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Introducing Harry Mathews


Harry Mathews'
Words & Worlds

Photo portrait of Harry Mathews.
Photo © Sigrid Estrada.

An exhibit at the
Kamin Gallery
Van Pelt-Dietrich Library
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Curated by Nick Montfort

April 5 – August 31, 2004

You're invited

At Harry Mathews's reading on May 6, Michael Ryan, the director of special collections, began by mentioning a bit about Harry and then giving me the most flattering introduction I've ever had. To make me more nervous, Harry was already perched at the podium and I got to introduce him as he loomed there beside me. Here is approximately what I said:

I'd like to begin, sheepishly, by mentioning how the writing of Harry Mathews came into my literary life, and then say just a few things about the purposes of and principles behind the exhibit, and finally get on to introducing the man that everyone is waiting for, so that we can all hear Harry read.

I had read some of Harry Mathews's poems and short works, and knew of him from reading David Bellos's biography of Georges Perec, but a book of his came most memorably to my attention about four years ago, in Saint Marks Bookshop in New York City. At the time, I was writing a serial novel, collaboratively, with William Gillespie, and William had come to New York to work on it a bit with me in person. William handed me Selected Declarations of Dependence and I was gripped by it as soon as I started reading the main text of the book, the short story "Their Words, For You." Here's the first paragraph:

Another morning, another egg. The sky was up early. It had rained all night: to you and me sleeping, the storm was a delight. In the east, morning clouds are building a kingdom of red and silver. Time for you to get up! Come into the kingdom of morning delight and come as king! Come into the omelet of morning delight, and come as egg!

What Harry did here was to compose a story using only the words found in 46 proverbs. I knew immediately that this would be a text of great poetic and aesthetic value, enjoyable to me as a reader and instructive to me as a writer. I could see at once that the composition process would drive one to find unusual incidents that one would not have otherwise written about, and that, as a reader, the process of reading the story would involve following the thread of Harry's story to the accompaniment of constant proverbial associations: every time a horse or king is mentioned, the proverbial function of the horse or king comes strongly to mind. [In introducing Harry, I left out what I assumed would be obvious, but perhaps isn't: This harsh limitation of one's vocabulary is an exceedingly difficult constraint to write under.] Being thus lead to water, I drank, and was greatly refreshed. I continued to read more of Harry's short fiction and essays, and to read what is perhaps his best-known novel, Cigarettes.

About a year later, I was at Boston University studying poetry and was the one poetry student in Ralph Lombreglia's novella workshop. I talked with Ralph a good bit — I was the only student he actually chose to admit to the class; he didn't get a choice about teaching the fiction students — and we would talk at times about great works of literature that I hadn't read. There is a staggering amount of it. Ralph would sort of help me to conduct triage on this enormous pile, not telling me to go read everything but actually being very selective. Of the many we discussed, there were only five books he insisted that I should really really read, and three of them were Harry's. I suppose I didn't need very much encouragement to start in on them, but I'm glad I got some, for I found in The Conversions, Tlooth, and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium some of what Harry must have found in reading Raymond Roussel: signs of how the novel could be formal, like a poem, signs of how it could be something completely imagined if one wished.

You can see in one of the tall cases in the middle a letter from John Ashbery to Harry encouraging him to read Raymond Roussel, a writer who Harry has said was very influential to him. These moments, when we are introduced to writers who are truly influential — I don't mean writers who we want to slavishly imitate, but writers who show us how to break free from our own preconceptions about writing — really seem to be very important.

And that brings me to what I think of as the main purpose of the exhibit: I'm hoping that it will be one of those incidents that introduces an important writer to some of you. Just as I learned of Harry's writing in several ways, but was nudged to read further in Saint Marks Bookshop, and then at Boston University, I hope you will be encouraged to read Harry's work, or read more it, by this event today and by the exhibit here at the library. Perhaps some of you will find it to be as powerful and important as I have.

There was plenty of visually interesting material in the collection, and plenty that would serve to showcase Harry's exciting life, but the exhibit is organized mainly around how he works as a writer. Two very stereotypical questions posed to famous writers at public events are "how do you write?" and "where do you get your ideas?" and I've tried to select materials in the collection that take those questions seriously and can actually answer those questions in some specific and meaningful ways. After all, an exhibit of manuscripts and notes is probably far better-suited to answer those questions than is a Q&A session. [Harry: "Hear, hear!"] I hope this exhibit has supplied at least a few interesting rejoinders: formal techniques are on display, but so are playful lists, newspaper clippings, automatic writing, and drafts with revisions.

Now, to introduce Harry Mathews — of course, the exhibit is supposed to serve to do that, so let me just gloss two phrases that are often used to supply super-brief biographies or positionings of Harry:

The first is "the only American member of the Oulipo." I bet this line makes Harry wince, inside at least. [Harry: "No, no..."] The disappointing thing about this line to me it is that it simply describes him by his membership in two sets: Americans and the Oulipo, a Venn diagram with Harry in the middle. It's an accurate description, but it understates his connection to France and to French literature, which pre-dates his membership in the Oulipo and goes beyond that. But it does have one thing going for it as a description of Harry: It's a term that applies to no one else in the world, only him, and if you're going to describe him, you'd better use a term like that, because he is in fact unique.

The next term you might hear used is "avant-garde." This is such a funny term to me, because it part of a military metaphor, and it suggests that, if literature has an advance guard, a vanguard, it must also have helicopter pilots and a rear guard and a main army. [Laughter. Harry: "And camp followers!"] But I don't think of Harry as some literary shock troop; I think of him as being part of the special operations of literature, taking over new territory in the night without notice, going places where conventional literature couldn't hope to go.

So, I give you Harry Mathews.