Issue 220, Spring 2017
Harry Mathews began publishing in The Paris Review in 1962, with an excerpt from his first novel, The Conversions. After that, he gave us poems, translations, and more fiction, much of it composed according to occult mathematical formulas of his own devising. (He was, for many years, the sole American member of the experimental writers’ collective Oulipo.) From 1989 until 2003, Harry served as our Paris editor, and he remained a beloved friend of the magazine all his life. Harry died, at the age of eighty-six, as this issue was going to press. The following story is excerpted from his recently completed, final novel, The Solitary Twin.
This is the story (Berenice began) of one man, a “man’s man,” a professional valet and a good one. I didn’t witness most of what I’m about to tell you, only one evening toward the end, after I’d been called in in a professional capacity.
The valet’s name was Hubert. He felt great esteem for his employer, and discreet but genuine affection as well. He did everything in his power to satisfy his master’s small needs and see that he was kept neatly elegant for his social and professional engagements. Hubert enjoyed his work, which—conscientious as he was—kept him as busy as he could wish. He was given every other Sunday off, as well as any workday evening when the gentleman he served had no need of him.
On a Sunday in late March, a sunny Sunday full of portents of the nascent spring, Hubert arrived by streetcar in the center of the sizable city where he had always lived. He got off at a stop opposite the main entrance of Fosdick Park, the largest in town. As he stepped to the curb, he at once became aware of a sensation that would gradually envelop him and would subsequently haunt him for the rest of his life.
The spring sun was hot, the air was still—utterly still. There was not the breath of a breeze. It was not only that no leaf or blade of grass so much as quivered: something like an inverse wind had apparently emptied the air of its invisible stuff and fixed leaves and grass in an immobility as absolute as that of a photograph. A ways inside the park, Hubert felt himself sucked into a comparable equilibrium—he could still move without the slightest hesitation, but he sensed, moving or not, packets of an indefinable substance falling away from him into the weightless air, first from the skin of his limbs (calves, small of back, shoulders), then from muscles (slender triceps, stubborn hamstring), from stiff bones (kneecaps), and even from his brain and its subversive nerves, until, at the end, a bar of steel that stretched from shoulder to shoulder across his sternum, of which he had never been aware, was gently lifted from him. This released a spurt of joy, also unsuspected grief upwelling, so as he delightedly smiled, tears rolled down his cheeks to drench his chest. He hid behind a tree so as not to be seen crying. He raised his arms as if in salute, not of any god, idea, or force of nature, just the unnamable source of his release. He quickly thought, I have to tell the world about this.
Still tingling with weightlessness, on his way home he reminded himself, I should let people know, and already a seed of doubt dropped into his mind. He could never realize this wish, he admitted—at least not alone: alone he would be merely a ranting idiot. He needed at least one person beside him who had shared, or at least believed in, his improbable experience; that would give him a first semblance of plausibility, which he might then develop. But how could he win over this first disciple? Why should anyone believe him? Why should he have been chosen for such exotic joy?
Hubert was not alone for long. One person in the Sunday park had noticed him; she never quite understood why, or why she kept watching him and so witnessing a transfiguration that bewildered and intrigued her. A small, slender man, fine featured but less than handsome, was slowly invested before her eyes with a visible ecstasy that had no visible cause. She did not understand, but he radiated such happiness as made her yearn to partake of his feelings. When he left the park, she walked after him, took the same streetcar as he, and followed him all the way home.
Her name was Rachel. Comely, not tall or short, her head capped with auburn curls, her body compact, lithe, and soft. That day she wore a yellow blouse, blue jeans, and penny loafers. She worked in a scholarly bookstore, selling the works of Spinoza, Walser, and Groddeck to “serious” readers young and old. She lived alone in a very small flat near the university.
Hubert had disappeared through a back door of the house where he lived. She walked up to the door and knocked on it firmly. There was no response, the door was unlocked, she walked into a kind of shadowy storeroom (racks of bottles and fruit) that led to a large, bright kitchen. A plump middle-aged woman put down the celery stalks she had been chopping and turned to face Rachel with not unfriendly surprise. Rachel: “Forgive me for barging in, but a gentleman was here a moment ago—I don’t know his name, but I need to speak to him, if he would consent to receive me. I’m Rachel Auerbach—that will mean nothing to him.” “And I am Rosina. Please to be seated. I go to make him know you are here. Without doubt he will be content in the company of such a pretty young lady.” Exit Rosina.
A few minutes later she returned with Hubert. “Signor Hubert, here is Signorina Rachel.” Rachel apologized for seeming impudent: she summed up her observations in the park and her curiosity to learn what was going on. Hubert: “We can talk in the servants’ sitting room. Please excuse us, Rosina.” “Naturally. Ought I to make tea?” “Coffee perhaps—and for you, Miss Rachel?” “Oh yes, coffee for me, too.”
When they were settled, Rachel asked, “Are you really a servant?” “Very much so: valet to the master of the house, a distinguished gentleman, Sir Bellamy Boeyens. A very kind man, too, and his wife, Constance, an equally kind woman. Not perhaps kind enough, either of them, to appreciate my fit this afternoon.” “It didn’t look like a fit.” “I’m very glad you’ve come. Did you notice anything peculiar about the place?” “I did notice the stillness. Unfortunately it didn’t affect me like it did you. I didn’t guess it was what had stirred you.” “But you’ve guessed it now!”
Rachel began to feel that they were concocting a very Jamesian situation. Since he was still “off” that evening, Hubert suggested they dine together. She accepted. Afterward, he in turn accepted her invitation to take her home, where he stayed till break of day.
So their love affair began, and their alliance. She was thirty-three, he fifty-one; he was a bearer of new truth revealed, she his disciple and scholiast; but differences of years and roles became no more than complements to their unpredicted, passionate love.