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Mathews, Harry 1930–

Mathews, Harry 1930–

PERSONAL: Born February 14, 1930, in New York, NY. Education: Studied music at Princeton and Harvard Universities and at L'école Normale de Musique in Paris, France.

ADDRESSES: Home—Key West, FL; Paris, France. Agent—Maxine Groffsky, 2 5th Ave., New York, NY 10011.

CAREER: Poet, novelist, and translator. Has taught at Bennington College, Hamilton College, and Columbia University. Member of Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Oulipo), Paris, France.

AWARDS, HONORS: National Endowment for the Arts grant for fiction writing, 1982; National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters fiction writing award, 1991.

WRITINGS:

The Conversions (novel; also see below), Random House (New York, NY), 1962, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 1997.

Tlooth (novel; also see below), Paris Review/Doubleday (New York, NY), 1966, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 1998.

The Planisphere (poetry), Burning Deck (Providence, RI), 1974.

The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium and Other Novels (includes The Conversions and Tlooth; also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1975.

Trial Impressions (poetry), Burning Deck (Providence, RI), 1977.

Selected Declarations of Dependence, Z Press (Calais, VT), 1977, reprinted, Sun & Moon Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1996.

(Translator) Georges Bataille, Blue of Noon, Urizen Books (New York, NY), 1978.

Country Cooking and Other Stories, Burning Deck (Providence, RI), 1980.

Armenian Papers (poetry), Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1987.

Cigarettes (novel), Weidenfeld & Nicolson (New York, NY), 1987.

The Orchard (memoirs), Bamberger Books (Flint, MI), 1988.

Twenty Lines a Day (journal), Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 1988.

Singular Pleasures (fiction), Grenfell Press (New York, NY), 1988, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 1993.

Out of Bounds (poetry), Burning Deck (Providence, RI), 1989.

The Way Home: Collected Longer Prose (contains The Orchard, Autobiography, and Singular Pleasures), Atlas Press (London, England), 1989, revised edition published as The Way Home: Selected Longer Prose, Atlas Press (London, England), 1999.

The American Experience (fiction), Atlas Press (London, England), 1991.

(With others) S: Semaines de Suzanne, Les Éditions de Minuit (Paris, France), 1991, published in English as S: A Novel, Lumen (Cambridge, MA), 1997.

Immeasurable Distances (criticism), Lapis Press (Venice, CA), 1991.

The Journalist (novel), David Godine (Boston, MA), 1994.

The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (novel), Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 1994.

(Editor, with Alastair Brotchie) Oulipo Compendium, Atlas Press (London, England), 1998, revised edition, Make New Press (North Hollywod, CA), 2005.

(Editor, with Jacques Roubaud) Georges Perec, Fifty-Three Days (novel), David Godine (Boston, MA), 1999.

Sainte Catherine (in French; fiction), Éditions P.O.L. (Paris, France), 2000.

(Translator, with Christopher Middleton and Rosmarie Waldrop) Oskar Pastior, Many Glove Compartments: Selected Poems, Burning Deck (Providence, RI), 2001.

The Human Country: New and Collected Stories, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 2002.

The Case of the Persevering Maltese: Collected Essays, Dalkey Archive Press (Chicago, IL), 2003.

My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973 (autobiographical novel), Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 2005.

Contributor to anthologies, including The Best American Poetry (1988, 1989, 2002, and 2004 editions), Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, The Best of American Poetry 1988–1997, An Anthology of New York Poets, The New York Poets II: An Anthology, 2006, and The Oxford Book of American Poetry, 2006. Contributor of criticism, fiction, and poetry to numerous periodicals, including Yale Review, Electronic Book Review, Denver Quarterly, Rain Taxi, Jacket, Chicago Review, Harvard Review, Poetry Project Newsletter, World, American Book Review, Bomb, Grand Street, New York Review of Books, Parnassus, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Shiny International, Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, Brick, Common Knowledge, Art and Literature, Grand Street, o.blek, Paris Review, Hudson Review, Partisan Review, Antaeus, Sub-Stance, Conjunctions, Grand Street, Voice Literary Supplement, and Boston Review. Founding editor (with others) of Locus Solus; Paris editor, Paris Review, 1991–2003.

SIDELIGHTS: Poet, novelist, and literary critic Harry Mathews is the only American member of the Oulipo, a French literary organization that includes authors Italo Calvino and Raymond Queneau. His early experimental novels, The Conversions, Tlooth, and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium and Other Novels, "have long been cult classics admired for their humor, linguistic inventiveness and narrative ingenuity," a Washington Post Book World reviewer commented. In The Conversions, in which the narrator must possess a ritual golden adze and solve three riddles to inherit an enormous fortune, is "a kind of literary hopscotch, one foot in the air, always nearly off balance, but at no matter what cost abandoning one position speedily for another," according to a New York Herald Tribune Book Review contributor. A Times Literary Supplement critic found it "fertile in linguistic skylarkings and fantastic invention," and "as exhilarating to read as a fireworks set-piece is to watch."

