The Times published an obituary for Harry Mathews on Thursday. Written by Sam Roberts, the piece is headlined “Harry Mathews, Idiosyncratic Writer, Dies at 86.”
I had learned of his death from the painter Trevor Winkfield, so I could respond to the headline rather than the news and I immediately thought about how true it was as a journalistic summary– you could see why the copy-editor signed off on it – and yet how wide of the mark.
True, the writings of Harry Mathews are unusual, singular, eccentric. Some might even write him off as a well-educated dilettante who cultivated literature as a hobby. But there are those of us who believe him to have been a true original -- brilliant and inventive and uncompromising in his allegiance to an avant-garde esthetic.
Mathews stars in the category we might call “An American in Paris.”
Living in Paris for so many years, Harry was a persuasive advocate for a brand of poetics that would have taken a much longer time to reach our shores had he not been the one to spread the news as the first and for a long time the only American member of the Oulipo, the French organization devoted to the creation and practice of constrictive literary forms.
The Conversions, his first novel, is a masterpiece of its kind. It has elements of comedy and absurdity but they are there not to make a satirical point or mount a critique. The book revolves around an eccentric millionaire’s will, which poses riddles that the would-be heirs must solve. It is the riddles and the complications they generate that Mathews values. He is an aesthete first and foremost. The only moral in a Mathews story, such as the one in the form of a recipe (“Country Cooking,” if memory serves), is joy. Meanings and messages are the last thing on his mind. I see that I am speaking in the present tense and will continue to do so as if language could outwit fate.
“Histoire,” a sestina in which Seth and Tina cap off a romantic dinner by making love, makes devastating use of an unlikely set of end-words: Maoism, Marxism-Leninism, sexism, fascism, racism, and militarism. By poem’s end none of those words means what you thought it did. Each could do service as a stand-in for something gastronomic or amorous. The instability of language is most entertainingly demonstrated, but the pleasure of the poem goes beyond its linguistic adventurousness.
In January 1979 Harry came, at my invitation, to teach a one-month course at Hamilton College, where I was then on the faculty. It was Harry’s first teaching gig in the United States – Bennington would follow – and he made the most of it. He introduced the students to OuLiPo procedures such as the “n + 1” construction (and variants thereof), the equivoque, and the technique of generating a plot by starting with a phrase that has or can have a double meaning. (Consider “orange crush,” “twin peaks,” “risk management,” “radio silence,” “tequila sunrise”). One time he had the students make a translation of the star-filled nighttime sky. There were a lot of stars that January in the skies of Clinton, New York.
That January Harry and Stefanie and I dined together every evening. Steffi cooked and we drank the case of wine Harry, a connoisseur and a bon vivant, brought. We had a piano at our place and either Harry or Steffi would play and we would sing the songs of Irving Berlin and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Ever energetic, Harry got me to play racquetball with him four nights a week even though both of us were teaching long hours daily.
I'd like to invite friends of Harry to record, perhaps in the comments field, a memorable comment or anecdote. Michael Malinowitz recalls his ordering "a double espresso in a single cup." I remember telling Harry that I wanted to cook coq au riesling (a variant of coq au vin), to which he replied that he thought Coco Riesling would be a terrific name for a character in a novel.
The Times obit has a lot of useful information and should not be dismissed because of the reductive headline. (All headlines are reductive.) Born on Valentine’s Day, the son of a prominent architect and a real-estate heiress and patron of the arts, Harry grew up on Beekman Place, went to Groton, dropped out of Princeton, went to Harvard, went to Paris, stayed there, founded Locus Solus with John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch.
Ashbery, Koch, Mathews, and James Schuyler edited Locus Solus. They named it after the novel by Raymond Roussel, the patron saint of the enterprise. Before the money ran out four issues appeared. You could do worse than start with these if you wanted to explore the aesthetics at the heart of the New York School of poets – the joy of collaboration; the importance of modern French poetry; the belief that chance can contribute to a work of art if only because there are no accidents; the related belief that exuberance is delight; the pleasures and the paradoxes of the experimental and, yes, the idiosyncratic way of writing.