An Interview with Harry Mathews

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Barbara: Were you interested in mathematics before you joined the Oulipo?
Harry: Perec and I were mathematically ignorant.
Barbara: But you must have become more interested in mathematics as you went along.
Harry: I was good at math until I got to calculus, but integral and differential calculus were beyond my powers. And that’s where modern math begins. After all if Pascal could understand it, why couldn’t I? But I couldn’t. I’m still interested in arithmetic, and my use of mathematics as far as there is any is arithmetical (I did explore one geometric form once): mostly very simplistic stuff. For instance, I wrote a sestina in French in which the end words have four letters in the first stanza, five letters in the second stanza, and so forth. That kind of thing I can do. But it hardly deserves the term mathematical structure. Anybody can do that.
Barbara: Talking about geometry reminds me that the poet Lee Ann Brown wanted me to ask you a question. If you were to write a Geodesic Dome, what form would it take?
Harry: If I could write it? It would probably be a series of poems. I’d have to figure out how to compose an antagonal poem containng pairs of pentagons that would share an edge, perhaps first and last lines. It’s an interesting idea actually.
Barbara: In the Compendium, Le Lionnais is described as a hero of the French resistance against the Nazi occupation. I was wondering, Harry, how politics generally played into the Oulipo? Were the members mostly left-leaning?
Harry: Everyone in the group is politically oriented and up to date with what is going on. Most of us are left-leaning but there have been a couple of . . . Luc Etienne was very right-wing and Jacques Bens . . . I don’t remember (a lovely man). We avoid talking about politics in our meetings because our focus is on the use of language, which of course involves politics immediately, but then we sort of take it as it comes. I’ve always felt that Oulipian procedures are perfect defusers of political rigidity because you can take a speech from anyone and subject it to N + 7, for example, and you can see what it really means, if anything. In fact when I first told Stephen Sandy about this technique (he’s a poet and former college teacher), he said, this is a terrific way of discovering what is happening in faculty meetings. (laughter)
When we did the first colloquium about the Oulipo, it was organized at CUNY by Lanie Goodman (a distinguished translator from the French and Raymond Roussel scholar) who was teaching there at the time. One woman she invited from the faculty said, “You know, this is very dangerous using politically blank forms. They could be used to say anything.” To her surprise I responded that Oulipian procedures were effective tools for the subversion of political authority and so were inherently leftist. Right-wing people don’t ever show such disrespect for their language. The point isn’t often made, but Oulipian constraints are powerful critically.
What the Oulipian procedures reveal is the bearer of meaning in writing: the form of the sentence, the form of the paragraph, the form of the chapter. That is what is bringing what you are thinking or saying into existence. I don’t know if you have seen my essay “For Prizewinners.” In it I quote Kafka’s extraordinary little story, “The Truth about Sancho Panza,” consisting of two sentences. The first sentence is long and uncertain; it accumulates clauses and phrases and ends up very wobbly. The second sentence is crisp and neat and immediately satisfactory. If you subject as I do in this essay, the text to N + 7, you can see how that works: whatever the nouns are, you are miles away from the declared meaning, yards away anyhow, and nevertheless the sense remains.
Barbara: Yes, the rhetoric is revealed. And the sense will always stay there syntactically, and there is some kind of power structure that happens in the syntax and that is then revealed.
Harry: Absolutely. Other procedures do the same thing.
Barbara: One last question about politics and class. I was talking to a poet last week about Oulipo and she said, she thought you had to live in Paris and be rich enough to throw all those dinners. I said, well, I don’t think George Perec was wealthy.
Harry: The poorer members have modest dinners, but they are fine. You go to the charcuterie and buy some sausage and ham and you make an inexpensive salad.
Barbara: So people in the group are varied in terms of their finances?
Harry: They are. Almost all of them make their living writing, teaching or translating. Ian Monk earns his living as a translator –– a hard job.
Barbara: Did George Perec throw dinners for the meetings?
Harry: It’s an interesting question because I can’t remember a single dinner at his place. He must have, but maybe not. It depends. You know Roubaud was a distinguished professor and earned a satisfactory living as a professor of math as well as literature. Bénabou is both a bourgeois and a professor. Fournel had a difficult career and worked all his life. I’m sort of an exception, in that I have money of my own, and I think I’m probably the only one. As for the dinners: Anna Garréta gives fabulous dinners, Jouet does too –– he may have money of his own, but he writes a great deal and undoubtedly earns quite a bit from his writing, as a dramatic writer as well as a fiction writer. He makes his living as a writer as Georges Perec did in his final years. Perec had a job for most of his life as research assistant in the library of a medical laboratory. He analyzed and classified file documents for the staff. He was good at that and was decently paid for it.
