Harry Mathews’s Framed Stories

Double Farce

Multiple meanings always simmer under the surface of Harry Mathews’s writing, but in The Solitary Twin, they’re more hidden.


Early on in The Solitary Twin, Harry Mathews’s posthumous novel, published this March, four friends—Geoffrey and Margot Hyde, Berenice Tinker, and Andreas Boeyens—are having dinner in their unnamed coastal town. As a way to get to know one another better, Andreas proposes that everyone tell a story. “Not necessarily stories about ourselves, although obviously there’s nothing wrong with that, but also stories we’ve heard from other people, or remember from books and plays,” she says. Berenice goes first.

She tells the strange story of Hubert, the valet for a wealthy gentleman, who experiences something like a spiritual awakening during a visit to the park on his day off. Walking around the park, he suddenly begins to feel weightless. “This released a spurt of joy, also unsuspected grief upwelling, so as he delightedly smiled, tears rolled down his cheeks,” Berenice remarks. A woman named Rachel sees Hubert, and though she doesn’t understand his ecstasy, it makes her “yearn to partake of his feelings.” She follows him, and after meeting, they begin an affair.

Hubert attempts to share what happened, leading to the “presentation of a personal ‘life experience’…considered ‘highly interesting and potentially useful to anyone with an open mind.’ ” But no audience believes his tale. Feeling isolated and misunderstood, he sinks into a depression. Eventually, Rachel has a similar transcendental experience. “Now we have our holy order. A society of two. That’s enough room to stand up in,” Hubert tells her. All the evangelism begins to seem beside the point. This tale is really about an indescribable, near-mystical feeling, shared by two people with a committed bond. In other words, it’s about love. And so by inserting these quirky diversions into the story of The Solitary Twin, Mathews gives his novel a strong romantic streak, and the novel doesn’t lose its force with sentimentality.

Berenice’s tale leads to Andreas’s revelation that Hubert may have been the valet for his father. This detail receives no further explanation. And in this manner, The Solitary Twin continues on to raise more questions than it answers. After that, it’s Geoffrey’s turn. On a Pan Am flight in the early ’80s, a fellow passenger named Malachi tells Geoffrey his life story (making it a story within a story within a novel—a complication typical of Mathews). As a child, Malachi escaped from Nazi-controlled Poland. The Gestapo arrested his parents, committing them to a detention camp. After years of life as an orphaned refugee, peddling “whatever he could find” on the streets of Antwerp—gasoline, hard-to-come-by fine foods, high-priced fashion, and more—Malachi moved to Miami and bought a Ford dealership. He made his business profitable by producing ads offering unfinished plotlines. According to Geoffrey, he “had intuitively identified a basic, hardwired impulse: the desire to resolve the irresolute, to conclude the incomplete, to have the crooked made straight…where love is not yet fulfilled or disaster looms, a situation can be left dangling at the end of an episode as yet undecided.”

Geoffrey’s story, entertaining as it is, quickly reveals itself as Mathews’s exposition of his own theories about art and human instinct. And throughout the novel, there are other instances: By one view, The Solitary Twin may be read as Mathews’s attempt to sustain readers’ interest by keeping just enough loose threads hanging. But to what end?

Harry Mathews was born in Manhattan in 1930. His life began to take shape as he joined various experimental artistic and literary circles. After graduating from Harvard with degrees in music and musicology in 1952, he moved to Paris with his then-wife, Niki de Saint Phalle, who would become famous for her so-called “shooting” paintings (and for her tumultuous relationship and collaborations with artist Jean Tinguely). Mathews became the first American in the French literary group Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature).

By imposing various constraints on their work, Oulipo members sought to expand literature’s possibilities. One of Mathews’s experiments, Singular Pleasures, offered 61 independent vignettes portraying 61 individuals masturbating. First published in French in 1983 as Plaisirs Singuliers, the book exemplifies Mathews’s signature playfulness, cleverness, and compression.

In 1961, Mathews founded the poetry journal Locus Solus with John Ashbery, publishing such major New York School poets as Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and Barbara Guest. (Mathews wrote poetry himself, and Sand Paper Press will publish a collection this November.) If Mathews was always an insider, he used the status with the goal of shepherding American literature toward freer, stranger possibilities.

