It is unsettling to open Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga and see not the usual blocks of rectangular prose but bits of verbal stuff scattered about among portentous-looking blank spaces:
The wind relents a little, but thick waves rumble on the reef, and the sea gnaws the hull.
See dat silver light? Make me sad, someway.
Gloomy, mon. What de old people calls de Mouth of de Night. Cause de night hungry, mon.
The sea expires.
Feel like dat reef waitin, someway. Watchin and waitin.
The typographical layout resembles that of a play, with descriptive stage directions, dialogue inset, and occasional audio-visual effects at center page—here the booms, elsewhere pictograms to show time of day, the state of sea or weather, or (an ink splotch) the death of a character. It looks ominously a page from the school of Ezra Pound.
The air of “poetic” self-consciousness isn’t lessened by the speaking voices, whose accents, played against a cultivated, iambically tending narration, may suggest some sort of Caribbean minstrel show. And the story seems similar to other stories about the sea. An ill-assorted crew sails, too late in the season, from Grand Cayman to the turtling grounds far to the south off Nicaragua; we have a drunk, a stowaway, a malcontent, an unfledged boy, a strange “Spaniard” named Smith (or Brown), an amiable black Honduran, a quietly competent mate, and above all an obsessed captain determined that the voyage shall succeed despite the skepticism of his shipmates, who would gladly have given it up long before its disastrous conclusion in piracy, shipwreck, and the death in open boats of all hands save one. Readers of Melville and Conrad will know where they are.
Significance” seems to assert itself even in the sailors’ conversations. The motif of their talks is change, the loss of the old pride and competence that used to prevail among seafarers but that has been swept away by a “progress” which some accept with wry helplessness—“modern time, mon”—but which no one really welcomes. The stanchest enemy of the new is the unregenerate Copm Raib Avers, his head full of images of those old-timers who deserved to be called Captain, determined to conduct himself like their last surviving heir. And the destruction of Avers on the Misteriosa Reefs, supposed to be “Far Tortuga,” the lost spawning ground of turtlers’ legends, may seem suspiciously contrived.
Yet for all such worries, Far Tortuga turns out to be enthralling. Matthiessen uses his method not for self-display but for identifying and locating his characters. The book keeps in close, attentive touch with these sailors’ sense of one another, their interest in what they do and do not know about nature and man, their unpretentious concern, above all, for their work, the activities which quite literally sustain their lives and about which there is always enough to say:
Well, it time to start thinkin where we gone to set our nets. Start for Cape Gracias maybe three in de mornin we won’t hit no reefs before de light, and den we is a very good way along. Maybe we get done registerin at Cape Gracias time to run back out to Cape Bank Shoal, set a few net dere fore de evenin.
Cape Bank pretty far to de north for dis time of de year.
Well, we see dat big turtle dis evenin. Got good ground over dere.
Copm Allie say de turtle small at Cape Bank. Chicken turtle.
Copm Allie don’t know everything, Byrum!
You know a coptin better’n him?
Well, dey ain’t many proper coptins left. Copm Cadian dere on de Lydia Wilson, he was pretty good while he had a boat. Can’t do much without a boat. (begins to grin) But I believe I as good as any dere is today, I believe I can truthfully say dat. Dey talk about Copm Allie, but he don’t sail down to de cays no more. All de coptins of dat time, dey was some very good coptins, but age is took de upper hand. Oh, yes! Dey in de downward way!
The movement in those last sentences toward the eloquence of Homeric or Old English epic could seem forced, but those too were oral styles, spoken and heard by men of deeds about men of greater deeds. Even a line that might be straight out of “The Seafarer”—“Dat was bad food, after dem storms. Dat was hard farins”—sounds like the product of an acute ear and not of a superimposed literary sophistication.
Literature too seldom shows how working people talk with each other about what they are doing, their often complex mixing of job terms with terms that reveal their more general, philosophical sense of themselves in the world. In the passage quoted above, Avers’s idea of history as an irreversible decay of values has an immediate rhetorical purpose—he must convince his crew, and himself, that he’s good enough to bring off an unpromising endeavor. But all “practical” language has its persuasive and theatrical dimension, and the voices in Far Tortuga sound remarkably right for their situation.
To be sure, it helps that these people are so remote from the life and speech the mainland novel reader knows. But the risk of a merely touristic pleasure passes as one stops noticing the dialects and becomes familiar with the personal and social tensions among the crew. Serious currents are running here. Cayman society, in which no one is quite white but blackness is a distinct if bearable stigma, provides a subject which everyone finds interesting:
So de first settlers had to deal with dese wild people speakin a broken tongue. Athens here still speakin it: Sponnish, English, African—a little bit of everything.
