Harry Mathews: A Trickster Mass for Erik Satie in VAPA
Photograph of Harry Mathews courtesy of The Paris Review
“Well, the great thing for me about poetry is that in good poems the dislocation of words, that is to say, the distance between what they say they're saying and what they are actually saying, is at its greatest.”
--Harry Mathews in conversation with Johannah Rogers of The Brooklyn Rail in 2005
Harry Mathews was an American author known for his experimental novels, volumes of eccentric poetry, avant-garde short fiction, and genre-bending essays. He was also a translator of French and spent most of his life living in France and in Key West, Florida. When Mathews died this past January at the age of 86, Literary Bennington went for a look into the archives to see what we could find related to the two years he taught at Bennington (1978-1980).
In 1976, after years abroad in Paris, Mathews moved back to the United States to teach French and creative writing at Bennington. Mathews, the only American member of the experimental French writing salon known as Oulipo, was fond of wordplay and the use of games to enhance his own writing and to teach writing techniques to his students.
As Mathews told Susannah Hunnewell of The Paris Review in a 2007 interview, “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.” This reveals the joy Mathews took in drawing the reader in so entirely only to flip situations and progressions on their head and yank the story in a new direction.
Mathews is also known at Bennington for the interdisciplinary production that he participated in to celebrate the newly constructed VAPA. Mathews’ translated text by Georges Guy was set as a Mass for soprano, contralto (or mezzo), narrator(s), flute, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, cello, and double bass. Three narrators from the drama department delivered most of the text, both in English and in French.
Nick Brooke, acclaimed composer, musician, and member of the music faculty at Bennington since 2004, finds the collaborative work to be a fascinating time-capsule. He reports: “Listening to Vivian Fine, Georges Guy and Harry Mathews’ satirical mass gives a glimpse at the playful faculty collaborations of the time. The work is titled ‘To a Bust of Erik Satie’—a notorious prankster and performance artist of fin-de-siècle France—and is structured like a religious service, with mock formality (Satie himself created his own mock religion) and a confusion of texts.” Brooke was also impressed by the involvement of faculty from different disciplines. “Guy, Matthews, and drama professor Leroy Logan shout and croon the text in the recording while Bennington composer Vivian Fine provides an oddly mournful chamber Mass, with bassoon, two sopranos and brass.” MP3 recordings of the piece can be found on the Crossett Library website.
Mathews is best known for his novels, which include The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, half of which was written in pidgin English; The Conversions, featuring nine pages of straight German text; and his satire Cigarettes, the structure of which, Mathews cautioned his readers, was so obscure that “there’s no point in looking for it now because no one will ever figure it out, including me”; and many more wonderfully unsettling works of literature.
To end, I’ll quote Mathew’s earliest known poem, which he wrote at age 11:
It was a sad autumnal morn
The earth was but a mass of clay
Of foliage the trees were shorn
Leaving their branches dull and gray.
Don’t these words remind you of Bennington at the end of Autumn, when the snow is about to fall over the Colonial houses and everything is waiting for the coldest season?