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A Conversation with Harry Mathews

in conversation with
[Writer]
“What happens between the covers of a book is what happens between the covers of a book.”
People who understood Mathews’s The Journalist:
Nobody
Not even the Oulipo
by Laird Hunt
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

A Conversation with Harry Mathews

in conversation with

[Writer]
“What happens between the covers of a book is what happens between the covers of a book.”
People who understood Mathews’s The Journalist:
Nobody
Not even the Oulipo
by Laird Hunt
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

A Conversation with Harry Mathews

Laird Hunt
11 Snaps

Harry Mathews’s most recent book, a poetry collection called The New Tourism, opens with a six-part sequence about preparing the “perfect cooking butter” and seizing “the moment of perfection” when cooking an excellent egg. Devotees of Mathews’s writing (and we are many: join us) will be quick to build a mental bridge between “Butter and Eggs: A Didactic Poem” and Mathews’s early, awesome short-story-long-recipe, “Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double).” One portion of the delight to be taken in running from the compressed quiet of the current work to the extravagant onrush of the earlier is in registering Mathews’s astonishing range. To say that he has written novels, stories, poems (haiku sequences included), and essays, and leave it at that, would be grossly reductive: each of his works, whether two or two hundred and fifty pages long, is a wonder cabinet of unpredictable intricacy.

My introduction to Mathews was the late-’90s Dalkey Archive reprints of his first suite of novels, The Conversions, Tlooth, and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, which I bought at the indispensable St. Mark’s Bookshop in Manhattan. Mathews’s novels worked on me the way Raymond Roussel’s (as I later learned) worked on Mathews: they opened me up to a completely new sense of how books could be just books, and marvelous ones, instead of half-assed windows onto the so-called real world. Subsequently spelunking into the labyrinthine thunder tunnels of Cigarettes, The Journalist, 20 Lines a Day, The Case of the Persevering Maltese, and My Life in CIA, has thankfully done nothing to set my head to rights.

Mathews may or may not ever have had a life in CIA, but he has certainly had a life in Oulipo, the France-based Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature), known for constraint-based writing. Much has been made of his important connection to that group, but Mathews’s literary output is far from exclusively oulipian. When we met to talk over lunch in the fall of 2010 at La Ferronnerie, a bistro in the rue de la Chaise near his Paris apartment, it seemed more interesting to start elsewhere

—Laird Hunt

I. GERTRUDE STEIN IS DISAPPEARING INTO THE GLOAMING

HARRY MATTHEWS: I have to explain to you my situation at the moment, aside from suffering from physical and emotional exhaustion. You can see I’m enjoying life still. [We are sitting over handsome plates of jambon persillé with glasses of the excellent house red in hand]. I’ve started writing again. A small novella. I was almost through the first chapter when there landed in my lap three tasks, which I had to take care of right away. The first one was okay – preparing this new book of poetry, which I’m going to read from on the 19th.

LAIRD HUNT: The New Tourism.

HM: Yeah. It’s being published by the smallest press I know in America. It’s two poets, good poets, former students of John Ashbery at Bard College. One of whom, Arlo Haskell, lives in Key West. His associate is Stuart Krimko. They have also published slim volumes of their own work, as well as a collection of prose stories, which you must get, by a guy called Shawn Vandor: raunchy, funny, wonderfully written. The three of them gave a reading last winter in Key West. It was so good that at the end of the reading I said, ‘Look, I’ve got a small bunch of poems that I’ve been writing over the last few years. If you like them, make a small book out of them.’ They added other things. I was working with Arlo Haskell, who turned out to be a fabulous editor. Usually you don’t fuck around with other people’s poetry. He made brilliant suggestions. He rescued one poem from the trash bin by sort of cutting it in half.

LH: He found a way to do it that was okay with you.

HM: If they like it I’ll go with it. That took a long, long time. After I’d read the complete text of my poems for the tenth time, nausea set in. I think the poems are okay, but it was a surfeit of me. Then I went on to checking out the translation of an interview by a fellow Oulipian – actually an Englishman—who translated the interview from English into French. He did a very good job on it, but I still had to check that. So revising this interview was more of me reading me, and now alas I have my collected essays to check the French translation of. It’s a good translation, but you have to read every sentence because sometimes a nuance is missed, and so forth. It’s from too long ago for me to remember so I can’t just read through the French and know what I originally said. It has completely stopped my writing and everything but that’s okay.