Well, Copm Raib, in Georgetown dey more civilized, dey understandin me. West Bay is pirates, and de farther east you go from Georgetown, de farther into de back are de people livin. Where Wodie live, now, at East End, dey still livin in de bushes Dat right, Wodie?
Oh, we be hoppy in de bushes, too.
Dem real black people out dere at East End, dey stuck out dere since de slavin days, when de slave ship Nelly struck upon de reef. Dem jujumen, dem obeah workers dere, dey gets dere ways from Africa. Still got cannibals out dere, ain’t dat right, Wodie?
What’s at stake in this talk can’t be translated into solemn questions about race and prejudice. The matter of color is for these people a way of apprehending their history and social structure, a reminder to everyone of who he is and what rankings pertain. It is also an occasion for more or less amiable teasing, the rough jokes by which men in close quarters make a tolerable relation with one another without adopting the insincerities of an unfelt affection or camaraderie. Here Wodie, the low man on the pole, is at least allowed to feel that his existence is interesting to the others, and in saying “we be hoppy in de bushes” he both accepts his status and gets some ironic leverage out of it.
What, despite appearances, does not happen in Far Tortuga is a straining by literary means to make more of an acutely observed life than it would make of itself. Matthiessen avoids the gestures toward large “symbolic” meanings that sea stories so often get burdened with, and the book is less of a literary “event” than some would have it. In a dust-jacket comment James Dickey insists that it “will certainly point the way that the English-speaking sensibility must and should go,…the way of passionate impressionism,” but this is to inflate its currency. Matthiessen’s is not a passionate book but a spare and sober one, sympathetically respectful of its subjects but very cool. And this “impressionistic” method surely wouldn’t work for a different kind of material. The blank spaces on the page create and sustain a slow regularity of tempo, isolating utterance in the midst of emptiness, that beautifully suits an elegiac story about the sea but would seem pretentiously arty in most other connections. Far Tortuga is an adventure story of great purity and intensity, worth comparing to the best of Conrad or Stevenson, but one such book should be enough.
Harry Mathews, whose three novels have been reprinted in a single handy volume, could also, I suppose, be called an adventure writer, though his subject is not the remote and simple but the remote and very sophisticated. He writes not about working people but about what used to be called, with an obligatory sneer, rootless cosmopolites, who roam from New York to Europe to the Orient looking for legacies, patrons, or treasure troves. They do work, doggedly, but at solving puzzles, making stories out of odd scraps of data, doing research, the familiar vice of an otherwise unemployable clerisy.
The Conversions (1962), Mathews’s first and still most accessible novel, portrays an anonymous narrator (who turns out to be a mulatto musicologist, as the narrator of Tlooth ends up being a woman dentist who marries a man named Joan) in pursuit of a vast fortune, which the eccentric millionaire Grent Wayl has bequeathed to whoever possesses a particular golden “ritual adze” and can answer three riddles somehow associated with it: “When was a stone not a king?” “What was La Messe de Sire Fadevant?” and “Who shaved the Old Man’s Beard?” These do sound like hard ones, but Wayl has already given the narrator the adze, along with some obscure clues incorporated in a parlor game that was part musical competition and part worm race.
The search proceeds through a maze of false leads and seemingly irrelevant stories-within-stories. The narrator is from time to time involved with novelists, gypsies, gangsters, horse breeders, scholars, a bullfighter whose head is entirely covered by a purple birthmark; we try to connect a race horse named Cartesian Diver with the Cogito Swim Club, of Cliff-le-Bone, France, whose members “believed that prolonged immersion helped introspection and metaphysical speculations.” With the narrator we ponder a translation (the original German text is given in an appendix) of a nineteenth-century narrative “The Otiose Creator,” whose ending points to a disreputable Scottish family named Johnstone, illegitimate offspring of the Earls of Mar who pretended to royal blood (=a stone not a king?).
A later Johnstone experimented with the rare substance fleshmetal, which unless magnetized destroys all materials it touches but becomes a gas at -2° C. and a liquid at around absolute zero, from which properties the phenomenon of infraheat can be perilously deduced. (At his death this Johnstone ordered his laboratory to be destroyed by shellfire.) The valley of Silver Glen in Clackmannanshire, the only known source of fleshmetal, was also, it emerges, the site of a pagan cult devoted to the Roman hero-king Sylvius, which flourished until put down by the Earl of Mar in 1541, after which the survivors contumaciously chose their ritual kings from the Johnstone family.
