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Unlocking the Cupboard

Harry Mathews
Harry Mathews; drawing by David Levine

If you consider that it sums up more than three decades of work in short fiction, Harry Mathews’s The Human Country: New and Collected Stories seems a small book. Bulk is deceptive in this case, however. Mathews’s fiction has a way of compressing immensities into the tiniest of compartments.

Like his literary master Raymond Roussel, the French poet, novelist, and playwright who committed suicide in 1933, he prizes what the English poet Mark Ford describes, in his recent magisterial study of Roussel,1 as “relentless concision…a manner so terse as to verge on the elliptical.” In Mathews’s four-page story “The Novel as History,” for example, an encounter between two men in Detroit in 1938 spins, through a recapitulation of their antecedents, backward in time as far as the Hundred Years’ War, and then forward again to the construction of a bridge which is about to be inaugurated just as the story is being told.

By Mathews’s standards the story is a finger exercise, but in small compass it demonstrates his pattern of excavating, within the present moment, infinitely receding perspectives of space and time, of the imaginary and the freely associative, only to circle back to the present again. Sometimes the effect is of a conjuring trick or a deftly executed round of double talk; sometimes it is more as if the bottom fell out of the world, only to be restored a moment later as if nothing had happened, leaving only an aftertaste of unappeasable disquiet.

Like Roussel, whom (along with Kafka and S.J. Perelman) he has acknowledged as his literary ancestor, and like the other writers of the Oulipo group in Paris (of which he is the only American adherent),2 Mathews relies frequently on the use of constraining procedures to generate and structure his fictions. (Georges Perec, for instance, wrote an entire novel, La Disparition (A Void), forgoing the use of the letter “e,” while Raymond Queneau wrote a sequence of ten sonnets all of whose lines can be interchanged in any order without affecting rhyme scheme or grammatical correctness, thus yielding 100,000,000,000,000 Poems.)3 Roussel revealed to Mathews that “the writing of prose fiction could be as scrupulously organized as Sir Philip Sidney’s double sestina” and that “writing could provide me with the means of so radically outwitting myself that I could bring my hidden experiences, my unadmitted self into view.”

That the imposition of self-invented rules should be the means to undreamed-of freedom of expression, that there is indeed no greater freedom than to choose one’s own constraints, might appear a rarefied kind of dandyism. But Mathews’s work, like that of his friend and sometime collaborator Georges Perec, demonstrates that the real can be found at the core of the apparently fantastic, and that what seem like literary games can be more serious than the most ostensibly solemn undertaking. Indeed, just as Perec in his mathematically constructed Life: A User’s Manual created finally an impression of Balzacian density and vitality, Mathews in his multigenerational saga Cigarettes (1987) achieved, with the use of Oulipian formulas, a reinvention of the traditional novel of social realism. The systematic permutation of situations (through a formula whose details have not been revealed by Mathews), when applied to a densely interwoven, meticulously described cast of characters whose social and economic situations have been established in advance, yields a crazy quilt of chance and contingency that feels more lifelike than many a tendentiously constructed naturalist novel. Far from undermining the novel’s sense of reality, the operation of the Oulipian mechanism convincingly mimics the way things actually fall out in life, as the characters scramble to make the best they can out of unpredictable roadblocks and catastrophes.

Realism was not exactly what Roussel, the grandmaster of the arbitrary compositional procedure, had in mind. His own literary idols (and the word “idol” should be understood, as in all things Rousselian, in its most extreme sense) were the romantic exoticist Pierre Loti and the imaginary voyager Jules Verne. His goal, according to Mark Ford, was to recapture and extend indefinitely the “extraordinarily intense sensation of universal glory”—a sensation marked by the belief, for example, that rays of light emanated from his pen when he wrote—that he experienced during the composition in 1896, at age nineteen, of a poem of more than five thousand lines called La Doublure (“The Lining,” but also “The Understudy”). That the poem, published, like all his books, at his own expense (Roussel would expend his large personal fortune on a succession of literary and theatrical enterprises), earned him not universal glory but near-universal neglect precipitated a psychological crisis that led to the literary search for an absolute method for attaining the wished-for glory. The result, after an extended period of what Roussel called “prospecting,” were the novels Impressions of Africa and Locus Solus; the method, only revealed (after his suicide) in the essay “How I Wrote Certain of My Books,” was the use, in a variety of ways, of concealed puns:

