Harry Mathews in 2004
|Born||February 14, 1930|
New York City
|Died||January 25, 2017 86) (aged|
Key West, Florida
|Alma mater|| Princeton University |
|Genre||Novels, poetry, short fiction, essays, French translation|
|Notable works||The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium and Other Novels|
|Spouses|| Niki de Saint Phalle, sculptor (1949-1961) |
Marie Chaix, writer
Harry Mathews (February 14, 1930 – January 25, 2017) was an American writer, the author of various novels, volumes of poetry and short fiction, and essays. Mathews was also a translator of the French language.
Born in New York City to an upper-middle-class family,Mathews was educated at private schools there and at the Groton School in Massachusetts, before enrolling at Princeton University in 1947. He left Princeton in his sophomore year for a tour in the United States Navy, during the course of which (in 1949) he eloped with the artist Niki de Saint Phalle, a childhood friend. His military service completed, Mathews transferred to Harvard University in 1950; the couple's first child, a daughter, was born the following year. After Mathews graduated in 1952 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in music, the family moved to Paris, where he continued studies in conducting at I’École Normale de Musique.
A second child, their son Phillip, was born in Majorca, Spain in 1955.Mathews and de Saint Phalle separated in 1960, with the two children remaining under his care.
Together with John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch, Mathews founded and edited the short-lived but influential literary journal Locus Solus(named after a novel by Raymond Roussel, one of Mathews's chief early influences ) from 1961 to 1962.
Mathews was the first American chosen for membership in the French literary society known as Oulipo, which is dedicated to exploring new possibilities in literature, in particular through the use of various constraints and textual algorithms.The late French writer Georges Perec, likewise a member, was a good friend, and the two translated some of each other's writings. Mathews considered many of his works to be Oulipian in nature, but even before he encountered the group he was working in a parallel direction.
In the 1960s Mathews had a relationship of several years' duration with Paris Review editor Maxine Groffsky.Mathews was later married to the writer Marie Chaix , and divided his time among Paris, Key West, and New York City.
Mathews's first three novels share a common approach, though their stories and characters are not connected. Originally published as separate works (the third in serialization in The Paris Review ), they were gathered in one omnibus volume in 1975 as The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium and Other Novels, but have since been reprinted as individual volumes. Each novel displays the author's taste for improbable narrative invention, his humor, and his delight in leading the reader down obscure avenues of learning.
At the outset of his first novel, The Conversions, the narrator is invited to an evening's social gathering at the home of a wealthy and powerful eccentric named Grent Wayl. During the course of the evening he is invited to take part in an elaborately staged party game, involving, among other things, a race between several small worms. The race having apparently been rigged by Wayl, the narrator is declared the victor and takes home his prize, an adze with curious designs, apparently of a ritual nature, engraved on it. Not long after the party, Wayl dies, and the bulk of his vast estate is left to whomever possesses the adze, providing that he or she can answer three riddling questions relating to its nature. The balance of the book is concerned with the narrator's attempts to answer the three questions, attempts that lead him through a series of digressions and stories-within-a-story, many of them quite diverting in themselves. The book has some superficial affinities with Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 ;the reader, like the narrator, is never sure to what extent he has fallen victim to a hoax. Much of the material dealing with the ritual adze, and the underground cult that it is related to, borrows from Robert Graves's The White Goddess. Mathews's novel concludes with two appendices, one being in German.
His next novel, Tlooth, begins in a bizarre Siberian prison camp, where the inmates are divided according to their affiliation with obscure religious denominations (Americanist, Darbyist, Defective Baptist, and so on), and where baseball, dentistry, and plotting revenge against other inmates are the chief pastimes.A small group of inmates, including the narrator, plot their escape, which they carry out by constructing an ingenious getaway vehicle. After fleeing south and over the Himalayas, they split up; the later sections of the novel, which take place in various locales (chiefly Italy), are concerned with the narrator's attempts to track down and do away with another inmate, Evelyn Roak, who had been responsible for mutilating the narrator's fingers. Most of the major characters have sex-equivocal names, and it is only towards the end of the book that we are given some indication of whether they are actually male or female. As in The Conversions, there are numerous subplots that advance the main action only minimally.
