Harry Mathews's The Solitary Twin
The Solitary Twin
(New Directions, 2018)
During the years I was pursuing my graduate degree in creative writing at Columbia University, Harry Mathews was a beloved mentor, and in the years since, as I’ve been faculty at The New School graduate writing program, he has been not only a mentor, but a colleague and a friend.
Ok, actually, I did overlap with Mathews at Columbia University and at The New School, but I never took a class with him, and I never talked to him. I don’t know that I ever even met him, which seems impossible, but there it is.
And then there is, as well, the above: the mentorship, the friendship, the other life. It never happened, and yet it has influenced me: and in this moment, it influences me deeply. Consider any given instant, and we are half, perhaps more than half, personalities born of experiences that never happened, that will never happen. We are fantasies and wants and lies and misrememberings, and denials and misplaced emotions and ideas.
Mathews, who passed away last year, has always been concerned with the “what is not” of creative expression. Who we are not is the very stuff of his writerly contribution. He subjected his readers—or perhaps it’s more right to say “his partners in crime”—to made-up languages and languages that they didn’t know, to mysteries that remained mysterious, to onanistic odes of longings, and to a confessional biography of espionage, which, though not the truth, was intractable from the truth.
In his posthumous novel, The Solitary Twin, Mathews approaches his province with a noirish thriller of a conceit: a small island, a pair of twins who dislike/avoid each other, and a denouement that is more an experience of forced predestination than readerly fulfillment. We know that the idyllic island of Mathews sensibility is utopia, and a utopia imperiled by the novel’s intrigue. And yet once the balance, the equilibrium of this world, has been upset, the story, no matter how ill-starred, must teeter into motion.
Berenice and Andreas, too foolish to sense the truth, were blessed with something of utmost price: a happiness beyond what either of them had ever imagined. They were sitting in Berenice’s house above the town. A strange town. For years it had survived as an extenuated fishing village of immemorial origin. Then, in the 1870s, it had started building itself deliberately (if inexplicably) into a settlement many times its size, in accordance (no less inexplicable) with a layout evoking the frugal plans of medieval towns more than the optimistic spreads of the late 19th century . . .
Berenice and Andreas, urban professionals on a colonial jaunt, and enjoying a vacationers’ romance, find irresistible the temptation to ruin everything, to understand the mystery. And we too, as readers, fall to the impulse, knowing that stories (the story of The Solitary Twin and all stories) can render no more than a false comprehension, while at the same time knowing that we are seduced, that we prefer to be seduced by the prospect of insight—insight, perhaps profound. Andreas explains:
I usually feel very strongly about putting questions. It reminds me too much of the day of judgment. You start a question and it’s like starting a stone—the stone starts another stone, and soon there’s an avalanche.
Over the course of a series of literary dinners and self-justifying conversations, Mathews characters wonder who they are, and who we are collectively, and who the twins are specifically. As they consider, they digress, telling stories that reveal more about themselves than any subjects in their narratives. If we are to pursue an answer, a normalization of the inescapable oddness of being someone, we are to be disappointed; we are to find that the phantasm, the lie of who we are, is more compelling, more coursing in our veins than some dust-gathering mundanity, some objective veracity.
Who are the twins? It’s difficult to imagine that a reader would be wondering—from the start, Matthews has the gun on the wall, boldly labeled “Chekovian gun, first act,” and he’s pointing to it. How could the twins, “John” and “Paul,” be anything but our own creations? How could they be any more real than a pair of Beatles to a Beatlemaniac? The outcome, we should have realized, is beside the point. What we are to contemplate, through Mathews fine prose and pristine character portraits, is how a life may be, how a life becomes what it is when it wakes that morning. We are not, in our identities, mountains in a geological state of making, but more like flower petals, or the wings of moths: ephemeral and occasional. And in our passions, be they loving and violent, we are frail and frightened. Via the amorous attention that the gentler twin, John, pays an older woman, Mathews demonstrates:
I’d come down on foot to meet him. He insisted on walking me home, and I let him. He followed me into the house, and once inside, he frankly defined his passion. He defined it with great delicacy and simplicity, and as he spoke he began stroking my upper arms—it was his touch more than his words that won me over, it was like a woman’s touch, a caress without weight or pressure, his fingertips barely grazing my skin.
It’s easy to dub a posthumous publication a capstone, or a conclusion, but there is something of The Solitary Twin that is a “fare thee well,” a one-last good morrow, a one-last footnote that reflects upon a lifetime treatise. Berenice ponders:
I met John today. He lectured me sweetly about feelings for so long I lost touch with what the word means. . . . He wanted to persuade me that feelings are our only reality—"How delicious!"—our only currency.
John Reed is a NYC writer and author: JohnReed.org