Harry Mathews, author & translator extraordinaire, died yesterday. I never met him nor did I ever speak to him, yet his works spoke to me, and so I feel his loss as a very personal one. I wasn’t always able to appreciate his work, much of it struck me as purposefully trying and removed from the things I care about, and yet so much of it I found very moving, or funny, thought-provoking. In several slim works, such as the Autobiography and 20 Lines a Day, he seems to have courageously revealed his innermost self. It’s these works and the voice I found therein that resonate with me today as I think of his absence from our darkening scene. I find solace in letting my thoughts abide with Harry.
One of the more remarkable titles I read this month was a novella by English fiction writer Ronald Firbank (1886-1926). The copy I read was a 1962 New Directions paperback which collects two of Firbank’s last completed works, The Flower Beneath the Foot (1923) and Prancing Nigger (1924). The edition includes a Firbank chronology by Miriam K. Benkovitz, from which I glean that Firbank originally intended for the title of the Prancing Nigger to be Sorrow in Sunlight. (Editor Carl Van Vechten, working for Brentano’s in New York, renamed the novella, presumably on the grounds that the shocking title would sell copies.) I was drawn to read the latter of the two pieces that are collected in the volume largely on the basis of its shorter length, which I imagined would be a good short introduction to Firbank’s work, and also by that, indeed, shocking title. I had first come across the author’s name with some puzzlement when I was reading an interview with Harry Mathews, wherein the interviewer praised Tlooth (1966) and pointed out a resemblance between its and Vainglory‘s (a novel by Firbank) beginnings.
While I can see the grounds for a comparison between Mathews’s and Firbank’s work, I found Firbank’s style in Prancing Nigger to be more reminiscent of Djuna Barnes’s work (Nightwood, 1936, being the sole title of hers I know well) and John Hawkes’s work. A touch of Nathanael West’s merciless and cruel humor too. Firbank’s style proudly displays its inheritance from the decadence and sophistication of the French fin-de-siècle style: refined, sophisticated, elegant, effete even.
Set on an unnamed, Cuba-like Caribbean isle, Prancing Nigger records the dissolution of a provincial family as they move to the isle’s small capital city at the relentless prompting of Mrs. Ahmadou Mouth, who is eager to move up in society and to find eligible suitors for her two young daughters, Edna and Miami. Her husband, whom she addresses invariably with the epithet prancing nigger (hence the title Van Vechten chose), is only a minor character ineffectually fending off her wordly ambitions, and the drama unfolds primarily around Edna and Miami. One of these eventually becomes the paramour of a young local aristocrat. Her brother joins a street gang of sorts and drifts away from the family. As far as plot goes, that’s about it. Oh yes — there’s also a going-away party, an earthquake, an opera fundraiser, a parade, and a character eaten by a shark.
But the style! The mix of pidgin English and Creole, with the narrator’s detached, sophisticated commentary is striking. Have a sampling:
“Start de gramophone gwine girls, an’ gib us somet’in’ bright!” Mrs. Mouth exclaimed, depressed by the forlorn note of the Twa–oo-Twa-oo bird, that mingled its lament with a thousand night cries from the grass.
“When de saucy female sing: ‘My Ice Cream Girl,’ fo’ sh’o she scare de elves.”
And as though by force of magic, the nasal soprano of an invisible songstress rattled forth with tinkling gusto a music-hall air with a sparkling refrain.
There’s also a sly self-referential trick whereby Firbank inserts himself into the text, a kind of signature which, in comparison to the meta-fictional tricks of later authors, seems tasteful, quaint, and restrained:
“She seem fond ob flowers,” Mr. Mouth commented, pausing to notice the various plants that lined the way: from the roof swung showery azure flowers that commingled with the theatrically-hued cañas, set out in crude, bold, colour-schemes below, that looked best at night. But in their malignant splendour, the orchids were the thing. Mrs. Abanathy, Ronald Firbank, (a dingy lilac blossom of rarity untold), Prince Palairet, a heavy blue-spotted flower, and rosy Olive Moonlight, were those that claimed the greatest respect from a few discerning conoisseurs.
Flipping through the pages of The Flower under the Foot, I see Firbank couldn’t resist doing the same there too:
Have you Valmouth by Ronald Firbank or Inclinations by the same author?” she asked.
“Neither I’m sorry — both are out!”