I would choose a word and then link it to another by the preposition à; and these two words, when considered in relation to meanings other than their initial meaning, supplied me with a further creation…. I will cite some examples…. 1st baleine (a whale) à ilot (a small island); 2nd baleine (corset whalebone) à ilote (a helot or Spartan slave); 1st duel (a combat between two people) à accolade (an embrace…); 2nd duel (the dual tense in a Greek verb) à accolade (typographical bracket); 1st mou (a feeble individual) à raille (here I thought of the raillery heaped on a lazy student by his comrades); 2nd mou (the culinary dish made from the lungs of a calf) à rail (railway line).

This particular procedure resulted in an episode (by no means exceptional for its extravagant invention) in Impressions of Africa in which a statue of a Spartan slave clutching a sword that pierces him, made out of corset whalebones and attached to a trolley similarly fashioned, is transported on rails made out of calves’ lungs, the whole being mounted on a platform inscribed DUAL and bearing two forms of an ancient Greek verb. As Raymond Chandler remarked in another context: there are reasons for this, and reasons for the reasons. Roussel combines the utterly arbitrary and the implacably logical in ways that can be both terrifying and liberating. An obsessive attention to detail—he once wrote a two-thousand-line poem about a beach scene depicted on a souvenir pen-holder, and, it is said, could recite his novel Locus Solus from memory—becomes a method for lifting himself and the reader out of the realm of contingency altogether.

Roussel’s final hope, in the face of the incomprehension of most of his contemporaries, was that his methods might prove useful to writers of the future. In France his influence can be traced through the work of Michel Leiris (whose older brother was Roussel’s business manager), Raymond Queneau, Michel Foucault (whose only book-length study of a writer was devoted to Roussel), and Perec, for whom Roussel formed part of a small pantheon that also included Flaubert, Kafka, Queneau, Leiris, and Jules Verne. If Roussel’s actual writings were to remain limited in their readership, his methods would exert a powerful secret influence, like the sublime inventions of those eccentric visionaries who people the novels of his beloved Verne.

When Harry Mathews’s first novel, The Conversions, was published in 1962, few of its American readers could have guessed its Rousselian roots. Mathews himself, who had been living mostly in France since the early 1950s, had heard about Roussel from John Ashbery; Ashbery credits Kenneth Koch with having gotten there even earlier. (Koch was later to translate a portion of Roussel’s late long poem New Impressions of Africa, while Ashbery did important scholarly work on Roussel and has frequently mentioned his inspiring influence. In the early Sixties, Ashbery and Mathews, together with Koch and James Schuyler, co-edited a magazine called Locus Solus in homage to Roussel.) The Conversions was described by its publisher as “tantalizingly symbolic,” but contemporary readers weaned on Frazer, Freud, and T.S. Eliot might have wondered toward what end the alleged symbols—ranging from ritual adzes and burning groves to musical compositions in secret code and a mysteriously potent crystalline substance known as “fleshmetal”—were deployed. The effect was a little like a nineteenth-century adventure novel, one of Verne’s for example, except that instead of emerging from the center of the earth or from underneath the sea, the voyagers just kept getting deeper into it, uncovering yet further layers of dizzying complication: racing horses, cowrie shells, parodistic jousts, a pope depicted “in curious caricature like a jack of spades,” a “moon-clock” dependent on the life cycle of herring.

The Conversions—which on one level concerns the subterranean survival, throughout many historical vicissitudes, of a pagan religious cult—can be read as a book about history, even if most of the history is invented. Interconnections are ancient, inescapable, and yet indeterminable, conspiracy theories and paranoid delusions cannot finally be distinguished from what really happened, and the riddle on which the narrator has staked everything cannot be resolved. In another sense the book isn’t “about” anything at all, any more than Mathews’s other novels: or, rather, it is about its own procedures.

