Cigarettes by Harry Mathews

Mathews, Harry. Cigarettes. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987. Normal, Ill: Dalkey Archive, 1998.

Harry Mathews’ fourth novel is quite a departure from his previous three. One would expect some change in the 12 years since his last novel. Over that period Mathews joined the Oulipo (actually in 1972, but his previous novel is concurrent with that year in writing, if not publication). He calls Cigarettes his first truly oulipian novel. The constraint at work is a “permutation of situations” though he does not ever state exactly what that is.* Mathews in on the side of not revealing constraints. The structure of the novel itself lends one to imagine at least an arena for these permutations: each of the fifteen chapters is devoted to the relation between two of the thirteen major characters, and one can imagine some situational constraint to create these relationships (though I only speculate, the constraint could be completely unrelated to the 13 character/15 chapter structure).

Unlike his previous novels (Tlooth, The Conversions, and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium) this is not a story of adventure or treasure. On the surface this is a novel of realism, though on closer examination the facade of the realist novel is broken and exposed through the narrative frame and the disjointed structure. No overarching plotline links all the stories of these relationships together, but none exists in isolation from at least a few of the others. The characters as a group are upper class New Yorkers, divided locally between the city and upstate.

On the first page (3, my page references are to the first 1987 edition) of the novel an “I” appears (“When it was my turn, I read…”) and makes itself known as the narrator/writer of the story: “I wanted to understand. I planned someday to write a book about these people. I wanted the whole story.” Then the narrator fades away, we forget the narrator as the story takes on a godlike omniscience. We read the thoughts of the characters in each chapter in a way that no person could know. The illusion of an omniscient writer makes us forget that “I” of the first page.

The timeline of the story jumps between 1936-38 and 1962-63, with most of the chapters focused on late ’62/early ’63 and a few that span the period of the 30’s to the 60’s. They seem to occur in no understandable order or logic, often a later chapter fills in what we are missing from an earlier chapter, sometimes the smallest of threads connects one chapter to another, one character to another. Part of the fun of the novel is making these connections, puzzling through all the relationships, connections, stories, and events. Mathews makes the reader work to create the story, all is not placed on a platter for our easy consumption.

On the whole the novel focuses on love and power as shown through the 14 relationships (one (for reasons that are one of the novels mysteries) is described in 2 consecutive chapters). The relationships cover a wide-range between father/son, mother/daughter, brother/sister, sister/sister, lovers (hetero and homo), husband/wife, and intimate friendship. Major subjects of the stories include the art world (artistis, dealers, and critics), business (particularly insurance), and, of course, love and sex. Certain elements recur such as horse racing, shady business deals, and a painted portrait of the character Elizabeth which travels through the stories and touches almost every character (perhaps the only thing that touches every character?).

In the end the narrator returns to remind us of his existence, let us guess his identity (never explicitly stated, but fairly obvious), and make observations that lead us back into the novel and its realist facade. The novel ends with a beautiful passage on death, fitting as the novel is dedicated to Mathews’ friend, writer Georges Perec, who had died in 1982.

A brief precise: Allan is in love with Elizabeth and married to Maud who is the sister of Pauline who married Oliver who was in love with Elizabeth but broke with her when he saw her with Walter who painted her portrait and later lived with Priscilla, Maud and Allan’s daughter, who knew Phoebe, Walter’s assistance, daughter of Owen (who knows Allan) and Louisa who is friends with Irene, Walter’s art dealer who is Morris the art critic’s sister, who is in a sado-masochistic relationship with Lewis who is Phoebe’s brother (Owen and Louisa’s son).

And that’s only the most obvious connections.

It’s an interesting novel, deceptively realist and psychological, but in the end probably colored by the almost invisible narrator. I found this much more interesting than The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium which I also recently reread.

I’m considering a third reread of it.

[See here for the edited end of the novel.]

The bibliography of articles written on Mathews’ are few. For reading about Cigarettes I recommend what little I could find:

Leamon, Warren. Harry Mathews. New York: Twayne, 1993. Particularly Chapter 6 “Going Back: Cigarettes,” 75-93.

White, Edmund. “Their Masks, Their Lives — Harry Mathews’s Cigarettes.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 7.3 (1987): 77-81.

*In his essay “Translation and the Oulipo” he writes: “I had concocted an elaborate formal scheme in which abstract situations were permutated according to a set pattern.” (81, The Case of the Persevering Maltese: Collected Essays)