader, that language really doesn’t work representationally. And that it’s very hard to get away from the idea that it is some kind of representation. I think that probably I only can make use of ideas like that once I’m in the rewriting stage.
LT An active reader allows a writer. . .
HM It gets a writer off the hook of subject matter. Many writers think they’re not being significant or important unless they’re writing about things which are that week or year supposed to be significant. One decade it’ll be politics, the next, something else. We have a tendency to feel that the subject matter ought to be big, and often a “big” subject may not be appropriate for a particular writer. The point is that you can write wonderfully about anything. It’s very hard, unless one takes a lot of time as I did in that essay, to show how that works. But, for instance, right now we’re talking about a particular subject, and I seem to be communicating to you about that subject. By the end of this conversation you may notice that something has happened that has nothing to do with the subject. Probably what really will have happened is some kind of alteration or transformation in the relation between us. We seem to have been having this discussion where I’ve been talking about my writing or whatever you choose to ask me about, but in fact something else has been going on. I think it’s the same in books. Writers should go with what subject matter appeals to them, with what tickles them because that probably will be the kind of subject matter that will give them most access to the process of discovery; of what they are, or the world is, or language is. You must have had that experience as a writer yourself. As you rewrite something, nothing in substance is changed and yet it’s not just that you’re making it neater or more elegant. It’s become something totally different in the third draft. And, in fact, that’s what you wanted to say. Even though all the material was there in the first draft, and you got it all down, it wasn’t doing what you wanted it to do. Rewriting is so extraordinary, it’s where writing, not always, but very often, takes place. That’s when the writer becomes the first reader. Becomes a creator. If the reader is the only creator, the writer gets to share and in fact participates in that act of creation in the stage of rewriting. That’s when the writer can play creator, too. The old idea is hard to get rid of, that the writers have something to say and the readers are there to get it. I don’t think things work that way at all.
LT In that sense, the author has always been dead.
HM That’s right. There’s never been any authors. There have only been readers. The authors are first readers.
LT The characters Morris Romsen, the art critic, and Lewis, the would-be writer, have, in Cigarettes, a physical sado-masochistic relationship that parallels, in my mind, the relationship of Allan and Owen in which the two men are playing elaborate games with each other that mean, somehow, affection and attention.
HM I always love to have people find parallels like that. You mentioned earlier that 63 was the reverse of 36. This is news to me, and I’m sure that one could discover an interesting numerical system going throughout the entire book which would also be news to me. It reminds me of my great friend Georges Perec’s explanation of Tlooth, my second novel. When he translated it into French, he imagined a semantic palindrome running through it. That is to say, some kind of hidden series of statements that could be read forwards and backwards and that he thought determined the course of the book. One piece of evidence he produced was a switch of the letters “m” and “n” in one chapter: bombe atonique (a soporific spray) and formication (meaning ant activity). I told him, you’re absolutely right. But I had been totally unaware of doing this. Things like that make me feel that whatever I’m doing must be right, at least as it allows this kind of connections or similarities to manifest themselves. That’s a sign there’s a whole lot of thought going on of which I’m unaware.
LT Tlooth seemed the most overtly political of all your works, with its sects, groups, with Jacksongrad being the name of the camp, like a play on Stalingrad, or on a concentration camp or a gulag. But the book begins with a baseball game that also places it in and refers to the United States, spreading the political spectrum left and right.
HM I’m sure politics is at least implicitly involved, but really the substratum of those first three novels is a religious one. Obviously, in The Conversions where there’s a sort of white goddess legend. She’s black actually but it’s still a matriarchal goddess cult. But even in Tlooth religion is lurking in all the corners.
LT The names of the sects, Fideist, Americanist, Defective Baptist, Resurrectionist.
HM That’s right. Elsewhere there are various forms of Christianity, including the Nestorian heresy, which is described in the chapter “Spires and Squares.” And then in The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, my third novel, there is Buddhism as well as Catholicism. Certainly politics are present too—it was the middle of the ’60s, after all.
LT I thought about religion in regard to Tlooth and then in relation to your work generally. I began to think you were saying that faith in language, as a way to communicate, is like faith in religion. That you have to believe in language, you have faith that you can communicate, even if you’re not really able to communicate, as you have in a religion.