His most famous short story, “Country Cooking From Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double),” operates as an unmakeable recipe with wacky, fraught authorial intrusions such as “Do not under any circumstance use a baggie or Saran Wrap to enfold the quenelles. Of course it’s easier. So are TV dinners. For once, demand the utmost of yourself: the satisfaction will astound you, and there is no other way.” Multiple meanings always simmer under the surface of Mathews’s writing, but sometimes, as in The Solitary Twin, they’re more hidden than others.

With its myriad subjects and framed stories, in addition to its ambiguous setting, The Solitary Twin only sometimes attempts to relate to the reader with straightforward narrative techniques. Berenice and Andreas have come to the coastal village for two separate but related purposes: to observe the identical twins Paul and John, who mysteriously never communicate or interact with each other. Andreas, a publisher, wants Paul to write a joint biography; Berenice, a psychologist, hopes to study the twins. This story—following Berenice and Andreas in their efforts—is the widest frame for the novel, and it contains such diversions as the tales told at the dinner party and the story of Wicheria Bentwick, a town resident who is the lover of both twins.

As Mathews details these separate endeavors, Berenice and Andreas essentially promote their respective disciplines as the best way to understand human nature. Berenice believes in a clinical approach: observing and assessing pathology. Andreas prefers a polished first-person, documentary approach: shaping experience into written, linear form. By the end, both fail to accomplish their projects. But their shared obsession with the twins has brought them to the village, and thus to each other. If curiosity about strangers initially motivates them, they’re ultimately most interested in each other.

Throughout the novel, the specter of the twins lets Mathews explore the multiplicity of personhood; their mystery defies easy explanations by either behavioral therapy or biography. Even if Berenice could diagnose the twins’ behavior within a larger scientific framework, or Andreas could create a text filled with true details from their past, neither would be sufficient. Freudian thought and mythological references thereby enter the story as further explanations for the twins’ behavior (John sleeps with his mother, and Paul kills his father—a quintessential Oedipal story complicated by splitting the title character in two), but, more than anything, the twins’ lives seem governed by fate. Or by folly, as Mathews gives hints that John and Paul are actually one person.

Most of the characters create multiple identities for themselves throughout the novel. Mathews uses the multiple sides of Berenice and Margot, most explicitly, to shift the novel into different directions. The vengeful, distraught Malachi, motivated by a desire for retribution against the Nazis, transforms himself into a car salesman. Andreas changes his identity to separate himself from his family. Geoffrey, formerly an aspiring writer, even explicitly says that “between the ages of thirteen and twenty-three I led a totally different life.”

The story that Geoffrey tells might be the most emblematic of Mathews’s proposition about why stories matter. He describes how Malachi decided that instead of killing Nazi offspring, he wanted to write about killing Nazi offspring. Adopting Malachi’s own voice, Geoffrey says, “Then I remembered what Kafka said about expressing love. A bouquet of roses can’t do it. There is only coitus and literature that can achieve this end.”

It’s a strange quotation to attribute to Kafka; his biographer Reiner Stach recently noted that Kafka had such a fraught, fearful relationship with sex that he once shifted narration from the first to the third person in order to write about his own sexual experiences. Though Stach made this revelation after Mathews finished The Solitary Twin, this detail still illustrates the point: Creating alternate voices for ourselves, through art, is the ultimate liberation.

Near the end of the novel, Mathews makes another dramatic shift. The book’s point of view, which began in omniscient narration, impartially recounting the characters’ conversations, takes a turn. It’s revealed that Berenice has been the narrator of all the tales, and she begins telling the story in the first person. “Now Berenice can say ‘me,’ ‘we,’ and ‘mine.’ And Berenice’s new name is ‘I,’ ” Mathews writes, playfully indicating that point of view can be shifted easily with a few word choices, that literary form can change from an impersonal documentary to a subjective journal with the mere change of pronouns. (As Geoffrey puts it, “I knew that one way poetry could be revolutionary was by subverting the conventions of language, by addling its normative expectations, by showing that words were almost never saying what they claimed to be saying.”) Still, while the change works technically, the first person seems a bit wasted: Mathews never uses it to burrow into Berenice’s character.

This narrative shift is echoed when Margot finally gets to tell her story—about the child she gave up for adoption. She begins by calling the mother Meredith, but the burden of deception proves too heavy. “I didn’t want your sympathy to muddle the story line,” Margot explains as she reveals the truth that she is Meredith. Almost every character in The Solitary Twin is a storyteller, and they all speak for Mathews.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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