Saturday, March 26, 2011

Permutations of Mathews

The wealthy amateur Grent Wayl invited me to his New York house for an evening's diversion...

I picked up this volume in the Strand Bookstore in the mid-1970s, and it's been a favorite ever since. They had a stack of them that day, laid out on a table among the hardcover Cortázars and other good things that were being remaindered in those days, and I've always regretted that I didn't buy the whole lot and bring them home so that they could live together happily and maybe even multiply.

I don't believe I had ever heard of Harry Mathews at the time. It wouldn't have been likely; he wasn't part of any recognized "canon," not even an incipient "postmodern" one, and they certainly weren't writing about him in the book sections of the magazines I was reading. The cover looked interesting -- there was that wonderful Jim Dine illustration with a strangely animate pair of scissors whose blades seemed to be oriented in defiance of their intended purpose -- but I think I hesitated at first.

For one thing, there was the matter of the title. In addition to the obscure allusion to Kafka's equally obscure odradek, and the puzzling issue of how a stadium could "sink," there was the subversive notion embodied in the words "... and Other Novels." A "novel," at least a serious novel, was supposed to be "total," to encompass multiple levels of reality in some sort of approximation of life itself; it wasn't supposed to admit the possibility of being just one invention among several. The blurb on the back, though, was pretty promising:
For several years Harry Mathews has enjoyed a growing following among college students, artists, other poets and writers, and fans of the obscure who have never been able to buy his books. This volume is meant to satisfy their needs: it brings together his two out-of-print novels -- The Conversions (1962) and Tlooth (1966) -- and his latest fiction, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium. Mathews' work is virtually indescribable in brief. His is a genius of wild invention presented in a kind of meticulous deadpan narration that leaves the reader howling, amazed, and exhilarated. Beneath the brilliance of his elegant language and intricate constructions, Mathews is writing avant-garde fiction of starting originality. This omnibus volume gives ample evidence of Mathews' significance in the world of contemporary literature: it is time for a major assessment of his extraordinary work
"College students, artists, other poets and writers, and fans of the obscure" seemed to fit me fairly well (except for the "artists" part -- neither then nor now have I been able to draw a line) and I plunked down my two or three dollars and took the book home.

Harry Mathews is a bit better known today, having published two or three more novels (depending on whether you think My Life in CIA is fiction or not), several volumes of short stories and poetry, and various essays and the like, and he's even been the subject of a monograph in the Twayne's United States Authors series, but in spite of all that I suspect that even now most readers of "serious fiction" -- whatever that means these days -- still wouldn't know his name. To a degree that's understandable -- initially, at least, his novels can appear to be as disorienting as the cover of this book -- but it's also a shame, because at his best Mathews is a hoot, a master storyteller whose books are crammed with ingenious inventions, jokes, red herrings, anagrams*, and eccentricities but who is also just downright entertaining. "Meticulous deadpan narration" is right on the money; his narrators share a kind of tunnel vision diametrically opposed to the "realistic" psychology and self-awareness that have largely characterized the modern American novel. It is the reader, not the narrator, who undergoes development. Even the curious title of one of these novels -- The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium -- reveals something its epistolary narrators never learn.

Describing any of these novels in this space is a hopeless task; Wikipedia has brief summaries and Warren Leamon's Harry Mathews in the Twayne's series provides quite detailed ones. All three have to do with improbable quests of some kind, either for treasure, for knowledge, or, in the case of Tlooth, for revenge, but it is the diversions and digressions, the hidden pitfalls, that lay along the route that make them so enjoyable. I've read each of the three components of this volume three or four times -- The Conversions maybe six times -- and I'm still discovering things in them I never noticed before. Mathews' technique consists not of revealing secrets, but of constructing a labyrinth so intricate that even as we progress through it the presumptive "solution" to its enigmas only recedes further into the distance.

The Conversions first saw print in the pages of Locus Solus, a short-lived literary magazine Mathews published himself with money he obtained from an inheritance. It was then published in full** in The Paris Review (#27) and in book form by Random House in 1962. Both Tlooth and Odradek were also originally serialized in The Paris Review.

