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An Interview with Harry Mathews

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by Barbara Henning

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Harry Mathews and I have corresponded for a number of years, and in the back of my mind I always keep a list of writers who I’d like to interview and Harry is up there at the top. I admire his writing and his ideas and inventions for writing. When I sent him my book of interviews, Looking Up Harryette Mullen (Belladonna), he wanted to talk about some of Juliana Spahr’s comments about women and the Oulipo, and since he was going to be in New York very shortly, it occurred to me that this would be the perfect time to interview him. Juliana had written a beautiful introduction to Looking Up, talking about Harryette’s generosity and how the interviews were instances of poetic community. What Harry wanted to talk about was Juliana’s comment, “It is also a group that is not only mainly French but also mainly male. I believe they admitted a woman once. She seems to have quit at some point.” So on Friday, May 27, 2011, I met with him at the Bryant Park Hotel. First we went to lunch across the street but it was too noisy and the tape recorder couldn’t pick up our voices, so we came back to the hotel and talked there. Then we continued filling out and editing the interview through email correspondence.
Barbara: Before we go on to talk about the Oulipo and women, I want to read to you something that Lynn Crawford wrote in a recent email to me: “The idea of Mullen willing to ‘tread even where, perhaps, she is less than welcomed’ is interesting, even if maybe not true; the Oulipo has a terrific sense of humor and probably would wonder why anyone would want to join aging men drinking too much at lunch and talking about chess…you know? And the individual Oulipo writers (Queneau, Perec, Roubaud, certainly Harry) are incredibly open to things feminine, moreso, arguably, than many American writers…. Remember, Queneau wrote an ironic masterpiece titled, We Always Treat Women too Well so I guess it depends on how you read the word welcome. My guess is every one of them would be blown away by Mullen’s work, and consider the support Harry has given you, me, Lynne Tillman.
Harry: I have no idea how the Oulipo would respond to Harryette Mullen’s work, but certainly the fact of her being a woman would play no role in its members reaction. One element in Juliana’s remarks that distressed me was that the record at this late date still needed to be set straight. In any case I wrote Juliana and told her that her comments about women and the Oulipo were well out of date. Our first woman member was elected to the group in the ’70s and remained a significantly active collaborator until, a few years ago, she decided that her own ambitions were leading her in a direction that fitted uncomfortably with the concerns of the rest of us. She did not “quit” the Oulipo, since once one becomes a member one can neither resign nor be expelled; but she stopped participating in the group’s activities. (Several males have done the same thing over the years.) In the meantime four other women who have been elected play very important roles in the business of the life of the group and furthermore represent one-third of the active living members. There must be eighteen or nineteen members now, but only eleven or twelve are active, and I count myself as an active member, even if I’m not as available as I’d like. Of the 12 most active members, these four women are always present and always contributing, which is not enough but it’s already a step in the right direction. We also have several gay members, both men and women.
Barbara: Could you talk about the Oulipo and women in the early years?
Harry: In the beginning the Oulipo was entirely male and they weren’t making a point about that. It was just that Raymond Queneau invited a lot of friends to be the first members. There were two founders, Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. Queneau was the more literary of the two and he asked poets and novelists that he knew to join the group and I don’t remember how many there were, maybe 8 or 9 in the beginning. That’s easy enough to find out. There were no women and that may have been due to a somewhat misogynistic streak in Queneau. Sexually he was enthusiastic about women, but I think he had a sort of Swiftian skepticism about them as pure beings, not that males are pure beings. I don’t know if you know this kind of misogyny in men which includes a lot of physical involvement and in his case an intense devotion to his wife whose death really precipitated his own death. He depended upon her entirely. Any one who is interested can read about how they met and how he courted her in one of his earliest novels, called Odile.
Barbara: I read that novel quite a while back, and I loved it, an intimate autobiographical novel that gives some sideways glimpses into the Surrealist movement.
Harry: Yes, it’s extraordinary. It shows a whole side of Raymond Queneau which is not so evident in his other more impersonal novels. Anyway, in the beginning there were no women. Oulipo was founded in 1960. Perec became a member I think in 1966, maybe 65. And I became a member in 73, the same time that Calvino did. The first woman was elected to the group in 1975, an extraordinary performance artist.
Barbara: Michèle Métail?
Harry: Yes, Michèle Métail. She is the one that Juliana refers to, saying that she quit the group, and as I told her you cannot quit the Oulipo. She doesn’t participate anymore.
Barbara: Why not?