LH: So the novella is still percolating in the midst of all this other work?

HM: I’m doing it in the Nabokov way. I read—in one of his interviews I guess—that he wrote some of his books on big file cards and he would fill up a file card and when he had enough file cards he would publish the book. It sounded to me like rather an interesting idea. So I started doing that.

LH: That’s how he did Speak Memory as well as others.

HM: Well, that’s easier to understand, but a novel…

LH: Maybe he did Pale Fire that way too.

HM: Isn’t that a terrific book?

LH: It’s beautiful. When I came over to Paris for the fall I chose between it and Speak Memory to carry with me. Speak Memory won because I’d read Pale Fire more recently. Now that we live in Colorado, rather than New York, the Atlantic seems much larger somehow and it’s harder to decide what to bring and to imagine what we’ll find when we get across. Despite the fact that we do get over to France occasionally, as well as to Greece.

HM: Where in Greece?

LH: My wife is the great-granddaughter of an important Greek poet, Angelos Sikelianos, roughly of the generation of Cavafy, Seferis and Elitis. His home island was Lefkada, in the Ionian Sea, which is the island where Sappho is supposed to have jumped to her death from the cliffs near the temple of Apollo.

HM: What’s your wife’s name?

LH: Eleni Sikelianos. [HM says he remembers her and her work when her name is mentioned].  She just got asked to do a guest lectureship at the Ecole Normale Superieur, but the tricky part is they want her to do a traditional explication de texte on Emily Dickinson.

HM: Tell her to say no.

LH: Exactly. She’s going to tell them that she would love to do something but not that. Her area of expertise is 20th century poetry. She could do an explication de texte on Gertrude Stein, for example.

HM: That’s good because that’s due. Gertrude Stein is disappearing into the gloaming. I don’t know how she had the nerve to do what she did – even if she had never shown it to anybody.

LH: I told you earlier that The Oulipo Compendium was really important to me when I was starting The Impossibly. The other thing that I was reading at the same time was The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

HM: Isn’t that terrific?

LH: That’s still the big one of hers for me. That was the life changer.

HM: Have you read Wars I have Seen? My wife Marie [Chaix], who is definitely not interested in modernist writing, turned me on to it.

LH: Three Lives too.

HM: Absolutely.

LH: You met Marie because you were translating her. And have you continued translating her books?

HM: The first, Les Lauriers du lac de Constance [The Laurels of Lake Constance] was the only one I was hired to do. And then after we had gotten together I translated the second book, Les Silences ou la vie d’une femme [Silences, or a woman’s life], where she has totally mastered her craft, and which is incredibly moving. It’s about the death of her mother and about her mother’s sad life. So I translated that as a kind of warm-up writing exercise. Every day I would do a couple of pages. We showed it occasionally to a publisher in New York, but nobody ever got it, or at any rate, took it. After writing an absolutely, ferociously sad and unhappy book, about a mother whose grown son commits suicide, maybe—he falls off the top of a mountain cliff—she stopped.

II. NOTHING TO SAY ABOUT BEETHOVEN RIGHT NOW

HM: Advances in the US have gotten really low. Ann Beattie, when she was 30, used to get $200,000, now she gets $12,000 or something like that.

LH: And then some people are getting $2,000,000.

HM: I believe Franzen’s book is moving up toward the million copy mark. Do you know him? Have you read him?

LH: I’ve read The Corrections, although I had to wait a while before I did so. The Corrections came out at the same time as The Impossibly. I wasn’t so delusional that I thought it was me and Jonathan Franzen but it was, basically, Jonathan Franzen and everybody else, a category of which I was part. When I would go to do a reading the host would say, looking out at the empty seats, ‘but you know, just last week Jonathan Franzen was here and it was full.’  At any rate, I thought I would escape the season of his new book by coming to Paris. The first thing I did when I got to town was go to Village Voice Books, and as I stepped over the threshold, a woman said, ‘Do you have the new book by Jonathan Franzen?’