Barbara: He also wrote crossword puzzles?
Harry: Yes, crossword puzzles for a weekly magazine, called Le Point. Some people think he was the greatest cruciverbalist, constructor of crossword puzzles, in France.
Barbara: I love the piece you wrote after he died. It was so moving. After reading that, I started to love Georges Perec.
Harry: It was very hard to write
Barbara: His life was very difficult. The book he wrote W, or the Memory of Childhood is beautiful and wrenching.
Harry: Yes, wonderful.
Barbara: Would that book be considered Oulipian?
Harry: It’s not.
Barbara: Well, he had that parallel society going on.
Harry: I know –– so terrifying, blood-chilling, the Olympian society supposedly based on the rules of the Olympic games. At the end they are racing in shackles. It’s not really Oulipian, but it is formalist –– not Oulipian the way Life A User’s Manual is. He was a very devoted Oulipian. He sort of liberated himself through the Oulipo.
Barbara: How so?
Harry: In a general way, by discovering as many of us have – but in his case to a much fuller extent – that the use of abstract, arbitrary methods frees a writer from self-centered obsessions and so releases inherent imaginative potential. More specifically, his experience of one such method enabled him to explore the greatest trauma of his life.
Georges saw his mother for the last time at the age of six, in 1942, standing on a station platform in the Gare de Lyon, where she had sent him off to stay with cousins in the Vercors, a region where hiding Jews was possible. She herself made the mistake of returning to her former domicile, where she was arrested and shipped off to an unidentified extermination camp. Her death was not confirmed officially until Georges was (as I recall) eighteen, so that for twelve years he was suspended in uncertainty: his mother had not necessarily died, she had disappeared. La Disparition, the French title of A Void, means “The Disappearance,” and the book is entirely concerned with the mysterious vanishing of all its characters, in a text where the letter e, the most common in the language, has also gone missing. So the use of this unusual constraint brought Georges to an inevitable consideration of the most dramatic aspect of his experience, one that he had not been able to face before.
Barbara: Freeing the writer from self-centered obsessions, and his choice of the constraint itself was personal, disappearance. Was there any pressure in the group to stay purist with Oulipo?
Harry: No, for example, Paul Fournel has written Oulipian texts for our interior publications, but most of his other writing is not Oulipian at all. No, there is no pressure to do anything.
Barbara: Didn’t you say earlier at lunch that you are not a purist, but you have tried out every Oulipian constraint? You wrote “Autobiography” in On The Way Home, I was thinking, well that’s not Oulipian, is it? Any procedures used with this?
Harry: I tried out every Oulipian method in order to produce examples for the entries in the Oulipo Compendium. As for the autobiography, the moment that I received the invitation from Gale, the archival publisher in Detroit, to contribute to their series, I realized that I could write it by talking about the people in my life, not about me. That’s not Oulipian, just clever.
Barbara: Clever, but…
Harry: Well, if it were more systematic, it could be called Oulipian, but once you have worked in an Oulipian matter, practically everything you do has some . . . I remember when I finished writing 20 Lines a Day and was thinking of publishing it, I said to Jacques Roubaud, this is such spontaneous writing, not at all what Oulipians are supposed to be doing, and he said, when you’ve worked in constrictive forms all your life, anything you do is going to be formally ok. (laughter)
Barbara: Well it is 20 lines, right? That’s mathematical.
Harry: It was Stendhal’s idea, and not at all strictly applied.
Barbara: Harryette Mullen would say she uses Oulipian techniques, but she’s not an Oulipian. She’s not a purist. She just uses them as starting points and interventions. That’s what I usually do, also.
Harry: It’s true, she’s not at all strict in her application of the procedures. My favorite line of hers is “a smart blonde has been dropped on the Chinese Embassy.” That was brilliant.
Barbara: Very funny, isn’t it? (laughter)
Harry: As you point out, it’s not only a smart bomb but a dumb blonde. That just took my breath away.
Barbara: She has a knack for witty language. N + 7 + the clinamen—I also take many opportunities to use the clinamen.
Harry: Technically you can only use one in a piece. The most interesting rule is that you have to be able to solve the problem without resorting to the clinamen. I always observe that.
Barbara: A clinamen is a swerving away from the method. I think they use that term in Lacanian Psychoanalysis, too.
