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Books In Conversation

Agent Provocateur: Harry Matthews with Johannah Rogers

Harry Mathews is the only American member of the OULIPO, the Workshop for Potential Literature, France’s longest-lasting and most active literary movement. He is the author of over a dozen books, including the novels The Journalist, Tlooth, and The Conversions. The Rail recently met with him to talk about his new novel, My Life in CIA (Dalkey Archive Press, 2005).

Johannah Rodgers (Rail): In your introduction to a recent reading from your new novel, you said: “This book is about doubting everything. The whole thing is true and the whole thing is false.” And, of course [laughing], I was sad to see that the Times had also cited this comment in their article about you.

Harry Mathews: There are only a few things that I can say about that aspect of the book.

Rail: I noticed that My Life in CIA is labeled, on the back cover, an autobiographical novel. Is it?

Mathews: My Life in CIA is the first time that someone called Harry Mathews is the “I,” though in fact all of my novels are written in the [first person]. The Sinking of Odradek Stadium has two first persons because it is an epistolary novel, so there is a woman and a man. And in the others, in The Conversions, the “I” was a mulatto, in Tlooth it was a woman, in Cigarettes the “I” turns out to be a masochistic gay writer, and in The Journalist the “I” was a man—but obviously I don’t live someplace in central Europe, as that character did, and I’ve never had the problems that that character had, at least not in that particular form. My Life in CIA is the first time that I’ve ever written a story in my own name.

Rail: How did you decide to do that?

Mathews: What else was there to do?

Rail: At one point in your autobiography, The Way Home, you mention that it was John Ashbery who got you started thinking about writing fiction. Is that true?

Mathews: It didn’t happen like that. What I said about John was that he liberated me from my anxieties about writing in a correct, acceptable way. I was then very hung up both in fiction and in poetry by the conventions of the time, which, to make things horrendously oversimplified, was, let’s say, defined by what was published in The New Yorker. And John got me off that. It wasn’t anything he said; it was his whole attitude towards literature that made me realize that I could do absolutely anything I wanted to. Perhaps what you were thinking of was that John introduced me to the works of Raymond Roussel, and Roussel was the man who made me realize that I could write fiction the way poetry is written, that one could create a fictional reality the way one creates a poetic reality; one doesn’t have to depend on one’s ghastly upper middle-class upbringing [for material with which to write fiction].

Rail: Who was being published in The New Yorker at that time?

Mathews: Oh, reputable people like John Cheever and sometimes Eudora Welty, and I can’t remember who else. I thought Cheever was magnificent and that if I could write like him that would be the best I could do. And then I realized that what I really wanted to write had nothing to do with what he was doing. What I wanted to do and what I needed to do was something entirely different, and through reading Roussel I learned that I could do what I wanted all on my own and that I didn’t have to rely on what had actually happened in my somewhat limited life and reading.

Rail: And when did you get involved with the OULIPO?

Mathews: I got involved with the OULIPO through Perec in 1972. I was elected to the group in 1973.

Rail: And Queneau was still alive?

Mathews: Oh yes, he was alive for another six years.

Rail: And what was he like?

Mathews: What was Raymond Queneau like? [Pause.] I had met him before I was elected to the OULIPO. I had met him socially, as it were, at a dinner party or two, and we had a very pleasant relationship, which had no particular literary significance at all. Afterwards I knew him mainly as a member of the OULIPO. In the OULIPO, he was the absolute arbiter of what we did. He was an immensely knowledgeable man. I don’t have to say what an exceptionally original poet and novelist he was. I don’t know if you know that he was the editor of Gallimard’s L’Encyclopédiede la Pléiade, which meant that he had to know something about everything, and then he knew even more about everything after doing the job. He was a very kind man, but he was unerring in his judgments, and very stern, too.

Rail: About literature?

Mathews: About what we did in the OULIPO. I think he had very catholic tastes in literature, but he was strict in deciding whether a method of writing was Oulipian or not.

Rail: Was he funny?

Mathews: He was known as being extraordinarily funny, and he was funny and witty, but there was a depth of melancholy and skepticism in him also. I’m not an authority on him; I’m just giving you my personal impression from seeing him once a month, sometimes a little more often.

Rail: Was he a teacher to you?

Mathews: He was a mentor. A mentor and a master; he wasn’t a teacher. He didn’t have to say much, but he would show you the way. By the way, Perec was also a very melancholy man.

Rail: He suffered from depression, didn’t he?

Mathews: All his life. He had a ghastly past. Everybody thought of Georges as a joker, but it was really a sort of an act. Underneath that he was extremely serious and an immensely generous man. More generous perhaps than Queneau.

Rail: Were you the same age?

Mathews: No, not at all. He was much younger than I was. He was six years my junior. I can talk forever about him.

Rail: How did he write?

