Tuesday, April 10, 2007

28 hints from or about Harry Mathews

'For an American author to be called "experimental," "avant-garde" or merely "difficult" has pretty much always been a curse. Americans like their writers to tell a good story, not dick around with form or process. Maybe that’s why Harry Mathews, one of the masters of experimental American fiction, has spent so much of his adult life in France.'

Late in the summer of my eleventh year, I decided to butcher our neighbors' Afghan hound. One afternoon I went out to stalk him as he prowled around backyards, hoping to lure him with a red plastic bowl full of sugared water that had been laced with poison. I caught up with him just when he'd soiled our very own cosmos patch, an event that was actually a bright spot in the proceedings because it justified them.

"In Cigarettes, Mathews takes us more interestingly than ever into that unfinished work of art, the self, exposing powerful dependencies and subtleties in a cast of characters distinct and poised yet half-groping toward others and themselves. The plot, the tale, the laying bare, are intriguingly stages and timed in a novel as imaginative as it is disturbing." -- Joseph McElroy

When I have one of these frightening lunatic ideas, each is a kind of knot. I have no idea what's going to be in the package. In my first three novels and in the earlier stories here, one knot I wanted to untie was the prestige of high culture. People used to accuse me of being erudite — too much archaeology, history of religion, theology — when my point was how utterly irrelevant they and their apparent mysteries were.

'Harry Mathews was, after Marcel Duchamp, the second American chosen for membership in the French literary society known as the Oulipo, which is dedicated to exploring new possibilities in literature, in particular through the use of various constraints and algorithms. Mathews considers many of his works to be Oulipian in nature, but even before he encountered the society he was working in a parallel direction.'

An exclusive evolutionary vortex of world excursions: the Chronogram for 1998

Note: The
rule of the chronogram is that when all letters corresponding to Roman numerals (c, d, i, l, m, v, and x) are added together, they produce a sum equivalent to a specific year of the Christian calendar.

"(My Life in the CIA) is an honest account by someone (he seems at the time to have been a bit of a ne’er-do-well) who tried to play spy without knowing what the word meant and landed himself in boiling-hot water. The book‚ which is as exciting as any novel‚ proves a useful moral: leave this business to the pros." — Colonel Raymond Russell (ret.)‚ Counterintelligence Corps‚ U.S. Army

A man of sixty-eight years is lying on an unmade bed masturbating. The room, filled with packing cases and furniture in disorder, is in a beautiful house overlooking Cape Town; the man has just taken possession of it. Throughout his life, whenever he has moved, he has found that until he masturbated in a new dwelling he cannot think of it as home. His wife urges him to get on with it.

On a sunny Wednesday morning in early May, rigorous of mind and sound of body in spite of advancing years, Sir Joseph Pernican set forth on his quest. He felt, in addition to confidence, a provocative unease. The familiar man who had provided his instructions had signified that the clues he would find on his way would take unexpected guises; divining them would depend on his accepting them attentively and without prejudice.

" Tlooth is a brilliant book, in a very special way. . . . While the method of telling it is quite sober, and the language plain, what actually happens is totally bizarre and wonderful. The descriptions that are blandly handed to you show an imagination and an ingenuity that are often just astonishing. The details are sometimes very savage and scabrous. . . . But the book has nothing to do with modish sick humor. . . . It is, for all its incidental excesses, fantasy, pure and simple." -- Harper's

Among my early memories of women taking their clothes off before making love, one stands out: that of certain modest Parisian prostitutes who, wishing to maintain their bosoms’ firmness and elevation, kept on their brassieres while shedding (with the occasional exception of their stockings) everything else. ... The vision excited my curiosity not by its eroticism but as a first glimpse of the ways women themselves perceive their bodies.

'A testament to refined taste, the magazine Locus Solus was impeccably edited by John Ashbery (Issue 3/4), Kenneth Koch (Issue 2), and James Schuyler (Issue 1 and 5). Harry Matthews, whose poetry shows a strong affinity with these New York School poets, published the magazine in France. Locus Solus took its name from Raymond Roussel’s classic, which betrays the editors’ affinity for the avant garde, the European, and the highly intellectual. First and foremost, the magazine served as a vehicle for the New York School poets to express and to spread their artistic aesthetic.'

'Composed of a series of letters between a husband and wife, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium is a brilliant comedy. Newly wedded Zachary McCaltex (a librarian in Miami) and Twang Panattapam (originally from the Southeast-Asian country of Pan-Nam, but residing in Italy) try to trace the whereabouts of a treasure supposedly lost off the coast of Florida in the sixteenth century, while navigating a relationship separated by an ocean as well as their different cultures.'

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, 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:

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