Issue 29 Fall 2012

An American in Oulipo:
The Harry Mathews Symposium

Solving (and Not Solving) The Conversions

The readers of The Conversions in the early 1960s found the book impenetrable, despite its short length. If it’s hard to situate a novel like The Conversions in the American tradition today, then when it was originally published this would have been almost impossible. In 1965, Richard Kostelanetz, perennial champion of the avant-garde, declared it to be “overly incoherent, possibly absurd” in a piece looking at Thomas Pynchon’s recent novel V., (a book with a quest narrative that points back to The Conversions). Kostelanetz recognizes a fleeting resemblance, not least in the title, to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955), though the way that Gaddis’s protagonists agonize through religious symbolism and ideas from The Golden Bough is a world away from The Conversions seemingly flippant narrator. Mathews didn’t fit in the tradition of the American novelist: he was trained in music and had spent the past ten years in Europe interacting with visual artists (his first wife, Niki de Saint-Phalle, became a prominent member of the nouveaux realistes) and poets.

Hymns to Misunderstanding: Harry Mathews’ First Three Novels

On June 19, 1997—a few weeks shy of my 27th birthday, and fifteen years nearly to the day that I am writing these words—I stopped by Book Ark, a used bookshop three steps below ground level on West 83rd Street in Manhattan, and bought my first Harry Mathews. The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium and Other Novels. It was published in 1975 by Harper & Row; those other novels were The Conversions (1962) and Tlooth (1966). A forbidding pair of Jim Dine scissors, red-handled and standing on its points, loomed on the front, a precise nightmare. The cover price was $5.95; inside the bookseller had marked it as “6—,” an appreciation of five cents over 22 years. It had belonged to a smoker, possibly the “Tim Yolm” who had written his name in pencil on the flyleaf. But the cigarette odor was faint, unlike that which arose from my copy of Jakob Lind’s Soul of Wood, so thick you could taste it. (I will never get to Lind; even typing his name makes me suppress a cough.) The pages were bright, the binding was tight. Overall it looked like a steal.

Tch, Tch: notes on Cigarettes

The earthbound, comparatively conventional Cigarettes is a singular contradiction in Harry Mathews’s fiction. This book of the intersecting romances and relations among well-to-do New Yorkers in the 1930s through the ’60s is his only novel to concern itself with “conventional psychology”—meaning that its characters are not hunting for treasures or navigating fantastical landscapes, are not busy outwitting (or failing to outwit) secret societies, conspiracies, con artists, traps, or puzzles, are not learning invented languages or cracking ciphers (or at least no more than we are). They are about the business of being human, or, rather, being fictional in a way that evokes a different reaction than Zachary and Twang in The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, than The Journalist’s journalist, than Tlooth’s revenge-bent fugitive. Our concerns are now “sexual conquest; the fostering of reputation; the love and hate between mother and son, father and daughter, brother and sister; the links (and abysses) between affection and imagination; the parallels between homosexuality and heterosexuality; and the nature of amorous friendship linking quite old people.”

I Read It for the Plot: The Narrative Artistry of Harry Mathews’ Cigarettes

Even Harry Mathews has said “I think situations are more important than plot and character.” And while his 1987 masterpiece Cigarettes is, at first appearance, a collection of situations, reading it quickly reveals that one of its chief pleasures is the (re-)construction of its plot: learning who its characters are, what they do, and how they are related.

My Life in CIA, a series of overlapping interactions

A little past the midpoint of My Life in CIA, Harry,our hero, goes on a date. This date turns wrong for Harry. A lot in My Life in CIA turns wrong for Harry. Not because he isn’t suave, svelte, and socially super-charged. Or because he isn’t smart, funny, charming, generally cheerful, and rather sweet. He is all of these things, all of them dropped nel mezzo del cammin (he is into his fifth decade) into the deep world-event-fueled waters of self doubt. Fine cracks in the shell of his self have started to form. He is still a champ but his gyre would seem to be widening; his things would seem to be falling apart.

Short Disclaimers, Extravagant Tablecloths: Harry Mathews, Poet

If Harry Mathews is esteemed predominantly for his masterful fiction, it is nonetheless as a poet that he ventured upon a writing career. The marriage of form and content evident in the inventions of Tlooth or Cigarettes emerged from the discovery, as he puts it in a 1987 interview with John Ashbery, that prose could be written with the same arbitrariness as poetry. This discovery is traceable back to his initial encounter with the work of Raymond Roussel. Tempting as the separation of genres may be, it constitutes in regard to this writer’s works an absolute error.