The omnibus edition from Harper & Row is long out-of-print. Carcanet in the UK put out individual editions in the 1980s, which have since been superseded by those published by Dalkey Archive Press. Reading the three novels together, and in chronological order, though not necessary, is still the best way to enjoy them.

The bibliography of writings by and about Harry Mathews is now quite substantial, but in addition to Leamon's dated but still-valuable critical study the book-length issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Fall 1987; Vol. VII, No. 3) devoted to Mathews deserves particular mention. The Paris Review (No. 180) featured an excellent interview with Mathews as part of its longstanding "Art of Fiction" series, and that interview can also be read online.

*To cite just one, the puzzling "Mundorys Lorsea" of The Conversions transforms into "Raymond Roussel," although I am also fond of the possibilities of "snarly dormouse."

** Not quite correct; some sections of the novel were summarized in the version printed in the Paris Review.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Notes for a Commonplace Book (8)

From an interview with Harry Mathews:


Did Ashbery introduce you to any writers whose work you did read?


Yes, thanks to John I began reading Raymond Roussel. Roussel had methodical approaches to writing fiction that completely excluded psychology. In the American novel, what else is there? If you don't have psychology, people don't see the words on the page. What was really holding me up was this idea that you had to have character development, relationships, and that this was the substance of the novel. Indeed, it is the substance of many novels, including extraordinary ones. But I had tried writing works involving psychology and characters and all that, and the results were terrible. In Roussel I discovered you could write prose the way you do poetry. You don’t approach it from the idea that what you have to say is inside you. It's a materialist approach, for want of a better word. You make something. You give up expressing and start inventing.

From "Harry Mathews, The Art of Fiction No. 191," interview conducted by Susannah Hunnewell. Print version in The Paris Review No. 180 (Spring 2007).

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Pleasures of the Macabre

Thomas Ott is a Swiss artist and graphic novelist whose work consists largely of wordless images rendered with scratchboard and whose tastes run decidedly towards the gruesome. These images are from a work, "Recuerdos de México," that so far I've only seen on the web, although it has appeared in some collections in Argentina (in the wonderfully named comics magazine Suda Mery K.!) and in Europe. It is scheduled to appear in the US in Ott's collection R.I.P: Best of 1985-2004, which will be released in April 2011 by Fantagraphics Books.

The country that produced José Guadalupe Posada would seem like a natural source of inspiration for Ott, and these pictures bring to mind Octavio Paz's oft-cited and splendidly garish words from The Labyrinth of Solitude:
The word death is not pronounced in New York, Paris or in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.

All of the above images are from El blog de la muerte, which has quite a few others as well.

Below are the covers from two of Ott's other books, both of which were also published here by Fantagraphics (although the Cinema Panopticum cover shown is from the French edition). Given a choice, I would start with Cinema Panopticum, which is a collection of several tales linked by a frame-tale, but both are worth exploring. There is more at Ott's website.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Wanderer

"This singular being, whose nationality is unknown, converses with no one and wanders forlornly without a seeming motive, or definite object in life." -- Bristol (CT) Press, 1874

The nameless man in the photograph above wandered along regular circuits through western Connecticut and adjoining New York State from perhaps as early as 1856 until his death in 1889. Because of his handmade leather clothing he was popularly known as "the Leather Man," and to this day all the more specific identities that have been proposed for him have proved to be inventions. He spoke little and his first language may have been French, though accounts of his facility with English and his degree of literacy vary. Though homeless and "without visible means," he was generally regarded as inoffensive and allowed to continue on his way unmolested. He slept in caves and improvised shelters and survived on handouts -- in kind, as he refused money -- and on vegetable plots he planted along his route. Once, briefly and near the end of his life, an attempt was made to commit him to a hospital, but he refused to be admitted. His body was found in a rock shelter in Mt. Pleasant, NY in March 1889.

There are a surprising number of extant photographs of the Leather Man -- at least twenty-four, according to historian Dan. W. DeLuca -- and he was apparently not averse to posing. A number of the photos date from his last months, when his lip was disfigured by the cancer that eventually killed him, and those images are frankly painful to look at. The one above, however, seems to preserve his dignity intact. According to DeLuca the image was captured by F. W. Moore in 1888 and retouched by H. N. Gale in 1889.

