January 27, 2017

I’m so thankful that Harry M. was in this world


Awful tidings.

Harry M., that Oulipian fabulist and translator of Gallic writing, is now among valiant ghosts, about a month short of his 87th birthday. Harry was our autochthonous imp, with a Parisian lilt and a glint of amazing virtuosity. Harry was also a kind man, a partisan for astonishing work, and a vastly prolific author. Many pals and fans will miss him horribly.

As for your obliging Mobyista, I just cannot say how sad I am.

Harry wrote all kinds of books: lots of fiction, but also straightforward ruminations, and what you might (abiding a particular constraint) call balladry. In Tlooth, Out of Bounds, and many additional books, Harry brought his gloriously odd vision forth with a warmth—and an oomph—truly all his own. Locus Solus, a journal Harry ran from 1961 to 1962, was vital in bringing avant-gardism transatlantically to this country. His translations—including of M. Chaix, an antifascist author whom our protagonist would go on to marry—brought us into traditions from afar. His wit was a light in this world. His writing had a charm that nobody could rival.

Born rich in Manhattan in 1930, Harry was wholly original. Following a stint as a Navy man, his primary labors saw him producing a corpus of work stunning in its cultivation, fantastically playful in its spirit, and, all around, without worthy comparators. As an Oulipian, Harry did much writing with constraints—that is, arbitrary controls on how an author can work—forcing him to abstain from various habits of production in ways that could wind up both highlighting particular dynamics and instigating brilliant solutions. But what was most luminous was his sophistication — worldly, gracious, hilarious, and analytical.

I am proud to say Harry was a pal. A day with him was joy, and sight of him in my inbox brought happy anticipation of an awaiting dispatch. This world has grown poor with his passing.

You may think that, in all I’m saying, a truth stands unsaid. I’m not arguing; it was hard writing this. So allow a conclusory turn away from form, so that this organ in back of my ribs can talk:

Harry Mathews, a player of beautiful games and writer of wonderful books, has died at his home in Key West. For his absolute elegance, high-minded silliness, dignified prurience, and deep feeling for language and the animals that live by it, he will be mourned by a giant community readers. For his gentleness, arch raconteurship, generosity, modesty, and phenomenally good wine recommendations, he will be missed by friends the world over. His writing and his person changed my life, and my gratitude will never diminish.

Good night, sweet king, and flutes of angles sing thee to thy rest.



Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.