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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Human Country

Harry Mathews

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To purchase The Human Country

Title: The Human Country
Author: Harry Mathews
Genre: Fiction
Written: (2002)
Length: 186 pages
Availability: The Human Country - US
The Human Country - UK
The Human Country - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : clever, elegant entertainments

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 15/2/2003 Toby Litt
London Rev. of Books . 20/3/2003 Mark Ford
The NY Rev. of Books . 5/12/2002 Geoffrey O'Brien
The NY Times Book Rev. . 13/10/2002 John Hartl
TLS . 6/12/2002 Lawrence Norfolk
The Washington Post . 23/3/2003 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "Whether or not this kind of literary game-playing is a pleasure or a torment depends almost entirely on the reader's sensibility." - Toby Litt, The Guardian

  • "The novels are the essential Harry Mathews, but The Human Country is a fine place to start." - Geoffrey O'Brien, The New York Review of Books

  • "Some of these 24 stories (written between 1977 and 2001) come off as minimalist teases, others as mere stylistic stunts. Black comedy infuses the more recent ones" - John Hartl, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The present volume is an island-hop through a much larger archipelago. Some of the stops are disconcertingly brief, little more than jokes, others too isolate to justify revisiting. Most fully justify their inclusion, offering synecdochal, destinationless journeys, obscure quests, and sometime baffling projects pursued with relentless, sometime hilarious conviction." - Lawrence Norfolk, 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:

       Harry Mathews is, as if often noted (so also on the back cover-blurb of this collection), the only American member of the Oulipo. Oulipo-authors are notoriously playful in their works, engaged in odd literary games based on artificial constraints (see the Oulipo Compendium (and our review), co-edited by Mathews, for an excellent introduction to all things Oulipian). Often forgotten behind these games is the sheer formal elegance of the work of many Oulipo authors, the care with which language is used by them: Georges Perec, Jacques Roubaud, Raymond Queneau, among others, are admirable writers of prose, able if not to completely cover the artificiality behind their texts at least to integrate it remarkably easily into them. Harry Mathews manages the same, as he again demonstrates in this collection.
       The Human Country apparently collects all of Mathews' short fiction; about half the stories have been previously published in earlier collection (most in Country Cooking and Other Stories).
       There are some word-game stories here, notably Clocking the World on Cue: The Chronogram for 2001 (involving a very bizarre but apparently centuries-old literary form -- see this earlier Chronogram for 1998 (in Jacket) for an example).
       There is also the long tour de force, Their Words, for You (the longest piece in the collection), previously published in Selected Declarations of Dependence (see our review). In that collection Mathews explained what went into the text: it is a tale made up entirely of the words contained in forty-six familiar proverbs; curiously, he offers no such explanation here. (One certainly guesses what goes into it -- the limited vocabulary over more than twenty pages make it fairly (if not exactly) clear.) With or without understanding what it is made up of, it remains strangely beguiling:

You will have been taught that you can't teach an old dog without breaking eggs -- look at one broken egg. But what will it have taught me ? It was an unlucky tide that parted you from me.
       Still, it can be a bit much. Most of the other stories are not based on such tight constraints -- resembling, even, plain short fiction. But they're still anything but plain.
       Franz Kafka in Riga echoes Borges' Pierre Menard, the narrator finding his own words repeated in a Kafka-passage -- exactly, save for a single word. Barely a flare of a story -- just two pages long -- Mathews manages to achieve a marvelous effect with it.
       Remarks of a Scholar Graduate offers a baffling (and hilarious -- and, deep down, also very clever) scholarly debate about language.
       The Dialect of the Tribe is a purported Festschrift-contribution, again focussed on language -- here literally all-consuming. The narrator (there are a lot of first-person narrators in these stories) finds:
The longer I live -- the longer I write -- the stronger becomes my conviction that translation is the paradigm, the exemplar of all writing. To put it another way: it is translation that demonstrates most vividly the yearning for transformation that underlies every act involving speech, that supremely human gift.
       Needless to say, Mathews manages to vividly depict this thought.
       One of Mathews' classic tales, Country Cooking from Central France is also included -- the ultimate recipe-gone-awry-tale, which is, in fact, largely literally a recipe ("Serves thirteen", the story concludes).
       All in all: good fun. There aren't too many of these stories (only two dozen), so Mathews doesn't exhaust each idea that comes to him with infinite variations. The stories are carefully constructed, Mathews making sure everything is just so, each idea as well-realized as he can make them.
       The writing, even under the worst (such as the chronogrammatic) constraints, is quite remarkable. Mathews doesn't offer any lazy sentences (perhaps because of the constraints which force him to put so much work into each); if anything, one might find that there is too much polish to them.
       Aside from the language, Mathews offers some decent stories too, tales where stuff happens. He knows how to grab (and generally hold) a reader's attention, too -- consider the beginning of Tear Sheet:
       Justice has been done, said the occupied girl, withdrawing an icepick from the neck of the occupant. Elsewhere interpretations differ: does equality mean equal rights, or one law for all ? If that is the case, who should pay ?
       The stories remain elusive (if what is the case ?), always keeping the reader just off-balance. It's part of their provocativeness, and part of their fascination.

       The Human Country won't be to everyone's taste, but it is certainly of interest.

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The Human Country: Reviews: 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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© 2002-2010 the complete review

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