For more information, Dan DeLuca's The Old Leather Man: Historical Accounts of a Connecticut and New York Legend is the best place to start.

Monday, March 07, 2011


He drove south in steady rain as night fell. The radio was staticky from distant lightning and when the station began to fade in and out he snapped it off. Somewhere off to his right, only a mile or so he guessed but hidden by a dark line of trees in their summer fullness, lay the deep, slender lake he had glimpsed a half-hour earlier. Strung along the road like beads were vineyards and well-tended farmhouses with lights on in the windows, but just as often he saw the hulks of silos and barns long abandoned to the overgrowth and missing so many planks that they were now barely more than skeletons. Here and there, at the unmarked intersections he crossed every few miles or so, he passed a bar with a neon sign and a few cars parked outside.

The bluff the road followed rose and fell gently and rose again, then bent a little to the right to begin a gradual descent through second-growth woods. A pickup roared past him and hurtled ahead but he kept to the same pace, steady but unhurried, silent and alert. The rain picked up; drumming down on the metal over his head it fell off the windshield in thick sheets as he switched the wipers to high speed. A gulley on his left had gone over its banks but he plowed through the overflow without slowing and continued on. There were houses here and there, tucked in the trees with mailboxes and cylinders for the local paper set out along the yew hedges, then as the road bottomed out and met the shore of the lake a line of cabins and boathouses appeared on the right. All were dark. There were canoes upended on the docks.

As he approached the outskirts of the city he turned off onto a cross street and began to climb a hill. The shoreline was now at his back, there were sidewalks and clapboard houses under the trees, and for block after block every parking space was filled. The rainwater coursed down between the tires of the dark empty cars and fell into catch basins, flowing through hidden channels until it gathered in the lake. He came to an intersection, braked to a halt, and waited, staring at the scarlet stains of the traffic light's reflection on the wet pavement.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Flying slowly

By now, the status of the airship as an emblem of a kind of alternative, softer version of modern technological development is a well-established cliché, found throughout contemporary steampunk and fantasy from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials to the TV show Fringe. Why do these lumbering craft provoke such nostalgia?

Over the course of the 20th century, the Futurist aesthetic embodied by the airplane -- sleek, fast, loud, and efficient -- would gradually lose its appeal, done in by the nightmares of Guernica, the Blitz, Dresden, and the Enola Gay. The airship wasn't entirely innocent of such possibilities -- zeppelin raids killed hundreds in Britain in the First World War, and Thomas Harris's novel Black Sunday imagined a blimp as what we would now call a weapon of mass destruction -- but for lethal efficiency it really couldn't compare. Nor, in the end, could it compete commercially. For a brief period the airship seemed to offer a kind of compromise between the genteel leisure of the hot-air balloon and the machine-age imperatives of speed and maneuverability fulfilled by the airplane, but the disaster of the Hindenburg doomed it to be forever confined to limited and special uses like hovering over football stadiums. A sad but probably inevitable end for the emblem of a less hurried kind of technological development that perhaps wasn't really ever going to be possible.

Artists, fortunately, are less constrained by such considerations, and there's something particularly pleasing and restorative about the sight of an airship poised above a landscape -- or an iceberg.

The above four images are all from the Eisbergfreistadt project by the artists Kahn + Selesnick. The first two are in the form of postcards; the latter pair are notgeld (emergency money).

The image above is by Donald Evans, an American artist who sadly died too young in a fire in the Netherlands in 1977. Evans's work consisted almost entirely of postage stamps, drawn actual size and appropriately perforated and often endorsed, of imaginary countries with names like Domino, Amis et Amants, Lichaam and Geests (Body and Soul), and Mangiare. (He also drew a fascinating set of zeppelin stamps for the country of Achterdijk, but unfortunately they are triangular in shape and too difficult for me to reproduce.) Willy Eisenhart's The World of Donald Evans, long out-of-print but not impossible to locate, is the indispensable collection.

Finally, above is one of a series of Little Nemo Sunday cartoon panels by Winsor McCay devoted to an airship tour of North America. This particular image is from January 15, 1911 and I rather like its conceit of Nemo and his companion Flip sweeping newly fallen snow off the deck. The whole series can be enjoyed online and at full size at The Comic Strip Library.