here’s a fantastic long interview with the great novelist harry mathews… in it [this interview with harry mathews that now seems to have disappeared from the internet] i learned a few things, some a little shocking. not so surprising: harry mathews loves robert walser. who can resist? some nice bits about cage, merce cunningham, and john ashbery too. but the sentence that hit home was that mathews perceives his 1994 masterpiece, THE JOURNALIST, a “flop.”
HM: It was a total flop.
HM: I don’t know. I think it’s a terrific book myself. [Laughs]
i stopped reading and had to pace the room. though sadly such a thing is almost expected, it struck me hard how isolated readers and writers of advanced fiction are that a groundbreaker of the novel form such as THE JOURNALIST could be so ill-used. or that its author should not be well rewarded with if not lucre (unlikely) then at least some deserved renown.
a subtle novel THE JOURNALIST is, like his CIGARETTES, conceptual. meaning its value is at the very least only partially related to the emotional revelations of its plot and characters. written in an elegant prose style that goes down devilishly smoothly, THE JOURNALIST concerns the documentary activities of a european executive who is insidiously but most certainly losing his shit.
the details of a bourgeois’s daily life–his affairs and wines and suits–may prejudice some readers against, however THE JOURNALIST in part transcends and in part satirizes its class environs through its gradually unfolding structure–an experiment of epistemology that continually and progressively asks: what is identity? what can we know? what can we record? and how is a fact changed by our observing of it?
and about that style. despite, or because of, the conceptual emphasis of this work–mathews’ narrator records with a refined wit and sensual language that makes for absolutely compulsive reading. sly tongue-in-cheek jokes, casual anecdotes, life stories (a classic mathews tale, that of Zoltan the waiter, on page 49-54), wardrobes, masturbation, drugs are all accounted in this light-touch, masterful prose.
also robustly recorded: the narrator’s dreamlife. the one thing oulipians may do best of all–better than the surrealists who worshiped it also (see the interview for HM’s views on the surrealists)–is confront and engage the subconscious.
the general plot: a man tries harder and harder to document his own life, going batty in the process as language and its chores proliferate and separate him from reality. it’s also a profound allegory on the writing life–its obsessions and its limitations and unique possibilities.
in this recent forum on the future of fiction, one writer proclaims the future will be “conceptualism.” if so, conceptual writing is also the novel’s recent and deep past. (i remember a j. hoberman review of early 20th century cinema where he said something like: in the beginning–it was all experimental.) …in that same forum another writer says something i really dug:
A hope, not a prediction: I’d love to see fiction that concentrates on the things fiction does uniquely well—chief among these the inhabiting of thought, the mapping of consciousness—rather than chasing vainly after more popular art forms. I like film and TV, too…but what’s the point of a fiction that envies and emulates them, and thus dooms itself to being second-rate visual culture rather than first-rate verbal culture?
the mapping of consciousness in fiction–the possibilities and paths of thought–are areas in which harry mathews has been expertly at play since his 1962’s THE CONVERSIONS. reward yourself and try him.