Academic journal article Chicago Review

An Interview with Harry Mathews

Academic journal article Chicago Review

An Interview with Harry Mathews

Article excerpt

Born in New York in 1930, Harry Mathews studied music at Harvard University. Though he has frequently taught writing in the United States, since the 1950s Mathews has lived in France. His first novel, The Conversions, appeared in 1962.(1) In 1973 he was asked to join the international experimental writing group Oulipo (Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle) whose members included Italo Calvino and George Perec.(2) Oulipian writers practice and theorize the use of what they call "constrictive procedures" in the writing process. Because Oulipians explore an astonishingly wide range of such procedures (mathematical formulas, limited vocabularies, aleatory techniques) and use them in quite different ways, their texts can be collectively identified only by a consistent attack on the romantic notion of authorship as a matter of inspiration and genius. Even before joining Oulipo, Mathews was especially influenced by the French writer Raymond Roussel, whose deadpan tone, minutely descriptive narratives, and bizarre text generation techniques became one of the most important precedents for the Oulipo and for Mathews. Roussel, for instance, by switching one vowel in one word in a sentence composed of words with multiple meanings, would come up with two very different sentences; relating these sentences then became the task for his novel, moving from the first to the second meaning as the envelope of the narrative.

Mathews's early novels present deceptively simple quest narratives that get side-tracked into realms of absurdly specific erudition. Though plot concerns always seem to drive the need for the protagonists (and the reader) to sort through these complicated, interwoven, and beautifully told bodies of knowledge, the collective effect of Mathews's tales within tales is often to collapse plot into a mosaic of diversions that foregrounds questions of interpretation and relevance. While Mathews's earlier novels tend to be anti-psychological, in his more recent fiction psychology reappears filtered through an Oulipian lens. The narration of his novel, Cigarettes (1987), is structured by the depiction of fourteen character-relationships. In The Journalist, the protagonist's increasing desire for realism in his diary gradually takes over the narrative and the character's life. Mathews is also a significant critic and poet; his 1977 book of poems, Trial Impressions, exhaustively rewrites a short Elizabethan love lyric by the English poet and musician John Dowland into the linguistic and social world of the 1970s.

The following interview took place in Paris in May of 1994.

LYTLE SHAW: I want to ask you about the concept of play that holds so much interest for Oulipians. The way I understand it, a number of twentieth-century theoreticians and writers have reimagined German Idealism's concept of play by arguing for a kind of radical interpretive participation or readerly involvement that comes to be seen, in many cases, as a form of non-alienated labor. But since the early 1960s, when you wrote your first novels, the discourse surrounding play has become more self-reflexive and now, for instance, a number of important critiques of the political efficacy of play have emerged. How, then, do you see the evolution of this concept over the last thirty years? Do you still find some kind of political liberation in the idea of readerly participation?

HARRY MATHEWS: The answer to that is certainly yes. But I'd like to say at the beginning that for me the approach that I found in Raymond Roussel - getting to material through arbitrary, game-like procedures - was primarily a way that allowed me to get myself out of the place where I was stuck - feeling and thinking certain ways about the world, confronted with the huge difficulty of working directly from that into the production of the text. The playful procedures gave me something completely different to do and moved me onto another terrain from which I could come back to the material, whatever that might be. …

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