Composing: Harry Mathews' Words & Worlds

Main content

Composing: Harry Mathews' Words & Worlds

Mathews on Writing

Mathews on Writing

Character Constraint

Character Constraint

Automatic Authorship

Automatic Authorship

Coining Cognates

Coining Cognates

Poetic Prose

Poetic Prose

Schematic Structures

Schematic Structures

Further Forms

Further Forms

Joint Journal

Joint Journal

Auteur Américan

Auteur Américan

Correspondents & Companions

Correspondents & Companions

Literary Life

Literary Life

His Words ... For You.

His Words ... For You.

Composing: Harry Mathews' Words and Worlds

Introduction

Harry Mathews photograph
Photo credit: © Sigrid Estrada

Harry Mathews (1930-2017) was an American writer who divided his time between the United States and France. He 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 did many translations from French, had written original literary works in French, and had written about and in conjunction with art and music. Mathews was also the creator of several works that defy simple classification. At the time of this exhibition, he was completing his book My Life in CIA. His final novel, The Solitary Twin, was published posthumously in early 2018.

The focus of the exhibit Composing is on how such an innovative writer actually put 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 Penn Libraries' Harry Mathews papers, 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 used to explore new literary territory.

Auteur Américan

Cover of Harry Mathew's novel CigarettesMathews 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 novella Sainte-Catherine. His close friend Georges Perec (1936-1982) was perhaps the most innovative and eclectic French writer of the last century. In 1972 Mathews joined a playful group of French writers and mathematicians, the Oulipo. He was the first American member of this influential workshop for potential literature.

The Oulipo has empowered me to reach what I was already struggling towards;
by clarifying and expanding my awareness of what I was doing,
it has enabled me to move towards what I had not yet done.

—Harry Mathews

At left (fig 1) is the Mathews Corpus, a list of words that Mathews compiled. Each word is spelled the same in French and English but has different meanings. It was reprinted in February 1977 in Martin Gardner’s “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American.

Cigarettes, Mathews’ fourth novel, is dedicated to the memory of Georges Perec who died of lung cancer. Marie Chaix’s French translation of the novel in 1988 was well-received. Jean-Louis Ezine review “L’Amérique à tabac” in Le Nouvel Observateur (fig 2) includes a photo of Mathews and Perec on Ile de Ré.

Auteur Américan

Cover of Harry Mathew's novel CigarettesMathews 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 novella Sainte-Catherine. His close friend Georges Perec (1936-1982) was perhaps the most innovative and eclectic French writer of the last century. In 1972 Mathews joined a playful group of French writers and mathematicians, the Oulipo. He was the first American member of this influential workshop for potential literature.

The Oulipo has empowered me to reach what I was already struggling towards;
by clarifying and expanding my awareness of what I was doing,
it has enabled me to move towards what I had not yet done.

—Harry Mathews

At left (fig 1) is the Mathews Corpus, a list of words that Mathews compiled. Each word is spelled the same in French and English but has different meanings. It was reprinted in February 1977 in Martin Gardner’s “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American.

Cigarettes, Mathews’ fourth novel, is dedicated to the memory of Georges Perec who died of lung cancer. Marie Chaix’s French translation of the novel in 1988 was well-received. Jean-Louis Ezine review “L’Amérique à tabac” in Le Nouvel Observateur (fig 2) includes a photo of Mathews and Perec on Ile de Ré.

Automatic Authorship

Cover of Harry Mathews 20 Lines a DayAt first glance, the technique of automatic writing seems the exact opposite of constrained writing, which Mathews championed. He did not eschew the surrealist idea of writing without stopping to plan or censor one’s thoughts, however. Examples of his automatic writing appear in 20 Lines a Day.

Inspired by Stendal’s exhortation “Twenty lines a day, genius or not” but taking this advice in a different direction, Mathews explained that for about a year he “began many writing days with a stint of at least twenty lines, written about whatever came into my head on a pad reserved for that purpose.” The result was his book 20 Lines a Day, which was published in 1988 and which Marie Chaix translated into French. The French translation was published in 1994.

The 46th entry is dated July 27, 1983 and written at Wainscott. Mathews’ text begins “We say, to write about a subject, to write on a subject, to write of something ...” continuting to ask “Would it be possible, and if so what would it be like, to write around, or in, or into ...”

