Top positive review
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Life is short
on April 19, 2004
Cigarettes appears to be Harry Mathews' most conventional novel. That is only because Mathews' experimental devices and his far off, imaginary locations are not a part of this work. Surely this work is nothing like the previous work, but it is as artistic as the others. This is the literature of the salon, of Marcel Proust and, shall I dare say it, Jane Austen? And if one does not read the name on the cover, it does seem to be the work of a woman writer, say Djuna Barnes or Jane Bowles, and of course Two Serious Ladies is mentioned and read in Mathews' book. Two Serious Ladies may be used as a way into this complex, labyrinthine work.
Even though this novel may have some realistic qualities, (usually when we're dealing with Mathews, Realism is never a consideration, and language is of a main concern), it is a labyrinth of relationships of a group of people living in artistic New York in the 1950s and the 1960s. As opposed to Mathews' first novels, The Conversions and Tlooth where the imagination rules, the characters of Cigarettes do seem real, like a 19th century novel perhaps.
But I am willing to say that it must be that none of these characters are based on real people as much as they have been entirely invented "out of the whole cloth" by Mathews.
He has said good-bye to the days of adzes, stories in the arctic, Gypsies, bi-sexual baseball players, invented languages, Adrien Le Roi, Auerbach, and literary paper chases. Now Mathews is concentrating on more conventional means of writing, more realistic. It is not at all a defeatist work. One cannot write for that audience of 500 forever.
Each of the 14 chapters pair off two of the 13 main characters, and chapter by chapter we see the shape of relationships and the ever-changing extent of seriousness. Allen is married to Maud, and he has a relationship with Elizabeth. Priscilla, Walter Trale's lover, is Allen and Maud's daughter. Owen is blackmailing Allen for Elizabeth's portrait; he once found his daughter Phoebe, posing nude for the painter, Walter. Owen is married to Louisa, and he has another son, Lewis, who is a writer and the sado-masochistic lover of Morris. Morris is an art critic, and has a sister Irene, who is an art dealer. Irene owns a forgery of Elizabeth's portrait done by Phoebe, who also become an art dealer. The real portrait and the fake are exchanged at one moment, and only a few people are aware of this.
All through the novel parents misunderstand their children, and the other way around, children always misunderstand everyone, and lovers never have a clue. The novel ends with a moving meditation on death, and the fact that "we become the dead." Definitely, the ideal reader becomes more involved with this novel than with others; the reader who is passive may have too much trouble keeping up with the different people who make up this story. Mathews here has developed a few new structural devices. There are many questions. Who is the narrator? Is there a chapter missing? Is this story based around a secret palindrome?
This novel pretends to portray psychological depth, and tricks the reader into thinking so, but after it's all over it laughs at the possibility of depth. And the reader also laughs, or cries, for this novel suggest that personality or the other is always misunderstood. Everyone has friends or lovers that are like a puff of smoke and then gone, like a "cigarette." This is not a conclusion to the book, but just an aspect, a nuance, the real conclusion is that relationships and fiction remain inconclusive.