Harry: Because she felt that we were not going her way or maybe she disapproved of the way she thought we were going. It’s hard to explain. She was always independently minded and did what she wanted to do. And I think that, it is just an opinion, that her work took on a more personal vent in recent years and she found that there was no room for her anymore in present day Oulipo activities. I’m not sure. I regret her absence because she was a knowledgeable confident participant in the group’s activities.
Barbara: Why would writing that is personal be a bad fit?
Harry: It needn’t be. I don’t know the answer to your question, to tell you the truth. The last time I saw her was in Berlin, fifteen or more years ago, and she wasn’t participating then, but she was there, and we spoke afterwards and that’s the last time I’ve seen her, so I don’t know what has been going on with her. But she was a very lively presence as long as she stayed with us.
Barbara: She could come back and participate at any time she’d like?
Harry: Of course.
Barbara: Could you explain why once you are elected you can’t quit the Oulipo? I was thinking there was some political reason as a result of the surrealists . . .
Harry: Yes, absolutely, and if you want a detailed explanation you can read Jacques Roubaud’s lecture that is reprinted at the beginning of The Oulipo Compendium. I’m really just referring to him. Queneau was kicked out of the surrealist group by Breton because Breton had left his first wife for a new love and Queneau was married to his first wife’s sister. Breton said you may never mention the name of this woman. I don’t want to ever hear this name and Queneau said, Fuck you. And there was also a doctrinal difference between them, too, but that was the immediate personal cause. I think Breton was insanely dominating in the surrealist group. So when Queneau and Le Lionnais founded the Oulipo, they took care that that couldn’t happen and that people could not be kicked out. The corollary of that was that they couldn’t resign. It was later thought that this was too restrictive and that they should be allowed to resign. The following provision was then made: if they really felt strongly about it they could summon a legal officer to their residence and there commit suicide in front of the legal officer, making it absolutely clear that the only reason they were committing suicide was to be able to leave the Oulipo. So far this is not an option that has been taken up. (laughter)
The dead members of the Oulipo are still members, and when we list our members we list Queneau, Le Lionnais, Perec, Latis, Luc Étienne, Noël Arnaud, Jean Queval, Jean Lescure, Jacques Bens, François Caradec, Marcel Duchamp, Italo Calvino, Oskar Pastior, Albert Marie-Schmidt, and André Blavier as well as those of us who are still alive.
Barbara: So if you had contributed to the creation of Oulipian ideas and processes, what you created would always be present?
Harry: I don’t know if it was justified that way. The fact is that people died. You are expected to respond to the announcement of the monthly meeting and those who can’t come have to request to be excused. I have not been able to come all winter because I’m here, so I’m excused. The people who are dead are permanently excused.
Barbara: So the reason someone can’t quit—it’s not an authoritarian rule per se, but rather a reaction to an authoritarian actions by Breton?
Harry: Almost no one went back to the surrealist movement after being kicked out by Breton. The whole idea of exclusion was in the air of the time, the time of fascism and Stalinism, and exclusionism was a tremendous weapon in the hands of people who were running political movements. The Oulipo is the opposite of that.
Barbara: Coming back to Michèle—was she ever published in English, besides in the Compendium?
Harry: I don’t know. I know about the translations I myself did for the Compendium.
Barbara: And she’s a writer of poetry rather than fiction?
Harry: Her great work is neither poetry or prose. It’s a singular beast. She was inspired by a famous Austro-Hungarian song that contains one long compound word, O Du schöner Donaudampschiffahrtgesellschaftkapit:an! –oh, you handsome Danubetravel- companylinesteamshipcaptain; in English, you’d have to replace those words by genitives, you know, a noun proceeded by “of”, and she started writing this work that is still going on, as far as I know. Each line drops its last unit as a new one is introduced at its head.
Barbara: Is that “20,000 Possessive Phrases”?
Harry: Ages ago it was 20,000 lines and she has gone on in several languages, including Chinese and German. It’s quite extraordinary…
Barbara: It’s difficult to translate?
Harry: No, but it’s better to imitate than translate, which I did, but the results are close to unreadable. I obviously don’t have her particular talent for that procedure.
Barbara: Who are the other women?
Harry: They were elected much later, in the last fifteen years or so. First, Michelle Grangaud, a master anagrammatist. She and Oskar Pastior were the two Oulipians who specialized in anagrams. She has invented many other procedures. She’s also devoted herself to a systematic poetic study of the appearance of words by year in the French language, starting in the 15th century; she writes poems based on the words that appeared in a particular year. Excellent work.
Barbara: She was born in Algiers? Slenderizing is that something she did?
Harry: No, that was invented by Luc Etienne, a virtuoso of language.
Barbara: That’s right. She did some variation called “the lipossible.” What is a “lipossible?”
