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The Conversions [Paperback]

Harry Mathews
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Oct. 1 1997 American Literature Series

At a dinner party hosted by a wealthy New Yorker, a guest receives a gold adze, the coveted prize in a worm race. When the man dies the next day, he bequeaths, according to a stipulation in his will, the bulk of his fortune to the adze's possessor, provided he answer three mysterious questions relating to the artifact's history. In his search the owner encounters a menagerie of eccentric personalities: an ancient revolutionary in a Parisian prison, a ludicrous pair of gibberish-speaking brothers, and customs officials who spend their time reading contraband materials. He soon finds himself immersed in the centuries-long history of a persecuted religious sect and in an odyssey that begins in a forgotten fog-covered town in Scotland and ends on the ocean floor off the cost of an uncharted French island.

A wild goose chase through a remarkably unusual world, The Conversions invites both reader and protagonist to participate in a quest for answers to an elusive game.


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Review

"Exquisitely stitched narratives, and [a] sense of wonderverging on aweat the world's regal strangeness... inspires [Mathews's] novels.... Extraordinary imagination.... Told with the strictest economy, without extraneous justification or explanation." --  Times Literary Supplement



"The tragi-comedy of human ingenuity, which insists upon interpreting the facts of experience even when they are senseless, baffling, or banal.... a remarkable extension and exploration of the odd fictional devices invented by Raymond Roussel." -- Edmund White, New York Times

About the Author

Harry Mathews (born February 14, 1930) is an American author of various novels, volumes of poetry and short fiction, and essays.

Harry Mathews was the first American chosen for membership in the French literary society known as the Oulipo, which is dedicated to exploring new possibilities in literature, in particular through the use of various constraints and algorithms. The late French writer Georges Perec, likewise a member, was a good friend, and the two translated some of each other's writings. Mathews considers many of his works to be Oulipian in nature, but even before he encountered the society he was working in a parallel direction.

Mathews is currently married to the writer Marie Chaix and divides his time between Paris, Key West, and New York.


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Customer Reviews

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4.5 out of 5 stars
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Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Curiouser and curiouser Dec 9 2000
Format:Paperback
This is a book that was meticulously planned - word play and images, false starts and unreliable history - all in an interplay that is both riveting and frustrating. Riveting because of the quality of the imagination; frustrating because reading is one long riddle requiring very intense concentration by the reader.
The book is filled with wordplay ... most notably beginning with a gypsy "game" of describing the scene on a ball filled with boiling water ...; the narrator wins the game in what is called "a new triumph ... of analytical poetry over descriptive prose". Songs seem to carry hidden messages. Horse pedigrees are given in exhaustive detail. A man writes and speaks backwards - two languages, in effect, for one reverses sounds, the other letter. Old manuscripts hide clues in the red letters at the beginning of each line - if you only know what to add and where to divide. Authors and titles of books seized at customs, nine civil servants each of whom distorts language more strongly than the predecessor.
Through all the word play is a plot that is entertaining - but not always sufficiently so to motivate one to put the work into reading that this novel demands.
In short, The Conversions has a fascinating use of language in a satisfactory plot; the author is in full control at all times. Well worth your time ... but chose your time well.
Was this review helpful to you?
5.0 out of 5 stars a perfect book June 30 2000
Format:Paperback
Harry Mathews is the most important novelist writing in the English language that no one reads. It's a pity, for he writes with a style and engagement that, if left in less talented hands, could be considered effete, but with his mastery of language and narrative comes off as pure genius.
The Conversions is essentially about solving a riddle, but the search for its answer allows Mathews to do what he's best at: telling stories, and in all respects displaying a love for and engaging with the potential of language.
If you've not read Mathews before, this book will get you hooked; you'll soon want to read his novels, his essays, poems and other pieces, and will soon recognize that he is an American master, one whose works will only grow in stature with the years.
Was this review helpful to you?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a perfect book June 30 2000
By Micah B. Kleit - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Harry Mathews is the most important novelist writing in the English language that no one reads. It's a pity, for he writes with a style and engagement that, if left in less talented hands, could be considered effete, but with his mastery of language and narrative comes off as pure genius.
The Conversions is essentially about solving a riddle, but the search for its answer allows Mathews to do what he's best at: telling stories, and in all respects displaying a love for and engaging with the potential of language.
If you've not read Mathews before, this book will get you hooked; you'll soon want to read his novels, his essays, poems and other pieces, and will soon recognize that he is an American master, one whose works will only grow in stature with the years.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Now Converted May 8 2012
By Austin B. Alexander - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Just now finished my first book by Mr. Matthews, a new character to me by way of Oulipos by way of Pataphysics....
The Conversions is a multi-tiered treasure hunt, filled with the Oulipo projects of experimental writing and codification. But in the dismay of the overwhelming tease of yet jucier information in his (and now our) quest to translate the square plates on the blade of his gifted/won adze, the narrative and characters spring to life. No detail is left out, though the read is far from tedious.
Definitely for fans of Italo Calvino and Flann O'Brien.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Curiouser and curiouser Dec 9 2000
By M. J. Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is a book that was meticulously planned - word play and images, false starts and unreliable history - all in an interplay that is both riveting and frustrating. Riveting because of the quality of the imagination; frustrating because reading is one long riddle requiring very intense concentration by the reader.
The book is filled with wordplay ... most notably beginning with a gypsy "game" of describing the scene on a ball filled with boiling water ...; the narrator wins the game in what is called "a new triumph ... of analytical poetry over descriptive prose". Songs seem to carry hidden messages. Horse pedigrees are given in exhaustive detail. A man writes and speaks backwards - two languages, in effect, for one reverses sounds, the other letter. Old manuscripts hide clues in the red letters at the beginning of each line - if you only know what to add and where to divide. Authors and titles of books seized at customs, nine civil servants each of whom distorts language more strongly than the predecessor.
Through all the word play is a plot that is entertaining - but not always sufficiently so to motivate one to put the work into reading that this novel demands.
In short, The Conversions has a fascinating use of language in a satisfactory plot; the author is in full control at all times. Well worth your time ... but chose your time well.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pynchonian Predecessor Oct. 27 2007
By Ned Ludd - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"The Crying of Lot 49" is a perfect little book, with obvious influences from Borges. It was obviously heavily influenced by this book as well. The similarities of the labyrinthian search for answers that only uncovers more and more puzzling questions, leaving the searcher questioning whether or not any of his original premises were even valid, is done to perfection by Mathews. Both he and Pynchon's version combine with perfection inventive word play and elaborate plots. Nothing against Pynchon, because he has delivered on everything he produced (yes, even "Vineland" and "Against the Day"), but Mathews wins this contest of similarities. If only Mathews could have delivered as much with the rest of his oeuvre. Highly recommended.
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