Customer Reviews: Cigarettes (American Literature (Dalkey Archive))
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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.
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on October 28, 2012
Harry Mathews' "Cigarettes" is a literary soap opera spanning three decades, following the lives of a dozen characters as they fall in love, commit adultery, plot against one another, indulge in their darkest desires, scheme, and ultimately, die. Elizabeth, a femme fatale straight out of a Prince song- the kind of woman who likes to love them and leave them fast- drives the action, both through her amorous seductions and her captivating portrait, painted by up-and-coming artist Walter. Walter is obsessed with women, both terrified of and enthralled with them, and it is only by capturing the essence of Elizabeth on canvas is he able to deal with this obsession, inadvertedingly creating obsessions in others. Allan falls victim to Elizabeth's allure, his wife Maud discovers this infidelity, and then discovers a second infidelity he enjoys with another character. Meanwhile, Walter's art, and the fact that his art has more to offer the world than Walter himself, inspires siblings Irene and Morris to wage war on each other, a battle that eventually snares others in its net.
The convulted action is revealed in a series of chapters, each of which focuses on two characters. When we first learn about Allan and Elizabeth's affair (in a chapter titled "Allan and Elizabeth", setting the pattern for every chapter), other characters are mentioned but their stories are unknown. With each subsequent chapter, more information is revealed about the sprawling cast, with each new piece of information forcing the reader to reconsider what is happening in the story.
Race horses, shady financial transactions, sibling rivalries, and amorous adventures all drive the action as Mathew's weaves a complex tapestry of emotion and deceit. "Cigarettes" is a straight-up literary soap opera that is both fun to read and serves as a subtle critique of the rich, the famous, and the art world.
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on March 4, 2016
According to the blurbs on the dust jacket of the hardback edition, this novel comes highly recommended by a number of well-known literati who should have known better. One has to wonder if they actually read the thing. Only a few characters come alive--Phoebe at the beginning, and the two guys in a sado-masochistic relationship. But after about the middle of the book, I started feeling as if I was reading a report: he did this, she did that, he did her, she did her . . . as if someone who didn't know how to play chess was sitting at the board moving the pieces around rather aimlessly. Finally, I was sorry to have spent my time on the book.
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on April 14, 2015
I found Phoebe's character to be very interesting, and that, for me, was the highlight of the book. But at about page 200 I literally couldn't care less anymore about the book. The characters struck me as repetitive and unoriginal. Maybe that was the point.
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on March 3, 2015
One of the best crafted books I've ever read. A sublime example of the Oulipo oeuvre
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on December 26, 2014
gift, didn't read, came as advertised or better
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on March 11, 1999
a classic. a comedy of manners that gradually interconnects a milieu of upper middle class americans -- the most seemingly straightforward and accessible of mathews' novels.
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