In 1962 Random House published a first novel by a thirty-two-year-old American living in Paris named Harry Mathews. The Conversions is an adventure story about a man trying to decipher the meaning of carvings on an ancient weapon, and it unfolds in a succession of bizarre anecdotes and obscure quotations, with an appendix in German. One particularly trying passage is written in a language once popular with schoolchildren that involves adding arag before most vowels. Furthermore is faragurtharaggermaragore and indulgences is araggindaragulgearaggencearagges.
The book was considered groundbreaking by a certain literary set. Terry Southern called it a “startling piece of work,” and George Plimpton published a seventy-page excerpt in The Paris Review. Mathews’s agent Maxine Groffsky, then in her first job after college in the editorial department at Random House, says that reading The Conversions was like “seeing Merce Cunningham for the first time.” But it baffled most of the reading public, including the poor Time critic who complained that the symbolism “spreads through the novel like crab grass.”
Mathews is one of American literature’s great idiosyncratic figures. His friend Georges Perec, who once wrote a novel without using the letter e, has accused him of following “rules from another planet.” He is usually identified as the sole American member of the Oulipo, a French writers’ group whose stated purpose is to devise mathematical structures that can be used to create literature. He has also been associated with the New York School of avant-garde writers, which included his friends John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. After forty-five years of congenital allergy to convention, he rightfully belongs to the experimentalist tradition of Kafka, Beckett, and Joyce, even though his classical, witty style has won him comparisons to Nabokov, Jane Austen, and Evelyn Waugh. Yet while he enjoys the attention of thousands of cultishly enthusiastic French readers, Mathews remains relatively unknown in his native land and language. “When I go into an English bookstore, I always ask the same question,” a Frenchman told me with the sly smile that infects all Mathews fans. “‘Do you have Tlooth?’”
Tlooth, Mathews’s second novel, came out in 1966. It begins with a baseball game at a Siberian prison camp. His next book, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1975), is considered by many to be his masterpiece. Twenty-five publishers rejected it, which isn’t entirely surprising given that half of it is written in an invented pidgin English. Mathews used an Oulipian mathematical scheme to create the plot of his fourth novel, Cigarettes (1987). His last two novels are deceptively straightforward. The Journalist (1994) is the diary of a man obsessed by his diary. My Life in CIA (2005), an “autobiographical novel,” begins reassuringly as a memoir only to devolve into the preposterous, ending with the protagonist Harry Mathews tending sheep in the Alps after attempting murder by ski pole.
In reality, the self-described refugee from the Upper East Side has lived in Paris on and off since the fifties, though he does spend summers in the Alps and he says “there are sheep nearby.” Mathews was born in Manhattan in 1930, the only child of an architect and a cold-water-flats heiress. After dutifully attending Princeton for two years, he dropped out and joined the navy, then eloped at nineteen with the artist Niki de Saint Phalle. He finished his studies at Harvard, majoring in music, and in 1952 moved to Paris where he briefly studied conducting before deciding to write poetry full time. In 1956 Mathews met Ashbery, who was in France on a Fulbright scholarship. The poet introduced him to the works of Raymond Roussel, the early-twentieth-century French avant-gardist. After reading Roussel, Mathews turned to prose.
A novelist, poet, essayist, and translator, Mathews is also the author of many short works, including Twenty Lines a Day (1988), the result of more than a year spent following Stendhal’s dictum to write “twenty lines a day, genius or not,” and Singular Pleasures (1983), a series of sixty-one vignettes describing masturbation scenes. A volume of his collected short stories, The Human Country, was published in 2002.
Mathews and his second wife, the French writer Marie Chaix, split their time between France, New York City, and Key West, Florida. This interview took place over several afternoons in the pleasantly worn living room of Mathews’s apartment on the rue de Grenelle in Paris. A ceramic sculpture by Saint Phalle sat on the mantelpiece next to smoky mirrored walls. Tall, courteous, cigar-smoking, Mathews wore an unusual vest, faintly Indian. A long silver chain hung from his velvet pants, suggesting a pocket watch, though it was later revealed to be an enormous key ring. Mathews speaks with the nearly extinct mid-Atlantic accent that can carry off rather and alas. Then again, as an adult of the seventies, he will occasionally talk about sex (“fucking”) in a casual way that might surprise younger generations.
At one point we were interrupted by deafening honks. Mathews chuckled and said, “I can tell you exactly what that’s about.” He pointed out the window to a bus that was unable to make the turn onto the narrow street because of an illegally parked car. “See the no-parking sign in front of the car? It says zone de giration de bus. Where they came up with that, I have no idea. Bus gyration zone. Never has that formulation been used on earth before!”
Do you have an audience in mind when you’re 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.
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.
When did you start writing?
My first serious work was a poem I wrote at the age of eleven. I went to a boys’ school in New York called St. Bernard’s. I had a wonderful English teacher who created a special class in Latin and in English poetry for me and a few other pupils. One day in class I wrote my first poem. He read it and gazed out of the window with an expression that, to me, said, What have I done? WASP private schools weren’t meant to produce poets, but doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and so forth. He could clearly see that I was hooked.
Do you remember the poem?
“It was a sad autumnal morn, / The earth was but a mass of clay; / Of foliage the trees were shorn, / Leaving their branches dull and gray.”
When I got to boarding school, I was addicted to poetry. I remember one week I wrote something like eight poems in eight different styles imitating Wordsworth, Swinburne, and Tennyson, among others. I incurred the total disapproval of my teachers and classmates. I was roundly condemned.
Because of the idiotic thing that aspiring young writers are usually told: write about yourself. Don’t imitate literary models. Of course, imitating literary models is the best thing one can do. Like painters—they make copies of classical masterpieces. I was cowed, so I wrote a couple of poems about my own experiences, which were close to doggerel. Then I started sneaking back toward more literary, more derivative work. There was a generous, brilliant man who taught at Groton named John Pick, and we became friends. He had written one of the first books on Gerard Manley Hopkins. I went to his study one evening, and he read me “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and my life was never the same after that. There was no attempt to make a visible, logical sequence in the poem. By the time I was thirteen, I knew the work of Stravinsky and Bartók. They too had abandoned what passed for logic in music, which was harmonic organization of the work. It had never occurred to me that that could happen in writing.
Actually my first great aesthetic excitement came from classical music, starting with Wagner. I suppose Wagner is an artist as unlike me as you could imagine. And nevertheless, the obsessive romantic passion that those operas inspired in me is something that is behind all my writing, even though it’s totally suppressed and censored. Can I tell you a joke? What is the question to which the answer is 9 W?
I give up.
Mr. Wagner, do you write your name with a V?
What did you like to read as a child?
At first I was read to. My grandfather had taught Greek and Latin at Columbia, and he read to me from a book that had abbreviated versions of The Odyssey and The Iliad—plus a lot of classic fairy tales, which, as you know, are extremely disturbing. Then I began reading on my own. I read mostly Westerns. My parents approved of that, because at least they were books. But when I got into comic books, they disapproved. I would read them by flashlight under the covers. No one realized in those days that 1930s Action Comics and DC Comics, Superman and Batman, would become legendary in American culture. They taught me a great deal about narrative—lots of invention and no pretense of realism.