LH: Does doing this kind of thing, having a tape recorder on the table and someone asking you questions, make you nervous? It makes me nervous to do it.

HM: No, it’s rather a good state to be in. The interesting thing about interviews is being led into saying things you didn’t know you thought. When that happens, you know, it’s a little like feeling you’ve been reborn. There are various ways it can be done. I remember one absolutely brutal way. The guy who used to do interviews for France Culture – there is no way I’m going to remember his name – he came with his little box of a recorder and he would ask me a question that no one had ever asked me before on a subject I’d never thought about before. And then he would just sit there and eventually I would come up with something. That was pretty good.

LH: I did a radio interview once where the woman said, ‘Your work seems to me to be continuing the tradition of T.S. Eliot and the James Joyce of Dubliners. What do you think about that?’ In my mind I was saying to myself, what are you talking about? But another part of me felt like, she is kind enough to be doing this, how can I answer her question without being an asshole? So I came up with something ridiculous where I looked idiotic and I made her look idiotic. It was a disaster. There was a beautiful moment in the interview that Marcella Durand did with you for the St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter where she asked you something about Beethoven. And your response was, I have nothing to say about Beethoven right now. And that to me was the perfect response.

HM: I have lots to say about Beethoven.

LH: Without a doubt, but at that moment, you didn’t.

HM: That was sensible of me.

LH: Indeed it was. It was a great lesson.

III.ROLLED UP IN A CARPET AND CARRIED OFF TO THE GANGSTER’S PAD.  

HM: I thought about what you said, earlier, about being a younger writer. And I was thinking about the younger writers I am interested in, then I said to myself, But now, everyone is younger! Which is okay. I count on younger writers to keep me awake. And older ones too. I don’t know if you’re interested in Shelley.

LH: I love Shelley.

HM: Well, you’re going to love him a little less. Do you know who Richard Holmes is? Footsteps? One of the greatest books on biography ever written. And he’s one of the best literary biographers in English alive today. He has done stunning books on Wordsworth, Coleridge – I haven’t read the second volume of the Coleridge, but the first one is incredible. Shelley was his first book. It has been sitting on my shelf for years. That’s why it’s good to keep certain books on your shelf and then, ‘why not now?’ Shelley was a psychotic radical in his youth. When he was barely 20 he married a 14 year old – his first wife, Harriet Grove. A couple of years later he abducted two adolescent women – Mary Godwin and Claire Clairemont – both at the same time. I have nothing against it. And he was never anything but broke and in debt and not paying his debts. It’s a fabulous book. A doorstopper. I’ve already learned interesting things like the fact that Keats hated him. Did you know that?

LH: I didn’t.

HM: The book’s called Shelley: The Pursuit and it turns out that all the poems that we love were minor productions, written in states of depression. The thing that he really liked to do was political poetry. He was an outraged, absolutely persistent nuisance, a left-wing gadfly. It would have been fine if he had had the money to do it, but he didn’t. He was always scrounging around.

LH: He didn’t have the means of Lord Byron.

HM: He lost a lot of it along the way. I hope you are a fan of Don Juan.

LH: I read Don Juan as part of a collective that met weekly at the poet Bernadette Mayer’s house on 4th street in the East Village. I forget how long it took us, but we would meet every Sunday and read Don Juan aloud, which was a beautiful thing to do. We would talk about it but not that much. The idea was more to read it aloud. I loved it. And what a way to get to know the poem.

HM: I consider it the first modernist work in English. Non-linearity, whatever else there is in modernism. Don Juan light-heartedly reviews all the mad aspirations of a romantic hero. Don Juan never has to make any choices – he’s just buffeted by the winds of circumstance.

LH: There’s a little Candide in the mix.

HM: That’s true.

LH: Candide is another book we brought along.

HM: Read Diderot instead.

LH: Oh, I’m definitely a Diderot partisan.

HM: I so much prefer him to Voltaire.

LH: I pause every time I walk by Diderot’s statue…

HM: On the Boulevard St. Germain…

LH: Which is constantly covered in pigeon droppings…

HM: That’s the honor of greatness.

LH: The Encyclopedia, along with D’Alembert’s introduction, was one of my first big models. Rameau’s Nephew and Jacques le fataliste were huge for me as a writer.