The “tantalizing” quality so aptly noted on the dust jacket of the first edition comes from the reader’s being caught up in a storytelling machinery whose purposefulness he takes for granted and with which he ends up identifying himself. The Conversions, like the later novels, has the tone and cadence of the most full-bodied traditional yarn-spinning, as if to emphasize the weird absence of what would ordinarily be considered a yarn. The real protagonist of Mathews’s fiction is the writing itself: not the writer, discreetly hidden within his procedures, but the variegated, constantly surprising surface that dazzles even as it suggests unseen imperatives that can only be obliquely discerned. The push-and-pull between what seems like free invention and what feels like restraining regulation defines the peculiar and unmistakable atmosphere of Mathews’s fiction, in which we can simultaneously discern extreme control and utter unpredictability, as if we were living out the consequences of some sixteenth-century treatise parsing the definitions of chance, predestination, and free will.

At his most abstract, Mathews might seem to be writing such a treatise. In the story “Soap Opera,” human beings (“featherless bipeds”), on their way from one darkness into another, live in the interim each in an individual cylinder (“rather like truncated sections of pipeline”), caught up in an apparently random jostling and oscillation of multitudes of such cylinders. Unable, because of limited visibility, to discern any larger pattern, each individual concentrates on controlling the progress of his own cylinder. Despite the manifest impossibility of such control, “most cylinder inmates…exhibit extraordinary and lasting confidence in this power to direct their own way,” even though “the results achieved by even the finest maneuvers remain illusory beyond any but the briefest of spans.” But “Soap Opera” is, after all, a story rather than a philosophical inquiry, and most of the time Mathews is anything but abstract.

In fact his writings consist of almost nothing but specificities, and even if the order of their arrangement may at times border on the implausible, the constant sensuous apprehension of sex and food and music—not to mention language, savored as much for its physical as for its metaphysical delight—gives his books a most corporeal and substantial ambiance, even when he seems to be writing about what someone else might call nothing at all. In “The Way Home,” for instance, his protagonist experiences this when he closes his eyes:

He was enjoying himself. He found it ecstatically soothing to be able to look at what could not be called nothing, since there was a blankly black something there, but a something shorn of every physical and metaphysical detail, a mass of empty soft flat indifferent darkness.

Nothingness, for Mathews, can only pertain to the realm of death; life, apprehended in whatever aspect, is always something.

Language is very much part of that something; words in Mathews do not stand outside what happens but are helplessly, sometimes brutally, implicated in it. The deformations and transformations of language, from random mishearings and connotative near misses to systematic distortions like the pidgin so comically and finally so movingly deployed by one of the pair of epistolary lovers in The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1984), are often the main events in Mathews’s novels and stories. To read one of his books is to learn first of all to understand an alien or at least alienated dialect and then, once initiated, to detect the mutations that arise within it; the peculiar argot in which Tro-tsi Twang Panattapam McCaltex, the South Asian heroine of Odradek Stadium, conveys her detailed studies of Renaissance Florentine history (“Other ways, all these Medici were friend-most. Remind your self, the taem of Averardo is as politicians ever be-side the other, to sostain”) is not a fixed idiom but one that constantly changes, and the private discourse established by the hero of The Journalist for recording his life undergoes a constant obsessive refining as the novel proceeds.

The pulp fiction accoutrements of his earlier novels—concealed treasure maps, disguised passwords, anagrams of potentially world-shaking import—are later joined by the rumors, false memories, deliberately distorted gossip, and wish-fulfilling incomprehensions of something like ordinary life. Cigarettes could probably be diagrammed as a map of the information withheld, ignored, or willfully twisted around over a period of decades among parents, children, lovers, and friends. The Journalist (1994), his harrowing portrait of a man who attempts to write his way out of a mental breakdown by transcribing absolutely everything he perceives, is virtually a catalog of the varieties of misapprehension, executed with a compassion that only a person who has never gotten something entirely wrong could feel is misplaced. The more closely the hero observes what is happening around him and the more elaborate the systems he devises for noting in his journal every detail of his life, the farther he spins out into increasingly paranoid misinterpretations of the most banal interchanges.

Overall, Mathews seems exhilarated rather than perturbed by those ambiguities and insufficiencies of linguistic discourse that have occasioned so much postmodern hairsplitting. Presence? Absence? Signifier? Signified? He might well shrug and respond with an eloquent burst of that Pagolak language that he explicates in “The Dialect of the Tribe”: “Amak esodupelu mukesa dap alemok use dup ulemaka.”

