For an American author to be called "experimental," "avant-garde" or merely "difficult" has pretty much always been a curse. Americans like their writers to tell a good story, not dick around with form or process.
Maybe that's why Harry Mathews, one of the masters of experimental American fiction, has spent so much of his adult life in France. Born in 1930 and raised on the WASPy Upper East Side, educated at Princeton and Harvard, Mathews left the U.S., his first wife Niki de Saint Phalle and child in tow, when he graduated from Harvard in 1952, and lived exclusively in Europe for many years. Today, he and his second wife, the French novelist Marie Chaix, divide their year among places in Paris; Lans en Vercors, a ski-country village near Grenoble; Key West; and a beautiful floor-through pied-a-terre on W. 11th St. near 5th Ave., where he's staying this fall as he teaches a lit course to MFA writing students at the New School. What they say about living well seems true in his case. Who cares if he's never on Oprah or has his books stacked in pyramids in the front of every Barnes & Noble?
Mathews has written several volumes of poetry, numerous essays on literature and art, some short prose fictions?now collected for the first time in The Human Country from Dalkey Archive Press (186 pages, $14.50)?and five novels to date. It's boring but possibly instructive to see the novels falling into two large "movements." His first three?The Conversions (1962), Tlooth ('66) and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium ('72)?form a kind of extended scherzo; they're antic, surrealist, almost madcap excursions in literary games-playing, jokes, puns, elaborate wordplay and loopy diversions. They're not "novels" in any traditional way, but instead masterworks from the great age of 1960s-70s postmodern "anti-novels" that includes the (very different) books of Robert Coover, Ronald Sukenick and Raymond Federman.
The later masterpieces Cigarettes ('87) and The Journalist ('94) are, on the surface at least, more like traditional novels, gorgeously "literary" and "stylish" (they were compared to the work of Jane Austen and Aldous Huxley; I'd add Nabokov), with plots you can follow, complicated as they are, and "realistic" characters doing recognizable real-world activities. Both can be seen as tour-de-force variations on the comedy of manners (as, in their more hectic way, even the earlier trio can be). In a more literate country these, if not the more challenging early novels, should have made him a household name. But they were probably still too "difficult." In Cigarettes?which is not about cigarettes?Mathews jumbles time periods and interlaces his characters' lives to design a plot that's as beautifully intricate and knotted as an illuminated capital in a medieval Celtic breviary. (Mathews says it took him eight years to write, and I believe him.) And in The Journalist?which is not about a journalist?a man who begins a diary as a way to keep track of the world around him ends up becoming so obsessed with the diary-keeping he loses all track of reality. The diary effectively takes over not only his life, but the novel itself. It's my personal favorite among Mathews' novels, no doubt because its portrait of the writer's dilemma?every writer's dilemma?is at once so funny and so terrifying and so moving. Mathews tells me that of all his characters, this journal-keeper is the only one he ever "worried about."
Moving to France as a young man "was really just to get away from what I thought of as being America, which was just the WASP world of New York society, which was particularly hateful in those days," Mathews tells me, settling into the front room of the Village apartment. Tall and handsome, not looking his years, he speaks softly and projects an aura of quiet, old-school manners. "They thought that they'd won the war and were running the world. There was no place in that world for me. And I didn't know anybody downtown. I could've just moved here [instead of going all the way to France]." He adds that "'52 was the height of McCarthy. It was terribly ugly. The day we left, Eisenhower's Attorney General refused a visa to Charlie Chaplin on the grounds of moral turpitude. Can you imagine? He'd actually gone to bed with women he hadn't married. That seemed to be very significant, if only to justify our leaving."
I ask if it's been easier for him to be an "experimental" writer in the land of surrealism and dada than it would be here. Do the French understand his work better than Americans?
"I think a lot of Frenchmen think they understand what I do," he smiles. "In France, just being a writer is absolutely normal. In America, you tell somebody you're a writer and they're, 'Oh, you're a writer.' And if you're starting out, it's, 'Have you published anything?' A horrible stage. But even after that, either you're weird or you're somebody special. In France, there have been so many writers around for so long that when you say you're a writer it's like saying you're a lawyer or a plumber. It's a perfectly valid way of identifying what you do."