My words aren’t stones to harm you but fences to make you not harm me: On the peculiar generosity of Selected Declarations of Dependence

A note in the minutes to the August 2000 meeting of the Oulipo, the Parisian literary consortium of which Harry Mathews was for nearly four decades the only American-born member, records that he has recently been proud to identify a statement made by his granddaughter about her cluttered purse, j’ai tellement de trucs dans le fond de mon sac, as a classical alexandrine. Many things have endeared Mathews to me in the ten years or so since I became aware of him, but this snap-recognition of poetic matter in the lining of everyday life is arguably the most satisfying. It is also the trickiest to situate within my understanding of how his writing works.

Symbols of Control

John D’Agata has been campaigning for new approaches to fact-based writing since at least 2003, when he produced The Next American Essay, an offbeat anthology that juxtaposes work another editor might have included in a compilation of contemporary nonfiction—essays by McPhee, Didion, Dillard, and Lopez—with unclassifiable experimental texts and a number of pieces originally published as poetry or fiction. D’Agata’s follow-up anthology, 2009’s The Lost Origins of the Essay, extends his attempt to expand the form’s boundaries by providing a lineage dating to the birth of writing itself, and again it mixes choices that are obvious with choices that are by any standard idiosyncratic. There are Seneca and Montaigne and Browne and De Quincey. There is also Zisudra of Sumer’s 5,000-year-old list of dead elders’ advice (“Neither should you buy your prostitutes from the street, for they are the kind that will usually bite”), and there is an excerpt from a 15th-century Aztec ethnography, “Definitions of Earthly Things,” whose poetry feels unintentional. And there are Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, Mallarmé’s “A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance,” Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” and one of Beckett’s “Fizzles.”

Introducing Rachel Shihor, Chronicler of Lost Time

A quick Google search for “Rachel Shihor” reveals a few, tauntingly sparse pieces of information. A small biographical blurb on the website of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris notes that Shihor has taught philosophy at Tel Aviv University, and offers the titles of some works of scholarship and two published novels. There is also a tiny thumbnail photograph: from what one can make out, a middle-aged woman with dark hair and glasses, her lowered eyelids giving her a soft, introspective expression. Apart from the abstract of an academic paper, virtually every other entry concerns a small work published in 2008 by the Cahiers series, Days Bygone, Shihor’s first work of fiction to be translated into English. Here is an immediate explanation for the scarcity of Shihor’s Internet presence: outside of her native Israel, familiarity with her work is limited to the forty or so pages of Days Bygone. This little book, beautifully assembled in turquoise and brown, is more than enough to reveal a writer who handles her ideas with arresting grace, and who deserves exposure to a far wider readership than she has so far been granted.


American Mythology: A Conversation About Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff

That brings me to your remarks about the Western. This is a very American genre, probably the most uniquely American genre of film, and I don’t think it’s coincidental at all that Reichardt is deconstructing it at a time when America, as a nation, is seriously questioning many of the things that the Western mythologizes. Many of the themes and techniques that she used to great effect in Wendy and Lucy (isolation, loneliness, existential doubt, loss of narrative) have flowered in a remarkable way in Meek’s Cutoff. Reichardt lets us feel all of these sensations in a very personal way in the lives of the pioneers, but she also pushes them into a commentary on the American myth of the West and the ongoing erosion of the American values that myth once propagated.

Primitives, Amateurs, Cavemen, and Clowns: Concerts on Film

A few years ago I saw Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense in the Senator Theater in Baltimore, the city’s most storied, opulent one-screen movie house. I’d seen the film a dozen-odd times before but never on a proper screen. My friends and I got there late and took our seats near the back as Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz were joining David Byrne onstage for “Thank You For Sending Me an Angel.” The sound was pristine and booming, but something was amiss; some kind of arrhythmic thwacking was coming from a far corner of the theater, and it became more noticeable as the onscreen stage filled with the full nine-person band. In the middle of “Slippery People” I finally made out the culprit: some asshole, all the way up near the front row with a djembe hanging between his legs. He was dancing and wailing on this drum like he was Band Member #10, and absolutely ruining what I had hoped would be a transcendent cinematic experience.

In Translation

I’m Not Auster by Enrique Vila-Matas

Auster has always just been my kind of writer. Whatever anyone else says, I’ve always found him simply charming. And just as I can allow him his minor faults, I’m also glad when he does well. There’s something graceful about his writing that places him, along with the likes of Stevenson, in Fernando Savater’s category of enchanters. “It’s hardly scientific as a literary critical category, I know”, says Savater, “but I’m only writing for proper readers, and I know they’ll know what I mean.” This charm, for Savater,is easier to distinguish by what it isn’t: it isn’t genius, profundity, brio, or formal perfection, and neither could it be called an innovative or a classical bent; a minor author might have the touch and still never break into the highest ranks of world literature. But when combined with other qualities, it can make addicts of us.


