Watching Screwball Comedies with Harry Mathews

Harry Mathews.

 

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. From 1989 until 2003, Harry served as our Paris editor. In 2007, our publisher, Susannah Hunnewell, interviewed Harry for our Art of Fiction series. As she wrote in her introduction, “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.” Harry died last year just as our Spring issue, with an excerpt from his final novel, was going to press. —The Paris Review

Harry Mathews, who died a year ago, on January 25, was born on Valentine’s Day. This is the first time his friends (including those in Key West, who, during the winter, often got to see Harry and his beloved wife, Marie) have had to be without him. About the time he turned eighty, maybe a bit earlier, he had to stop bicycling. He did this grudgingly, berating some of us for our concern (expressed as he was about to cycle off after certain … let’s just say wine-centric dinners). His good friend James Merrill was the person who’d urged the Mathewses to leave wintry New York and come enjoy the sun in Key West. (Merrill, on his own bicycle, was always a delightful sight as he sped toward you wearing his shirt, shorts, argyle socks, and sandals.) Not that Harry needed to imitate Merrill or his other close friend John Ashbery at all: his sense of style was singular, as was Harry. But how did I become dear friends with a person who had specially sewn compartments in his shirt pockets for his cigars? How did my husband and I appear, year after year, on New Year’s Eve to be poured as much champagne as we wished (forget that “wishing upon a star” nonsense; this was excellent champagne) and to watch a screwball comedy that would be midway through at midnight? He shushed us if we so much as whispered to the person sitting next to us. In the background, we’d hear fireworks, the screams, the ubiquitous unmuffled motorcycles, more piercing screams, and soon, very soon, the sirens, as the TV volume was adjusted upward to a near-deafening level. In Key West, certain individuals get the idea that they might, say, blow up a pier to celebrate the New Year. (Or, at the very least, set their neighbor’s garbage can on fire.)

But I don’t want to suggest that we were strangely dressed, hedonistic, alcohol-dowsing creatures with no more imagination than to mark the end of the old, in with the new by watching Rudy Vallee. Harry was all imagination. Imagination and detail. He swung between those personal polarities like a watch used to hypnotize, and in a way, he did hypnotize you. Let me say right away that he knew a lot. Please just google Oulipo to get a general sense of the society he belonged to, in which, almost until his death, he remained the only American member. He knew about everything from poetic form to opera to Byzantine coins—though if you brought up those coins, he’d suspect you were about to turn ironic and would question you: When and how did you become interested in Byzantine coins? He knew the Latin name of the plant you liked in his garden. He once stunned Rust Hills by instantly answering one of Rust’s many questions. As the carful of people was returning from a lower key to Key West, a beautiful sunset spread across the sky. Harry exclaimed, “Oh, it’s like coming into Venice!” And my husband said, “More like coming into Mestre.” Somehow the word propaganda was used—you think I was keenly focusing on this?—and Rust, who loved information and specialized in mumbling questions to himself, asked, “Where does that word, propaganda, come from?” Harry said, “It originates with the Uffici per la Propagazione della Fede, which was set up by the Vatican under the Counter-Reformation to propagate the faith. It still occupies a building in Rome designed by Borromini.” Harry might also have known how to change a tire—he loved process, and when he cooked certain things, he wore an enormous ticking timer on a string around his neck—but I don’t know about that. Though, after his mother’s death, he drove her truly enormous car through the narrow streets of Key West until the car itself died. There’s one stretch of Simonton Street I never pass without thinking of the sight my husband and I saw one night, after we’d parted from Harry and his wife and friends: that enormous car, that cruise-ship-size car, coming down the opposite side of the street with the interior light on, the faces of Harry and John Ashbery, a second’s bright hologram flash of merriment. And then they were gone.

At this point, Harry might wonder why I’ve been mentioning vehicles: cars, bicycles, motorcycles. Is this what someone would be thinking about when remembering Harry Mathews? But I mention earth, the vehicles of earth, only as a point of departure to the air. What about all those planes—the big airlines, the private jets, the Navy test planes that fly over Key West with such bursts of sound that everyone knows to simply stop speaking until they pass (though sometimes the first words of the overeager person who had the floor get garbled in the plane’s fading roar)? Harry would simply raise a finger, and everyone would stop speaking. (He studied music at Harvard, so it’s probably fine to think of the obvious: Harry as a conductor.) I don’t think he originated the raised finger, but he did it better than anyone. And his facial expression was so clear. It didn’t involve the conventional eye roll; the obnoxious noise was too usual to surprise anyone. His expression never varied. It said, Wait, this will pass. It suggested that he was in control. The ever so slightly raised eyebrows let you know that he knew the conversation could pick up right where it left off. Being reasonable wasn’t always optimal, but in some cases, well, what can you do? His expression sort of metaphorically replaced a period with an exclamation point. Whereas I think his amazing fiction often implied just the opposite.

Happy birthday, Harry, from those of us here on the ground, looking upward.

 

Ann Beattie’s short story “Ruckersville” appears in our Fall issue. She is the author, most recently, of The Accomplished Guest. Read her Art of Fiction interview.

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