Harry Mathews Critical Essays

Mathews, Harry

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mathews, Harry 1930–

Mathews, an American novelist, poet, and translator, has lived in France and Italy since 1952. His "bizarre and wonderful" novels, rich in "linguistic skylarkings and fantastic invention," are really games and riddles, informed by a sort of "groomed, fiendish hilarity." With John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, Mathews founded and helped to edit the fine little magazine Locus Solus (1960–62). (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

[The Conversions] is … as exhilarating to read as a fire-works set-piece is to watch. The framework on to which he ties his whizz-bangs follows the familiar pattern of a quest. The anonymous narrator, in order to inherit the enormous fortune left by Wayl, has first to be the possessor of a ritual golden adze, and second to provide answers to three riddles: "When was a stone not a king?" "What was La Messe de Sire Fadevant?" and "Who shaved the Old Man's Beard?" The narrator's search for the answers meanders along through a Nile delta swarming with red herrings. Rebuses abound, as do polyglottery (classical and modern), Finnegans wakefulness, and enormous catalogues à la Rabelais. The human creatures which people this acrostic world of Mr. Mathews suit it as the Knave of Clubs suits his twelve fellow-travellers: they are not in any ordinary sense human, but they fit the milieu and strike appropriate attitudes…. Mingling not inappropriately with all this wizardry and mumbo-jumbo there is a genuine and delightful vein of poetry and small, ancient-marinerish spurts of entrancing ballad narrative. Mr. Mathews is a delightful original. (p. 685)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1962; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), September 14, 1962.

If ["Tlooth"] can be labeled as anything, it may be said to be a pasticcio-antipasto. Elements of the pastiche come from Swift, Poe, medical dictionaries, Fellini, Orwell, "Notes & Queries," Henry Miller, Ezra Pound and possibly, "Old Moore's Almanac." The centerpiece of the antipasto is Venetian: other segments, it would seem, have Russian, Central Asian, Indian and French backgrounds.

"Tlooth" can hardly be said to have a plot—it parodies plot as it parodies every other literary convention it uses—but it has a narrator, an androgynous creature whose middle name is revealed at last to be Mary. (Her first name is Nephthys, and it may be that her last name is Tlooth as a punning reference to her occupation as a dentist.) She is the wry catcher of a baseball team in a concentration camp on the Russian steppes who, as the novel opens, is trying to kill an opponent batter, Evelyn Roak, with a baseball loaded with dynamite….

The whole novel is an elaborate game, a compound of absurd adventures, faked documents, diagrams and word puzzles. There is little pretense of realism. Mathews has abandoned himself to an imagination full of strange lore and miscellaneous literary allusions. The strongest of all the influences on the novel of those that I have mentioned is undoubtedly the film director, Fellini. As in "8 1/2," the boundary between reality and fantasy has disappeared, or, rather, the imagination of the artist, projected into the work of art, has taken the real and the fantastic as related, even interchangeable, perceptions of life.

At one point in the novel, for example, the narrator is asked to write a film script, but the scenario (which is full of Fellini images of nuns and Negroes) keeps getting mixed up with the incidents of the "real" story. Elsewhere, the narrator describes a painting, and the action taking place in it also melds into the narrative.

The trouble with this technique in fiction, to rephrase Marshall McLuhan, is the Guttenberg tyranny. The logic of printed words demands a minimal corresponding logic, a base of credibility, that the movie camera, through its greater flexibility, can ignore—or dispense with entirely. "Tlooth," in spite of its creative experimentalism and its radical assault on reality (things are simply never what they seem), often loses the sustained interest required to make sense of its elusive complexity. Like the narrator's baseball bomb, the book seems frequently to skitter "off the playing field altogether, at last disappearing irretrievably, and with an abysmal liquid reverberation, into a drain."

Peter Buitenhuis, "Escape and Pursuit," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 30, 1966, p. 72.

[Tlooth] is a brilliant book, in a very special way. The form of it is quite straightforward—a picaresque adventure story that takes the central character from a Siberian camp (called Jacksongrad) on an involved journey through Asia, to Italy, Bombay, Morocco, and France. But 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 (there is a scenario for a "blue" movie that makes Kenneth Anger sound like Walt Disney). But the book has nothing to do with modish sick humor, naked lunches, or scorpios rising. It is, for all its incidental excesses, fantasy, pure and simple. Mr. Mathews' comic style has some of that same innate seriousness with which Miss Beatrice Lillie will tell you that there are fairies at the bottom of her garden. (p. 142)

Roderick Cook, in Harper's (copyright 1966 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the November, 1966 issue by special permission), November, 1966.

I am sure that Mathews had fun writing [Tlooth], and I have had some fun reading it. He can write uncommonly well when he wants to, and he keeps his charade going, whatever it means. He creates one outrageous situation after another, and most of them he carries off effectively.