Inland by Gerald Murnane

As in his 2009 novel Barley Patch, Australia’s Gerald Murnane explores in Inland (1988) the creative writer’s relationship with his or her own text, and, by extension, the precarious and often tenuous relationship between author and reader. While Barley Patch focuses on a writer who has abandoned his craft altogether, and the myriad inducements back to the page made by his calling, Inland is less concerned with the act of creativity (or its disavowal) than with the act of writing. “Pages drifting” becomes a testament to the unnamed narrator’s need to forge—as well as complicate—an intimacy with his reader.

Malarky by Anakana Schofield

Malarky’s sections slip between first and third person and are non-linear, recursive. Just as in a dream, each thought disappears into the next. On some days, Our Woman wishes to “mould away to her own finality” and just so, it is decay—destruction from within, not without—that sustains narrative momentum. In all episodes, what remains most constant is a certain instinctive urgency to repair time and memory. It is the same challenge that a reader faces: to make sense of the novel’s disjointed events.

Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature by Charles Rosen

Endowed with enormous knowledge (what Pierre Boulez calls his “vast culture”), Rosen is a most gifted critic, one who not only explicates and illuminates scores and texts with easy precision but whose reviews and essays stand apart from their subject as pieces of literature in their own right. Rarely of one mind on any subject, except perhaps his preferences for certain recordings and particular fingerings, Rosen in this collection unapologetically contradicts himself and homes in on paradoxes he is unable to reconcile, engaged in a decades-long discussion with the finest artists of the past four centuries—and with his own mind. Above all, he elaborates on several lifelong arguments, making this volume a valuable companion to his major books, as well as a terrific introduction those who have not yet read his work.

All the Garbage of the World, Unite! by Kim Hyesoon

“Manhole Humanity,” the final poem in Kim Hyesoon’s collection All the Garbage of the World, Unite! excellently translated by Don Mee Choi and published by Action Books in 2011, is a poem of such life-consuming, life-barfing, life-giving, life-gulping intensity, I’ve fallen into its hole trying to choose a line or two from which to begin talking about it.

Olives by A.E. Stallings

The cover of Olives, A.E. Stallings’ third collection of poems, shows a detail from a late sixth-century-B.C. amphora depicting the harvesting of olives. One figure sits among the branches with a stick, while two others, sticks in hand, stand below. They knock fruit from the tree as a fourth figure, kneeling on the ground, holds a basket and collects the fallen olives. We know little of the artist, who worked in Athens and specialized in the black-figure technique, rendering human forms as sparsely detailed silhouettes. His falling olives might be lumps of coal.

The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction edited by Diego Trelles Paz

Editor Diego Trelles Paz notes in his solid and lengthy introduction to The Future Is Not Ours that this trend was first evident with the writers born in the ’60s, especially those of the McOndo and Crack groups, spearheaded by Alberto Fuguet and Jorge Volpi, respectively. Both as a reaction to the constraint imposed by the writing of the Boom, and to the political climate, writers gave up on the “total novel,” which tried to capture the whole of a country. While Paz oversells the importance of events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the murders in Juarez, Mexico, and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, in shaping the writers and works in this collection, there is a clear awareness of the dysfunctional world they inherited. Paz claims “one can recognize the rather nihilistic conviction with which each writer confronts the disillusionment that” uses cynicism and indifference to avoid disappointment. Having seen so many failures, there is only so much one can say about a nation.

Children in Reindeer Woods by Kristín Ómarsdóttir

The deadpan narration of the opening scene of Children in Reindeer Woods, Icelandic playwright-poet Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s first work to be translated into English, sets the tone for the unsettlingly still surface of this absurd and violent tale. Three soldiers arrive at a farm in the noonday sun. Apart from their foreboding presence, the scene seems cut straight out of a children’s picture book, all in primary colors, with animals and utensils numbered under five. An old lady brings the newcomers food and drink on a red tray. There is no apparent trigger for the massacre that follows. The soldiers simply shoot the old woman and all her companions, adults and children alike—except for eleven-year-old Billie, who is spared “seemingly without a thought.” One of the soldiers then kills his companions, apparently to be freed of his military obligations, and sets about becoming a farmer.

The Walk by Robert Walser

It has become near impossible, at least when thinking about Robert Walser in English, to separate him from critical appraisals calling him a writer of the “small.” W. G. Sebald, paraphrasing Walser himself, labeled the Swiss writer a “clairvoyant of the small.” Susan Sontag, in her introduction to Walser’s Selected Stories, wrote “Walser is a miniaturist, promulgating the claims of the anti-heroic, the limited, the humble, the small—as if in response to his acute feeling for the interminable.” Sebald again: “his natural inclination is for the most radical minimization and brevity, in other words the possibility of setting down a story in one fell swoop, without any deviation or hesitation.” And Benjamin Kunkel in the New Yorker began his essay on Walser’s life and works by reminding us that Jakob von Gunten’s motto—“To be small and to stay small”—may just as well apply to von Gunten’s creator as well.

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