Harry Mathews Reading


Last night I tore myself away from the 1000-page grading marathon of the past week to take the train up to Philadelphia for a unique experience. Harry Mathews, one of the most interesting living novelists and the only American member of the Oulipo, the author of books including The Journalist, Cigarettes, Tlooth, and The Human Country, was doing a reading at Penn in conjunction with an exhibit of his papers at the Penn Library, curated by Nick Montfort, who also introduced Harry at the reading (after the Director of the Penn library sang Nick's praises fairly extensively). Before the reading began, just as I walked in an began reading some of the exhibited papers, which reveal a great deal about Mathews' fascinating composition process, Harry and his entourage arrived from New York. I was able to spend a few minutes watching Harry walk through his own past. It has been 9 years since Penn acquired his papers, so he was running across many bits of his own life he had forgotten, such as an alternate ending to Cigarettes, which he said he was glad he'd elided. It was fascinating to watch someone as accomplished as Mathews looking with wonder on the exhibits of his own life. He seemed to regard the whole experience as one of pleasurable curiousity. His reading, of work both from his early career (the first poem he'd published, in 1956) and more recent work, was characterized by the playful showmanship he's always been known for.


Just as a measure of Harry's spirit, after the reading, he walked up to some people reading papers in the exhibit and thanked them personally for reading his work. I've known Harry for a few years, he's a member of the ELO's Literary Advisory Board, and had a wonderful evening with him, Joe Tabbi and Rob Wittig in Chicago a few years back. The organizers of the event generously invited me to join their party for dinner, where we broke bread with a fascinating group of people. I hope Harry wasn't too upset about the Implementation sticker I affixed to his bottle of wine. I'm grateful to Nick, whose work on the exhibit was thoughtful and impressive, for inviting me to share in that very special event.


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