Character Constraint

Writing can be restricted at the level of the letter: the lipogram prohibits letters from occurring 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 at left). Mathews excelled at the use of lexical constraint in teaching and in his own compositions, and he 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.

The Oulipo (Ouvriour de littérature potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature) is an influential, Paris-based group of mathematician, writers, and others interested in understanding, among other things, literary constraints and the possibilities that they afford. The group was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. George Perec introduced Mathews to the group in 1972; Mathews was invited to join the group that year. He remains the only American member.

The cover of this program reprints a famous diamond snowball poem by Mathews, incorporating the names of the members of the Oulipo. The snowball, Mathews writes in Oulipo Compendium, was “already practiced in classical times” and “requires the first word of a text to have only one letter, the second two, the third three, and so on as far as resourcefulness and inspiration allow.” The diamond snowball joins a “melting snowball,” which reverses the length constraint, to the end of a poem written in this form.

Coining Cognates

Sometimes a 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 distorted proverbs into perverbs in Selected Declarations of Dependence, also coined pernouncements like those below as he composed literature.

"Spurious word for use"
“Spurious words for use.” Manuscript notes for Tlooth, n.d.

 

Correspondents & Companions

Country Cooking and Other Stories
Harry Mathews.
Country Cooking & Other Stories.
Providence, RI: Burning Deck, 1980.

Mathews' first wife was French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle. Poet John Ashbery, who met Mathews in 1956, remained a friend and correspondent throughout the decades (fig 1). Author and editor Maxine Groffsky, to whom Mathews dedicated "Country Cooking from Central France," met in the 1960s; later she was Mathew's literary agent. In 1992 Mathews married French writer Marie Chaix, whose first novel, The Laurels of Lake Constance, he had translated.

(Fig 2) Mathews’ first wife was Catherine Marie-Agnès de Saint Phalle (1930-2002), known as Niki since her childhood. She and Mathews were childhood friends. They met again in their late teens. In June 1949, when Saint Phalle was 18 and Mathews 19, they eloped. Both took up the careers that would make them famous around 1953, while they were living in France: Saint Phalle, who had wanted to become an actress before, turned to art, while Mathews, who had trained as a musician and sought to become a conductor, devoted himself to writing. They had two children, Laura and Philip. At the end of 1960s they separated; Laura and Philip went to live with Mathews in Paris.

Maxine Groffsky, the Paris editor of the Paris Review from 1965 until January 1974, lived with Mathews for eleven years. Mathews writes that during that time he “learned to edit my own writing ... I discovered at least some of the lively things that were happening in American painting and sculpture; and, in general, I was cheerfully obliged to recognize the world around me as a place for discovery and communication.” Mathews dedicated the hilarious “Country Cooking from Central France; Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double)” to her—hear Isaiah Sheffer's wonderful reading of it during the first part of this episode of NPR's Selected Shorts. Groffsky moved back to New York in 1974.

In 2004 Mathew's had this to say about translating Maire Chaix's The Laurels of Lake Constance (New York, 1977):

The translation led to my meeting her and living with her for the past 28 years (12 of them married)
—a not insignificant effect of literature on personal life.

 

Correspondents & Companions

Country Cooking and Other Stories
Harry Mathews.
Country Cooking & Other Stories.
Providence, RI: Burning Deck, 1980.

Mathews' first wife was French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle. Poet John Ashbery, who met Mathews in 1956, remained a friend and correspondent throughout the decades (fig 1). Author and editor Maxine Groffsky, to whom Mathews dedicated "Country Cooking from Central France," met in the 1960s; later she was Mathew's literary agent. In 1992 Mathews married French writer Marie Chaix, whose first novel, The Laurels of Lake Constance, he had translated.

(Fig 2) Mathews’ first wife was Catherine Marie-Agnès de Saint Phalle (1930-2002), known as Niki since her childhood. She and Mathews were childhood friends. They met again in their late teens. In June 1949, when Saint Phalle was 18 and Mathews 19, they eloped. Both took up the careers that would make them famous around 1953, while they were living in France: Saint Phalle, who had wanted to become an actress before, turned to art, while Mathews, who had trained as a musician and sought to become a conductor, devoted himself to writing. They had two children, Laura and Philip. At the end of 1960s they separated; Laura and Philip went to live with Mathews in Paris.

