Remembering Harry Mathews


I saw Harry Mathews read once a couple of years ago. It was an event at 192 Books in which he read along with Marie Chaix, his wife and an equally formidable literary figure. It felt like a rare event, two thoroughly singular writers in one space, in a city in which they rarely visited. I bought a copy of the essay collection The Case of the Persevering Maltese and asked Mathews to sign it and, I think, said something about how his work had changed me. I’m not entirely sure what I said; it was probably something that didn’t live up to the occasion. Still, it was something.

I got home after a reading last night to learn that Mathews had died at the age of 86. The man had decades’ worth of acclaimed writing to his credit, the very definition of a literary life well-lived. But there’s also something worth savoring about his unpredictable bibliography. I’d been initially pulled in by My Life in CIA, a novel which read like a memoir. until it turned abruptly into a much more nerve-wracking book, in keeping with the espionage-laden world promised by its title. As I’ve worked my way through Mathews’s books–a process I’m still in the midst of–one thing that’s struck me is how utterly dissimilar each of his books is to the others. There’s no one definitive Harry Mathews book, no one distillation of a particular style, and, quite honestly, that’s one of the things that’s most appealing about his work. He was a writer unafraid to reinvent himself completely, to wholeheartedly experiment, to venture into uncharted territory and embrace what might be found there.

The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium and its temporally slippery structure bears little resemblance to the relative realism of My Life in CIA or the formal inventiveness of The Journalist, and none of these seems of a piece with the ribald epigrams found in Singular Pleasures. But here they are, the works of the same writer, disorienting and expansive in equal measure. There are plenty of ways to be inspired by the writings of Harry Mathews. Be inspired by the writings of Harry Mathews.

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