In his inventiveness and erudition he is like Pynchon, Barth, and William Gaddis, but he seems less concerned with coherence than any of them. It is amusing that the Count calls the narrator's deliriously wild script [for a pornographic movie] "a leetle old hat." Nobody is going to call Tlooth even a little old hat. Mathews wants to be farthest out, and for the moment he is. Whether his indubitable talents might have been expended in some more fruitful way is another question. (p. 38)

Granville Hicks, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1966 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), November 12, 1966.

I am not sure The Conversions is a great novel. I am not at all sure I understand it. And owing to certain learned complications in its narrative I am unable in a little space to "tell the story" so that my readers will see what it is all about.

On the other hand, at a second and third reading I am fascinated with the mysteries of this brief narration, about 180 pages if you include the appendices and a couple of illustrations. It is this fascination that I must attempt to communicate to the reader.

Most abstractly, this is the account of a quest. Its anonymous narrator is kept busy enough questing that we learn almost nothing of his character or personal life…. In this way one substantive element in The Great American Novel—humanity—is eliminated.

This quest is a cryptically inconclusive failure. Of three absurd and obscure questions, Our Hero is able to answer only two. So another substantive element of The Great American Novel is out of the way, too: drama. At the end the narrator has spent more than his little all: "There was nothing for me to do but return home and begin paying my debts." (p. 24)

The sequent quest, episodic in nature, proceeds according to a negative formal principle such as you find in detective stories, so that even the false clues has to be investigated as though it formed part of the design (save that in this book the false clue does, by glancing or oblique allusion, form part of the design). The narrator is led in this way through a large number of episodes…. (pp. 24-5)

The climax, or unrevealing epiphany, is entitled "All Things Are Water" (one of those ultimate, pre-Socratic statements of conversion as the principle of "all things"). This chapter relates the discovery, with the help of an organization called the Cogito Swimmers Club, of what may be a perpetual motion machine built (with the indispensable aid of fleshmetal) under the sea; it tells the quarters of the moon, its mechanism is run by organic means (12 herring whose life and reproductive cycle are regulated by the machine in turn), and it carries a symbolic device relating to the ancient religion of Sylvius whose rites are engraved on the adze.

This episode perhaps more than any other accounts for my fascination. Its ingenuities become poetically luminous, the living machine beneath the sea is a symbolic mobile bearing the impossible meaning of the novel, something like this: When you find the hidden essence of the world you will still be ignorant of its meaning….

Finally, a small adventure in oneirocriticism. After my third reading I visited the author (whom I had never met) in a nasty basement cafe. I told him my theory of the book's meaning, and he told me rather sullenly that I did not understand it at all. Even so, we remained on fairly good terms, and wandered for an hour through what seemed a vast children's playground, with jungle-gyms, mazes, and so on, all made out of snow or maybe fleshmetal. (p. 25)

Howard Nemerov, "Cryptic Quest," in The New Leader (© 1973 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), October 14, 1973, pp. 24-5.

This single volume ["The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium"] which contains three novels, could be used as a casebook to trace the development of a writer as he progresses from appealing cleverness to genuine literary skill and achievement….

The earliest novel in this volume, "The Conversions," was first published in 1962. It is a remarkable extension and exploration of the odd fictional devices invented by Raymond Roussel, the French proto-surrealist best known for his extravagant novels of fantasy, "Impressions of Africa" and "Locus Solus," both written before World War I. Tales within tales, meticulously described Rube Goldberg machines, coolly objective prose pulled around great chunks of bizarre information—these are only some of the earmarks of Roussel's style that Harry Mathews has assimilated and made his own. The plot of "The Conversions," however, already hinted at a theme that Mathews would later polish to perfection: the tragi-comedy of human ingenuity, which insists upon interpreting the facts of experience even when they are senseless, baffling, or banal….

[The] second novel of this volume [is] "Tlooth," originally published in 1966…. Even the title of this science fiction romp typifies the frustration any searcher after truth must encounter. When the narrator consults a Venetian oracle, she burbles forth the inscrutable syllable: "Tlooth."

If Mathews's early style was inspired by Roussel, his preoccupation with riddles parallels the literary concerns of another contemporary American, Thomas Pynchon. Just as Oedipa Maas in Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" gradually uncovers a world-wide conspiracy, the Tristero System, the characters in Mathews's novels are always sifting for clues. But there is an important difference between the two writers. Oedipa Maas's suspicions are well-founded; the evidence she collects unravels a real mystery; paranoia for Pynchon is the highest form of wisdom, the ultimate realism. For Mathews, however, interpretation is invariably misleading and facts refuse to yield their significance.

Humr has always graced Mathews's writing, but the final novel of this volume, "The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium," seems to me a comic masterpiece, as funny as Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop," as intricate as Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire."…

As Mathews's art has matured he has moved away from pearls of exotic narration strung on a slender thread of continuity. In "The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium," he has created a seamless fabric, as tense, light, and strong as stretched silk. (pp. 6-7)

Edmund White, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 18, 1975.

Harry Mathews … 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….

On the brink of success [the narrator] learns that … 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….

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 high-camp 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….

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 …, 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. (p. 35)

Thomas R. Edwards, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1975 by NYREV, Inc.), August 7, 1975.