Wednesday, March 30, 2011

More Harry Mathews (fewer numbers this time, I promise)

I’m not the only one with Harry Mathews on the brain lately: Chris Kieran of Dreamers Rise put up a post over the weekend about his years of reading Mathews—and he pointed out a great line from the cover copy for an old omnibus paperback of The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, Tlooth, and The Conversions:
For several years Harry Mathews has enjoyed a growing following among college students, artists, other poets and writers, and fans of the obscure who have never been able to buy his books.
As Chris points out, that is a pretty good description of Mathews’s small but devoted fanbase.

In addition, Chris pointed to an interview with Mathews that Susannah Hunnewell (a Mathewsian name if I’ve ever read one) conducted for the Paris Review in 2007. The interview is so full of interesting material that I could quote from it on this blog for weeks. Instead, I’ll share some pieces and urge you to go read it in full. As I mentioned last week, the one time I met him, Mathews was a remarkably good performer, charismatic and natural-seeming even as he told what were surely polished anecdotes; the interview has the same feel, of a few hours spent with a great conversationalist.

Here’s Mathews’s response to the question of whether he has an audience in mind when he’s writing:
I’ve always said that my ideal reader would be someone who after finishing one of my novels would throw it out the window, presumably from an upper floor of an apartment building in New York, and by the time it had landed would be taking the elevator down to retrieve it.
Which is fun, and, in its way, not wholly unserious—but Mathews follows it up with a more direct answer:
I suppose I must have had dreams of greater recognition, but I’ve always had the audience I wanted, and that was the audience that reads poetry. What I want is enthusiasm among friends and their friends, people who I know are serious readers.
Much of the early part of the interview deals with Mathews’s relationship to his parents, and how that played into the way he took his first steps as a writer. His parents, as parents will do, had wanted him to establish himself in an ordinary, stable career and an ordinary, stable (if upper-class) social life, but Mathews had other plans:
Then I got a depressing letter from my father. I had written him at great length explaining why I’d switched from music to writing, and his response was, You’ve gone from bad to worse. When I think of him reading my first novel, The Conversions . . . . Fortunately there were some reviews—in America, two that I saw. One was in Time magazine, if you can imagine such a thing, and the other was an exuberant article by Terry Southern in The Nation. But the English edition was reviewed glowingly in almost every major paper. And because my father was a snobbish Anglophile, he said, If the English like it, it must be good. At that point, he relaxed. I hadn’t totally screwed up my life.
I tell myself again and again that the book reviewing world was different back then . . . but Harry Mathews got reviewed in Time!

His father wasn’t the only person who found The Conversions perplexing:
Kenneth Koch had put the manuscript in Jason Epstein’s hands at Random House, and his reaction was, Well, I can’t not publish it. But when it came out, except for a handful of readers, nobody could see what was there. They kept trying to read through the text rather than just reading it. When Dwight Macdonald saw me, he said, I didn’t imagine you looked like that. I think he was expecting a gnome. I had a surprising encounter with Bennett Cerf, who was head of Random House at the time. This was the man who published Ulysses. One day I was called in to his office. He said, Mr. Mathews, I don’t know what the hell you’re up to and I think you owe it to Random House readers to explain!
That story is even better if you’re familiar with Cerf’s cultured New York accent and slight air of fuddlement from in his many appearances on What’s My Line?

From there, the interview gets into some really interesting questions about the Oulipo, restrictive or programmatic writing, and favorite writers—with Mathews revealing himself to be an unexpected fan of a book I particularly like, Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. It’s all well worth your time—and, might I suggest, a place in The Paris Review Interviews, Volume V?

No comments:

Post a Comment