Finally there are the teasing evidences of a lost mass by Orlando di Lasso, the Missa Fa Si Re (= Fa devant Si Re = Messe de Sire Fadevant?) and a Jacobean translation of a French lyric that encodes a Latin text that may translate as “I acknowledge Silvius as king; The Fates undo Silvius (or, The Fates weave Silvius anew); The west wind returns on the left.” In conjunction with some eighteenth-century letters about the cult of Sylvius, all this seems to bring the narrator close to his inheritance. But who shaved the old man’s beard?
On the brink of success, he learns that those letters are forgeries and that Wayl’s will has been invalidated as a hoax, leaving the old man’s niece and nephew, Beatrice and Isidore Fod, to inherit everything. Evidently it all has been a motiveless practical joke—Wayl, who did, after all, arrange for his own coffin to explode on the way to his funeral, must have planted fake documents and false informants throughout most of the Western world for the narrator’s benefit. Even his final discovery, with the Cogito Swim Club, of a huge lunar clock on the floor of the Atlantic, powered by fleshmetal and bearing Sylvian devices, doesn’t really help, and he can only conclude by saying, “There was nothing for me to do but return home and begin paying my debts.”
One immediately thinks of Pynchon, whose V. came out a year after The Conversions and who shares Mathews’s interest in the messages that may be concealed in history, the necessity and absurdity of trying to make sense of a senseless world. They share too an interest in arcane scholarship, the technology of complex machines, and the subtleties of science, particularly medicine—against the great nose-job in V. could be put Beatrice Fod’s development of an infallibly contraceptive sexual position or her brother’s brilliant if counterproductive cure for tracheitic plague, a cure which killed 30,000 Bengalis after the plague bacteria developed immunity to the poison of the ischnogaster wasps in whose bodies Isidore produced and applied his vaccine.
But the dark intensities of Pynchon’s nihilistic wit have no real counterpart in Mathews’s lighter, brighter sense of fun, which seems more like a highcamp variety show than sustained fictional invention. (If one of his masters is the Beckett of Watt, another is surely Perelman.) Certainly his writings since The Conversions show surprisingly little advance. Tlooth (1966) traces the adventures of an eight-fingered violinist, from “her” escape from Jacksongrad, a Russian prison camp, to India and then Italy, where she turns blue-movie script writer and then dentist.
There are fine moments—the schismatic history of the Defective Baptist sect. R. King Dri the Philosopher-Dentist, a puzzle in which a character laboriously interprets as a gloss on Nestorian ideas of the Trinity a scrap of paper which turns out to be jottings for a first-year German exercise, an instructive demonstration of how to anaphrodize written pornography by transposing occasional letters—“Following her up the stairs I found myself facing the swerving eeks of her chass, molded by muthing but their own nuscles under the elastic skitted nirt….” But perhaps because the narrator is sick—it’s diagnosed as syphilis but turns out only to be yaws—the story is too disjointed in its later parts, as well as too narrowly intent upon a theme of sexual metamorphosis, to sustain my entire interest.
The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1971-1972) hangs together better. It consists of the correspondence between Zachary, a sensitive librarian seeking a long-hidden treasure through the Rebozoan labyrinths of new-moneyed Florida, and Twang, his Indochinese wife, who sends him clues from Italy, where she’s patiently tracing the hoard of Medici gold that disappeared somewhere around 1480. Mathews gets full mileage out of the indeterminacies of a novel-in-letters—at one point Twang flies (or did she?) to Miami while, because of a letter lost in the post, Zachary flies to meet her in Florence (or so he says)—and there are some goodish jokes about American vulgarity (Mathews has been an expatriate for some twenty years), but the amusement isn’t continuous.
Mathews is a coterie novelist, I’m afraid, a master of private jokes that most readers will feel annoyingly in the dark about. But there is one sign in Odradek Stadium of some willingness to go public. For all of Zachary’s stuffiness and Twang’s not so hilarious difficulties with written English (“Then my belove I shall bring to the honsidering of your aspect no ciarity but admoration…”), their letters are often openly and affectingly tender, where the earlier books almost entirely avoid the expression of strong or direct feelings. Unless I’ve been had again, this seems a hopeful sign of mellowness to go along with Harry Mathews’s immense elegance and skill. He deserves to be better known, if warily so.