HM: In La Religieuse he does this extraordinary thing. He writes this great work of fiction and then, as the end of the book approaches, it becomes journalism, facts that are now taking place, or just did take place. I don’t know anybody who has done that.

LH: I’m not going to ask you if you were in the CIA.

HM: Sure you can.

LH: I was almost in the CIA. I went through the whole recruitment process.

HM: Did you really?

LH: I had a plane ticket for Langley, with just a physical exam and a lie-detector test to pass before I was going to be, as they put it, fast-tracked to some foreign desk. This was when I was a senior at Indiana University. I had had a very strange meeting in a hotel room in Indianapolis, where I wasn’t given a name, just a room number. I went up and found a very chipper CIA recruiter waiting with brochures and pamphlets to say, ‘We love you!’ At the same time I was going through this process, which took close to a year, I was also reading up on the organization, and let’s just say that something shifted in my thinking about what the CIA was up to in those late Cold War days.

HM: What year was this?

LH: It was the mid-eighties.

HM: So that was very late.

LH: It was.

HM: They always did awful things but they also did good things. The rule is when you succeed you keep quiet about it.

LH: I had done enough reading not to say I don’t want to do this but I would like a little more time to think about it. So that converged with the plane reservation to go to Langley. I had a conversation about it with the deep-voiced CIA employee, who had been calling me weekly. He had a hard-to-place American accent and when he would call he would always start with ‘Is this Mr. Hunt? Am I speaking to Laird Hunt?’ He was calling to prep me for the lie-detector test. The two big hurdles, as he described it, were drug use and whether I was gay or not.

HM: Really?

LH: He was not at all apologetic. He would say, and he asked me these more than once, ‘Now, Mr. Hunt, I have to ask you this question, Have you ever slept with a male individual?’ And I was in a position to say without hesitation, ‘No I haven’t.’ And then he would say, ‘That’s wonderful, and now Mr. Hunt the follow-up question I have to ask you is, Have you ever wanted to sleep with a male individual?’ And this would cause me to stammer out something along the lines of ‘No, I don’t think so, but…’ And he was satisfied.

HM: And he called you Mr. Hunt all the time?

LH: Constantly.  

HM: So then what happened?

LH: When he was giving me my pre-Langley phone call, I told him that I needed a little bit of time to think some more. I had an opportunity to teach English in Japan. He said absolutely and gave me the number to call when I was done thinking things through. A year and a half later I was at loose ends and decided to call. The number he had given me was not in service. And I thought: message received: ‘Mr. Hunt we are no longer interested in your services.’

HM: For people of my age – though not for me, I didn’t think about it one way or the other – joining the CIA was an absolutely noble, patriotic thing to do in that stage of the Cold War, in the late 40s or early 50s. Several of my schoolmates became CIA and I don’t think that they were total shits. One of my best friends in fact ran the money transfer operations to the Congress for Cultural Freedom. My friend was a very decent, honest, patriotic American. That happened because there was no way the State Department was going to get the funds voted through by Congress. They had to maneuver around it. There was the CIA to help.

LH: My father, an international banker for many years, was approached by the CIA to help and for various reasons decided to respectfully decline. He managed to do it without offending or angering them.

HM: Since I published My Life in CIA, which I thought would have a chance to put to rest the reputation I had… forget it! Everyone knows I was in the CIA.

LH: Harry Mathews the CIA agent.

HM: When people ask me if I was in the CIA I say, ‘I not only was, I am. That’s why I’m in Key West.’ There’s a military base there. I tell this story, and I can’t believe people buy it.

LH: There is a point in My Life in CIA where all of a sudden you start saying to yourself, ‘Wait a minute – he just got rolled up in a carpet and carried off to the gangster’s pad? What???’ There is that moment two thirds of the way or so through the book where Georges Perec says let’s go see a movie together and he is in love with the actress in the movie…

HM: It’s a play.

LH: It is a play, excuse me. But that actually happened – that moment with Perec, right? So the book doesn’t just stop being based in the actual. There is this progressive, increasing weave between the imagination and what happened in your personal trajectory.

HM: The factual.

