Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Harry Mathews on George Plimpton

The pleasures of the new group oral history of George Plimpton, George, Being George come as much from the unexpected appearance of old favorites as from the multiple perspectives they offer on Plimpton himself.

So far, in my flipping through the book, the best of those has been Harry Mathews, who relates two instances when Plimpton took a gamble on some of Mathews's famously obscure (and essentially unsellable) early books. First, from 1966, this account of an aborted promotional plan for Mathews's second novel, Tlooth:
George created the first Paris Review Editions--another moneymaker, he hoped. And the first book they published was James Salter's wonderful A Sport and a Pastime, which was cover-to-cover sex and did well. The second was my second novel, Tlooth (1966), which was a totally weird book, but I worked on every sentence. The story that George always used to love to tell is that on pub day, they would hire a plane to inscribe the letters TLOOTH in the sky above New York to create wonder and bewilderment in the populace; but the winds weren't right, and it was too expensive anyway. Of course, the book--well, it didn't go nowhere, but it didn't do very well.
Bewilderment would have been the right tone to aim for in marketing Tlooth. It's hard to imagine following A Sport and a Pastime with Tlooth, a novel so odd that even its current publisher, the wonderful Dalkey Archive, is only willing to say that it has a plot, "of sorts." It opens with a baseball game in a Russian prison camp between the Defective Baptists, "whose love of baseball signified gentleness," and the Fideists, for whom the same signalled cruelty"; it gets stranger from there.

If anything, though, the novel that marked the next time Mathews's path intersected with the Paris Review was even more difficult. The Maxine to whom Mathews refers in this anecdote is Maxien Groffsky, with whom he'd run off to Paris in 1962:
It was fine, Maxine working for George, because they never had anything to do with one another. George had the final say on everything that went into the Review, but then Maxine took extraordinary initiatives on her own and confronted George with them. For instance, in once issue, I wrote a poem that incorporated lines from all the poems in that issue. I told her about this. I don't think George ever noticed, but one reader did notice, and wrote to the magazine. Her boldest initiative was--I had written The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, which was just unsellable, and Maxine, out of the goodness of her heart, published it in four issues of the Paris Review. I don't think that George minded at all her putting in the first installment, but I don't think he realized there were going to be three more installments. In George's memoir of those years, which he published several years ago in the Paris Review itself, the question around the New York office was "Is that shit still going down?"
Mathews's novel begins mid-sentence--
. . . confidence in words, Twang. I suck my tongue for your chervil-and-lavender flavor.
--then on page six begins its second section with
Pan persns knwo base bal. The giappan-like trade-for mishn play wit it in our capatal any times. To morrow to work be gin. It's cleen eccepts for the talk. The in-habits live in draems.
It's easy to undertand Plimpton's bemusement. I'll admit that The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium is the only Mathews novel I've never been able to read; if any partisans want to make a case for me to give it another go, though, I'm willing to listen.

Mathews also offers a glimpse of why he, Oulipean and literary joker, would have found Plimpton congenial:
George had a funny reputation in Society. He was from a distinguished family on both sides, but he was too glitzy for those people, even before he became a celebrity. He was still a prankster, as he had been at St. Bernard's and Exeter. Rules, traditions, conventions were excellent things in his view, but never to be taken too seriously. Others might never know what they could get away with, but he did, and he did get away with it. He may have felt that the strictures of Society--what was left of it--were pour encourager les autres, not him. But I doubt it. He didn't have that sort of arrogance. Still, Society sensed something mischievous and anarchic about him and vaguely disapproved.
In honor of the joyous friendship so many people seem to have felt for George Plimpton, I'll close with a passage from Mathews's Twenty Lines a Day (1983). Though he's writing about a different friend, his words would by all accounts seem suitable for Plimpton:
With certain friends comes a euphoria that dissolves my doubts and reticences, so that I "give myself" unstintingly; and I give myself as much to me as to the others. The love that makes my giving possible is their gift to me.


  1. I've had "Twenty" in my TBR pile for years now. I don't know why I never seem to get around to reading it.

  2. I was going to make a point about Plimpton being some kind of amazing dinosaur of upper class east coast aristocracy by having everyone watch one of his Pop Secret microwave popcorn commercials of the late 80s and try to place his accent anywhere else in this century, but instead I came across his Intellivision commercials of the early 80s and I am unable to say a thing.

    Famous Author and Gamesman(!!!)
    Space Games

  3. Okay, those are amazing. I'd seen the Pop Secret one, but none of the Intellivision ones. "Incredible Asteroid Smash"!

    My neighbors Kenny and Jeff Busch had Intellivision. We played the D&D game on it, which was nothing like D&D.

  4. Odradek Stadim is one of my favorite Mathews novels, right up with The Conversions, and ahead of Tlooth, which I think sags here and there after a brilliant beginning. You do have to get used to Twang's broken English, but it improves markedly as the sequence of letters continues. There's also one brief letter written entirely in her native language, which means you have to flip through the book to find where Mathews has salted the translations of the vocabulary. But once you get going it's a wild ride, with some of his funniest set pieces and most absurd digressions.

    The title, by the way, is highly significant to the story, although you won't find out why until the last few pages (no peeking). Give it another go sometime.