Maxine Groffsky, the Paris editor of the Paris Review from 1965 until January 1974, lived with Mathews for eleven years. Mathews writes that during that time he “learned to edit my own writing ... I discovered at least some of the lively things that were happening in American painting and sculpture; and, in general, I was cheerfully obliged to recognize the world around me as a place for discovery and communication.” Mathews dedicated the hilarious “Country Cooking from Central France; Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double)” to her—hear Isaiah Sheffer's wonderful reading of it during the first part of this episode of NPR's Selected Shorts. Groffsky moved back to New York in 1974.

In 2004 Mathew's had this to say about translating Maire Chaix's The Laurels of Lake Constance (New York, 1977):

The translation led to my meeting her and living with her for the past 28 years (12 of them married)
—a not insignificant effect of literature on personal life.

 

Further Forms

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 were also employed by Mathews. His story "Their Words, for You," for example, is composed entirely of the words from 46 proverbs.

In the type written notes at left (fig 1), Mathews listed words that could be written upside-down using normal, right-side-up characters. In Tlooth, the narrator and lover Yana use a “code” (made up of these words) to communicate and avoid the prison camp authorities. At the end of the passage in which an exchange is related, the narrator notes: “It would have vexed the local cryptologists to learn there was no true cipher, only simple inversion.”

The transcript of an online interview of Mathews by Invisible Seattle [Rob Wittig] on the electronic bulletin board system IN.S.OMNIA (fig 2), notes that "By prior verbal agreement, all of Mr. Mathews' entries will begin with either a letter H or a letter M, all of Invisible Seattle's with and I or an S." Wittig, a pioneer of online writing and author of the book Invisible Rendezvous: Connection and Collaboration in the New Landscape of Electronic Writing, writes:

The thing that is missing from this transcript is the timing. In these very early days chat programs simply took each keystroke from either end of the line and threw it up on the screen immediately. Words could get intermingled. Our standard greeting in those days was HOIK—unsure of a connection, one person would type HI and the other OK, and it came out HOIK.

During this chat with Harry we had the spooky pleasure of actually watching him write in real time—where he paused, where a phrase would come quickly, where he would launch into a sentence, reconsider, backspace and start again on a different track.

It made me realize how rare it is to actually see someone write. The words, not the body, trial and error, weighing choices, waiting for the right word.

It was very intimate.

 

Further Forms

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 were also employed by Mathews. His story "Their Words, for You," for example, is composed entirely of the words from 46 proverbs.

In the type written notes at left (fig 1), Mathews listed words that could be written upside-down using normal, right-side-up characters. In Tlooth, the narrator and lover Yana use a “code” (made up of these words) to communicate and avoid the prison camp authorities. At the end of the passage in which an exchange is related, the narrator notes: “It would have vexed the local cryptologists to learn there was no true cipher, only simple inversion.”

The transcript of an online interview of Mathews by Invisible Seattle [Rob Wittig] on the electronic bulletin board system IN.S.OMNIA (fig 2), notes that "By prior verbal agreement, all of Mr. Mathews' entries will begin with either a letter H or a letter M, all of Invisible Seattle's with and I or an S." Wittig, a pioneer of online writing and author of the book Invisible Rendezvous: Connection and Collaboration in the New Landscape of Electronic Writing, writes:

The thing that is missing from this transcript is the timing. In these very early days chat programs simply took each keystroke from either end of the line and threw it up on the screen immediately. Words could get intermingled. Our standard greeting in those days was HOIK—unsure of a connection, one person would type HI and the other OK, and it came out HOIK.

During this chat with Harry we had the spooky pleasure of actually watching him write in real time—where he paused, where a phrase would come quickly, where he would launch into a sentence, reconsider, backspace and start again on a different track.

It made me realize how rare it is to actually see someone write. The words, not the body, trial and error, weighing choices, waiting for the right word.

It was very intimate.

 

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.

Joint Journal

Cover proof for Locus Solus I.
John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch,
Harry Mathews, and James Schuyler, eds.
Cover proof for Locus Solus I.
November 1960.

Mathews met John Ashbery (1927-2017) in 1956; he wrote that it was Ashbery who “started me on the way at last to writing fiction.” In a 1958 letter to Mathews, Ashbery calls Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus “staggeringly beautiful, a Himalayas of literature—each peak higher than the last—I seem to be getting nowhere ...”