LH: I remember the writer Rikki Ducornet talking about how beautifully subversive your novel is because, if I understood her correctly, of that gesture. We aren’t all of a sudden into some international spy novel. It just keeps looping back and forth as we move toward the ending, which I find unsettling because you didn’t, 40 pages earlier, completely leave behind the particularities of your own life, your own existence. Perec is still in the story. He is still your dear friend. He hasn’t become Agent Georges. So when the ending, where there is a shooting, happens, I suspect a lot of people have read it and thought, did he shoot someone? Did Harry Mathews actually shoot someone?

HM: That’s an interesting point. For me, it’s so outrageous a story that anybody who could believe I’m a CIA agent or that I was a CIA agent. And maybe I was. A friend of mine who is at this moment driving across North Africa bringing medical aid to Gaza – I hope he survives – told me after I’d sent him the book, ‘It’s a beautiful cover.’ And it is a beautiful cover. He was saying it in jest but I realized that that was the way it was going to be taken. My answer to the question of whether it is true or not, my answer to the question of what is true and what isn’t true, is that everything is true in the book and everything is false. What happens between the covers of a book is what happens between the covers of a book. It’s a question of language, and what the reader invents based on that language.

IV.  THE NARRATRIX

LH: In an interview you did some years ago for Rain Taxi, you talk about Raymond Roussel, and about how from reading him, you have this insight, this light-bulb moment, that made great sense to me, that you didn’t have to write about that swimming pool that you swam in as a kid, you could talk about a swimming pool you had imagined, one that was gem-encrusted and lit with gorgeous lights. The imagination could be the truth and the facts something else.

HM: I never said that, but that’s quite okay. I just said that you could make up reality out of word relationships.

LH: I have “gem-encrusted” what you said.

HM: There was no swimming pool and no gems!

LH: What happens between the covers of a book – from The Conversions, Tlooth, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium – and on down the line keeps being what is of paramount importance. It’s not about pointing to some exterior reality.

HM: The books are sort of designed to reach that effect. There is something that happens toward the end of each of my books, which is a let down, a subversion, a calling into question of what happened before. In Cigarettes, the “I” returns. There had been no “I” since the first page and then in the last chapter the I returns. And he turns out to be, the reader can easily deduce, Lewis, who is this rather disreputable masochist. Everyone has had total scorn for him throughout the book and here it is he who is giving the best possible, the most honest version of these events, which are of course entirely made up, or mostly made up. Did you read The Journalist?

LH: Yes.

HM: And did you like it?

LH: I love all your books.

HM: That’s not an answer.

LH: Yes, I liked it.

HM: Because it was such a flop. It was a terrible flop. Even here nobody got it. Even the people in the Oulipo didn’t get it. Not that there is anything Oulipian about it – well, there is a slight Oulipian aspect to it – but it was a very, very tricky book to write. Especially the ending. In the ending, the diarist is in a hospital and presumably he’s not touching any paper, but obviously he’s still keeping his diary.

LH: The Journalist made me sweat while I was reading it.

HM: Me too. The Journalist is the only time I’ve worried about one of my characters. I never really know whether he went bats or came out of it. It’s not that clear. I’ve loved other characters. Like Twang in The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium.

LH: I’m partial to the narrator of Tlooth. And here is a question I have for you, and maybe it’s a question about translation more generally. Perec translated that book into French. How does the gender ambiguity of the narrator at play in that novel work in French? Did Perec have to do back flips to carry this secret all the way to the end of the book, where in the original it is revealed?

HM: It’s worse in French. There are so many places where it’s tricky… He had to say “medecin” not “docteur” because in French there is “doctoresse” and that happens again and again and again. Incidentally, parenthetically, a very interesting difference between French and American feminism is that American feminists are determined to eliminate all feminine forms of professional words. Actress went out 40 years ago. Any word like that they want to have the male word used for both sexes. In France it’s quite the opposite. There was a big scandal made by the minister of culture. She said, ‘I want to be called Madame la ministre.’ Up until then she had always been called ‘Madame le ministre,’ which she said was ridiculous. This is now part of the tradition. This is happening more and more. French feminists are going for making clearer that the person occupying a role is a woman, whereas American feminists are trying to obfuscate the difference. Frankly, I’m on the French side, because it seems to me to make much more sense.

