An American in Oulipo: The Harry Mathews Symposium
The Conversions by Harry Mathews. Dalkey Archive Press. 192pp, $11.95.
Harry Mathews’ first novel, The Conversions, first appeared in 1961, serialized across the first three numbers of Locus Solus, the journal edited by John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and Mathews himself, which, though it was published in Switzerland, codified New York School poetry. The Conversions stands apart from the rest of the contents of that publication: although no shortage of prose poetry was published in Locus Solus, The Conversions is the only work of fiction to be serialized in the journal. It’s an odd choice: although structured like a detective story built from short chapters that end with a minor amount of suspense, the novel’s installments spectacularly fail to resolve what is left hanging.
At the end of the third extract in Locus Solus, a note explains that “A subsequent extract of The Conversions appears in the current issue of The Paris Review.” This was not true. In early 1962, issue 27 of The Paris Review (then based in France) published a shortened version of the novel, bringing it to a wider literary audience. In this version, six of the book’s twenty-three chapters were condensed and summarized, including the one that would have followed the last Locus Solus extract; it also appeared with illustrations by James Metcalf (an artist that Mathews knew from his time in Majorca) interspersed throughout the text. Later that year, The Conversions was finally published entire in the United States by Random House, removing Metcalf’s illustrations but adding two appendices, the first a German version of a chapter that appeared earlier in the book in English.
Three editions of a first novel in two years suggests the arrival of an important new writer. I dwell on the publication history to point out how impossibly strange The Conversions must have seemed to its first readers. Found in Locus Solus, it would appear—correctly, though we tend to forget this—to be a poet’s novel, not unlike Ashbery and Schuyler’s A Nest of Ninnies (a brief excerpt of which ran alongside one section of The Conversions). This impression might be confirmed by the biography given to Mathews in The Paris Review: “After studying music at Harvard and the École Normale de Musique, he devoted himself entirely to writing poetry, publishing during recent years in various American magazines. The Conversions is his first prose work.”
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.
* * * *
The Conversions at first appears confusing because it is ostensibly set up as a puzzle with no solution given. The unnamed narrator—the book’s only real character—wins a stone adze in a contest at the home of “wealthy amateur” Grent Weyl. Weyl has recently died, and the narrator stands to inherit his fortune if three riddles can be answered:
1) When was a stone not a king?
2) What was La Messe de Sire Fadevant?
3) Who shaved the Old Man’s Beard?
In answering these questions the reader is dragged along a complicated sequence of travels and scrutiny of old texts, some of which are incorporated into the book. These form small, self-contained units of story; although the narrator attempts to connect them, digression is the rule. Early on, for example, the narrator meets a previous owner of the adze, a novelist who starts explaining how he came to posses it. But after two paragraphs he has slipped into a long précis of his novel, The Sores, which the narrator seemingly quotes verbatim; at the end of the summary the novelist returns to the story of how he acquired the adze. What The Sores has to do with the narrator’s quest is unclear, but a great deal of the pleasure of The Conversions comes in following these twists and turns.
The narrator does eventually find answers to the first two questions—though whether they are correct is left entirely unaddressed. He fails to answer the third, leading to the novel’s rapid ending in its final paragraph:
The moon-clock having failed to yield the third answer, I decided to end my investigations. My long search had consumed more than the little money I had once possessed—I had even had to pawn the adze. There was nothing for me to do but return home and begin paying my debts.
The reader knows little about the narrator’s motivations—he is guarded in his personal statements. He seems happy to indulge the bizarre quest the will leads him on around Europe, and, though, he stands to inherit a great deal of money, financial gain isn’t his immediate goal. Contrary to the novel’s concluding line, he seems to be a man of leisure: early in the book he turns down an offer of “close to a million dollars” for the adze, and Mathews holds any remarks about his debts to that last line. In a laconic aside in the middle of the book, the reader learns that his marriage is failing, and, near the end of the book, that he is of mixed race.
The question of what it all means is left in the air: from the beginning, the narrator appears to be tangentially connected to Weyl, and in the end, he appears to simply decide that he doesn’t care any more. (This ending is not unearned: from the beginning, the book is constructed from digressive episodes, most of which don’t have a clear relevance to what preceded or followed them.) The problem of meaning, then, falls on the reader: it certainly appears plausible that a solution to the problems listed in the will could be found if the reader looked hard enough.
