Monday, January 05, 2009

Reading Mathews

Eastside Road, Healdsburg, January 5, 2009
NOTED WHILE READING The Way Home, by Harry Mathews (London: Atlas, 1999). Perhaps because a temporary indisposition has put me off my feed, I identify with the elegiac note running through the collection; even the entertaining lead piece, "Country Cooking," a pseudo-anthropologist's detailed and superbly annotated recipe for double-stuffed lamb shoulder, manages to pass a few clouds over the face of its Auvergnat sun.

There's a lovely cycle of short reminiscences of Georges Perec, in "The Orchard": 123 paragraphs of memories, some significant, some fleeting, all of them tender, none inconsequential — an elegy for modernist fiction, perhaps, as much as for the late maĆ®tre of restricted writing (it's Perec who wrote La disparition, a very substantial novel lacking any presence of the letter "e").

"Translation and the Oulipo: the Case of the Persevering Maltese" is a talk given in London in 1996, at the French Institute, as one of the St. Jerome series of lectures on translation. It's remarkable, funny, accurate, far-ranging, and provocative. Mathews manages in his famously indirect way to present a solution to the problem of life and death by investigating the relationship of a work and its translation. One need never again complain of a book impossible to classify as fact or fiction. He writes
Facts are the score, not the game. Facts are lies. Not because they are false, but because facts belong to the past — to what was, never to what is. We love them, bacause once reality is safely lodged in the past, it becomes reassuring, reasonable, and easy to manage… There is no escaping this. It is not a Bad Thing. However, a reality we can call the truth must be looked for elsewhere.
This resonates with a line I noted in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: Elizabeth says
We all look to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing
and, later
Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure
and while the lack of a comma after "past" is telling it is by inserting one that we mediate Austen and Mathews and, who knows, Jane Austen may have begun the ambiguation of fact and fiction, as if she were deliberately looking at an other, subtler, more fecund version of fictional reality than Daniel Defoe's.

Anyhow. What I sat down to give you are two quote from the long autobiographical piece ending The Way Home. First, on books,
Through [his wife Marie] I have been able to see that my parents, my children, my cousins and my cousins' cousins, and friends long unseen and those freshly made, are the substance of my life: that my life is what I have and what I can make of that, not some wishful hope of what may (and doesn't) happen. She has demonstrated what happiness is without ever telling me what it should be.
And then on books:
Just as a glutton desires more food than he needs, and eats more food than he desires, I heaped my life with books. Not only books to read but to own. Each new volume on my shelves added a brick to my defence works, the culture castle in which some day I hoped to live safely and alone…Eventually I came to realise that the prospect I was creating for my future (a lifetime of reading or of not reading, since one lifetime would hardly suffice) was more depressing than reassuring, and I gave up buying books systematically.
That last word is significant: he continues, of course, to buy books, as do we all.


Curtis Faville said...

All such resolutions--as in refusing the impulse to buy more books--rest on a bogus presumption: That any one of us behaves according to a moral code that we have any real intention of following. New Year's resolutions are made to be broken.

I gave up the idea of acquiring books as a promise against a possible/impossible future task, and choose instead now to "dip into" them, which over the years has become my virtual habit. Thus my favorite books are collections of short essays, or poetry, which allow one to sample and nibble without creating the obligation to follow a thread for hundreds of pages, for days or weeks at a time.

Looking over your score on the Sunday, I thought of Frederick Sommer's imaginary musical scores. Have you ever seen these? There was/is a CD of someone "playing" them--I think I still have that around somewhere. What would you call these--"imaginary cadenzas"?

I once heard Julian White give a moderated interpretive performance of Schumann's Carnival in the Berkeley Hills, I think at the recommendation of Goodwin Sammel. It was a delight to have a master explain why and how each sequence could, or should, be played.

Charles Shere said...

I hadn't heard of Sommer. Wikipedia steered me to this page of his drawings, with soundfiles. Funny coincidence: at the head of that page, this quote:

Morality and manners serve
the behavior of our needs,
where Art remains the confessor
for artists who have something to say.
-----------------—Frederick Sommer, 1995

Curtis Faville said...

Sommer was an interesting character. An architect by training, he never practiced, instead choosing to become a serious photographer. His real interest was in aesthetics, in which he read deeply, and about which he thought profoundly.

His output was never great, but each of his images--carefully crafted black and white gelatin silver prints--usually of crystalline clarity-- vary amongst large landscapes, startlingly vivid pictures of dead bodies and body parts, and strange abstractions created out of alternate materials (such as oil on cellophane). When publishing them, he usually accompanied them with half-cryptic theoretical commentary, sometimes in "verse" form. Perhaps it's fair to say he was a kind of mystic of aesthetics.

Late in his life he began to dabble with "imaginary" scores, and collages. Max Ernst was a close friend for many years, and the synergy between their interests is self-evident.

During most of his life, he lived in Prescott, Arizona. He grew to love the Southwest landscape. There's a nice two-volume monograph still in print, called Words & Images (University of Arizona, 1984).