An Interview with Harry Mathews

An Interview with Harry Mathews

Michael Boyden

Michael Boyden interviews Harry Mathews via email.

This interview is one element in an overall ongoing gathering of works by and about Mathews, compiled by Michael Boyden.

I must say that I have had a hard time getting in touch with you. Could it be that there is some kind of hidden pattern involved in your travels? I was reminded of the Flemish writer Hugo Claus who equally has a habit of frequently moving from one place to another (once he even moved into the house next to the one he was living in at the time). He has explained this behavior in terms of a fear of becoming set in his ways. How do you look upon this? Is your habit of moving around in some way linked to your creative work?

I used to love traveling - discovering new places - but what I have done for some time now is something different: moving between familiar places where I feel at home - Key West and New York in America, Lans-en-Vercors and Paris in France. It’s always seemed a blessing to have another place to look forward to: that way one never need feel trapped. Having two places is enough; obviously four is too many, although once I started spending half the year in the United States, the pattern readily duplicated itself, so that now I devote too much time readjusting to each move. The only connection of this [urge to move all the time] with my work is that I get far less done than if I had the sense to sit still in one place. But which place? I love them all.

As for work, I prefer having a room outside my living space where I won’t be reminded of all the practical things I haven’t yet taken care of.

Oskar Pastior has been awarded this year’s Georg-Büchner-Preis. How important do you think this prestigious award is, not just for Pastior’s work, but also for pattern poetry in general? I mean, do you think that this could be a way of getting more people interested in a certain way of writing that normally only entertains a rather small audience? Or would you say this broader recognition is of comparatively little consequence? Further, how important would you say that Dalkey Archive has been for the promotion and circulation of your work?

I was delighted by the news that Oskar had received the Büchner Prize because it is an exceptional public acknowledgment of his accomplishment as a poet, and because I imagine that it will make it easier for him to earn his living giving readings and lectures as he has done for many years. It may perhaps win him new readers; I doubt that they will be numerous. (Since Beckett won the Nobel Prize, sales of his works have remained pathetically small.) On the other hand, his work may be taught more frequently, and this may earn him a position as a modern classic in the academic world. I doubt even more strongly that the prize will gain adherents for what you call pattern poetry: that audience, judging by the spread of interest in the Oulipo in America, grows by a gradual process of readers and writers spreading the word among each other. Furthermore in Oskar’s case it is not his choice of methods that makes him a fascinating writer but the effective use he makes of them, which is idiosyncratic as well as irresistible.

As for the Dalkey Archive Press, I am a loyal partisan, grateful for its having published or reprinted my books for the past twenty years. My feeling is that an essential task of a non-main-stream writer is to remain patient and persistent in following his or her calling, and Dalkey’s support has been a tremendous help for me in this respect. It has the sense of commitment to its writers that used to be common among major publishers but has now become depressingly rare, and it has comforted me in recent years by freeing me from having to think of anything but the process of writing itself.

Would you say that there is a connection between your musical training and your activities as a writer, and in particular your use of constraints? Gerald Howard once said in Bookforum that “Mathews writes the way Satie sounds.” Would you agree with such a statement? For me, part of the attraction of your books resides in the fact that they are written in a rather straightforward (almost officialese) fashion, but at the same time appear completely off the wall. Perhaps this is where the comparison with Satie comes in?

I’m a great admirer of Satie, so I can hardly mind being compared to him; but I think his approach to his art is very different from my own. (I don’t remember Gerald Howard’s comment - perhaps if I read it in context I would understand it better.) Plainness of language plus provocativeness - OK. But Satie’s provocation proceeds entirely from his deliberate and arbitrary simplicity of language and form, something totally subversive in his late-romantic context. It has the purity of Dadaism, for me the exemplary movement of artistic modernism, but one whose approach works best in writing when applied to short works of poetry or prose. Why is this so? Because music, whatever the duration of any given work, is a self-contained object; whereas a written work of any length inevitably invokes the possibility of narrative, no matter what lengths the author may go to in order to avoid it. Composers, including Satie, never have to concern themselves with narrative - they only pretend to, sometimes; whereas in my prose writing there is inevitably an illusion of story and its possible significances - an illusion, admittedly, since there are only words at work, but a presence all the same.