One might decode The Conversions: this is exactly what Tomasz Mirkowicz, the novel’s Polish translator, does in an remarkably thorough essay in an issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction devoted to Mathews. Mirkowicz’s piece cunningly ties the book’s major events to Robert Graves’s The White Goddess,starting with the recurring word alba or alva. The Old Man turns out to be an oak tree; his beard is mistletoe. For Mirkowicz, The Conversions is a retelling of the Fisher King story, familiar from “The Waste Land” and elsewhere.
Mirkowicz’ interpretation is certainly persuasive, but does it actually help understand what Mathews is doing here? As Mirkowicz notes, Mathews himself told him that while “there is an element which is like a detective story or a puzzle that has to be solved . . . the puzzle is not solvable, no matter how far you go.” Moreover, at the close of his piece, Mirkowicz admits that he doesn’t really understand what the congruence between The Conversions and The White Goddess means.
The Conversions has a noticeably ambiguous relationship to solutions. The narrator’s lackadaisical stance makes it unclear whether a resolution is actually needed. The suspended resolution given by the ending of the novel is furthered by the two appendices that immediately follow, which don’t seem to be the work of the narrator: they offer no real solution to the narrative and create more problems for the reader. Why do they exist? Who added them?
One could go further and note that solutions in The Conversions seem to categorically fail. The Wayl family in particular has trouble solving anything conclusively. Grent Wayl’s party trick with worms fails to spell out the intended text. Beatrice Fod is famous for having discovered “an unprecedented solution to the problem of birth control,” a new form of sex that ensures contraception while also providing maximum pleasure for both partners; but the powers of industry, religion, and government conspire to silence her through fear. Her brother Isidore “solved the double problem” of a remedy and vaccine for tracheitic plague in Bengal by inoculating the population with a local wasp, the stings of which provides immunity; but his solution proves worse than useless when the next year the wasps prove to breed their own plague. And the internment Grent Wayl fails spectacularly: he has set his watch to make his coffin explode. Given all of this, it might not be surprising to the narrator that his adventures trying to figure out Grent Wayl’s will come to nothing but debts.
* * * *
Mathews’ disavowal of a solution to The Conversions is reminiscent of one of Marcel Duchamp’s best-known aphorisms: “There is no solution because there is no problem.” Like Mathews, Duchamp’s work was deeply influenced by the writer Raymond Roussel, whose plays Duchamp attended when he was young. Duchamp became a member of the Oulipo in 1962, eleven years before Mathews would; the group was then two years old and participating in an early flowering of the Roussel renaissance that took place in France in the early 1960s. Michel Foucault’s book on Roussel would focus attention on the writer; this was seized upon by Alain Robbe-Grillet and the other writers of the nouveau roman. Simultaneously, John Ashbery was disseminating Roussel’s work through the English-speaking world, not least to Harry Mathews. The journal Locus Solus was, of course, titled after Roussel’s novel; the journal’s final issue contained an excerpt of the novel translated by Mathews, marking the first appearance of Roussel in English.
The majority of Roussel’s work is now available in English, allowing a reconsideration of The Conversions. Read after Roussel, the novel is clearly indebted to his style—so transparently so that it might come off as a pastiche. Like Locus Solus, the ostensible plot only serves to tie together fantastically intricate set-pieces, which are constructed following their own internal logic. Mathews has always been forward about the influence of Roussel; in an interview with John Ash, he admits that The Conversions was inspired by Roussel’s play La Poussière de soleils, which he translated as The Dust of Suns. Like The Conversions, The Dust of Suns begins with the execution of a will and ends anticlimactically. More importantly, Mathews took Roussel’s method of inventing narration for the book:
That’s one thing I learned from Roussel: that, in terms of storytelling, you can find masses of material in solving absurd problems. Roussel had no qualms, and no plot. It’s all storytelling. It’s also highly poetic but the poetry is all there in absentia. It’s not there in what the text says it is doing. What the text says it is doing is telling utterly unlikely stories which at the same time have nothing gratuitous about them.