Harry: Well, it comes from Lucretius, who took the idea from Empedocles. It’s a philosophical term that refers to atomic activity before the universe took form. A rain of atoms was falling in very straight lines until one atom moved out of line and touched another and that started.
Barbara: I love the way you describe that. I’m interested in these mistakes. They start something new, rather than just sticking with the rules.
Harry: Sticking with the rules is interesting because when you start allowing yourself deviations, it ends up the way it would have been if you’d never adopted the constraint in the first place; but if you follow the rules – even if they aren’t working well – in the end, you’ll say things you wouldn’t have said otherwise.
Barbara: But if you take the constraints and work with them and you start generating this great material and then you can work with everything, whether it’s improvisation or intentionality and shape it as you want. The end result would be very different if you had never used the constraint as part of the process.
Harry: But no one says you can’t do that! However, the value of the Oulipo is structure.
Barbara: Yes, I like working with the strict methods also. In the 90’s when Lynn Crawford passed on a sheet of your Oulipian constraints, I wrote my first Oulipo-inspired poem and after that my writing changed significantly. No more waiting for inspiration. Noël Arnaud mentions in the Compendium that with the Oulipo, there is an “emphatic rejection of chance”, and I was thinking of the I Ching for example, when you throw the coin or the sticks and there is a sense that there is no chance involved with it, no matter how you play out these things, they are scripted somehow, as if there is some knowing between your hand movement, your question and the text, some kinesthetic knowing.
Harry: You’re telling me. I once started using the I Ching, and once I had collected my yarrow sticks I thought it would be a good idea to practice. I would ask questions, ruffle through pages of the text, and take whatever I got; and there was never not a good answer. There is nothing except good answers.
Barbara: It is usually the correct answer. For me, I throw the coins, look and it answers my questions, because the I Ching is only offering alternatives on how to keep your life peaceful.
Harry: Absolutely, but I found that there was no point in doing it. Wherever you look you are in the right place. Somebody involved with a site devoted to John Cage got in touch with me and asked if there was any relationship between Cage and the Oulipo.
And I told my story. John Cage played a very important role in my development long before I knew him. I heard him speak in 1949 at a large cultural gathering at Vassar. When I met him, decades later, I got to know him quite well. I learned that he was interested in the Oulipo despite its being very anti-chance and his being devoted to chance. Not long ago I responded to an inquiry from a website specializing in Cage (Marjorie Perloff later got involved and was very encouraging). I said, Cage and the Oulipo are not that far apart. Chance in Cage’s work involves the creative part of it, not the interpretive part, so that once he says he’ll use the dots on a piece of music paper to determine his notes, he sticks with that. What chance creates in such a case is a kind of fixed form.
Barbara: Once he decides what approach he’s going to take, that’s the beginning of chance, if we believe in chance. It looks like chance.
Harry: But I don’t think the use he made of it was very chancy. I had a funny time trying to draw him into arguments about chance, but he eluded me with great nimbleness, which was ultimately fine by me. He was a funny, witty, and intelligent man.
Barbara: Jabes’ Book of Questions. Could that be considered an Oulipian text?
Harry: Yes and no. He was really very much a Buddhist. I think what interested him was taking things as they are, including the Oulipo.
Barbara: In The Compendium, you talk about how Perec’s palindrome resulted in “a combination of length, ingenuity and literary elegance”. Some of the Oulipian experiments are elegant, and emotionally and intellectually engaging, but some of them are tedious. Were there arguments and discussions about this topic?
Harry: The rule at the beginning when the group was created was that what the members of the group were doing was not just word play, that it had to have literary quality. That was less a rule than an ambition, but has always been what distinguishes us from logophiles –– people who are (for instance) interested in finding words with the highest numbers of vowels. There is nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to a satisfactory literary text. It depends on the writer, as in all writing.
Barbara: But one could use constraints like these and the results can be surprisingly elegant.
Harry: One example I like to read in public is my contribution to the “Homage to Perec” after he died, one of the fascicles of the Bibliothèque Oulipienne. At the outset I didn’t know what to do. I was in a state of dismay, I finally decided to pay my homage to Georges by writing something without the letter e. The resulting text made me realize that I had a very strong neo-Platonic streak in me, not so surprising since I’m a great lover of Henry Vaughn’s poetry but I didn’t expect to have it just shoot up like that. You can have revelations of that kind. That was a small one, perhaps, but it was latent and unconscious in me and that is what is good about using these structures. They get you places where you wouldn’t go without them.
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