I will definitely keep an eye out in used shops for Valmouth and Vainglory, not to mention Inclination and Caprice, Firbank’s other novels. Dalkey Archive Press, if I remember correctly, publishes a collection of his stories. This is an author deserving of a wider readership. (Although I suspect that, among the adventurous, his readership is already wider than anyone can measure or foretell.)
Note 1: As Dan Visel indicates to me on Twitter, Carl Van Vechten was… something else. You can read all about it here in a review of Edmund White’s biography of Vechten (LARB).
At his blog, D.G. Myers has a
pretty damn good long bibliography of American fiction of the sixties (+600 titles). This period in American publishing seems to have been an unprecedented explosion of literary innovation, and it seems equally overlooked by those who are enthusiastic and by those who deplore the state of literary fiction in America today.
An awful lot of forgotten authors in there, although – as Daniel Green pointed out on Twitter – a few are still missing: Ronald Sukenick, Gilbert Sorrentino, Rudolph Wurlitzer, Marguerite Young, William Goyen, Richard Farina… Even I had to remind Myers of Harry Mathew’s place in there, one of the greatest living American writers in my book. No such bibliography, the moral may be, can ever be complete.
Last week the following text appeared at HTML Giant, a collective blog. 20 Lines a Day by Harry Mathews (1988, Dalkey Archive) was the subject of my post. It is excellent. I’ve mentioned Harry Mathews a few times before and this won’t be the last.
The post is discontinuously atomised into 25 discrete paragraphs, consisting of quotations from, comments on, Mathews’s text and related stuff. Bloggers are summarizing books in this way for HTML Giant’s 25 points series. In fact, you can submit a 25 points post to HTML Giant yourself, by emailing brooks AT htmlgiant.com.
Harry Mathews by Arthur Gerbault, 1988.
In the fifth floor of the library, I picked Mathews’s book up, read what the premise was, and thought resentfully, What a bunch of bullshit, this looks boring, look how anything gets published. I didn’t know who Harry Mathews was yet. Years ago.
‘You never have earned the right to sit at the table and let someone else clear away the dishes. No accumulation of knowledge can guarantee that you aren’t a fool. The roast is over-cooked. You slice bread for the seven-hundredth time and cut off the tip of your left forefinger. You touch her as coarsely as any boor, being now the boor. You meet an old friend, you have forgotten his name, you cannot look him in the face: not looking him in the face, you wound him and you start lying to him and to yourself. Go off and sulk and complain and explain why it happened. It won’t help. Instead, be an actor, or an athlete, on stage, on the field, giving–as you once eagerly proposed to yourself–everything to the perishable act.’ (p. 100)
‘I have nothing to write in particular, I’m writing these lines because of my rule that I must write them.’ (p. 75)
Some writers set quotas, others set routines, some set both, and some (the scriptomanic ones for whom procrastination is not a threat) set neither. A page a day (Paul Theroux); 50,000 words in a month (NaNoWriMo); two hours every morning (W.S. Maugham); 20 minute blocks (Cory Doctorow); at least a sentence a day (W.G. Sebald); pre-dawn (Paul Valéry, Jacques Roubaud); etc.
‘Whatever I write tells my story without my knowing it.’ (p. 66)
‘Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.’ (Walter Benjamin, ‘One Way Street,’ Reflections)
“Sometimes the ultimate message is in fact received. It reads, more or less: ‘Your ligament issues from a spa that is given various narcissisms at various time-tables: lozenge, credulity, goggles. And not only your ligament (and that of others): the prodigy that generates mayday has the same orthography. You and the upkeep are one. Give up sugarbowls.’ At such moments you realize, and you remember, that such messages have neve9r been lacking, and that they are all the same, and that the problem (if that is the word) doesn’t involve receiving but deciphering what is received again and again, day after day, minute after minute.” (p. 88)
There’s an implicit link between 20 Lines a Day and the next novel Mathews would publish, The Journalist (1994). One sees how the method Mathews followed for 20 Lines is adopted as a fictional premise and device for The Journalist.
