Friday, February 3, 2017

Harry Mathews, "an idiosyncratic...

...novelist, poet, essayist and translator," according to the New York Times, died at age 86.

Never heard of Mr. Matthews? Me neither. But his is a good example of why I never miss the obituaries in the Times. For starters, like many of the obits in the Grey Lady, Matthews was an American version of an aristocrat (all emphasis mine):

Harry Burchell Mathews was born in Manhattan on Feb. 14, 1930. His mother, the former Mary Burchell, was an arts patron who had inherited a real estate fortune.

He was raised on Beekman Place and attended the private St. Bernard’s School.

He graduated from the Groton School in Massachusetts, dropped out of Princeton in his sophomore year to join the Navy and graduated from Harvard in 1952 with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in music and musicology.

And, like any good patrician/dilettante, Matthews divided his time between France, New York and Key West.

As for his life's work (you know, the reason he has his obit in the Times in the first place):

Half of Harry Mathews’s novel “The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium” was written in unintelligible pidgin English, which may explain why 25 publishers rejected it.

His novel “The Conversions,” otherwise in English, concluded with nine pages in German.

For readers groping to unravel the convoluted structure of his satire “Cigarettes,” he cautioned, “There’s no point in looking for it now because no one will ever figure it out, including me.”

See what I mean? Wait, it gets better:

He rewrote Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by using the vocabulary from a Julia Child recipe for a cauliflower dish, and vice versa.

Of course he did!

“I gave myself the task of writing a story using the 185 words that were found in 46 proverbs,” he told The Paris Review. “This is a forbiddingly small vocabulary. It was hard to know what to do with them. Then I started putting words together, and a few words would lead to a sentence, and then eventually it became this sweet love story. It was as though you were wandering through a jungle and suddenly you came into a clearing that is a beautifully composed garden. It’s extraordinary, the feeling it gives you.”


His first book, “The Conversions,” published in 1962, is about a wealthy New Yorker who dies and stipulates that the protagonist will inherit his fortune if he can decode the mysterious symbols engraved on the blade of a ritual ax.

He wasn't alone, however, in his eccentricities:

In a pot vs. kettle competition, another Oulipian, Georges Perec, who wrote a novel, appropriately called “A Void,” without ever using the letter “e,” suggested that Mr. Mathews abided by rules of writing “from another planet.”

But the obit saves the best for last:

He also wrote “Singular Pleasures,” a 1988 book made up of 61 vignettes about masturbation. He chose that topic, he said, “because it’s the universal form of sexual activity, and it’s hardly been written about.”

Gotta love the Times!

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