In My Life in CIA, a pale sexton, who's avoided the sun to heighten his whiteness since the accidental death of his black ("like Siberian anthracite") lover, says of his new habit of remaining indoors and seeing after the church that employs him that he occupies himself "minding [his] keys and pews". We readers know that he says so as a witticism and not ingenuously because as he does he "smile[s] faintly". Nicely done, church-bleached sexton, and Mathews as well, we readers think, until, perhaps merely pretending not to understand the conventions of fiction, we recall that this book takes place mostly in Paris and the characters are, presumably, speaking French to each other. (The fact that some actual French words are occasionally interjected—on the order of "merde" and "adieu"—doesn't matter; those are just bits of color, clumsily left un-Englished to remind the reader of the setting.) So: what did the sexton really say, to bring the faint smile forth? Did it have the same subject matter? Was it also a pun? How impressed with Mathews' rendition should we be? I say "perhaps merely pretending" because it seems to me that there should be something French that the sexton could have said, more or less equally clever and meaning something more or less similar, if we're to attend not merely to the meaning of his words but to the words qua words, and their sounds etc., themselves, and that Mathews is getting off easy, doing something cheap, if he hasn't got an answer to the question. And partly, too, because Mathews seems like the kind of author who would have an answer to that question.
At this point you, varied reader, are no doubt thinking that while spooneristic puns do have something to do with sounds, it is not really a "phonological trick", and so the title of this post is a bit inept. That is a good thought. This post is not about My Life in CIA, though it is about a novel by Harry Mathews, and admittedly begins in a way that does not make its actual matter obvious. Consequently I will now reveal that it concerns a bit of the "Lewis and Morris" chapter of his earlier novel Cigarettes, and will even, in the next paragraph, reveal the bit itself. (Scandalous.) In the remainder of this paragraph I'll just give a bit of background—will do so, in fact, starting with the next sentence. Lewis, having read Morris's art criticism, is eager to enter his good graces, and Lewis's sister introduces them; they meet a few times thereafter but their relationship doesn't begin in earnest until Morris sees Lewis's photo in the paper: Lewis, and many others, were arrested when the police raided Lewis's crucifixion. (This is an objective genitive.) They then embark on a sadomasochistic affair in which Morris subjects Lewis to basically monthly humiliations and tortures, with plentiful verbal abuse, while, in between, getting him set up with an apartment and job and coaching him in his writing. (Late in the chapter Morris reveals that he gave several of Lewis's efforts to an editor of Locus Solus, the little magazine that, in real life, Mathews co-edited.)
At their last meeting, Morris has Lewis mix up a bunch of quick-setting cement, covers him in oil, and then makes a living statue out of him (with holes obligingly provided for his eyes, ears, and nose). He then, per usual, chews Lewis out, saying how (oratio obliqua) worthless and repulsive Lewis is, and, from the bottom of page 151 to the top of 152, such things as (oratio recta):
"Even if I don't like reading you the stations, I won't spread jam. So please, Louisa, get it and go. You're a mess, a reject, a patient—I could go on for days. And don't tell me—I have your nose wide open. I'm sorry. Spare me the wet lashes, it's all summer stock. Because the only one you've ever really been strung out on is your own smart self, and you always will be. And for what—to keep catching my rakes in your zits? Forget it, Dorothy. This is goodbye. Remember one thing, though. No matter what I've said to you, no matter how I've turned you out, the truth is"—Morris's eyes become wet; he turns a surprising shade of red—"the truth is, and I'm singing it out: I lo—
Morris's eyes become wet and he turns read not, or at least not necessarily, or not solely, because of the emotion involved in what he does not in the end say, but rather because, or at least in part because, of his weak heart, which has finally just now given out; he dies, leaving Lewis encased in the cement. Lewis manages to break free (by causing himself to totter back and forth) and call for help, bringing further infamy on himself: "Morris", we read on page 254, "might well in these consequences be completing his last aborted sentence, which Lewis had unhesitatingly grasped in its entirety: 'The truth is, I loathe you'."
The first time I read Cigarettes, I took it that Morris had been cut off in saying, finally, "I love you"; Lewis's revelation two pages later came as a shock. Note, though, that each interpretation makes semantic sense. "No matter what I've said to you" could refer to Morris's speeches to Lewis in their assignations, or in his encouragements afterwards. "No matter how I've turned you out" seems apter to involve unsavory slang than a metaphor for grooming, but, eh. At any rate, I was prepared to accept that Lewis's reconstruction was, after all, correct (and it does seem more in keeping with Morris's general M.O.). (So it was a bit surprising to read in this generally good paper the claim "Lewis (mis)interprets Morris’s dying words as “I loathe you,” thus confirming the pain, inadequacy, and self-hatred he so needed Morris to act out on him" (528), since it's far from clear that it's a misinterpretation—even allowing for the fact that Lewis himself is the narrator and not presenting everything with a totally even hand.) But really, isn't this a dirty trick Mathews has pulled? (Or perhaps it's Lewis who's pulled it. Still a dirty trick!) "Love" and "loathe" begin with the same two letters, but if Morris had reached a point in his utterance that it would be natural to transcribe as "lo—" (rather than "l—"), he would have reached the disambiguating vowel—wouldn't he have? The reader is lulled into thinking "love", or perhaps suspects, given the scene, that it's "loathe"—but it wouldn't be so unclear for Lewis, whose ears, recall, are unstopped. The reveal on p 254 doesn't just prompt a reassessment and reconsideration of what one had read before (meaning the matter that had been related before), it prompts a revisitation of the actual text, the letters themselves, that one had read, in a different sense, before: it was "lo", right? But then—
Anyway, it's dissatisfying.