CIGARETTES by Harry Mathews


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Poet, translator, and novelist Mathews enhances his urbane tale of sex and greed among the artsy/horsy set with an equally sophisticated narrative technique--a constant shift in perspective that focuses on only two characters at a time. While it throws so much into doubt, his recombinative method also provides a startling, and most satisfying, sense of symmetry. At the center of this fictional puzzle lies a painting--an exceptional portrait of an enigmatic woman. For the artist, Walter Thrale, ""Portrait of Elizabeth"" represented his transformation from mere portraitist--mostly of horses and dogs for the Saratoga set--to celebrated Greenwich Village artist in the early 60's, a man said to have ""reinvented the act of painting itself,"" With each new coupling of characters, Mathews adds another dimension to the obsessional powers of both the aesthetic object, its affable creator, and its seductive subject. A variety of relations--between siblings, lovers, parent and child, husband and wife--prove tenuous and open to misunderstanding, vengeance, and whim. Owen Lewison, for example, a wealthy insurance adjustor, worries that his daughter's ""wayward life"" as Thrale's protÉgÉ accounts for her increasingly neurotic behavior, though the cause is in fact organic. Meanwhile, Owen's son, Lewis, an aspiring writer, develops a bizarre passion for Morris Romsen, the critic whose article on Thrale both ""illuminated"" Lewis and advanced the artist's fortunes. Morris' death during one of his and Lewis' stranger S-M encounters affects the ownership of what everyone thinks is the famous portrait but is in fact a forgery by Lewis' sister. This version comes into the possession of Maud Ludlam, whose husband, Allan, is having an affair with Elizabeth herself. The intrigue hardly stops there in a plot also involving insurance fraud, horse racing, and further sexual duplicity. A more complex, coldblooded, and confusing view of WASPy affections than the average Updike novel, but the same kind of shimmering prose.

Pub Date: Oct. 22nd, 1987
ISBN: 1564782034
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson