Sorry to report that the novelist, poet, long-standing Oulipian and all-round linguistic adventurer Harry Mathews has passed on. His work has been an important yardstick of brilliance and experiment for a good long while for myself, and I suspect for some of my fellow editors at Gists and Piths, too. The Oulipo Compendium, co-edited by Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, is one of the most bottomlessly useful documents any writer can possess: my own writing would be palpably impoverished without the (dog-eared, coffee-blotted) copy that has sat on my shelf for the last 15 years or so. I will be producing a series of posts throughout the next few months on Mathews' various novels, poems, and unclassifiable, formally-dextrous oddities - as with any Oulipian, the quantity of the latter category most likely outweighs the more conventional forms we normally expect from our serious writers - but for now, I would simply urge you to read his work. Below are a few links to interviews and articles which area good place to start.
Well, it’s been a while.
A thousand apologies. I had fallen down a well.
I have to admit that the
idea of non-fiction as such doesn’t have the same power to compel me. Already
its diction seems to constrain it, defined via negativa – what it is,
well, it isn’t fiction. Immediately, maybe, it is cast into shadow because of
this. I have heard good things about H is for hawk (in fact, it was a
present that I gave to my brother – a bird obsessive – years back), about The
Argonauts, and indeed I studied Portrait with Keys at university – a
great book, indeed.
I have been trying to
think why this is, and provide a genealogy, and examine whether it is something
that pertains to me, something that pertains to non-fiction, or some mixture of
both. Perhaps, it is simply because the tradition is larger, and there is so
much to read anyway. So much to read. Or possibly, it is something else more
definitional at play here. I’m not really fussed about non-fiction as such,
because I’m not really fussed about fiction as such. The question is,
and should always be: is the writing good? And by the writing, I mean both on
the level of the sentences, and the larger structures that the sentences go
together to create. Now you can debate what ‘good’ is, but it is quality that
matters – but this is what you’re saying, no? This applies to genre too.
Whether it be recounting the life of a bourgeois woman in 1920s London or a
future society in which we worship Our Ford doesn’t matter. It simply and only
has to be good. And indeed both Mrs Dalloway and Brave New World
are excellent. I studied Portrait with Keys alongside A Secret Agent,
Ulysses and Good Morning Midnight; I wasn’t really aware of it as
non-fiction. Taxonomies in this case can work against the
reader rather than help. So often taxonomies are the province of the obsessive
and completist, and better for museums and dead things.
My own reading is
haphazard at the moment: there is De Troyes Arthurian Romances,there
is DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, and all the while I’m also in the belly
I’m looking forward to
(among many – as always, there is an avalanche of them) two books in
particular, Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth and Malcolm Lowry’s The Voyage
That Never Ends. I have read their two central works, Invisible Man (1952)and Under the Volcano (1947), and my oncoming reading is, in effect,
all that they could manage after. Both of them had epics mapped out, but what
we have are aborted attempts, premature births, limbs. This happens sometimes,
it seems. Christopher “I’m . . . a writer” Isherwood envisaged epics, but
mostly ended up cobbling together his novels from fragments. Truman Capote much
advertised his Answered Prayers to be an American In Search of Lost
Time, but it never really materialised. Lowry had an idea for a cycle of
novels (the number projected seems to have been possibly three, or possibly
five, or possibly seven). In some ways, Michael Hoffman’s description of this
cycle in the introduction sounds almost like, if only superficially, Lawrence
Durrell’s Avignon Quintet (an underrated remarkable work) in its self
referentiality. The book The Voyage That Never Ends is made up of
fragments and extracts that were intended to one day form this larger non-existent
effort. Ralph Ellison wrote Juneteenth for years and years from 1954 to
his death in 1994. There is something appealing about reading these unfinished
posthumous works. Apart from the standard literary pleasure, there’s the
sadness at what could have been, but also perhaps a certain morbid fascination.
One constant in my
reading for a while now, I think, has been following where the river flowed
after the initial white rapids of what we might call literary modernism. We
have those central figures: Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence, Faulkner. And then the
river rushes through and on and under, picking up new and different sediments,
flashing over different landscapes. I got my dousing rod, and followed. I
listened out for those slightly less known, like Henry Green, Ford Maddox Ford,
Dos Passos, or simply those who came later and still carried that modernist
roar of the twenties, like Lawrence Durrell and Malcolm Lowry. More recently,
James Hanley, Henry Roth, Don DeLillo, Thomas Bernhard, Henry Green (again),
Mario Vargos Llosa, Thomas Pynchon. I want to read Döblin, Broch, Quin, Cary,
Cortizar, Lispector, Toomer. Maureen Duffy (who you recommended) too.
There is something about
the sensibility and energy of these works that has a powerful hold on my
imagination. (Had you guessed?) I don’t want to necessarily theorise about this
(though I could try), nor make a case for their superiority to other works
(because does that get us anywhere?). But I think this perhaps gets closer to
that luminosity that I mentioned before.