HM I’m very moved by that. Did you know that was how Perec felt?
HM I’m glad to know that I ultimately agree with him, having had many arguments with him about the question of how communication actually works in language, of whether communication is possible at all. For Perec, writing was a kind of salvation. It was justification by works. You know that expression, much discussed during the Reformation? And Perec, I think that if he hadn’t felt that writing was a vocation in the absolute sense of the word, a calling, like a priest, he would have died even sooner that he did.
LT When did he die?
HM In 1982.
LT Perec was, like you, a member of the OuLiPo. Could you say what it is and give its history?
HM Thank you. Anything else?
LT You may want it to be the last question.
HM Well, you’re opening—it’s not a can of worms, on the contrary—it’s a jewel case full of pearls but there is so much to say about the OuLiPo, especially in connection with Perec, who introduced me to it and through whom I was elected to the group.
LT Who started it?
HM It was started by Raymond Queneau, who is by now fairly well known in America in translation, and Francois LeLionnais, a great friend of Queneau’s and like him, very interested in mathematics, an extraordinarily versatile and brilliant man. The OuLiPo was created to satisfy their mutual needs—LeLionnais’ case, to form a workshop of experimental literature, in Queneau’s case, to carry him through to the end of this extraordinary book he was writing called A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems. The book consists of only ten sonnets in which any first line can replace any other first line, any fifth line can replace any other fifth line and so forth which means that it’s 10 to the 14th power, there being 14 lines in a sonnet.
LT Because of the permutations.
HM The creation of the OuLiPo accompanied his bringing that work to a conclusion. The OuLiPo has had as its purpose the invention and rediscovery of what the French call contraintes and we call, for want of a better word, constrictive forms. Rediscovery of forms like the palindrome, the lipogram. The palindrome is something you can read backwards and forwards, the lipogram is writing in which you leave out one or more letters. In both these cases Perec did the most extraordinary work. He wrote a palindrome which is several thousand characters long, in which he describes Perec writing a palindrome—he was a real virtuoso in his language. And he wrote this extraordinary novel called La Disparition, “The Disappearance,” but it can’t be translated that way into English because, like the rest of the book, the title excludes any word that contains the letter “e,” a letter that is even more frequent in French than it is in English. Leaving out the letter “e” would mean that the opening sentence of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past — Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure would have only two words left. Not only did Perec do this tour de force writing without using the most frequent letter in the language, he also turned this deprivation into the subject of his novel and wrote about it brilliantly and funnily and entertainingly.
LT That’s an amazing feat. From what I’ve read about Perec, his life was forged from deprivation, a World War II experience, parents killed in concentration camps, loss of native country. So that absence and lack were central to his existence, and his choosing to write a book that leaves out something essential like the letter “e” parallels his being left without parents and country.
HM You got it. Instead of having to deal with this anguishing problem of having had his tongue cut out by history, he deliberately gave up an element which makes writing normally easy, and imposed an extremely harsh rule on himself which he then was able to triumph over. He did it so well that some critics didn’t notice. But they weren’t very attentive critics. Let me add that in the OuLiPo we also invented a great many forms of our own.
