Harry Mathews Exhibit

Last week I went to the University of Pennsylvania’s Van Pelt Library to see an exhibit called Composing: Harry Mathews’ Words and Worlds. It was curated by Nick Montfort, who has a page on the exhibit and the text of his introduction to Mathews (Damn, I missed his reading!).

A number of works, manuscripts, pictures, drawings, letters, and other ephemera were spread about a few glass cases in one of the library’s long hallways. Quotes punctuated the walls above the small cases (most of which are found at the Nick’s site above).

I was constrained by time, so did not get to peruse the exhibit as much as I would have liked. The majority of it was texts, handwritten or typed, and thus not easy to digest behind glass; I found myself wishing for the chance to sit down somewhere with all the pieces and read them thoroughly.

A great number of Mathews’ works were represented, editions of his novels, manuscript pages, diagrams (a drawing of one of the devices in The Conversions), interspersed with biographical information, letters from friends (John Ashbery for one), a few photos (of course one of the friends Mathews and Perec), copies of the journal Locus Solus which he founded with John Ashberry, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, and a few pages on some of the constructions and forms behind his works (the ones I would most like to examine).

I can’t recall ever being to an exibit like this, about an author. While, I’ll admit to not being much of a museum goer (do my days as a photocopying zine maker and printmaker have something to do with my relative lack of interest in original works?), I don’t think this is the ideal format for such an exhibit. A clearly scanned online exhibit of these items would have been so much greater in value, certainly for readability and accessibility (Mathews’ audience is probably fairly small, and certainly most do not reside near U Penn). Alas, that this exhibit exists in any form is certainly a boon. Congrats and thanks to Mr. Montfort for his work.

Sadly, I didn’t get the accompanying pamphlet that the website says is offered. I will attempt to get one otherways.

The most interesting thing I picked out from the exhibit that was easily copyable is from the last manuscript page of Cigarettes (Stop Reading Here is you do not want to be spoiled for this novel), which contains two lines erased from the final published version, two lines which expose the narrator/author of the novel. I reprint them below for the curious:

Lewis lights another cigarette.

“Here endeth the last fiction,” he says aloud as he yanks the sheet from the roller.

(Harry Mathews, Cigarettes manuscript, Jan 11 1986.)

If anyone reading this is or will be in Philadelphia, I’d recommend checking it out. The exhibit is up until the end of August. Maybe I’ll go back when I have more time.