On another level, he concedes it "was certainly a lot easier for French people to get something out of" his work. "The French are terrific readers. They're much more able to pick up and get something as writing, rather than trying to come to conclusions about it. One thing that drives me crazy?not just for me, but in general?about American reviewers and critics is that they have to make judgments of a kind that are ridiculous. I always assume that a writer of some professional skill probably knows more about what he's doing than some reviewer. It's very irritating when [writers] get shut down for something that's utterly irrelevant. I see it in my students. They make judgments about the characters that the author never did. They feel they have to say if this [character] is good or bad."
He feels in general that in America there's a "righteousness" that can be both irrelevant and intrusive. "If I smoke cigarettes," he says, apropos of current events in New York City, "that's my choice." And he lights one. We discuss the book Cigarettes Are Sublime, and the notion that if one chooses to smoke one is exercising a right to "choose one's own death. I thought that was the best point in the book." He notes that in France, where they've introduced American-style smoking and nonsmoking areas in restaurants, the effect is the reverse of here: the nonsmoking section is invariably a couple of tables near the door to the bathroom or kitchen. "On top of that, the police were supposed to enforce it," he chuckles. "Even the laziest policeman has more interesting things to do. So very little happened."
In Paris, Mathews fell in with the avant-garde writing group the Ouvoir de Litterature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), Oulipo for short. The group?which has included Georges Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino?experiments with the forms of writing by applying all sorts of arcane and nonintuitive-sounding mathematical principles to the process of creation. (Mathews would later co-edit The Oulipo Compendium, introducing the process to English readers.) In Oulipian hands, an entire book may be written without using the letter e, for instance. In The Human Country, Mathews has pieces written as prose sestinas, or as "chronograms" (a complicated game wherein you use the letters corresponding to Roman numerals?i, v, l, x, etc.?to build a piece that adds up to the year in which it was written), and one, "Their Words, For You," written using only recombined words from common proverbs, resulting in delightful, not-so-nonsensical passages like:
Another morning, another egg. The sky was up early. It had rained all night: to you and me sleeping, the storm was a delight. In the east, morning clouds are building a kingdom of red and silver. Time for you to get up! Come into the kingdom of morning delight and come as king! Come into the omelet of morning delight, and come as egg!
It may sound counterintuitive to subject writing to such arbitrary rules of construction, but in a sense Oulipian methods are only more extreme versions of the structural restrictions poets have always placed on their work. Mathews notes that the sonnet must have seemed a radical structure when Shakespeare and his contemporaries were experimenting with it. And concentrating on the form and process of writing, rather than the story or the "meaning," he claims, frees the writer to come up with stories and meanings he might never have found otherwise?a bit like the old surrealist games of automatic writing and the exquisite corpse.
"It's the idea that invention can be more appealing in and of itself than trying to tell stories directly out of one's own experience," he explains. "It's more interesting, I think, to start from some idea that is outside [oneself] and work towards that."
One gets the sense that Mathews may have come to such outre strategies with a more open mind than many university- and Yaddo-trained American writers would have. At Harvard, he consciously avoided lit and creative writing courses, studying music instead.
"It's true I never took any literature courses," he says. "The only literature course I've ever taken are the ones I've taught. The flipside to that is that I'm still woefully ignorant of whole areas of English fiction. I never read Smollett, I never read Fielding until a few years ago and so forth. On the other hand, it left me in a position where I could make up my own tradition."
He tells me he's often asked if the musical aspect is an important element in his writing. "I suppose it is," he says, "in the sense that the sentences have to work, and they have to work when they're read out loud. When you read out loud what you've written and you stumble over a word, there's something wrong there that needs to be fixed. This is true of paragraphs and everything else. When it sounds right, that's when literary thought really comes into being. It doesn't have that much to do with whatever idea you started with. Very often in rewriting I take out things that I thought were my favorite sentences in a story or a novel. I know that I'm getting someplace when all of them are out," he smiles. "There has to be a kind of musical cohesiveness to the text that assures that something is really happening."