Mathews: Effortlessly. [Laughs.] I say that because when we were working on the translations he did of mine, after reading through the books together, during which he’d write notes in the margins, when it came to doing the actual translation I was often with him, and after I’d explained such and such a sentence, he would think for a minute and then unhesitatingly write a flawless French version of it. He loved writing; he wrote all of the time. If he were sitting here waiting for you to show up, he would be writing. Not like me.

Rail: Could you talk a little bit about why you moved to France and how that has been involved in your work and what your relationship to America is?

Mathews: Well, my relationship to America at the time I left was very limited. I’d been brought up on the Upper East Side in a WASP society, which was death on crutches. I could see no place for myself in that world. I had the good luck to meet Niki de Saint Phalle, who, although she was a Catholic, had been brought up in that same world and she, too, was completely dissatisfied with the possibilities it offered. And because I had been to France and already fallen in love with France, quite irrationally (unless I’d lived an earlier life there), we decided to move there. I have to say my initial attraction to France, which happened on my first visit when I was a student at eighteen, was inexplicable. The first place I saw was Le Havre, which was in hideous shape, still largely destroyed [from the war] and not attractive in any way, but the people I saw, the dockers and the people in the harbor were a whole new breed of human beings to me: the way they stood, they way they talked to one another. I was immediately smitten with an attraction to this culture, not in the sense of high culture but of the basic way people behaved towards one another. When Niki and I moved to Paris, there was also the challenge of Paris, an extremely daunting city. I thought, “I will never, ever be able to fit in here.” I also had this mistaken dream, fantasy really—perhaps because I’m good at languages—of being able, in both Italy and France, to become someone else through my fluency in the language. But I soon learned that this was an absolute dead-end street: I would always be an American. And once I realized this, life became a joy. I felt, “This is wonderful,” because I used to feel like a foreigner in my own country, and now I’m a real foreigner. I should add that when I went back to New York, I no longer felt like a foreigner [because I had been introduced to a community of artists living downtown] and I felt very much at home in my new New York community. Since then I’ve found many other places in the U.S. where I feel absolutely comfortable—most recently, Key West, where I’ve been very, very happy.

Rail: I wonder, in terms of your family, whether, as much as your parents were part of upper-middle-class New York society, because your father was an architect and could have been a painter and your mother was very cultured, they encouraged your work as a writer in any way?

Mathews: In no way. There were times when I got along marvelously well with my father—and at the end of one of these happy moments I told him that I had decided not to be a conductor [as I had originally planned when I moved to France], and he was absolutely thrilled because he was dead set against my becoming a musician. Then I told him that I’d decided to become a writer instead. [Laughs.] It was out of the frying pan into the fire. When I showed him The Conversions, like most people in those days he had no idea what I was doing; but, thank God, the book was published soon after in England, and the English gave it fabulous reviews: The Sunday Times, The Observer, The Guardian all gave the book glowing reviews, and my father, who was an Anglophile snob, said, “If the English think this is OK, it must be OK.”

Rail: Well, you were very lucky that you had such success early.

Mathews: It was not much of a success, but it served that purpose. And from then on my father accepted what I was doing. My mother could never understand why I didn’t write a thriller, which I’ve finally done. [Both laugh]

Rail: I think you have, I really do. [Laughing.] And why is it that every thriller has to have a skiing scene in it?

Mathews: This is a very private skiing scene. It’s not the James Bond variety.

Rail: And do you still write poetry?

Mathews: Yes, I do. Not as much as I’d like to. My next project is to get back to that. Actually, to learn how to write poetry. I’m not kidding.

Rail: What is the relationship for you between poetry and fiction?

Mathews: Well, the great thing for me about poetry is that in good poems the dislocation of words, that is to say, the distance between what they say they’re saying and what they are actually saying is at its greatest. In a poem, that happens instantaneously, whereas in fiction it’s more part of the generative process.

Rail: So what do you include in this process? Characters, plot?

Mathews: I know that stuff is very important. But what I love most is storytelling. It has always been something I could do, and it may seem odd that in my case I seem to create an interesting narrative and frustrate the reader’s opportunities to follow it at every step. As for characters, I think that very little is needed. You just give a hint and the reader will make up the character on his or her own. I had to include at least an illusion of novelistic psychology in Cigarettes, and illusionistic is the word. I learned how to create that illusion, and it works just fine. I think situations are more important than plot and character. One thing that Ashbery and Kenneth Koch did in their novel, The Nest of Ninnies, was to insist there be no character development; this made for a very realistic novel because, as you may have noticed, there is very little character development in real life.

Rail: How do you like teaching?

Mathews: I love teaching.

Rail: Any thoughts on how the novel is doing these days?

Mathews: I think it’s doing great. All it needs is to be pronounced dead once more and it will be truly thriving.


Johannah Rogers


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2005

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