I emphasize this [difference between Satie’s work and my own] because, where my writing is concerned, my involvement with music has had two distinct aspects. The first manifested itself when at the age of ten I became hopelessly enamored of Wagner’s operas, especially The Ring of the Nibelung. It was naturally the music that overwhelmed me, but through an eager misconstruing of the “system” of leitmotivs I was able to listen to the music as if it were a coded narrative: this didn’t diminish the explosive romanticism that so appealed to me, but it allowed me to think of it as a musical equivalent of storytelling. I soon moved on to composers who interested me in other ways, but I think that to this day I’m still animated by the entanglement of narrative with romantic longing, sexual passion and ultimate pessimism that I first experienced in listening to Wagner. It was the dangerous power of that experience that no doubt led me to turn to classicism rather than expressionism as my mode of writing.

The other main effect that music had on my writing came with the discovery of modernist composers on the one hand (Schönberg and his twelve-tone system, Stravinsky and his shrewdly calculated manipulation of rhythmic patterns), and 14th century ones on the other (Philippe de Vitry, Guillaume de Machaut, Francesco Landini and their elaborate metrical devices) - all of them composers who used arbitrary methods without any obvious concern for self-expression or the depiction of emotions to create works of the utmost fascination. They definitely provided models or at least justifications for the kinds of methods I used much later.

In an interview for The Brooklyn Rail you once said: “I used to feel like a foreigner in my own country, and now I’m a real foreigner.” This reminded me of Philip Larkin’s “The Importance of Elsewhere.” In Ireland, Larkin thought that his “strangeness made sense,” whereas in England there was “no elsewhere” to underwrite his existence. Is that also how you tend to look at it, being an American-living-abroad?

I was an American living abroad from 1952 to 1978, when I started teaching in the United States. Now I spend more time in America than I do in Europe, mostly in Key West and New York, cosmopolitan places that are easy to feel at home in. So the statement you quote hardly applies any more. It was certainly true for a long time, when all I’d known of America was the stuffy WASP society of the northeast, and living in France was a joy (aside from its obvious amenities) because people there leave you alone, and if you’re a foreigner, that’s hardly news.

Nowadays in literary and cultural studies, there is a lot of fuss about the so-called “new” cosmopolitanism, which is supposed to be a turn away from pluralism and a return to an earlier universalism, but without its more obvious Eurocentric implications. Authors such as V.S. Naipaul are sometimes labelled “new” cosmopolitans. How would you position yourself in relation to this new current, if that is what it is?

I hadn’t heard about the new cosmopolitanism, but I think I could probably have found my place more easily in a world where many literary traditions coexisted than in the America I grew up in. When I’d finished my first novel, The Conversions, a friend of mine gave it to a newly-arrived Chinese woman in Paris to type up. At the time - around 1960 - most readers in America didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing (I hardly knew myself). My typist liked the book and passed it around her circle of Chinese friends in Paris. Not only did they all like it too, more interestingly they found it a perfectly normal kind of novel. The same reaction might well have occurred among other non-western readers; it certainly was a rare event in my world.

My impression is that in American literary histories, internationalism is usually only tolerated insofar as it is internationalism in English. Authors such as Stuart Merrill, Francis Vielé-Griffin, Julien Green, and others are now seldom identified as “Americans” because they (also) wrote in languages other than English. You have on several occasions stated that you see yourself as an American author, but I can imagine that for many readers in the U.S. the appeal of your work resides precisely in the fact that it appears foreign. Would you say that this is a productive tension from your point of view?

When I was living in Venice in the mid ’70s, I attended a lecture on pornographic film by a distinguished Italian journalist. He observed that he could always recognize the national origin of a blue movie, and that what distinguished those from America was that they were intensely dramatic: their characters were always involved in some kind of violent ethical conflict; the simple presentation of sexual activities never sufficed. I think this element in my own work is one reason I consider it American. For instance, in “Country Cooking in Central France,” the irritable disdain of whoever is writing the recipe plays a crucial role - it dramatizes the entire text. This phenomenon is probably a legacy of our compulsion to moralize about everything; in any case, it’s one that I find myself consistently stuck with.

As for the appeal of what I write residing in its apparent foreignness, this is surely an age-old aspect of writing. The ancient Greeks claimed to have acquired their knowledge from Egypt; Roman poets boasted of introducing Greek practices in their own work; Baudelaire and Mallarmé cited Poe as an authority for what they were doing. In any case, hasn’t this appeal diminished greatly after several decades of so-called post-modernist American writing?