I suspect that having Harry Mathews in the front of the classroom?he's taught at schools including Columbia and Bennington before?must be a real eye-opener for American students, and a rare opportunity.
"This is the first time since '83 that I've taught in New York," he explains. "The reason for it is that it's the New School, which is a long arrow shot from here... And it was a chance to do a lit course, which I really love to do. I get asked to do writing workshops all over the place all the time. This is for an MFA program in writing, and I think reading exceptional novels is the best training a writer can have."
He's having the students read a list of great writers but often obscure titles, including works of Jane Austen, Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, Jean Rhys, Edith Wharton and Jane Bowles. "I was very worried that the list would scare off participants," he says, but of the 13 students, "many of them had signed up because of the list. Because they were so intrigued" and "sick of always reading the same old books."
He did not ask any of these aspiring writers to show him writing samples. "But even when I teach creative writing I never read anybody's work," he smiles. Instead, "The aim of it is getting people out of their hangups. All writers are anxious." His writing workshop "is designed to completely move writers to another place where they can be freer in their approach to what they're doing. It starts off with a lot of provocative talk on my part. I put out a lot of ideas?in a gentle tone, but nevertheless the ideas are not the usual ones traditional writers are used to. It's all talk and a little writing at the beginning, and then it's progressively less talk and more and more writing. At last it's all writing, and they come up with some really delicious things to do. I do all the exercises with them."
A big hangup for young American writers would have to be the felt need to tell straightforward, traditional stories based on their own experiences: the prime mode for American fiction. An encounter with Mathews and his creative stratagems should be a powerful antidote.
"It's absolutely true," he concurs. "And it was true of me when I first started. I wrote poetry, but I was longing to write fiction. I was particularly interested in writing fiction about what I knew, which was the world in which I'd grown up. But I knew nothing. The most extreme things I knew were sort of Eudora Welty stories in The New Yorker. Let's say I thought that if I was really good I'd be writing like John Cheever. And I couldn't. It came out terrible. It wasn't until I met [the poet] John Ashbery, who told me I didn't have to worry about anybody else, I could do any damn thing I pleased. And then I met Raymond Roussel, who showed me you can write fiction the way you write poetry and it can be completely non-'realistic.'"
Still, even at his most obviously playful, Mathews' writing can sail right over the heads of American audiences. Take Singular Pleasures (first published in 1988, reprinted by Dalkey in '93), a marvelous collection of 61 vignettes all on the topic of masturbation?men and women, boys and girls all over the world jerking off in a stunning variety of methods and settings. It's warm, funny, touching, supremely humane?and when Mathews has read from it in America, even in self-regardingly hip places like Bennington or San Francisco, "It went over like a lead balloon," he smiles. "They were horrified."
Oh well. Maybe he should read it in Key West, where he and Marie have come to spend six months a year. "It's not Florida," he explains. "It's pretty cosmopolitan. We've fallen in with an extraordinary congeries of writers," including Ann Beattie, Annie Dillard, Robert Stone and Judy Blume. "It's the only community I've ever felt a part of," he says, adding with a smile that there are a lot of "great parties."
I ask what it's like to be dividing one's year among four remarkable homes. Doesn't he miss, say, Paris when he comes to Manhattan? Or Key West when he goes to Lans en Vercors?
"I don't miss anywhere when I'm away from it," he shrugs. "I hate leaving each place, and I'm overjoyed when I arrive at each."
When I ask if he finds today's Manhattan much different from the one he fled 50 years ago, he surprises me by countering that "I don't think it's fundamentally changed. It's always seemed to me pretty insane?and irreplaceable." New Yorkers, he says, "are the greatest people in the world," with "deep wells of kindness and humanity" beneath all the bustling and surface incivilities.
Harry Mathews reads Tues., Nov. 12 (rescheduled from Oct. 29), 6:30 p.m., at the Drawing Center, 35 Wooster St. (betw. Broome & Grand Sts.), 219-2166; and Thurs., Nov. 7, 7:30 p.m., at Makor, 35 W. 67th St. (betw. Central Park W. & Columbus Ave.), 601-1000.