I look at the lists
above. Who is the obsessive and completist now? The line from DeLillo about
lists being a form of cultural hysteria comes to mind. A cultured cultural
wonderfully, the literal meaning of the Yiddish word for thesaurus, אוצר (oytser), is treasure. For
someone who has been known to read a thesaurus for fun, discovering this was a rare moment of
cultural resonance, when the name of an object captured not only its
function but my emotional reaction to it. Of course, there’s an echo of this in English,
where a collection of literature can be called a treasury, but somehow אוצר is even more direct about the joy to be found in language and the
building of meaning.
The אוצר I have is the one produced
by Nahum Stutchkoff in 1950 and it’s a hearty breezeblock of a book. Given the size of it I’m not surprised that
there’s only ever been one reprint edition, since a 940-page exploration of
what was then a fading language would have been a challenging sell. Luckily, this book was
built to last. Mine is one of the 1950
ones and it’s printed on the type of heavy paper that has a lot to say for
itself – there’s plenty of crackling and chatter when you turn the pages. You know that sound, like when you flex a really
fat telephone directory in your hands? It’s
that, as though the words are trying to speak themselves. This אוצר is bound in heavy green book linen with gold
lettering, and they even marbled the page edges for crying out loud. It might be 67 years old, but this book still
shows up almost everything else on the shelves.
The 1991 reprint edition of Stutchkoff's אוצר
I bought my copy of Stutchkoff’s אוצר on eBay for $27, from some guy in West Virginia. He might not have realised what a treasure he
had but someone somewhere took mighty good care of this book. I’ve not been able to find a single blemish on
its pages, not one spot of foxing and not a single rip. It’s the kind of volume you’d expect to see in
a library, but this one has no labels or stamps, no inscriptions or marginalia.
The covers are worn where it’s been
sitting on the shelf, but beyond that it looks like it’s gone unread for most
of its life. Happily, not anymore.
This אוצר was one of the very first
Yiddish books I bought, almost two years ago, back when I was slowly
piecing words together on the page. I
was still freaking out about the cost of the postage as I was unwrapping it, but
this is one of those books that can silence all doubts. I might have struggled to read it back then,
but now this one volume is probably the most comprehensive representation of
the Yiddish language that I could ever find.
Just like a Roget’s Thesaurus, Stutchkoff’s אוצר is organised according to categories, and like Roget’s it starts with
the big existential ones, namely Being (zayn) and Not-Being (nit-zayn). Clearly Stutchkoff wanted Yiddish to be
represented with as much seriousness as all the other European languages, not
as some inconsequential זשאַרגאָן (zshargon/jargon). He divided the entire shprakh into 620 categories of concepts, everything from elements
to wild animals to music to foods to emotions, then he absolutely went to town.
Now that I can read and understand great
swathes of this book, I can see that there is real gold in the sheer
linguistic variety that Stutchkoff recorded.
Officially, the אוצר contains over 150,000
words, concepts and phrases, making it almost twice as comprehensive as my
largest Yiddish dictionary. There are
words in here that none of my Yiddish dictionaries have, and Stutchkoff has
been careful to track the different variants of Yiddish across its full linguistic
range. To use the section on blue (בלױ) as an example, there’s a huge array of detail that would be impossible
to find elsewhere. Not only does it list
the different ways of saying “blue”, depending on which version of Yiddish you
are using (bloy, blo, blov, azur, lazur), it also gives a wonderful range of
specific and recognisable blues, such asעלעקטריעבלױ (elektrie bloy), הימלבלױ (himl bloy) and אולטראַמאַרין (ultramarin). Then there’s the more mysterious
blues, such as קינדערבלױ (kinder bloy), which I can only guess would be pastel blue, or בערלינערבלױ (berliner bloy) and קאַדעטבלױ (kadet bloy), which sound
rather more like heritage paint shades.
Berliner blue has to be in here somewhere
However, it’s the similes that really deliver the
goods. As well as the expected bloy vi der yam (blue as the sea) and bloy vi der himl (blue as the sky), we
have bloy vi bliml tsvishn korn (blue
as a little flower amongst rye, presumably a cornflower), bloy vi a milb (blue as a moth), bloy vi a milts (blue as a spleen), bloy vi a gehangener (blue
as a hanged man) and, my own personal favourite, bloy vi mayne gesheftn. I’m
not entirely sure, but I think that last one means “blue as my deals”. I’m almost sure that it’s not obscene.
What I love about these similes is that they call up
a world in its own words, in the language that people spoke on the street and
in their homes. They add the fine detail
that has often been lost in standardized Yiddish, where bloy is usually just bloy.
Stutchkoff’s אוצר is the only one of its kind, a lifetime’s work, and perhaps the closest
we non-native speakers can get to understanding not only what we have already lost but also what there
is to rediscover.