‘Anxiety about writing feels like: I am poor in words, ideas, and feelings, and when I sit down to write, this poverty will be revealed.’ (p. 45)
‘The table is a beautiful thing. The writing board is supported on a base consisting of two tubular legs shaped like narrow inverted U’s, with a tubular foot running across the mouth of each U, projecting about thirty centimeters beyond it on either side. The legs are connected to the board by an adjustable parallelogram made of bone-shaped pieces of flat metal. The knobs of the bones are pierced with pivotal studs that hold the sides of the parallelogram together. Two strong springs, to hold the angles in place, maintain pressure against two other springs fixed just below the board. A single lever controls this disposition and locks the board in place. Changing the angles of the parallelogram permits one to alter both the height and angle of the board in one movement. Board, parallelogram, legs and feet are white; springs, studs, and lever handle are black.’ (p. 106)
For Mathews his ’20 lines’ can be virtually anything: an Oulipian (N+7) exercise; health concerns, particularly facial neuralgia; descriptions of weather and the immediate environment (tropical St. Bart’s, NYC, Lans in France, Italy); progress reports for the writing of the first draft of Cigarettes (1987); bits of Surrealist ‘automatic writing’; family matters; admissions of mourning for his deceased friend, Oulipian Georges Perec; musings on Werner Erhard’s e s t training; throughout, his relentless self-analysis. The book is very much an edited journal intime, but it has the crystalline quality of Mathews’s other work, that relentlessly exacting attention to syntax, poignancy of inner, private experience that figures in the later novels (The Journalist, Cigarettes). Absent are the Baroque quasi-Gothic elements, the abstruseness, the cerebral impenetrability of Tlooth, The Sinking of the The Odradek Stadium, and The Conversions.
‘Stendhal meant something different from this.’
‘When you go to piss in the bathroom with people within possible earshot (and sometimes with no people around at all), you direct your jet at the edge of the pool of water in the toilet bowl so as to reduce the noise you make.’ (p. 124)
During and after having read Harry Mathews’s 20 Lines a Day (1988; Dalkey Archive Press) I set myself the 20 lines quota, using a long quadrillé pad and a fountain pen to trace my thoughts. My readings of Mathews inevitably influenced my own compositions–I used the daily entries as a means of recapping, and recuperating from, the events of daily life. No one can tell what I would have written without Mathews’s influence on me, prefiguring and directing the subjects, style, and approach of my writing. My discipline flagged, I was inconstant. Mathews too. But I am slowly making advances, inroads. There’s progress. I still write in my notebook.
‘Lines of verse count extra.’ (p. 67)
Technologies of the self include notebooks in which one writes diaristic, journalistic, and textual commonplaces from daily life (Foucault). The keeping of such a journal, commonplace notebook, or diary constitutes a practice of mental hygiene. Coincidentally, Foucault died the day before Mathews’s conclusion of his project.
To write 20 lines a day is not daunting (anyone can do it), especially if one imposes no continuity, consistency of form, or subject matter.
Despite the lack of constraint,–the openness of the subject matter addressed in a diary,–a strong internal consistency of writing arises. This is the continuity of the self day in and day out, the author thinking.
‘… Matthison, Mattei, Matteotti, Mathias, Mateus, Matthieu, Mahieu, Madeu, Mathet, Mathie, Mathiez, Matisse, Matthis, Matteo, Mathelin, Mathiret, Mathiot, Mathon, Matou, Méhu, Mattuaeus …’ (p. 40)
‘Are you going to wait until you are on the point of death to give up this model: your old, old self, tiny, terrified, aware of his power only through the intensity of the anxieties that shrivelled him? A lifetime of refusal ending in a revelation that melts the past in one moment or movement of surrender to the truth makes a fit drama for literature’ (p. 128)
Early in life Stendhal (Henri Beyle) set himself the injunction: vingt lignes par jour, génie ou pas (twenty lines a day, genius or not).
‘You have a fantasy of discovering that you suffer from cancer, or a brain tumor, or some other affliction of a most grave, probably mortal kind. You keep the knowledge of it entirely to yourself. Not only do you not burden those who love you with the news, you become for them a companion of perfect humor, gaiety, and warmth.’ (p. 108)
This slim book compiles a selection of entries from Mathews’ notebook from March 16, 1983 to June 26, 1984. During the interval I and many people I know were born. That’s unrelated.
‘Yesterday evening, having after months of to-do listing bought a new handle for my big pickaxe, I fitted it to the pick head and set it to soak in the bathtub.’
‘Having nothing to write about (nothing particular to write about) suggests a question: what this morning do you particularly not want to think about?’