THE CASE OF THE PERSEVERING MALTESE

Collected Essays

By Harry Mathews

Dalkey Archive. 332 pp. Paperback, $14.95

THE HUMAN COUNTRY: New and Collected Stories

By Harry Mathews

Dalkey Archive. 186 pp. Paperback, $14.50

Writers can be "difficult" or "demanding" in various ways. Some pepper their novels with Latin (Umberto Eco); others eschew paragraphs (Thomas Bernhard, Jose Saramago) or refuse to identify speakers (William Gaddis, W.M. Spackman); many compose sentences that go on for pages (Proust, Joyce, Harold Brodkey) or experiment with the presentation of their text (Arno Schmidt, Julian Rios). When confronting daunting authors like these, the determined reader simply slows down, adjusts expectations and waits for each book to start exerting its power; then all is well.

Harry Mathews (b. 1930) is a little different, though: I find much of his work impenetrable. Not that the man doesn't write clear and lively sentences. In fact, his books often take the form of pulpy quest-adventure tales or social comedies. He can also be wonderfully imaginative, as in his best-known story, "Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double)." Here he mimics one of those chatty, TV-style cooks, in a deadpan account of how to prepare a hearty regional dish from a mountain village in Auvergne. "It demands some patience, but you will be abundantly rewarded for your pains." Pains indeed. Before long, you are being ordered to make up tripe-skin pouches filled with quenelles, procure wild boar fat, dig a cooking pit and, to be truly authentic, sing elaborate folk songs during the roasting. This Rube-Goldberg style recipe grows increasingly elaborate and funny all the way to the end.

No, Mathews's difficulty lies in how his stories and novels take shape. To generate his texts, he employs various undisclosed systems or formulae, some (probably) emulating Raymond Roussel's use of punning wordplay to create narrative, others derived from self-imposed constraints or various mathematical patterns. Nothing appears in his books gratuitously, and all the bewildering strangeness can be explained by the secret principle. Or so one feels. As a result, while reading Mathews I always wonder: Why these particular odd names (Grent Wayl, the Voe-Doge brothers, King Dri), why these strange practices and not others (worm races, philosophical dentistry), why these bizarre riddles (What was La Messe de Sire Fadevant, who shaved the old man's beard?)? I almost never know the answers, and it drives me crazy.

Take a closer look at Tlooth, Mathews' second novel. It opens in a Russian concentration camp, "established during the Holy Alliance for the internment of heretics," that is divided into the Americanist, Darbyist, Defective Baptist and Fideist or Resurrectionist sections. All the prisoners bear sexually ambiguous names: Hillary, Robin, Beverley, Laurence, Evelyn. After the narrator and his -- actually her -- chums flee the camp on a five-person bicycle, they encounter Arabs shading themselves with lavender-colored parasols while swigging bottled water. A nomad named Tham Duli carries a box labeled "Elisha Perkins' Genuine Metallic Tractors," which contains two brass valve rods. Why lavender parasols? Why metallic tractors? Why two brass rods? There must be a reason. Just as there must be an explanation for the tavern in Afghanistan that sells only sandwiches and drinks made of mustard.

Oh, it's easy enough to pick up on Mathews's more obvious word games, such as "male hairy ill of face the gored is with three" echoing the invocation of the Virgin, or to recognize the Kafka reference in the title of The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium. It's even fun -- sort of -- to imagine a Caroto painting of "St. Roch Showing His Inguinal Bubo." Occasionally, too, the humor seems simple and charming: Captain Hershey, mentioned in The Conversions, "had never become an admiral (despite a brilliant record) because of his lifelong skepticism towards the torpedo."

Harry Mathews believes that texts generate power by what they leave out, thus allowing the reader to fill in the gaps and become an active co-creator (he argues for this theory in "For Prizewinners," his most sustained essay on the nature of writing). I like the idea, but Mathews's stories and early novels pack in so much that one is instead distracted by the plethora of bizarrerie. Alternately, one sometimes feels that the narrative is overly dry or schematic, an exercise in style or the working-out of a combinatorial challenge.

Not surprisingly, Mathews is a member, the only American member, of the French Workshop for Potential Literature (Ouvroir de la lite{acute}rature potentielle -- the notorious OULIPO). This group believes that the use of mathematical templates and constraints can liberate the artist's imagination and allow him to say things he might never have thought of otherwise. The best-known members of the OULIPO were Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec and Italo Calvino (all of whom Mathews writes about admiringly in his essays). Queneau once constructed a sonnet-machine that could generate millions of poems -- he made up a block of 14 sonnets, one on top of the other, then stapled their edges together like a book. By scissoring each line into a strip that can be folded over to reveal the line beneath, he creates the possibility of mixing and matching all or any of the 14 lines in a dizzying number of permutations. Similarly, Perec authored the notorious novel La Disparition without ever using the letter E, just as Calvino composed The Castle of Crossed Destinies with the aid of a Tarot deck.

But where these writers differ from Mathews is in their revealing at least some of the invisible motors powering their work. Mathews generally keeps his secret -- though he does include an example of one text-generating engine in his essay "Mathews' Algorithm." But, charming and sexy as his fiction can be, as engaging as his mock-erudite surface narratives are, he often leaves one hungering for, well, meaning, or at least the master-code that will allow one to fully enjoy his ingenuity.

Despite my sense of frustration, I keep returning to Mathews because his work is so absolutely distinctive and original. Happily, too, Dalkey Archive Press has reissued nearly all his books, gathering together his essays in The Case of the Persevering Maltese and his shorter fiction in The Human Country. The essays include patient explications of the works that have inspired Mathews's admiration or emulation: Laura Riding's Progress of Stories, Joseph McElroy's Women and Men, the work of Raymond Roussel and Isidore Ducasse (a k a le Comte de Maldoror), Kenneth Koch's The Duplications, Raymond Queneau's The Skin of Dreams and Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual. More general pieces address the nature of writing, the work of the OULIPO, the practice of translation, and the relationship of words to music in opera and song.

Besides "Country Cooking," The Human Country reprints various parodistic early stories -- a festschrift article, a send-up of music scholarship, an alumnus talking at his old school about his anthropological researches into the alphabet -- and a good deal of the more recent work: oddball monologues, lists, prose poems, themes and variations. Most of these latter are too dry for my liking, despite their touches of fantasy and embedded wit.

Play lies at the heart of Harry Mathews's fiction, whether in his Firbankian campiness, learned nuttiness a{grv} la Robert Graves or tricksy Oulipian practices. So maybe one should just learn to be satisfied with the surface fun, and quit worrying about what's going on behind or beneath the sentences. Maybe. Yet any author who sees that the Latin res qua res -- the thing as thing itself -- can be Joyced into the verb "resquares" deserves some effort to understand his texts. So I keep on trying. *

Michael Dirda's email address is dirdam@washpost.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Thursday at 2 p.m. at washingtonpost.com.