Brian Moore, author of Catholics, The Luck of Ginger Coffey, and other successes, is already well known. His latest book, The Great Victorian Collection, illustrates the difficulty of writing intelligent semipopular fiction these days.
The novel begins intriguingly. Anthony Maloney, a young Canadian professor of history in California for a professional meeting, spends a night in a motel in Carmel and awakens to find that, just as he had been dreaming, the parking lot outside his room has been transformed into a vast open-air museum of Victorian artifacts. Some are exact duplicates of things he’s seen in British collections; others he has never seen but knows about from his reading:
I became aware that everything I laid eyes on was, in some sense, familiar. I stopped at a stall and picked up a small object, a child’s wooden fire engine, circa 1840. I remembered I had seen it before in the Marvell Collection of Toys at Kensington Palace. I fingered the engine’s painted surface, sniffed its faint odor, reminiscent of snuff, and put it back on the stand. I then noticed a mechanical cat sitting next to it, a tin toy which does not exist in any known collection of Victoriana. I recognized it from a description of its workings which I had read in a book on rare Victorian toys.
The matter-of-fact narrative is just right here—the collection is not a novelistic convenience but a sensible object, with particular qualities in which the author, narrator, and reader can take interest.
But the book gradually loses touch with such particularity, as the collection comes to mean more and be less. Since it has come into existence out of his dreaming mind, it is technically Maloney’s property, as, after some legal tugging and pushing, even the State of California admits. But in a more important sense it has ceased to be his in becoming embodied; when he experimentally tries to will that fire engine out of the collection and into his room, it doesn’t come. Returning to examine it in situ he finds it subtly altered, with “Made in Japan” stamped on the bottom. Attempts at physical removal cause similar depreciations.
As in other tales of unnatural creation, the maker is dominated by his creature. The collection has a will of its own, and it requires its creator’s presence and attention—when Maloney tries to leave Carmel, an unnatural deluge of rain falls, threatening to ruin the objects, until he returns. And he finds himself compelled to dream about it with exhausting intensity, his eye moving ceaselessly through its aisles like a TV surveillance camera. A desperate effort at escape to Los Angeles and then Montreal turns into an ordeal of sleeplessness to avoid this dream. Finally, defeated, he returns to Carmel, where the collection is looking a little faded. In accepting his unwanted curatorship he sacrifices his job at McGill, his chance for new love, and finally his life when, after trying to destroy the monstrosity, he expires from an overdose of alcohol and barbituates. The collection survives, somewhat deteriorated, as a tourist attraction.
The story is loose enough to permit some sardonic glances at modern times, as Maloney experiences American police work, media exposure, expert quarrels about the collection’s authenticity, the meddling of parapsychologists, commercial exploitation, and so on. But having found a fine fictional idea, Moore seems rather at a loss to know what to make of it. Maloney’s dealings with a stiff young reporter, his sympathetic girl friend, and her mysterious father are only tenuously attached to the collection itself, and the treatment of his broken marriage and lost career is rather perfunctory, as a fairly routine story of alienation and misery develops. Worst of all, the fact of its being a Victorian collection, rather than, say, Elizabethan or Georgian, never is made significant; the nineteenth century just happens to be Maloney’s field, and Moore misses a chance to explore a particular historical nostalgia that writers like John Fowles and Michael Crichton have recently been exploiting with some success.
No doubt it’s a virtue of Moore’s that he doesn’t try to make too much of anything; in Catholics the strong drama of a monastery resisting the Realpolitik of ecumenicism is wisely allowed to dwindle down to a quiet ending in defeat, and The Great Victorian Collection is similarly unassertive, letting its fabulous premise be absorbed into modest questions about what such an astonishing event would do to our world. The closest Moore gets to making a point comes when Maloney is interviewed by a psychologist.
MALONEY. Well, I used to think that, because I dreamed up the Collection, it belonged to me. I was responsible for it. But now I’m beginning to think it’s the other way around.
Q. I’m sorry. I don’t quite understand.
MALONEY. Well, if something you dream up comes to life, it stands to reason that it develops a life of its own. And now it’s taken me over.
This limits significance to what we already know from watching mad scientist movies. Moore’s modesty seems excessive; there should be more to say about dreaming history into nightmare. I wish that this serious and honest writer could have been more daring, had pushed harder against the tendency of the novel form to convert even the marvelous into its own solid prosey stuff.
August 7, 1975