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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Conversions

Harry Mathews

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To purchase The Conversions

Title: The Conversions
Author: Harry Mathews
Genre: Novel
Written: 1960
Length: 184 pages
Availability: The Conversions - US
The Conversions - UK
The Conversions - Canada
  • First published in 1962

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Our Assessment:

B+ : amusing and clever, absurd without being annoying

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Nation . 29/9/1962 Terry Southern
TLS A 14/9/1962 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mr. Mathews' book is fertile in linguistic skylarkings and fantastic invention. It is as entertaining to read as a fireworks set piece is to watch." - Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Conversions finds the story's narrator invited to the house of the "wealthy amateur" Grent Oude Wayl for "an evening's diversion". Wayl shows his guest an adze with seven scenes engraved on it, and suggests a contest for the privilege of ownership, the contestants to be represented by zephyr-worms, racing along a course. The narrator is pitted against Wayl's niece and nephew, Beatrice and Isidore Fod, and the narrator wins the prize.
       It turns out to be of potentially far greater value than he initially supposes: Wayl dies and in his will leaves the bulk of his estate to whoever has the adze in his possession -- and can answer three questions. Off goes the narrator in search of answers.
       Mathews spins a fanciful tale -- and tales within tales -- around this odd scenario. Clearly and simply narrated the text is full of absurdity and anachronism, all presented as if it were the most normal thing in the world. From how the adze came into Wayl's possession to the sad stories of the Fod's (Beatrice discovered "a position for sexual intercourse in which conception was impossible" but was prevented from disseminating her knowledge; Isidore developed a vaccine to a plague befalling the inhabitants of Bengal, only to find a year later that the cure in fact fostered the disease), Mathews fills the text with odd but amusing asides.
       The narrator's search leads him to him to many places as he follows promising (and less promising) trails. He comes across letters, essays, and stories, lost for ages and now uncovered again. Among them is a Bertolt Auerbach story, The Otiose Creator, faithfully rendered in English (and appended in the original German), as well as several pieces concerned with the story of Sylvius.
       There are musical puzzles. There are conversations in mysterious tongues:

       Eyemop top hoppee Araguearl aragof Maragar !
       Aragui'm tharaguë E ayroplop oh fop Moppayrop !
       After three glasses of this jargon I took my leave.
       There are characters with names such as Bunuel Namque-Schlendrian (who inherited twenty million Red Sea cowries when his parents died, and parlayed these into "six hundred and fifty million money cowries (Cypraea moneta)", which he finally exchanges for some gold). There are strange and fantastic scientific experiments with unusual substances and with colour, convincingly explained.
       The book is filled with brief, well-evoked scenes and summaries such as Mathews' description of El Porrón, a Basque torero:
He worked so close to the bull that several of his admirers of both sexes had received from the acuteness of their empathy various stigmata-like wounds -- rents of pathetic reality in their thighs, abdomens and chests, according to the passage of the horn.
       The hunt for answers leads to some, but the tale is in the search. An enjoyable romp, well done and entertaining.

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The Conversions: Harry Mathews: OuLiPo: Other Books by Harry Mathews under Review Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Oulipo books under review
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Harry Mathews was born in 1930. He graduated from Harvard. In 1952 he moved to Paris, becoming a member of the OuLiPo in the early 1970s.

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