Harry Mathews was an American novelist and poet who lived most of his life in France. When he died last year at the age of 86, he was perhaps better known in Europe than in the English speaking world. His fan base in his native language may be small, but they are tenaciously dedicated to his comparatively meagre body of work — roughly one novel per decade since Conversions in 1962, as well as occasional books of poetry, essays and short stories and books in French.
The Solitary Twin, which has just been published, is Mathews’ final novel. It is highly peculiar and just as highly satisfying. Like his other novels (at least the ones that I have read) it is full of whimsy, wordplay and stories within stories and unsolvable mysteries.
The short book is set in a small fishing village called New Bentwick which is run on strictly rational lines. Crime is nearly non-existent and murder is unknown. Mathews parcels out information about the town in tiny morsels (former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is a mysterious visitor to New Bentwick, with an Upper West Side-style doorman in front of his cottage) and it’s only toward the end of the book that we narrow its location down to a small island off the coast of New Zealand.
The first characters we meet are Bernice, a behavioural psychologist, and Andreas, a book publisher, who have each just arrived in New Bentwick and have fallen madly in love with each other at first sight. They are both drawn to the village by two of its oddest transplanted residents, identical twins who are never seen together. Bernice wants to study their psychologies and Andreas is in search of a memoir by the twins.
The twins, John and Paul (evoking the rivalrous songwriting Beatles or perhaps the clashing evangelical saints), are alike in almost every way:
“They wore the same clothes, chino trousers and open-neck sweaters, in John’s case adorned with a faded maroon neckerchief…They drank only McEwan’s India pale ale and smoked the same thin black Brazilian cigars. They drove identical cars, beige postwar Dyna-Panhards from France, indistinguishable except by their license plates… Their boarding houses lay far apart, at opposite sides of the town. John attended the Methodist church, Paul the Roman Catholic. They drank their pale ale at different bars. They were in fact never seen together and apparently avoided all commerce with one another. This puzzled but did not disturb the native inhabitants — ‘an odd story’ was the general remark on their relationship, or the lack of one.”
Bernice and Andreas befriend a local couple (also “immigrants” to New Bentwick), Geoffrey and Margot, who offer to help them in their attempts to win the twins’ trust. They also introduce Bernice and Andreas to a mysterious young woman named Wicheria (or Witchy for short) who is sleeping with both of the twins (although never at the same time of course!).
The novel takes on a bit of a Canterbury Tales feel (as is common in Mathews’ books and perhaps tipped off by Geoffrey’s name) as the two couples take turns telling stories over long dinners together. The stories themselves are models of precision whose endings are often interrupted or left unresolved.
Mathews is clearly interested in how stories are created from equal measures of fact and fantasy. One of the characters in one of the stories talks about the basic human “desire to resolve the irresolute, to conclude the incomplete, to have the crooked made straight.”
Margot, for example, begins her story as being something that happened to her friend “Meredith” before breaking down and admitting it is really her own story of having given a child up for adoption in her teens.
The stories (plus one from Wicheria) all turn out to be connected in hilarious and improbable ways, as an exaggerated gloss on the endless possibilities of stories and the boundless oddity of life itself.
Even the twins’ history becomes tangled and even more bizarre than it at first seems. There is a strangely mythical quality to their lives — one sleeps with his mother, one kills his father, and are they really even twins at all? The novel’s title might provide a clue.
Mathews was the first American to be inducted into the Oulipo Society, a literary group that wrote postmodern novels with self-imposed “arbitrary constraints” – French author and Oulipo co-founder Georges Perec wrote a lengthy novel without using the letter ‘e’ for example, and Italian member Italo Calvino wrote a novel, if on a winter’s night a traveller, mostly in the second person in real time about reading the new Italo Calvino novel.
The Solitary Twin is an engaging, funny shaggy dog story that is hard to pin down; sometimes silly, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes serious, sometimes sad. Just like life, or the best fiction.
The Solitary Twin by Harry Mathews,
New Directions, 160pp.