Words & Worlds
Van Pelt-Dietrich Library
University of Pennsylvania
Curated by Nick Montfort
April 5 – August 31, 2004
Harry Mathews, born 1930, is an American writer who divides his time between the United States and France. He has composed an extraordinary range of literature: five novels (The Conversions, Tlooth, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, Cigarettes, and The Journalist), several collections of poetry, shorter fiction (collected in The Human Country, Dalkey Archive Press, 2001) and eclectic nonfiction (collected in The Case of the Persevering Maltese, Dalkey Archive Press, 2002). He has done many translations from French, has written original literary works in French, and has written about and in conjunction with art and music. Mathews is also the creator of several works that defy simple classification. He is now completing a book called My Life in CIA.
The focus of the exhibit Composing is on how one of today's most innovative writers actually puts together his literary works. Two of the most hackneyed questions that one can pose to a writer are "Where do you get your ideas?" and "How do you write?" Mathews' drafts, notes, and letters provide fascinating material evidence of his writing techniques — some of which are ordinary, some of which are extremely unorthodox. The University of Pennsylvania's collection, which includes the Locus Solus manuscripts as well as all of Mathews' typescripts and correspondence through the mid-1990s, helps to illuminate a variety of formal and informal techniques that Mathews has used — and still is using — to explore new literary territory.
Mathews on Writing
"Maybe writing is never anything else but translation — ultimately, a translation which cannot be identified."
"I've always been as much inspired by poets as by fiction writers, and in fact my reading Roussel enabled me to write prose as if it were poetry."
"Americans are usually very upset when you start talking about literature as words being organized the way you can organize musical notes without reference to anything outside them. ... but ultimately I think only Americans could understand what I'm doing."
"What matters in writing, as in music, is what's going on between the words (and between the notes); the movement is what matters, rather than whatever is being said."
"I think the aim is to write for pleasure even if you're writing about concentration camps and the black death; and the pleasure one imagines is the reader's pleasure."
"All books come from other books, especially when they're drawn from real life."
(Quotations from Harry Mathews are from interviews with Lynne Tillman, Bomb, Winter 1988/98; with Michael Friedman, Shiny, Spring 1986; with Meyer Raphael Rubinstein, Silo, 1978; with John Ashbery, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1987; and the final two are from an interview with John Ash, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1987.)
Writing can be restricted at the level of the letter: the lipogram prohibits letters from occuring in a text, the beau present requires certain letters, and other forms may place restrictions on the number of letters in a line (as seen in this snowball poem). Mathews excels at the use of lexical constrait in teaching and in his own compositions, and he has pioneered new sorts of constraint, including the chronogram, in which all the letters in a text corresponding to Roman numerals sum to a particular calendar year that is the topic of the text.
At first glace, the technique of automatic writing seems the exact opposite of constrained writing, which Mathews champions. He does not eschew the surrealist idea of writing immediately without stopping to plan or censor one's thoughts, however. Examples of his automatic writing appear in 20 Lines a Day.
Sometimes an novel concept or object calls for a new word. But why not invent new words to begin with and then figure out what they mean? Mathews, who has distorted proverbs into perverbs in Selected Declarations of Dependence, has also coined pernouncements like those on the facing page as he composed literature.
Formally constrained writing has usually been the domain of poetry. Mathews is a poet as well as a novelist; his poems are as stylistically and thematically varied as are his novels. he says he leard from the writing of Raymond Roussel how to bring techniques of poetry into the composition of prose.
Mathews uses diagrams as part of his process of literary composition to represent the structure of his narrative, structrues that occur within the story, and structures that his characters are imposing upong themselves. The diagram on the facing page represents an extreme scheme concocted by a protagonist for organizing different types of writing.
Traditional forms (such as the sestina), constraints on the composition process itself (seen in 20 Lines a Day) and constraints that operate on levels other than that of the letter are also employed by Mathews. His story "Their Words, for You," for example, is composed entirely of the words from 46 proverbs.
With John Ashberry, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, Mathews founded the journal Locus Solus in Paris in 1960 and edited it through four issues. The little magazine was named after a Raymond Roussel novel that was influential to the founders. (Mathews translated the fist chapter of it for the magazine.) The journal became an important publication for the New York School of poets, and the community assocaited with it became an important context for Mathews as a writer.
Mathews has lived in France most of his life, although he spends some of the year in the United States and has lived in other countries. He does literary translation from French and has written original works in French, including the recent Sainte Catherine. His close friend George Perec was perhaps the most innovative and eclectic French writer of the last century. In 1972 Mathews joined a influential and playful group of French writers and mathematicians, the Oulipo; he remains the sole American member of this workshop for potential literature.
Correspondents & companions
Mathews' first wife was French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle; they eloped in 1949 and moved to France after Mathews graduated from Harvard, beginning their creative careers together. Poet John Ashbery, who met Mathews in 1956, has remained a friend and correspondent throughout the decades. Author and editor Maxine Groffsky, to whom Mathews dedicated "Country Cooking from Central France," met in the 1960s; today she is Mathew's literary agent. In 1992 Mathews married French writer Marie Chaix, whose first novel he had translated.
- 1930 Born
- 1949 Married Niki de Saint Phalle
- 1952 Graduated from Harvard
- 1960 Locus Solus I (co-founder)
- 1960 The Ring (poems)
- 1962 The Conversions (novel)
- 1966 Tlooth (novel)
- 1972 Joined Oulipo
- 1974 The Planisphere (poems)
- 1975 The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (novel)
- 1977 Trial Impressions (poems)
- 1977 Selected Declarations of Dependence
- 1980 Country Cooking and Other Stories
- 1982 National Endowment for the Arts grant in fiction writing
- 1986 Le Verger (a memoir about Perec, in French)
- 1987 Cigarettes (novel)
- 1988 Singular Pleasures (prose)
- 1989 Out of Bounds (poems)
- 1991 National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters fiction writing award
- 1992 Married Marie Chaix
- 1994 The Journalist (novel)
- 1998 Oulipo Compendium (co-editor)
- 2000 Sainte Catherine (novella, in French)
- 2002 The Human Country (stories)
- 2003 The Case of the Persevering Maltese (essays)
His words ... for you.
- The Case of the Persevering Maltese: Collected Essays. (2003.) Includes writings about translation, the Oulipo, George Perec, and other important writers.
- The Human Country: New and Collected Stories. (2002.) Includes "Country Cooking," "The Way Home," and "Their Words, For You."
- The Journalist. (Novel, 1994.) A man keeping a journal formalizes and categorizes his writing with increasing obsession.
- 20 Lines a Day. (Journal/Autobiography, 1988.) The outcome of a curious writing project.
- Cigarettes. (Novel, 1987.) A novel about chance encounters, chance events, and the incredible lives that result.
- Armenian Papers: Poems 1954-1984. Includes poems in an array of forms and the long poem "Trial Impressions."
- The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium. (Novel, 1971-72.) The epistolary story of a librarian's degeneration and his native wife's rise to sophistication.
- Tlooth. (Novel, 1966.) A surprising protagonist undertakes a jailbreak and a journey of revenge.
- The Conversions. (Novel, 1962.) A worm race leads to a puzzling wild goose chase.