THE HUMAN COUNTRY by Harry Mathews


New and Collected Stories
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A sheaf of Mathews’s artifacts from the past twenty years or so, perhaps only for connoisseurs of the gold-packed sentence, including early stories from Country Cooking (1980), midcareer stories from The American Experience (1984), plus ten fresh new pieces (Singular Pleasures, 1993).

The collection opens gloriously with a story not for everyone, a factual fiction that flows from Mathews’s 1952 Harvard degree in music: 1980’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent: The ‘Bratislava Spicatto’ ”—a cellular fantasia on late-romantic conductors, composers, artists, and their familial crossbreeding (the floating affinity of who’s related to whom), which tells of the invention of the Russian mode of unplucked pizzicato bowing on the violin—or maybe we’ve got that wrong, but, aside from its convivial linguistics as it follows the webbings of talent among musical artists, it bears no tie to T.S. Eliot’s famous 1922 essay of the same name (minus the subcolonnic “The ‘Brataslava Spiccato’ ”). “The Dialect of the Tribe” gives a supremely tortuous look into Pagolak, the language of a remote New Guinea tribe that refuses to translate and, indeed, means to be untranslatable, unless you approach it with “a ripeness as for dying”—and even that won’t be enough. “Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double)” is quite likely the best satire on cookbooks ever written and focuses on shoulder of lamb with double stuffing (farce double). “The Taxidermist” tells of a woman who charges a flat rate and, when done, tips up “the flag of her antique taxi meter on her bedside table.” One cannot read all these stories at once, however brief the book, and couldn’t even at half this length. The mind can hold just so much surrealism at a time before it waddles about doubly stuffed with farce double.

Hairpin turns on Piranesi paragraphs that often climb nowhere and twist the brain into taffy. Wonder full.

Pub Date: Sept. 25th, 2002
ISBN: 1-56478-321-9
Page count: 186pp
Publisher: Dalkey Archive
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2002


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