Friday, June 02, 2006

Harry Mathews

I've just read Harry Mathews' short book of prose 20 Lines a Day (Dalkey Archive). I actually found it inspiring. He borrowed an injunction from Stendhal to write "Twenty lines a day, genius or not," and this book is the result--not quite a journal or a diary, nor a collection of essays or stories. Simply attempts to get himself over the reticence (fear) of beginning to write, simply to write. Descriptions of the natural world around him, ruminations on friends, loved ones, occasional examples of automatic writing, self-conscious reflections about the purpose of the exercise at hand, thoughts about writing itself and attendant anxieties

A couple of samples of the latter:

During the days--at least fourteen of them--when I might have added to these pages and didn't [...], so many possible subject occurred to me and were let go with regret. And letting them go meant just that--I can't remember a single one of them. But there isn't any loss, because such subjects are the merest pretexts: they don't ever add anything to what gets written, and probably they are no better than other--no matter what other--points of departure. Lovely ideas belong to amateurs, or, worse, to might-have-been writers. Lost possibilities mean none at all. Nothing better than writing makes grotesquely obvious the obvious truth that what is is; or (to put it another way) the Marxist truth that there is no value outside of work done. (44)

Anxiety about writing feels like: I am poor in words, ideas, and feelings, and when I sit down to write, this poverty will be revealed. It is another example of the general rule about fear: fear has nothing to do with its object. (When I jump off a thirty-foot ledge into the sea, my experience bears no resemblance to what I so paralyzingly apprehended before making the jump.) It's obvious to me that if I have a problem with words, ideas, or feelings it will be due to their excess, not their lack. I'm stuffed from head to toe with them, and my reluctance to sit down at my desk, which this morning has led to my writing a letter, making several phone calls, and preparing a pot of lamb stock, all of which could have been done another day or even another week, must be regarded as definitely insane. Knowing what I do--how much I enjoy writing, how many ways there are to put the resources of language into action--I feel worse than insane (insanity still has a certain romantic attraction): I feel stupid. I think that what I must do to make the stupidity manageable is to apply to it a method that has worked with even more painful conditions: I shall schedule it. Every morning--early every morning--I'll set aside ten minutes and concentrate exclusively on feeling anxious on sitting down to write. The most rudimentary sense of absurdity should get me going by minute number three. (45)

I've enjoyed reading Harry Mathews' fiction for several years now, particularly his novels Cigarettes and The Journalist, but also some of the stories in The Human Country. But I think I most appreciate Mathews for how he has helped me think about writing, and especially about translation. I had planned to write something about his essays concerning translation in his collection The Case of the Perservering Maltese, but then I read, as part of the Lit Blog Co-Op's discussion of Jean-Philippe Toussaint's Television, Derik Badman's interview today with translator Jordan Stump. In the interview, Derik points us back to his excellent post "Mathews on Translation" at his own blog, Mad Ink Beard, sort of removing the immediate need I have to discuss it at length right now. I will say that I found Mathews' essays on the subject almost revelatory, helping to free me from an inflexible Nabokovian approach to translation I had been holding onto. His use, also described by Derik, of the Muir translation of Kafka's very short story "The Truth about Sancho Panza" is fascinating. I highly recommend the collection.

(Incidentally, a few weeks ago I was reminded again of Mathews' use of the Kafka story in this way when I read this entertaining post at the blog Critical Culture, which is nominally a review of the apparently terrible potboiler novel The Lincoln Lawyer, by Michael Connelly, but which is also a spirited defense of the semi-colon. Anyway, it's the portion of the post under the heading "Variations on a Theme" that specifically reminded me of Mathews' argument about form conveying meaning. Here, blogger Pacze Moj takes a generic sentence from the book and rewrites it in a variety of ways, using different punctuation, creating different form and rhythm. Worth a look.)

I said above that 20 Lines a Day was, in a way, inspiring. I mean that, for me, writing has always been something I've avoided doing, even as I write things in my head, only to lose them forever if not captured. Previous attempts to follow an example have not come to fruition. For example, after reading Gilbert Sorrentino's novel The Sky Changes, I thought it might be an interesting writing exercise to essentially copy wholesale the form of that book, using my own experiences as content fodder, my own experience with a deteriorating relationship. I wrote one awful paragraph, lost the private nerve to continue, gave up. An earlier glance through 20 Lines a Day gave me the brilliant idea to copy that, too, to little result. This blog, of course, is one attempt to counteract this tendency towards reticence but not, I hope, the only one. Having now read the entire book, I feel a renewed desire to briefly track thoughts that I have previously not written down, or dismissed as trivial (my internal editor being a ruthlessly cruel taskmaster), some of which may end up here.

For more on Harry Mathews, see also pages devoted to him at the Dalkey Archive site and at the Complete Review.


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