Should Writing Hurt?

A Conversation With Master Fictioneer Harry Mathews

> HM: Georges Perec began La Disparition [1969], his novel without the letter e, as a bet, but it put him in touch with aspects of his life that he hadn't been able to face on the blank page before. Losing his mother, slowly finding out that she'd been deported to the camps, and never being sure of her death till years later—which was unbearable for him, literally unwritable. This gave him access to the experience, and he was able to write about it in a somewhat more direct way.

< JM: And you, Harry?

> HM: When he died, the Oulipo devoted a pamphlet to his memory. We were to compose a work that had some relation to his. I was paralyzed with grief. Not knowing what to do, I decided to write without the letter e. I had no idea what would happen. I sat down and wrote a two-page text. It read well, it was touching and appropriate to the occasion, and I discovered a neo-Platonist hidden in me that I never knew was there.

The dialect of the tribe: novelists Harry Mathews and Joseph McElroy share their recipes.
photo: Sylvia Plachy
The dialect of the tribe: novelists Harry Mathews and Joseph McElroy share their recipes.

< JM: What if book clubs say to you that a puzzle is trivial compared to real life?

> HM: The problem for these readers is that they think reading is not part of real life and what they are reading about should take priority, whereas I think that what they experience as they read should take priority. You can write about the sniper but you have to reinvent it, to make it newly real on the page. It doesn't matter where you start from. Most of my work is not Oulipian, but all the stories start with a pretextual goal in mind so that at least I've chosen my box. People writing conventional fiction have little choice and are stuck with something that may not suit them at all.

< JM: What if someone were to, say, write a story about Bush invading Iraq? Is it subject matter that really doesn't go with the principles you have for your art?

> HM: I would probably start with language—like shooting fish in a barrel, no matter what kind of politicians you take. The language of the texts they produce—they have constraints, let me tell you. And the language ends up so easily turned on its head. For example, if you took the Oulipian "N + 7" strategy, where you replace each noun with the seventh noun down in the dictionary, you'd get extraordinary results.

< JM: Would it hurt? Should writing hurt?

> HM: There is the account of the torture and execution of the queen of the gypsies in my first novel, The Conversions [1962], which brings up serious matters. My second, Tlooth [1966], opens in a Soviet concentration camp. It was not intended to be realistic. It begins with a baseball game. The camp is divided into sects that correspond to 19th-century heresies—completely fantastic. My German translator said, "You haven't been in a concentration camp, have you?" I said, "No!" He had. He said, "It was possible except for one thing." I mentioned the baseball game, the sects, the other things that were going on. He said, "All that was terrifically possible. The thing that made me doubt was that there were no mosquitoes in your book."

< JM: The popular principle is if you know the writer hasn't done it, you can't believe a thing he says. It's really a form of snobbery. But if we follow the correct principle for reading and for dealing with people, it's the reverse of snobbery. You go with the text.

> HM: All you have to do is read.

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