Harry Mathews and Joseph McElroy met last week to talk—about the writing of fiction, strange maps of New York, and other topics—and celebrate the release of Mathews’s The Human Country: New and Collected Stories (Dalkey Archive). Mathews, the author of five novels and several volumes of poetry and nonfiction, is the sole American member of the Oulipo, the legendary Paris-based “workshop for potential literature,” whose members have included Italo Calvino and Georges Perec. On October 15 he was decorated with the title of Officer of the French Order of Arts and Letters. McElroy’s eighth novel, Actress in the House, is forthcoming from Overlook next year.
So much of The Human Country gives us a blueprint, a rhythm, of what it is like to be a writer. Like this phrase in the final story: “Over many weeks touch her part by part . . . until the knot loosened.” Unfolding, in your stories, can be therapeutic.
> Harry Mathews: When I have one of these frightening lunatic ideas, each is a kind of knot. I have no idea what’s going to be in the package. In my first three novels and in the earlier stories here, one knot I wanted to untie was the prestige of high culture. People used to accuse me of being erudite—too much archaeology, history of religion, theology—when my point was how utterly irrelevant they and their apparent mysteries were. To send them up. Even in “Country Cooking”—I know cooking isn’t high culture, though these days you might well think it was. I’d had this idea of doing a story about a recipe. It involved research into every known cooking technique and ingredient. It’s parodying the old-style cookbooks. They would casually say, make a roux—they don’t tell you how to do it and you’re in the middle of the recipe and it says see page 238 to know what to do next and the whole thing is going to fall apart. No one ever makes that recipe, it magnifies the perils of cooking, anyone who tries to make it would wind up in a loony bin.
Or immortal. The ending recalls the Last Supper: “Serves thirteen.”
> HM: That’s the secret that lights up the darkness.
Yet there are tics and quirks in how you think which could be traced to some source of darkness—images that constitute the biography of a writer much more than where he was living or who he was married to.
> HM: We reinvent them, the places we have lived, so they’re unfamiliar.
My New York is always a field of potential strangeness. There are strange walks taken in my new novel that may not correspond to a normal map of New York.
> HM: Or a reader’s expectations of how New York is going to look in a book. It shows up very fresh—though in your book it’s conceivable, whereas in what I write it’s not. Cigarettes  is set in Saratoga but I only went there to make sure I hadn’t made some topographical mistake. It’s really about fashionable places in Long Island, which I frequented for many of my early years, as well as New York itself.
Your real biography can be found in the repeated images in your work. The enclosure that then gets broken—which is connected to the knot that gets dissolved or unwound. I think of the encased fish inside the lamb shoulder in “Country Cooking,” of the lover trapped in concrete toward the end of Cigarettes. Not because it refers to an actual Harry Mathews that exists outside the work—more that it grasps the movement of the book, the kind of mind, the life of the work. Now I recall there’s a concrete mine throwing up dust in “Country Cooking.” I also think of the recurrent image of the box.
> HM: The box could be applied to a lot of stories in this book. To go back to the high culture that I thought was boxing me in: Beginning as a writer, the only fiction I knew was New Yorker stories—John Cheever, the likes of which I could not write—so I had to get out of that box to write at all. In “The Dialect of the Tribe” the impossibility of translation both disappears and you can’t escape from it. Even when there isn’t an explosion or deflation the problem is that there is someone who is stuck someplace.
I thought suddenly of Marcel Marceau, reaching out to define the enclosure in which he finds himself. At the moment you’re teaching a course on the novel from Jane Austen to Jane Bowles at the New School, but you’ve often taught writing. And you have these methods that certainly have to do with dissolving knots. Students discover that the constraints of an exercise, a form, are liberating, not just confining.
> HM: Opportunities, I would call them.
Aren’t the exercises a model of what any imaginative writer has to do at the beginning and all through? I think of Yeats’s “The Fascination of What’s Difficult,” where the difficulty is partly coping with the problems of getting his play produced. But he speaks of the richness that came as a result of overcoming difficulties in the writing.
> HM: Georges Perec began La Disparition , 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 , which brings up serious matters. My second, Tlooth , 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.”
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.