Imagine a small fishing village on the edge of the world. Its inhabitants are progressive and content. The surroundings are pleasant. The village is economically sustainable. Although remote, it maintains a cosmopolitan attitude. No serious crime have ever been committed—for example, murder. In his playful and brilliant final novel, Harry Mathews — who died in 2017 — takes us to this contemporary Arcadia. But, as is the case in the fictional world of Harry Mathews, little is as it seems.
The Solitary Twin begins properly with pillow talk. Two people, a behavioural psychologist named Bernice and a publisher named Andreas, arrive separately in the village for similar reasons: to find a pair of twins, Paul and John. The newcomers meet and fall quickly in love, deciding to join forces to gain the trust of the brothers. Paul and John are identical in almost every way — they drink the same brand of beer, they drive the same model of car (identical except for the license plate), wear the same clothes, read only the International Herald Tribune. One is a fisherman; the other produces textiles. John is affable; Paul is not. No one has ever seen them together, not even their mutual friend Wicheria, the local bohemian. ‘The two of them are playing one game, the same game,’ she explains to Andreas and Bernice. The twins captivate the newcomers for professional reasons: Bernice wants to study them, Andreas to publish them.
Are the brothers even two people? Why did they choose to live in this quietly remarkable way, at the end of the world? These are the centrifugal questions that propel The Solitary Twin. As in all of Mathews’s novels, it can be difficult to parse red herrings from clues. His books invite, perhaps demand, rereading in order to get a sense of what is what, to find out what clues were missed. Mathews ironically quipped once that his ideal reader, upon finishing a book of his, would throw it out of the window only to chase it downstairs to retrieve it as it hit the ground. As mysteries, his novels are capers of interpretation, closer in spirit to Edgar Allan Poe, where strange and sometimes obvious clues are left in plain sight, than they are to American hardboiled novels or their British whodunit counterpart.
Born in New York City in 1930 to an upper-middle-class family, Mathews spent the majority of his life between France and the United States. He earned the distinction of being the first American (and Anglophone) member of the Oulipo, the famed French avant-garde ‘laboratory’ for potential forms of literature based on mathematically derived constraints, founded by Raymond Queneau and François le Lionais in 1960. On the other side of the Atlantic, Mathews is also associated with the New York School of poets, particularly John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, with whom he edited the journal Locus Solus from 1961 to 1962 (named after the Queneau novel and funded by an inheritance Mathews received from a deceased grandfather). His first novel, The Conversions (1962), attracted the attention of Georges Perec with whom he would become lifelong friends. Perec then translated the following two — Tlooth (1966) and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (serialised by the Paris Review in 1971, not published in book form until 1975); he also campaigned to have Mathews elected into the Oulipo. Mathews himself was a noted translator of Georges Bataille, Perec, and Marie Chaix, his wife of 40 years. He lived like a dandy and dressed like a detective. His life of experimental writing, multiple dwelling-places, seemingly no steady income, and a penchant for expensive wines led some of his Parisian friends to suspect that he was CIA, a circumstance he neither confirmed nor denied. Instead, he wrote the novel/memoir, My Life in CIA (2005). When asked about the book in a French-language interview, he replied, ‘tout est vrai là-dedans, et tout est faux’ (‘everything in it is real, and everything is false’).
In his novels, Mathews explores our desire to make sense of a bewildering world, often with delightfully implausible scenarios, such as treasure hunts, espionage, and art forgery. From the 1962 publication of his first novel, The Conversions, a book that involves one character trying to solve a riddle in order to win a massive inheritance, to The Solitary Twin, Mathews wrote novels that do not seem to reveal themselves easily. Seem is the operative word. In a typical Mathews novel, we have all the clues we need, and yet rarely, or only obliquely, are we provided satisfactory answers, even though everything is there in front of us. If this sounds like a frustrating reading experience, then the multiple pleasures of Harry Mathews are not being properly conveyed — these books are riotously fun.
Formally The Solitary Twin recalls Mathews’s first three novels, all of which were capers of one form or another structured around a series of digressive stories. Yet it also has the accessibility of much of his later work, composed during his membership of the Oulipo: Cigarettes (1987), which I consider his masterpiece; The Journalist (1994); and the aforementioned My Life in CIA.
Although unified by the mystery of Paul and John, each chapter of The Solitary Twin centres on a different tale, told by a different character. After Bernice and Andreas befriend their neighbours, Geoffrey and Margot, the couples decide to share a story over succeeding dinners in order to get to know each other better. ‘My idea is that each of us takes turns telling a story,’ Andreas proposes. ‘Not necessarily stories about ourselves although there’s nothing wrong with that, but also stories we’ve heard from other people, or remember from books and plays. Stories that we’d love to tell or retell ourselves or, perhaps more accurately, that we’d love to hear told.’ The chapters proceed to be structured around these stories. More details and mysteries are solved or introduced, until in the final chapter we reach the central mystery of the brothers.
Everything seems potentially significant — even the setting is something of a puzzle. The town, we learn very late in the novel, is called New Bentwick, named after one of its founding fathers, a kind of benevolent scion, who, along with a consortium of likeminded people, including the English writer Samuel Butler, all of whom made their money sheep farming, created the plans for the prosperous community based on sustainable fishing practices. (Butler’s appearance seems to be another wink to its arcadian — or utopian — setting.) People come to New Bentwick out of curiosity, and they stay because there they find happiness. The town seems to be near or adjacent to New Zealand, as references to the archipelago nation and its inhabitants are frequent. We know for certain that we are, at least, in the antipodes, because the final sentence of the novel tells us that ‘as April ends, autumn begins’. Other than that, we are not meant to know exactly where New Bentwick is — it wouldn’t be Arcadia if we did.
It is difficult not to read The Solitary Twin as a late work — that is, one that attempts, in some way, to be retrospective. Its final sentence (no spoilers) is indicative of this: ‘Beyond it a warm north wind was rising, reminding us as April ends, autumn begins: a time of mists and moister winds, and a few chilly snaps; of local wines, cooled a long age; of early nights by electric light; inventing names, and guessing games; and your soft laugh.’ That sentence is, in many ways, a shapely condensation of Mathews’s oeuvre. It’s as if in his final printed words, a bit like Prospero, he looks back on what he has accomplished. (And I cannot help but imagine that the final sentence is, in fact, Mathews breaking the third wall and addressing his wife, Marie Chaix.) It is a kind of backward glance at a life of deliriously inventive storytelling.
Yet I wonder if considering The Solitary Twin a ‘late work’ is a typically Mathewsian ruse. Tout est vrai là-dedans, et tout est faux. In Edward Said’s posthumous collection On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain (2006), the critic explores the ‘late style’ of artists, composers, and writers whose final works were full of ‘intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradictions’. That’s the irony of The Solitary Twin: in Said’s sense, all of Mathews’s work was already late. The desire to give his life its final soliloquy misses the point that although stories provide our lives with bittersweet clarity, they elide life’s messiness.
And now the great writer is dead. The Solitary Twin brings us to Arcadia only to suggest that stories themselves are our ideal landscape. And to remind us that death is there, too; it’s the novel’s elusive twin.