19 January 2008

Harry Matthews - The Journalist

Harry Matthews is the only American member of OuLiPo, the French experimental writing group that included Perec and Queneau amongst its most prominent members. Known for their playfulness and subversion, their works could sometimes be criticised for favouring form over substance, but such is the fate of modernists (and post-modernists)

The Journalist isn't a hack but a diarist. The narrator is keeping one as part of recovery from a breakdown. It isn't explained how this will help him - presumably by imposing order and rational reflection upon his daily activities - but it becomes a catalyst for a further breakdown. As an effort to organise the diary, he invents various classifications for his entries, dividing them into actions and thoughts, and then those involving other people and those just about himself, and so on until he has 25 categories. The keeping of the diary becomes an obsession, and also takes up most of his time, at work and at home, where he loses sleep in order to record his day.

This taking over of his life by journal writing reminds me of what has been observed about epistolary novels of the 18th Century, in particular Richardson's - it was estimated by one critic of Clarissa that she would have to have been writing letters for eight hours a day, and barely have had time to act the events she describes. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is far more realistic in this respect.

The journalist becomes increasingly bewildered and paranoid as lack of sleep, and avoiding his medication, leads him to lose perspective, thinking that his wife is having an affair and is conspiring with his own mistress to conceal secrets about his son from him.

The revelations in the end aren't so shocking, nor greatly different from his paranoid thoughts, but the novel isn't so much about the plot, which is slight, but the method. I thought it was successful in those terms, although the obsessive categorising doesn't distort the structure, and a diary is hardly a novel form. It's sufficiently witty and engaging though to override such gripes.

I bought this from the wonderful Calder bookshop on the Cut. Its eclectic stock includes a lot of French avant-garde, all of Beckett, as John Calder, who's in every day, was his publisher, and selections from small publishers such as Hesperus, Pushkin and Dalkey Archive, who specialise in translated fiction. They have several other works by Matthews, who I haven't seen elsewhere, as well as many other lesser-known authors, which makes browsing there an expensive delight.


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