And in an interview with Ashbery he suggests that Roussel’s voice was also important:
One thing I was inspired by in Roussel, most obviously in The Conversions, is that incredible voice, that very neutral, apparently indifferent tone in which the most insane things are said. This is one of those effects which is so potent.
There is a crucial difference between Roussel’s and Mathews’ writing, even if they’re using similarly generative methods. Roussel’s work is unaware of its audience: he thought his books and plays were transparent vessels that would allow his readers and viewers to intuitively understand his genius. Roussel was genuinely surprised and disappointed when he was not appointed a new Victor Hugo or Pierre Loti; his posthumous How I Wrote Certain of My Books explains his methods to a public that he’d hoped wouldn’t need an explanation. While Roussel was taken up by the Surrealists, who loved him much as they would the inscrutable work of an outsider artist, the author thought they were misunderstanding his work.
Mathews, in contrast, is always aware of the opacity of his work. The Conversions is set up as a detective story, with a puzzle that must be unraveled. While The Conversions isn’t an explicitly metafictional book, a clear parallel is drawn to the work of the reader trying to understand what is happening in the book. An example in miniature might be found at the end of the first chapter:
Mr. Wayl had grown impatient during my remarks. He now exclaimed: You’re as dumb as is!
“You’re as dumb as is” is a strange utterance because of the final phrase “as is”; but a clearer meaning can be found if the phrase is said aloud. Wayl’s nephew, Isidore Fod, goes by the nickname “Is” (as his sister Beatrice goes by “Bea”); capitalizing “is” makes it a proper name, and the sentence is a comparison between the narrator and Isidore Fod. The narrator’s lack of capitalization indicates that he does not understand this; nor does he puzzle over the strangeness of the statement. An unprepared reader would be justified in wondering if this is a typo; the reader who is familiar with Roussel recognizes Roussel’s method of generating unexpected new meanings from homophonic sentences. Mathews’s often odd diction suggests this:
Worms called zephyrs. They are dried out but alive; moisture will quicken them. On the course, which is wet, they will find in front of them a trail of their habitual food (tiny pharaohs) that will lead them to the finish.
This passage is spoken aloud by Grent Wayl, with Mathews following the example of James Joyce and Gaddis in his lack of quotation marks; he goes further than both by dropping the initial dash, making spoken and written language run together to often puzzling effect. His use of zephyrs and pharaohs here elude even the fattest dictionary: it is possible that the narrator has heard the words incorrectly. “Ciphers” might make sense as a name for a worm that spells out a text; worms could conceivably eat “farro.” But if this is so—as is the case with his hearing of “You’re as dumb as is!”—the narrator never realizes his mistake.
Mathews’ book is more complex narratively than Roussel’s because a narrator inside The Conversions is struggling to find out what, if anything, it means. Our distance from the narrator makes it difficult to speculate on whether he takes any meaning from his failure to find a solution to the three riddles that propel The Conversions. At the very least, it offers him a diversion from a plot that seems to be driving his own life, a marriage gone bad. His quest for interpretation can’t solve that problem; we might presume that, by the end of the novel, he knows this.
* * * *
Return again to the quote from the interview with John Ash: Mathews says that the value of Roussel’s narrative discoveries are that “in terms of storytelling, you can find masses of material in solving absurd problems.” The word solving jumps out here: but solving is being done not by the narrator of the text, or the reader of the novel. Solving is done by the author: solution is, for Roussel and Mathews, a way for an author to construct a text. The title of the book doesn’t describe what the characters are doing or what the reader might be expected to do, as was the case with The Recognitions; rather, it describes what the book is on a purely textual level.
The effect is astonishing: the reader can’t help but be aware that something is moving underneath the text, though what that is can’t quite be understood. The reader encountering Mathews today is like the speaker in Walt Whitman’s poem, who can look at the stars with the help of experts:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
In The Conversions, Mathews has used Roussel’s star-dust to construct a new constellation for the considerate reader to appreciate.
Dan Visel is a contributing editor to Triple Canopy. He lives in Queens, New York.
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