The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, like The Conversions, is the story of a hunt for treasure, this time told through a series of letters between a Southeast Asian woman named Twang and her American husband, Zachary McCaltex. The couple are researching the fate of a vanished cargo of gold that once belonged to the Medici family. As in the earlier novels, there are various odd occurrences and ambiguous conspiracies; many of the book's set-pieces revolve around a secret society (The Knights of the Spindle), which Zachary is invited to join. Reflecting the author's interest in different languages, one pivotal letter in the book is written in the (fictitious) idiom of Twang's (fictitious) homeland, and to translate it the reader must refer back to earlier chapters to find the meanings of the words. In a typical Mathews conceit, the title of the novel is apparently meaningless until the reader reaches the final pages, at which point it reveals an important twist in the story that is nowhere revealed in the text of the book itself. The novel is provided with an index, which may be deliberately unreliable. David Maurer's The Big Con provided Mathews with a number of slang terms, and possibly some plot elements as well. Another apparent source was The Rise and Decline of the Medici Bank: 1397-1494 by Raymond de Roover; Mathews implicitly acknowledged his debt by introducing de Roover and his wife in the text as minor characters.
Mathews's next novel, Cigarettes, marked a change in his work. Less whimsical but no less technically sophisticated than his first three novels, it consists of an interlocking series of narratives revolving around a small group of interconnected characters. The book's approach to narrative is generally realistic, and Cigarettes is ultimately moving in a way that none of his previous books attempted to be.
My Life in CIA, the last published novel in his lifetime (if it is indeed fiction),was purportedly Mathews's memoir of a period in his life in which he was rumored to be a CIA agent and decided to play along and pretend that he in fact was one.
His final novel, The Solitary Twin, was published posthumously in March 2018 by New Directions.
Mathews's shorter writings frequently cross or deliberately confuse genres. A case in point is the piece entitled "Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double)." Originally included in an issue of the literary magazine Antaeus devoted to travel essays, it is ostensibly a recipe with extended commentary.Another example is the title section of Armenian Papers: Poems 1954 - 1984: actually prose, this purports to be (but evidently is not) a translation from a fragmentary medieval manuscript.
Mathews used proverbs in many creative ways in his book Selected Declarations of Dependence, which was based on the words found in 46 common English proverbs.He used them to write poems, following self-invented rules. He also created "Perverbs and Paraphrases", complex riddles based on proverbs. In addition, he created anti-proverbs that he called "snips of the tongue", such as "Look before you leave."
Among the more important collections of his miscellaneous works are Immeasurable Distances, a gathering of his essays; The Human Country: New and Collected Stories; and The Way Home: Selected Longer Prose. Other works by Matthews include Twenty Lines a Day, a journal, and The Orchard, a brief memoir of his friendship with Georges Perec.
Mathews invented the "Mathews' Algorithm," a method for producing literary works by transposing or permuting elements according to a predetermined set of rules.
Mathews died on January 25, 2017 in Key West, Florida from natural causes, aged 86.
Mathews, along with his second wife Marie Chaix, appears as a minor character in the novels What I Have Written by John A. Scott, The Correspondence Artist by Barbara Browning, and The Hidden Keys by André Alexis. Mathews, among other literary luminaries, makes an appearance as a party guest in Paul Auster's novel 4321.
Georges Perec was a French novelist, filmmaker, documentalist, and essayist. He was a member of the Oulipo group. His father died as a soldier early in the Second World War and his mother was murdered in the Holocaust, and many of his works deal with absence, loss, and identity, often through word play.
A lipogram is a kind of constrained writing or word game consisting of writing paragraphs or longer works in which a particular letter or group of letters is avoided. Extended Ancient Greek texts avoiding the letter sigma are the earliest examples of lipograms.
Constrained writing is a literary technique in which the writer is bound by some condition that forbids certain things or imposes a pattern.
Oulipo is a loose gathering of (mainly) French-speaking writers and mathematicians who seek to create works using constrained writing techniques. It was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. Other notable members have included novelists Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, poets Oskar Pastior, Jean Lescure and poet/mathematician Jacques Roubaud.
Life: A User's Manual is Georges Perec's most famous novel, published in 1978, first translated into English by David Bellos in 1987. Its title page describes it as "novels", in the plural, the reasons for which become apparent on reading. Some critics have cited the work as an example of postmodern fiction, though Perec himself preferred to avoid labels and his only long term affiliation with any movement was with the Oulipo or OUvroir de LIttérature POtentielle.