Harry Mathews Tlooth
Dalkey Archive Press
‘This novel begins in a Russian prison camp at a baseball game featuring the defective Baptists versus the Fideists. There is a plot (of sorts), one of revenge surrounding a doctor who, in removing a bone spur from our narrator, manages to amputate a ring and index finger, a significant surgical error considering that the narrator is, or was, a violinist. When Dr. Roak is released from prison, our narrator escapes in order to begin the pursuit, and thus begins a digressive journey from Afghanistan to Venice, then on to India and Morocco and France. All of this takes place amid Mathews’s fictional concern and play with games, puzzles, arcana, and stories within stories.’ — Dalkey Archive Press
p.s. Hey. ** Dominik, Hi!!! Long story short, the needed amount of funds were not raised, as we expected, but we have just enough to make the film with some painful cutbacks and much more difficulty, so that’s what we’re going to do since we have no other choice. At least that awful fundraising period is finally over, and we can start working on the film, and onwards and upwards. Are there Hungarian food items that don’t really reach outside the country that you think are pretty great? I wonder if there’s a Hungarian grocery story in Paris? Oh, when I was a teenager, my friends and I discovered that I was unusually susceptible to being hypnotised, so, when we got really bored, a friend who knew hypnosis would sometimes hypnotise me to entertain everyone. The thing is that it does have a real effect. It does feel odd, and you know you’re hypnotised, but you don’t change your personality or anything other than being more passive, and you won’t and don’t do things that you wouldn’t do normally. So it’s not like being hypnotised would actually turn some guy into a masochistic sex slut or anything like that. I think people who say it works that way are just people who use being hypnotised as a cover for doing things they like but are too shy or embarrassed to do normally. The most interesting thing for me was how it effected my memory. Like someone would read a list of, like, 100 numbers to me once, and then, hours later, after I wasn’t hypnotised anymore, someone would ask me what the numbers were, and I could immediately rattle them off in perfect order. Things like that. Nagy Zoárd is a nice name. At least to look at, and I’m sure it sounds luscious. Love as a Metalhead twink living in Tehran who is the lead singer of an Iron Maiden cover band called Iran Maiden, G. ** Billy, Hi. Yeah, like I told Dominik, I only know hypnosis from the hypnotised side, and it just seems like a parlour trick cheap fun sort of deal. Recon manages the neat trick of being hell and really boring at the same time. Which isn’t really such a dichotomy now that I think about it. Ha ha, I’ll watch that ‘Egress’ video thing when I’m done here. Curious. Thanks! Big up to you! ** David Ehrenstein, Ha ha, well, that was a most unexpected Ehrenstein-ish video side trip. Nice. I too, of course, thought of ‘Some Trees’ and almost tried to find a way to get Ashbery in there. ** Tosh Berman, Me neither, but it does put tragedy in my heart when trees get cut down. They become, like, friends or something at that moment. You can see the Observatory from your window! I can walk to the Observatory from my LA pad. Sure, I end up there a wheezing, profusely sweating mess, but I can do it. ** Bill, Yes, Ted! Wait, you don’t like your butt vibrated?! Zoom with you at the new time of tomorrow! ** _Black_Acrylic, Not a one? Not even distantly out a window? Man, we gotta get out of that place. Keep me posted, for sure. Crunching time with my mind. ** RYAN, Hi, Ryan. No sweat, time is relative here. Well, not for me, I guess, but otherwise … I’m sure your interview will go spectacularly today, but luck you need it. And hook us up when it’s ready to be imbibed. ‘Hollaback Girl’! I have a guilty love of that song. Wait, there’s nothing to be guilty about. It was a killer single. Interested to hear that, duh. Everyone, You want to near a new song by the mighty RYAN that he compares to ‘Hollaback Girl’? Surely you must. Here. The film is just exiting the endless fundraising phase and about to enter pre-production phase, which is good news. I’m better now that the fundraising is over. I’m fine. I’m okay. Love back, naturally. ** Svartvit, Hey! Good to see you! Oh, nice, about the Penone show. What’s the current show at your museum? Did you already tell what you museum you work at? If so, I’m spacing. I’ll go find the Giacometti tree. Thanks a lot. Excellent day to you! ** Steve Erickson, We didn’t actually have a meeting given the volatile atmosphere, but we got a report, and, as I told Dominick, we have just enough to make the film. It’s going to be tough, but we can do it. So, considering the situation, that’s good news under duress, very good news even. Thank you for asking. Everyone, Harken! Here’s Mr. Erickson: ‘Gay City News published my latest music round-up, covering They Hate Change, Perfume Genius, and King Princess, over the weekend. I’d hoped to write about both Demi Lovato’s new album and a Coil reissue in August’s, but I haven’t been able to get a hold of either yet.’ Thanks, man. ** Misanthrope, Not even a fake obelisk in the town square? Ah, who cares, right? Although the citizens not dressing in Colonial garb is a bit unforgivable. Yes, I’ve seen no let up in the incautious hunger for sex, at least as expressed online. Odd. Dude, I don’t know how you can call yourself a man if you haven’t drunk a megaton of piss. Or maybe you’re like me and don’t call yourself a man. ** Right. Today the blog spotlights a wonderful novel by the great Harry Mathews, and you should check it out, I’m serious. See you tomorrow.