Implicit always is the notion that to intervene in the machinery of language is to cut very close to the heart of human affairs, with consequences that can unsettle or even unmoor. The centerpiece of The Human Country is to my mind “Their Words, for You,” a long, emotionally turbulent story, on events between a morning and a night, that derives its vocabulary exclusively from a string of forty-four proverbs and catch phrases: “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs,” “the early bird catches the worm,” “red sky at night, sailor’s delight,” “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink,” and so on.

It will soon be night, and soon tomorrow. The cards will lie unturned. The horses, having drunk, will sleep. Mice will take to their little roads. The sleeping logs die. The birds are disposed in the oaks for the night. And the worms—what do worms do in the night, blind things? Do worms gather when parting meat from bone?

In his concise and lucid memoir called simply “Autobiography,” Mathews describes the writing process:

The apparently arbitrary constraints that I had agreed to comply with turned out to be the means of unlocking an unsuspected cupboard of knowledge, so that I was able to make pages altogether fresh out of some of the most worked-over words in the language: as though I had constructed, like some genial castaway, a pleasure pavilion out of the worn pebbles edging the deserted beach where I had been stranded.

It is not necessary to be aware of the exact procedure, or the number of proverbs employed, to catch the repeated echoes, or to be moved by the conjunction of those childhood mantras with the failures and disjunctions of adult life.

The novels are the essential Mathews, but The Human Country is a fine place to begin. I regret only the absence of two works that seem to belong—“Armenian Letters,” a relatively somber cycle of prose poems purporting to be a translation of a lost medieval book, and “Singular Pleasures,” an enthusiastically imagined survey of sixty-one acts of masturbation in locations ranging from Spokane to Karachi—but since they are, at least at the moment, available elsewhere the loss is acceptable.4 Of the pieces collected here, those that seem like jokes or games—that are jokes or games—make incisions no less deep than his apparently graver writings. “Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double)” is to my knowledge the most brilliant parody of the Elizabeth David style of recipe ever executed—“If no bowl is capacious enough for the lamb and its marinade, use a washtub…. In La Tour Lambert, most houses have stone marinating troughs”—but by the time you get to the end there is a sense of having plumbed prehistoric backwaters, never an altogether lighthearted experience.

“Clocking the World on Cue” is a pure exercise in constraint, obeying the rules of the chronogram, described as “a centuries-old literary form”; each of its seventy brief entries must, if letters corresponding to Roman numerals (c, d, i, l, m, v, and x) are added together, yield the identity of a given year. The results range from “In Pienza, Ernestina is heating tripe fiorentina for thirteen” to “Heroin originating in Iquitos is winning first prize with tertiary bargaining arbitrators in Tijuana.” The longest item describes an unplanned sexual encounter summarized thus: “It’s brief, it’s nifty, it’s insane.” That the year being chronogrammed, for “our New Year,” is 2001 only serves to accentuate the essentially utopian nature of Mathews’s writing. In his work even what is darkest, even cruelty itself, is allowed its humorous and erotic value; there is a detachment and compassion that can contemplate the mind’s scurryings, burrowings, and multiple disguises with unwearying curiosity. If Raymond Roussel, in Mark Ford’s title, speaks for the republic of dreams, Harry Mathews sets up his tent in the untamed and unlost paradise of language.

  1. 1

    Mark Ford, Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams (Cornell University Press, 2000). 

  2. 2

    The Oulipo, or Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), was founded in 1960; its membership, in addition to Mathews, has included Georges Perec, Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, Marcel Bénabou, Jacques Roubaud, and François Le Lionnais. Queneau defined its goal as “the search for new forms and structures that may be used by writers in any way they see fit.” Jacques Roubaud put it this way: “An Oulipian author is a rat who himself builds the maze from which he sets out to escape.” An encyclopedic survey of the forms and structures that have been explored under the influence of Oulipo can be found in Oulipo Compendium, edited by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie (London: Atlas Press, 1998).  

  3. 3

    See my article on Perec, “Hide and Seek,” The New York Review, November 3, 1994. 

  4. 4

    “Armenian Letters” appears in Harry Mathews, The Way Home: Selected Longer Prose (London: Atlas Press, 1999); “Singular Pleasures,” in the edition illustrated by Francesco Clemente and originally published by Grenfell Press in 1988, is now available as a separate volume from Dalkey Archive Press.