Novelist, poet, and translator Harry Mathews died on January 25 of this year. Born in New York City in 1930, he studied music at Harvard, and after moving to France in the '50s, started writing fiction, publishing his first novel, The Conversions, in 1962. His capacity for literary invention seemed limitless, writing works full of eccentric twists, puzzles, and James-ian eloquence. He became the only American member of the Oulipo, a group that included Raymond Quenuau and other avant-garde luminaries, and ushered one of that movement's definitive works, Georges Perec's A Void, a novel that does not contain the letter e, into English. (Matthews once told an interviewer that while working on the translation, he taped a thumbtack, point up, to the letter e on his typewriter.) His flair for experimentation was always marked by a deep playfulness, evidenced in later works like The Journalist (1994) and My Life in CIA (2005). The latter is a memoir—or is it a novel?—about the author's experiences in 1973 France, where he found himself faced with rumors that he was a CIA agent. In the book, he slyly decides to encourage the rumors, and in the process explored his own relationship to writing. "I just finished a workshop at the New School, and the last day was devoted to writing as the act of being masked," he told an interviewer. "It's much easier to write if you don't know you're 'you,' so that the real 'I' disappears. That's exactly what I'm doing, finding freedom by assuming a mask that I know is false. It was created by other people, but I make it my own, and that makes me the master of the game." A lover of games, and of literature, Mathews was a major force in contemporary letters, and a major influence on many generations of fiction writers and essayists. Here, his admirers remember his work, and his charming, mischievous presence.

Harry Mathews at the End of the Meal

I met Harry Mathews when he came to Seattle in 1987. I read his novel Cigarettes, and works by and about members of OULIPO. The more I read, the more I wanted to write by subjecting myself to constraints.

Harry's mastery of the territory, documented by his Oulipo Compendium (co-authored with Alastair Brotchie) was unsurpassed, as he provided examples of a wide assortment of procedures to generate poetry and prose. Perverbs, eye rhymes, and Mathews's Algorithm were three of the obvious constraints I came to know him by, but he was more inclined not to reveal the mechanisms behind his marvels.

Harry was always very gratious and encouraging. If there was a constraint I wanted to use for a major project, I would ask him if it had been used because nobody wants to spend years working on something ludicrously complicated if someone else had already accomplished that. He could be critical, as well. When informed of my plan to rewrite On the Road as a corporate history novel using business jargon manipulated by constraints, he wrote, "How nice that you have so much free time."

At the 2012 &Now conference in Paris, he gave a talk to a roomful of writers on a Sunday morning. To give an idea of the world he lived in, I tell people how he mentioned that a novelist friend of his had said that having an unfinished novel around for a long time was like having a body in the house, and as he tried to recall who told him that, he said, "Was that you, Rob?" to Robert Coover, then paused. "No, it was Gaddis."

My favorite story about Harry is more of a legend. It was in Los Angeles. He was invited to do a reading while he was there. Although the organizers knew he must be fairly well off, since he had homes in Paris, Provence, New York, and Key West, they offered him a stipend, and he accepted. Afterwards, they were embarrassed to say that the funding fell through and there was no stipend. Most graciously, Harry said that was fine and encouraged them to join him for dinner. I don't know where they went or what they had, just that there was a great white Burgundy the organizers were pleased to share with him since it was not a wine they would have ever bought on their own in such a fine restaurant. The restaurant itself was an extravagance for them. At the end of the meal, Harry thanked them profusely for the opportunity to read and for the sumptuous dinner, got up, and walked away. —Doug Nufer

Opera, Math Poems, and Fast Cars

Harry visited me one summer in Southampton and we went to see his friend Arnold Weinstein's opera at Guild Hall. Harry spent the intermission writing a poem based on a mathematical construction that he explained to me and which I completely did not understand. He was very excited and kept writing on and off through the opera. After the show, I saw him speed away in his car that had an Oulipo license plate. —Frederic Tuten


His books carved a new path for me. Another way of saying that without his work, I wouldn't write the way I write now. Recalling, now, how I rescued from Book Ark on West 81st St. on June 19, 1997—aka "Mathewsday"—The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium and Other Novels, fictions already 30 years old but fresher than anything I'd seen since Green Eggs and Ham. (Really? Yes.)

My love of constraints stems from the games he played and explained with deadpan grace. And it follows me here, to these lines in his honor. The second review I ever published, for a now-defunct website, was for Oulipo Compendium (1999), which he co-edited, a book that seemed to hold all the secrets. He wrote me the kindest note. (Evidently I sent him a printout.) We broke bread once, somewhere in Brooklyn (this was before 9-11) with my two friends, Mark and Michael, and he told me that he, too, loved Eyes Wide Shut and Cards of Identity. Sad now, but I believe his work will age better than so much of what everyone pretended was important. —Ed Park