Roland Barthes once said that he had “little enjoyment of, or talent for, foreign languages … little taste for foreign literature, constant pessimism with regard to translation, confusion when confronted by questions of translators, since so often they appear to be ignorant of precisely what I regard as the very meaning of a word.” Your perspective seems to me diametrically opposed to that of Barthes. Could you perhaps elaborate a bit on how you deal with issues of language and translation?

Because I’ve written in detail about translation, I’m reluctant to add to what I’ve already said, feeling as I do that whatever ideas I may have come out more clearly in their detailed written form than in any semi-spontaneous version of them I might manage now. I apologize for referring to published works that may not be easy to find, but I feel it’s the only responsible way to respond to you question. An old story called “The Dialect of the Tribe” is a parable about the “impossibility” of translation: its narrator, hoping to explain the workings of an unfamilar language, ends up having to use its very own words to do so. A similar point is made in an essay, “The Case of the Persevering Maltese,” but there I also present my own method for initiating a successful translation: recreating the sense of the text to be translated in the most down-to-earth, natural speech. In another essay, “Fearful Symmetries,” I investigate particular problems of translation that arise in working from American English. Two conclusions I reach are: “What all these examples suggest is that efficient translation requires a fidelity to aesthetic function at least as great as the conventional fidelity to nominal meaning;” and “In other words, [translators must] set out to recreate the original text as if it were their very own work.” But these statements aren’t worth much without the lengthy examination of particular texts that precede them, as well as the inquiries into cultural questions such as the difference in the way Europeans and Americans conceive of knowledge. (The story can be found in the collection The Human Country; the essays in The Case of the Persevering Maltese, both published by Dalkey Archive Press.)

I must also say that translation is for me the essential discipline. Whenever I return to it, I realize that if I ever thought I knew anything about writing I now will have to learn it all over again.

Today, it seems hard to go round the fact that there is a massive trade imbalance between English and non-English writings. As Lawrence Venuti has put it, English is the most translated language in the world, but also the least translated into. Does the fact that you write (mostly) in a dominant language have some kind of effect on the way you write?

An effect, undoubtedly, but not exactly on the way I write. Many years ago I spent an evening in the company of a group of bright young Dutch writers, decidedly not main-stream. When I remarked that we were all part of a community working towards the same ends, one Dutchman smiled and asked, “How would you feel if you knew you would never have more than a hundred readers?” I saw what he meant.

David Bellos has stated: “la traduction normalise, et normalise peut-être trop en français.” Do you agree? Do you think that some languages translate easier than others, or would you say that all translations to a lesser or greater degree impose the values of the home culture onto the translated text, whatever the context? You yourself have argued in a conversation with John Ashberry that “French and English don’t quite mix in a fruitful way.” What exactly do you mean by this?

I agree with David Bellos’s statement (again, see “Fearful Symmetries”). But it was John Ashbery who made the statement about French and English not mixing, and I’m not sure what he meant, especially since his own translations from the French are so good. Perhaps he and I know French all too well - the more familiar I am with a language, the more “impossible” translating it becomes. When readers tell me how good my translation of Bataille’s Le bleu du ciel is, I keep my mouth shut.

In the Oulipo Compendium, The Journalist is cited as an example of the constraint “x mistakes y for z.” Although I was not aware of this when I first read the book, I did sense that there was something going on along these lines. I first thought of the work as some kind of comedy of errors with an existentialist twist, and I had a similar impression when reading Cigarettes or My Life in CIA. Would you say that it adds to the reading experience when the reader is aware of the patterns involved in an Oulipian novel or one that is advertised as such?

The Journalist is hardly an example of x mistakes y for z: the constraint was only a convenient way of formalizing the relationships that exist before the novel begins. I feel that the book is chiefly a parable of the way an obsession with writing can take over the reality of a writer’s life. While I knew more or less what was going to happen when I started writing it, the form events took followed its own, non-Oulipian course.

Cigarettes is based on an Oulipian scheme, but one that becomes so transparent that it is beyond noticing: but there appears to be another scheme, one that emerges from the story’s various plots (and their misrepresentations) and is something like the puzzle of a detective novel - frankly, it’s this I imagine that gave you the impression of “something [else] going on.” I think the same thing - the mystery novel element - is true of My Life in CIA, although perhaps a lifetime habit of writing in puzzling ways infuses everything I do, even when I try to keep things as simple as possible.

As for your final question, I find that what most intensifies the reading experience is the awareness that a hidden pattern or structure exists, without one’s exactly knowing what it is. This makes the reader sit up and pay attention.