Tlooth is an "elaborate game, a compound of absurd adventures, faked documents, diagrams and word puzzles," Peter Buitenhuis wrote in the New York Times Book Review. "There is little pretense of realism. Mathews has abandoned himself to an imagination full of strange lore and miscellaneous literary allusions…. The imagination of the artist projected into the work of art has taken the real and the fantastic as related, even interchangeable, perceptions of life." A Tri-Quarterly reviewer found Tlooth's "ingenious plot is that of travelogue-adventure in which all places are very much the same, even if they are called Afghanistan, Russia, India, Morocco; and in this respect Tlooth very much descends from Apollinaire's Zone (1913) with its unbounded sense of literary space and the higher nonsense fiction of Lewis Carroll and especially, the Frenchman Raymond Roussel." The Conversions and Tlooth are also contained in The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium and Other Novels; the title story, described by Edmund White in the New York Times Book Review as "a comic masterpiece," relates a couple's search for treasure in a ship sunk in the sixteenth century off the coast of Florida. White observed: "As Mathews's art has matured he has moved away from pearls of exotic narration strung on a slender thread of continuity. In The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, he has created a seamless fabric, as tense, light, and strong as stretched silk."

In Cigarettes, which appeared after a seven-year break in publication, the author follows thirteen characters through their contacts with Elizabeth, "who winds through the novel like a plume of smoke," Lisa Zeidner noted in the New York Times Book Review. Partisan Review critic Rachel Hadas commented that Cigarettes shows that "one reason complete happiness isn't possible … is that knowledge can be acquired but not lost." Hadas added: "Answers to many enigmas are teased out by the reader as well as the characters; the truth is like the seminal portrait of Elizabeth, which is cherished, stolen, forged, destroyed, bought, sold, restored—but about which we chiefly learn that it doesn't resemble her." Another enigmatic woman is at the center of S: A Novel, a collection of seven stories from seven authors about an alluring woman known variously as Suzanne, Susie, Suze, and Anna. Men desire her everywhere she goes, as she travels around the world. "The collaboration is inventive and the collage coheres because the different views of Suzanne and her world, seen at various times, are surrounded by the solidly unstable chaos of language," observed Thomas Lecky in the Review of Contemporary Fiction. In Mathews's contribution, "The Quevedo Cipher," she is a character in an "encrypted tale of unrequited conjugal love," in the words of a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who credited this "kaleidoscopic chronicle" as having "its own heady appeal."

The Journalist is narrated by a middle-aged manic depressive who is advised to keep a journal as part of his therapy. This activity is apparently intended to ground him in practical reality by encouraging him to make careful observations about himself and the world around him. The opposite occurs, however; he withdraws increasingly from his wife, his best friend, his mistress, and his son. His meticulous charting of all their movements and possessions evokes his suspicion about all their activities, and he becomes increasingly obsessed with "categories and interpretations," advised Phoebe-Lou Adams in Atlantic Monthly, "the former increasingly intricate and the latter increasingly disturbing." Adams found the narrator an unappealing character, difficult to care about, and she concluded that the novel's chief interest is "the question of how Mr. Mathews will resolve the clever muddle he has devised." A Publishers Weekly reviewer believed The Journalist would have been a better book if Mathews had created "a more introspective narrator who could make the occasional astute perception about what it means to keep a journal," but concluded: "Yet it is by no means an unrewarding read, since Mathews depicts his forlorn protagonist with ironic humor."

The Way Home: Selected Longer Prose contains seven works, including "The Orchard Country," an homage to the author's friend, avant-garde author Georges Perec, and "Cooking in Central France," a satirical look at cookbooks. "Exuberance, anguish, and imagination-in-desperation are all attributes of the speaker in Mathews—a distinctive personality who somehow exceeds the neutral voice, blunt significations, and considerable formal and material constraints that the author chooses to work under," observed Joseph Tabbi in the Review of Contemporary Fiction. The selections in The Human Country: New and Collected Stories, a volume of Mathew's short fiction, "make up a literary labyrinth that takes readers off the beaten path," noted a Publishers Weekly critic. Divided into three sections, the collection features works that span the entirety of Mathews's career. Brendan Dowling, reviewing The Human Country in Booklist, remarked that the author's "sly sense of humor and love of language shine through." In The Case of the Persevering Maltese: Collected Essays, Mathews examines such varied subjects as author Lewis Carroll, the city of Venice, and his fellow members in Oulipo. According to Booklist critic Brendan Driscoll, "Mathew's essays are full of intelligence and challenge."