Harry: Before I answer that, I feel I should point out that Luc Etienne exemplified another kind of misogyny. He was someone who was attracted to scabrous, obscene solutions to the problems he set for himself and so brilliantly solved. This is a man, I thought, who really loathes women. But when a woman was invited as a guest of honor to one of our lunches, he was all syrupy courtesy. His behavior infuriated me. To talk about women in an almost pornographic way and then when one shows up to assume a mask of old-fashioned gentlemanliness! I guess that’s better than nothing.
Anyway Michele Grangaud was I believe the first woman to be elected after Michèle Métail, in 1995. Her concept of the lipossible was generalization of Luc Étienne’s slenderizing, which effected the removal of the letter r from a text without destroying its grammar or coherence; Michelle Grangaud showed how it was possible to do the same thing with any letter of the alphabet.
Barbara: No other women were proposed in between?
Harry: Probably, yes; I don’t want to name the one person I remember being proposed because she wasn’t elected and that caused a great deal of bitterness on her part. Electing people has always been difficult to handle and get right. A number of us –– younger members and myself –– have always pushed for getting new, especially young people into the group. Ian Monk wasn’t quite 40 when he became a member, but recently we elected Daniel Levin Becker, who is in his early 20’s. We were thrilled by that.
Barbara: How does an election take place? This whole process is striking me a little like academia—you can’t be kicked out, well, you can quit your academic post but you can’t be fired.
Harry: You can’t quit the Oulipo, but you can withdraw. It’s like choosing new members of a department in academia, like a club. The Oulipo is a friendly club, but there is nevertheless a division between people who don’t want to change things much and others of us—Ian Monk, Fréd Forte, me and probably a couple of the women who want to keep moving along. Anyhow, someone proposes a name and describes what the candidate does and why he or she would make a good member of the Oulipo. The first thing we then usually do is to invite the candidate as guest of honor at one of our monthly meetings, and after that decide on whether or not to proceed with an election. That’s how I was elected. As a guest of honor you present yourself and your work, your sponsor does the same thing, and later it is discussed. Usually nothing comes of it. A hard sell on the candidate’s part is not recommended; and it helps a lot to have somebody pushing for you. I can’t name names, but one person came as a guest of honor and was absolutely brilliant. I mean his work was technically masterful and completely Oulipian. When he had to leave after a certain point, before the end of the meeting, we all looked at each other with half-averted eyes because it was clear to all of us that he was not going to fit in socially.
Barbara: You have to fit in the group? That’s also a consideration with academic hirings although often not talked about.
Harry: You have to be someone that we’d all like to see. And this person was someone none of us wanted to see. In a way it was unfair to him. Of course, he was very upset by this and went off and started his own group. But it’s all right now, I think.
Barbara: But in that period between 95 and back in the 60’s some women were probably proposed.
Harry: Yes, but none elected. I can’t remember the details, it’s already a long time ago. I just remember one particular case ….If I go into the details it will be too obvious. After Michele Grangaud, next came Anne Garréta, a brilliant woman who has written some interesting works of fiction. She’s been an admirably provocative member. For me, she is somewhat too respectful of academia. Even though she is a creative person herself, she’s all too happy organizing professorial discussions of the Oulipo.
Barbara: Is she still at Duke University?
Harry: Yes, she teaches half the year there, and the other semester at the University of Rennes.
Barbara: I notice that her novels have not been translated into English. After a quick search on the internet, it looks like none of these women have books that have been translated into English.
Harry: I don’t know why not. The next woman to join was Valérie Baudouin, a soft- spoken, extremely bright and knowledgeable person who has distinguished herself in many domains, but who is mainly known to us by her work as a computer expert, an IT expert. She set up our site and she keeps revising it expertly. Recently she’s written fascinating collaborations with Anne Garréta.
Barbara: Poetic collaborations?
Harry: It’s not poetry, but it is sort of an immediate memoir à deux. Recently Michèle Audin joined the group. A brilliant mathematician and a lively presence, she’s also very active not so much in the general activities of Oulipo but in her own research. She is continually coming up with new forms and new ideas, mainly drawn from mathematics (a return to Oulipian basics).
Barbara: So Michèle Audin is a mathematician who contributes to the list of possible constraints: does she also work with language and write literary texts?
Harry: She does; but her chief interest is how mathematical structures are potentially productive in literature. Last weekend there was a conclave, a gathering of Oulipians in Normandy, to review the general situation of the group. Michèle presented a paper there that she put on-line, but unfortunately the math was too difficult for me so I don’t dare report on it.
(click pages menu below to read the rest of the interview)

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