It seems to me that (the striving for) isolation is a recurrent element in your work. What I find particularly interesting is that this isolation is usually presented as a relational concept, i.e. it is produced by interactions with other individuals who constantly fuel but also frustrate this desire for autonomy. In Singular Pleasures, for instance, there is often a more or less passive witness involved in the act of masturbation: an indifferent lover, a dentist, a father confessor, a cat, or just a TV set. One of the characters in Singular Pleasures is beautifully described as an “ascetic sensualist” who tries to reconcile the joys of poetry and self-gratification. Do you think this paradox of an ascetic sensualism can usefully be extrapolated to the poetics underlying your writings?

It’s interesting that you find “a striving for isolation” in my work: it certainly marked much of my life. From the age of six to fourteen I harbored the gloomiest doubts about myself and avoided making or keeping friendships. And why else would I settle at the age of 28 in an outlying house of a tiny hamlet outside a mountain village in an austere, little-frequented region of a country not my own? In any case becoming a writer in itself means condemning oneself to solitude. But where the work is concerned, frankly I don’t see it. (Aren’t Zachary and Twang, Elizabeth and Maud and Phoebe all living tributes to love? And “the journalist’s” isolation is clearly a form of insanity.) But no doubt my experiences manifested themselves without my knowing it.

“Ascetic sensualism” may be an acceptable way of describing what I’m after. The ascesis would lie in a classical reliance on suggestion instead of exposition, on questioning rather than drawing conclusions, on reducing one’s tex to minimum length; the sensualism would be found in the poetic density this can bring to language.

In your latest novel, My Life in CIA, the protagonist is constantly trying to be on top of things, but the more he tries, the more he gets tangled up in all kinds of schemes not of his own making. When rereading the work, I realized that both the Orsini and the Hohenzollern carry a bear in their coat of arms, which nicely connects the beginning and the end of the novel. The bear is also a symbol of greed, which I felt to be an encompassing theme in the work: greed for women, for good food, for recognition in the French literary circles, for the truth… The rumor that the protagonist is “CIA” then serves to trigger a Dantesque descent into a hell, which is supposed to purify him of his greed. I am not sure, however, whether in this context the purification ritual is all that successful. Would you agree that this is a rather bleak picture?

I don’t agree. The presence of bears notwithstanding, you’re loading the dice by using the word “greed” when plain “desire” would do, or even “enthusiasm.” “Greed for women”? That may be what the narrator claims to have, but it strangely remains purely theoretical. “Greed for good food”? One three-course dinner eaten late in the evening after the fatigue of giving a lecture? Ordering lamb chops at Maxim’s? Enjoying beef stew and pan fries in a mountain refuge? The Oulipo aside, French literary circles are similarly thin on the ground. As for the truth - which I take to be the central topic of the book - in the narrative the poor foolish man (me) hardly goes looking for it but has it thrust in his face. Falling off the path into the demanding, invigorating world of shepherding may not “purify him of his greed” but does, I think, teach him that he shouldn’t play adventurous games, even exhilarating ones, and that there are simpler ways to live a happy life (or at least a happy ten days). But that of course is not the end of the story.

(Let me parenthetically clear up a question concerning “good food” that was raised by another book. American readers of The Journalist often express surprise at the elaborate meals Daisy prepares for the narrator day after day. The setting of the novel is an unnamed southern European town, and for southern Europeans such meals are not elaborate but normal, the kind wives are expected to serve up routinely. This is unfair to the wives, many of whom have daytime jobs; but they still manage.)

How do you feel about electronic literature? I was thinking, for instance, of Geoff Ryman’s internet novel 253. Do you think that it can offer new patterns to work with, or would you rather see them as extensions of existing constraints?

I’m all for electronic literature, albeit at a distance. Judging from the work done by the ALAMO, the Oulipo’s electronic cousin, structures specific to the medium will necessarily develop and probably have already done so. On the other hand, there is nothing new under the sun; at least if you read the poets.

Lori Emerson:

Michael Boyden’s essay “The Riddling Effect” contextualizes these three texts that Mathews refers to, all of which are now available on ebr: “The Dialect of the Tribe,” “Fearful Symmetries,” and “The Case of the Persevering Maltese.”

Lori Emerson:

See Paul Harris’s essay “Harry Mathews’s Al Gore Rhythms: A Re-viewing of Tlooth, Cigarettes, and The Journalist” in which he rediscovers the senior American member of Oulipo on the occasion of three reprints from The Dalkey Archive Press.