LH: Well, you certainly got me at the end of Tlooth. I had the classic ‘Wait a minute!’ moment when I finished it. That’s not so easy to pull off. And what was also intriguing was the breathtaking simplicity of the gesture – of carrying the gender ambiguity all the way through.

HM: There is one tricky moment when the narratrix…

LH: Nice.

HM: …is in Venice and she goes to bed with the count, who is also a woman, and the dialogue is very…

LH: Do you tend to work closely with your translators?

HM: In the collected essays there is a little piece called “Fearful Symmetries” in which I describe working with my Italian translators – a man and a woman. In the third chapter of Tlooth they translated ‘He taught her the ways to feel’ as, retranslating from the Italian, ‘He taught her her sexuality.’ Half an hour of intense argument. I think I sent the woman to the loony bin or at least to a clinic for nervous breakdowns.

HM: You don’t smoke do you?

LH: Not any more. But I’m not anti-smoking.

HM: Would you like a little calvados at the bar?

LH: I wouldn’t say no.

V. SAND ON THE FLESH OF THE OYSTER

[We repair to the bar. There is some discussion about how the rules for smoking in France have changed and one has to go outside, as is the case elsewhere. HM steps outside to smoke.  He returns and Monsieur Hugues, owner of La Ferronnerie, joins in the conversation. ]

LH: You learned French over here, you didn’t study it before you came?

HM: I studied it a little bit. It was when I arrived in France at Le Havre, just a partially reconstructed ruin in ’48, I fell in love with French culture. Not in the sense of artistic or literary culture, but in the way people hold themselves. There were these rather fat guys standing around in their blue work clothes with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths and I thought, I’ve never seen guys like these before. I was infatuated immediately. It felt like I learned French between getting off the boat and getting to the custom’s office. The custom’s officer complimented me on my French and I thought, ‘Well, fine, all I have to do is fill in the spaces.’

LH: So when you go to meetings of the Oulipo you present everything in French.

HM: Right.

HM: In my opinion, knowledge of other languages is the most important thing one can learn. I recently went to Venice, where I hadn’t been in years. I don’t speak much Italian and was a little rusty at first, but after a few bottles of wine and a couple of days it came back.

LH: I used to speak a little Japanese and when I drink it comes back.

HM: There are words you didn’t know you knew and that’s what’s wonderful.

MONSIEUR HUGUES: Words you didn’t know you knew… Most French people wouldn’t know what that meant.

HM: That’s because French people are really inept at learning foreign languages. Not so much for grammar, but for getting accents right. French people don’t have a feel for l’accent tonique. So they deform words according to les habitudes françaises.

LH: Americans aren’t too good at languages either.

HM: Swedes are terrifying. They know 3 or 4 languages by the time they’re 7 or 8.

LH: You’ve talked about this before…It seems to me that whenever I read an interview with you or an article or comment on your writing, it’s always, ‘The Oulipo! The Oulipo! The Oulipo!”

HM: That’s they’re fault, not mine.

LH: That’s why I didn’t want to launch into things today by saying, ‘So, Harry Mathews, tell me about the Oulipo.’ When I read your work I find that some part of it explains itself by your connection with the Oulipo but the majority of it doesn’t seem to be that at all.

HM: What I say in response to that question or inquiry is that ‘I’m a writer and an Oulipian but not an Oulipian writer.’ That’s hard for people to understand. There was a film about the Oulipo done recently for which I was interviewed and I said something that was not included in the film. I presented the idea at our last meeting of the Oulipo last week. I said that the Oulipo was like an oyster patch, the frontiers of the patch were the constraints that were imposed by history, our language, culture, our particular experiences and so forth, and then the oyster shells were the constructs that we individually made to protect us from all the constraints. Somehow there was insinuated, into the flesh of the oyster, a grain of sand, which provoked first an irritation, then led to our working on the pearl, which belonged to each of us, but nevertheless was made of materials that had nothing to do with our natural condition. Which is to say that the idea of constraint was not something which was a new set of chains for us, but which, on the contrary, stimulated growth and creativity. That seemed to me like a nice idea of what the constraint was.

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