The autobiographical novel My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973 "blends the real and imagined, continually challenging the reader to decide what's true and what's fiction," observed Library Journal contributor Lawrence Rungren. Set in 1973, the work follows American author Mathews, whose French acquaintances are convinced that the expatriate living in Paris must be a spy for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). When his efforts to dissuade his friends fail, Mathews decides to indulge the fantasy, setting up a travel agency as a front, "and before long he is way over his head in international intrigue and sexual misadventure," noted Harvard Review critic Benjamin Paloff. Mathews introduces real people, including his wife and agent, into the plot, and he references actual historical events. "Of course, such bald-faced toying with facticity can get hopelessly tiresome," Paloff stated, "and it might here if it were not for the author's … penchant for showing that he doesn't know what he's doing or why, which makes it all the more evident that he has something to hide." "Evolving in mood from ludicrous to serious," remarked Booklist critic Gilbert Taylor, "the yarn's inventive literary elements elegantly mesh into a stylish amusement."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 6, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.

Mathews, Harry, The Orchard, Bamberger Books (Flint, MI), 1988.

PERIODICALS

American Book Review, July, 1999, review of Tlooth, p. 1.

Artforum International, summer, 1993, review of Singular Pleasures, p. 97.

Atlantic Monthly, October, 1994, Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of The Journalist, p. 132.

Biography, fall, 2005, Andre Alexis, review of My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973, p. 719.

Booklist, September 15, 2002, Brendan Dowling, review of The Human Country: New and Collected Stories, p. 208; May 15, 2003, Brendan Driscoll, review of The Case of the Persevering Maltese: Collected Essays, p. 1632; May 15, 2005, Gilbert Taylor, review of My Life in CIA, p. 1640.

Harvard Review, June, 2006, Benjamin Paloff, review of My Life in CIA, p. 187.

Hollwood Reporter, August 8, 2005, Gregory McNamee, "Brush up Your Shakespeare, Not to Mention Royals and CIA," review of My Life in CIA, p. 12.

Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1993, review of Singular Pleasures, p. 266; July 1, 1994, review of The Journalist, p. 875; July 15, 2002, review of The Human Country, p. 983; April 1, 2005, review of My Life in CIA, p. 377.

Library Journal, August, 1994, review of The Journalist, p. 132; March 1, 2000, Michael Rogers, review of The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, p. 129; September 15, 2002, Josh Cohen, review of The Human Country, p. 95; June 15, 2005, Lawrence Rungren, review of My Life in CIA, p. 59.

London Review of Books, April 29, 1999, review of Oulipo Compendium, p. 20.

New Statesman & Society, July 30, 1993, review of The Journalist, p. 40.

New York, December 5, 1994, review of The Journalist, p. 150.

New York Herald Tribune Book Review, September 2, 1962, review of The Conversions.

New York Times Book Review, October 30, 1966, Peter Buitenhuis, review of Tlooth, p. 72; May 18, 1975, Edmund White, review of The Sinking Of The Odradek Stadium, p. 6; November 29, 1987, Lisa Zeidner, review of Cigarettes, p. 23; March 26, 1995, review of The Journalist, p. 18.

Observer (London, England), August 1, 1993, review of Singular Pleasures, p. 52.

Partisan Review, February, 1989, Rachel Hadas, review of Cigarettes, p. 310.

Poetry Project Newsletter, April-May, 2004, Marcella Durand, interview with author.

Poets & Writers, September-October, 1996, Dawn Michelle Baude, interview with author.

Publishers Weekly, March 22, 1993, review of Singular Pleasures, p. 74; August 8, 1994, review of The Journalist, p. 382; August 11, 1997, review of S: A Novel, p. 386; August 19, 2002, review of The Human Country, p. 66; April 18, 2005, review of My Life in CIA, p. 44.

Rain Taxi, winter, 1998–99, Marc Lowenthal, interview with author.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 1994, review of The Journalist, p. 205; spring, 1998, Thomas Lecky, review of S, p. 226; fall, 1999, Joseph Tabbi, review of The Way Home: Selected Longer Prose, p. 166.

Times Literary Supplement, September 14, 1962, review of The Conversions; March 20, 1998, review of The Conversions, p. 24; March 20, 1998, review of The Journalist, p. 24; April 16, 1999, review of Oulipo Compendium, p. 28.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), January 8, 1995, review of The Journalist, p. 3.

Tri-Quarterly, winter, 1967, review of Tlooth.

Washington Post Book World, December 29, 1991, review of Immeasurable Distances, p. 13.

Whole Earth Review, spring, 1993, Robert Rossney, review of Tlooth, p. 92.

ONLINE

Sun & Moon Reviews, http://www.sunmoon.com/ (October 1, 2000), Eric Lorberer, review of Selected Declarations of Dependence.

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