Harry Mathews, the American-born novelist who spent most of his long life living in France, was born in New York on February 14, 1930. Mathews never really reached great popular success but has always had an avid cult following.
Mathews came from a wealthy family who disagreed with his literary and artistic ambitions. Relations with his family deteriorated when he eloped with French artist Niki de Saint Phalle when he was nineteen years old.
When he moved to France with his wife and young daughter two years later, after earning a degree in music from Harvard University, his family disinherited him.
In Paris Mathews fell in with an avant-garde literary set, particularly the group of experimental writers known as Oulipo, who wrote novels and stories with elaborate constraints, such as Georges Perec’s The Void, a 300 page novel written entirely without the letter “e.”
Mathews was the only American member of Oulipo, although his novels were never as overtly constricted as the work of other Oulipians.
Mathews witty novels often mimic noir detective stories and follow their protagonists as they stumble from one improbable dead end to another. Mathews said that his “narrators are all trying to solve some riddle or mystery and are overcome by an obsessive conviction that they will be able to find a definitive answer, but it all falls apart.”
His novels are full of odd twist and turns and flowing sentences that seem to mean the opposite of what they are actually saying.
My favourites are Cigarettes (1987) which follows 13 characters over 30 years in chapters that each examine the interaction between only two characters at a time, and My Life in CIA (2005) an auto-fiction mash-up about the (real-life) rumours that Mathews was a CIA agent in the 1960s. Mathews spins a yarn where, as a joke, he sets out to pretend that he actually was a spy and then actually does get recruited.
(The book is not called My Life in the CIA, by the way, because Mathews let’s us know that real CIA agents never say that; it’s always just “CIA.” Who knows if that is any more true than anything else in the book.)
Mathews told The Paris Review in 2007 that “I’ve always said that my ideal reader would be someone who, after finishing one of my novels, would throw it out the window, presumably from an upper floor of an apartment building in New York and by the time it had landed would be taking the elevator down to retrieve it.”
Mathews died in 2017 at the age of 86.