Interestingly, Mathews himself wrote in his autobiography: “Meanwhile I had begun reading Roussel: a hard task, one that first amused me, then convinced me that Roussel was a thoroughly nutty eccentric, until I at last emerged onto the vast, coldly illuminated plateau of his sovereign genius.” Where Ashbery found an impressive but unconquerable mountain range, Mathews found an enormous and habitable plateau—and the procedures that could serve as the model for his own techniques of writing.

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 the Roussel novel that was so influential to the founders and the first issue included Mathews translation of the book's first chapter.

Mathews funded this journal with money inherited from his grandfather. The first issue was printed in La Palma, Spain; the three others (one a double issue) were printed in Geneva. It became an important publication for the New York School of poets. The community of writers and editors associated with it were also important to Mathews’ literary life.

Joint Journal

Cover proof for Locus Solus I.
John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch,
Harry Mathews, and James Schuyler, eds.
Cover proof for Locus Solus I.
November 1960.

Mathews met John Ashbery (1927-2017) in 1956; he wrote that it was Ashbery who “started me on the way at last to writing fiction.” In a 1958 letter to Mathews, Ashbery calls Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus “staggeringly beautiful, a Himalayas of literature—each peak higher than the last—I seem to be getting nowhere ...”

Interestingly, Mathews himself wrote in his autobiography: “Meanwhile I had begun reading Roussel: a hard task, one that first amused me, then convinced me that Roussel was a thoroughly nutty eccentric, until I at last emerged onto the vast, coldly illuminated plateau of his sovereign genius.” Where Ashbery found an impressive but unconquerable mountain range, Mathews found an enormous and habitable plateau—and the procedures that could serve as the model for his own techniques of writing.

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 the Roussel novel that was so influential to the founders and the first issue included Mathews translation of the book's first chapter.

Mathews funded this journal with money inherited from his grandfather. The first issue was printed in La Palma, Spain; the three others (one a double issue) were printed in Geneva. It became an important publication for the New York School of poets. The community of writers and editors associated with it were also important to Mathews’ literary life.

Literary Life

Harry Mathews Literary Life timeline

Mathews on Writing

Harry Mathews self-portrait
Harry Mathews.
Self-Portrait, 1985.

"Maybe writing is never anything else but translation—ultimately, a translation which cannot be identified."1

"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."2

"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."3

"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."4

"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."5

"All books come from other books, especially when they're drawn from real life."6

 


1 Interview with Lynne Tillman, Bomb, Winter 1988/98
2 Interview with Michael Friedman, Shiny, Spring 1986
3 Interview with Meyer Raphael Rubinstein, Silo, 1978
4 Interview with John Ashbery, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1987
5,6 Interview with John Ash, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1987
Poetic Prose

Formally constrained writing has usually been the domain of poetry. Mathews was a poet as well as a novelist; his poems are as stylistically and thematically varied as are his novels. He said he learned from the writing of Raymond Roussel how to bring techniques of poetry into the composition of prose.

"Three War Poems" was part of a musical collaboration with Australian composer Keith Humble; the piece premiered in Paris on October 24, 1963. On the other side, Mathews typed his French translation of these poems.

Schematic Structures

Mathews used diagrams as part of his process of literary composition to represent the structure of his narrative, structures that occur within the story, and structures that his characters are imposing upon themselves. This diagram represents an extreme scheme concocted by his protagonist in The Journalist for organizing different types of writing.

The narrator keeps detailed notes about his life, devising ever more elaborate ways to organize what he writes. The first scheme is devised as an alternative to the usual chronological organization: “distinguishing between ‘fact’ and speculation, between what is external and verifiable and what is subjective ... could supply the rudiments of an antichronological mechanism.” (p. 20) This idea leads to more detailed schemes, one of which is described by this diagram. Finally, the narrator/journalist realizes that his attempts to organize his experience and thoughts, and his recording of it in his journal, have overwhelmed his ability to make sense of the world. Abandoning the intricate method he had been attempting to use, he writes to himself: “Keep things chronological, or you will deform them.” (p. 186)

Selected bibliography

Contributors

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The Penn Library is grateful to Dorothy Englert and the Kamin family for their generous support of the exhibit and this publication. We also thank Nick Montfort for his superb work in curating the exhibit and Andrea Gottschalk for her fine work in designing the show and the brochure. Prof. Sam D’Iorio of CUNY laid the foundations for this exhibit while a graduate student here at Penn. Finally, we owe Harry Mathews an ongoing debt of gratitude for his encouragement of our efforts and his participation in the project.