Raymond Queneau was a French novelist, poet, critic, editor and co-founder and president of Oulipo, notable for his wit and cynical humour.
Jacques Roubaud is a French poet and mathematician.
A Void, translated from the original French La Disparition, is a 300-page French lipogrammatic novel, written in 1969 by Georges Perec, entirely without using the letter e, following Oulipo constraints.
Jay Wright is an African-American poet, playwright, and essayist. Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he lives in Bradford, Vermont. Although his work is not as widely known as other American poets of his generation, it has received considerable critical acclaim. Wright's work is emblematic of what the Guyanese-British writer Wilson Harris has termed the "cross-cultural imagination." Following his receiving the Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 2005, Wright is recognized as one of the principal contributors to poetry in the early 21st century.
Hervé Le Tellier is a French writer and linguist, and a member of the international literary group Oulipo. He is its fourth president. Other notable members have included Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Jacques Roubaud, Jean Lescure and Harry Mathews.
Ian Monk is a British writer and translator, based in Paris, France.
Experimental literature refers to written work—usually fiction or poetry—that emphasizes innovation, most especially in technique.
Which Moped with Chrome-plated Handlebars at the Back of the Yard? is a comic novella by Georges Perec. Perec's second published work, it was originally published in 1966 in French as Quel petit vélo à guidon chromé au fond de la cour? The English translation by Ian Monk was published in Three by Perec by David R. Godine, Publisher in 2004. The Review of Contemporary Fiction called Monk's translation "gorgeous and eloquent".
Jim Krusoe is an American novelist, poet, and short story writer. His stories and poems have appeared in Antioch Review, Denver Quarterly, BOMB, Iowa Review, Field, North American Review, American Poetry Review, and Santa Monica Review, which he founded in 1988. His essays and book reviews have appeared in Manoa, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, The New York Times and the Washington Post. He is a recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Fund. He teaches at Santa Monica College and in the graduate writing program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. His novel, Iceland, was selected by the Los Angeles Times and the Austin Chronicle as one of the ten best fiction books of 2002, and it was on the Washington Post list of notable fiction for the same year. His novel Girl Factory was published in 2008 by Tin House Books followed by Erased, which was published in 2009 and Toward You published in 2010, also by Tin House Books.
Jacques Jouet is a French writer and has been a participating member of the Oulipo literary project since 1983.
Daniel Levin Becker is an American writer, translator and musical critic.
Anne Françoise Garréta is a French novelist and a member of the experimental literary group Oulipo. She is the first member of Oulipo to be born after the group’s founding. Her awards include the Prix Médicis.
Warren Motte is a Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado Boulder. His focus is contemporary writing, with an emphasis upon experimental, avant-garde, or other subversive forms of both fiction and poetry. Motte has authored or edited many volumes of literary criticism, including the first book-length study of the renowned French writer Georges Perec, an authoritative book on the experimental writing group known as Oulipo, and major studies of other writers such as Edmond Jabès, Marie NDiaye, Christine Montalbetti, Antoine Volodine, and Jean Rolin. Motte's recent books include Mirror Gazing, a study of over 12,000 mirror scenes in literature, and French Fiction Today, devoted to the contemporary French novel. In 2015 Motte was named a Knight in the Ordre des Palmes Académiques by the French Republic. In 2016 he was named a College Professor of Distinction by the University of Colorado Boulder, and in 2018 he was named a Distinguished Professor, the highest honor the University of Colorado awards to its faculty members.
La Bibliothèque oulipienne is a collection that hosts the works of the individual and collective members of the Oulipo. The short texts that compose them form a fabrique of playful literary creations.
Combinatory literature is a type of fiction writing in which the author relies and draws on concepts outside of general writing practices and applies them to the creative process. This method of writing challenges conventional structuralist processes and approaches. To do this, the author investigates alternate disciplines outside the common channels of creative writing and literature, notably mathematics, science and other humanities. The author then applies constraints or influences from the new concepts to their writing process. This inspires creativity in literature regarding form, structure, language and narrative plot, among other things. The emergence of combinatory literature is largely the result of philosophers and intellectuals who have been concerned with the interrelated nature of disciplines and the way these combine to affect brain function. Notable proponents of combinatory literature include T. S. Eliot, Georges Perec and Italo Calvino, whilst modern writers like George Saunders have credited having a multiple disciplinary background as influential on their work.