Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
“Everything that happens in these books—the least details of their vicissitudes, their erudite digressions, their langoureux vertiges—are nothing more than the ghostly, frail delineations of the legendary wrestling match in which from the beginning of time we have been engaged with the world of words, signs, meanings, and dreams, in which we call fiction.”
—Avez-Vous Lu Harry Mathews by Georges Perec
Lynne Tillman I’m intrigued by your idea that “reading is an act of creation for which the writer provides the meaning.” I wonder how this directly affects your writing?
Harry Mathews I don’t really know that it does affect it, except in some mysterious way that comes out of my experience as a reader. I know, as a reader, that language really doesn’t work representationally. And that it’s very hard to get away from the idea that it is some kind of representation. I think that probably I only can make use of ideas like that once I’m in the rewriting stage.
LT An active reader allows a writer…
HM It gets a writer off the hook of subject matter. Many writers think they’re not being significant or important unless they’re writing about things which are that week or year supposed to be significant. One decade it’ll be politics, the next, something else. We have a tendency to feel that the subject matter ought to be big, and often a “big” subject may not be appropriate for a particular writer. The point is that you can write wonderfully about anything. It’s very hard, unless one takes a lot of time as I did in that essay, to show how that works. But, for instance, right now we’re talking about a particular subject, and I seem to be communicating to you about that subject. By the end of this conversation you may notice that something has happened that has nothing to do with the subject. Probably what really will have happened is some kind of alteration or transformation in the relation between us. We seem to have been having this discussion where I’ve been talking about my writing or whatever you choose to ask me about, but in fact something else has been going on. I think it’s the same in books. Writers should go with what subject matter appeals to them, with what tickles them because that probably will be the kind of subject matter that will give them most access to the process of discovery; of what they are, or the world is, or language is. You must have had that experience as a writer yourself. As you rewrite something, nothing in substance is changed and yet it’s not just that you’re making it neater or more elegant. It’s become something totally different in the third draft. And, in fact, that’s what you wanted to say. Even though all the material was there in the first draft, and you got it all down, it wasn’t doing what you wanted it to do. Rewriting is so extraordinary, it’s where writing, not always, but very often, takes place. That’s when the writer becomes the first reader. Becomes a creator. If the reader is the only creator, the writer gets to share and in fact participates in that act of creation in the stage of rewriting. That’s when the writer can play creator, too. The old idea is hard to get rid of, that the writers have something to say and the readers are there to get it. I don’t think things work that way at all.
LT In that sense, the author has always been dead.
HM That’s right. There’s never been any authors. There have only been readers. The authors are first readers.
LT Your most recent novel Cigarettes seems formally very different from, let’s say, your first novel The Conversions, although it seemed to me that Cigarettes reworks some of The Conversions’ themes.
HM The earlier works were misread by a great many readers because they always thought I must be doing something else than what was actually there. And so they kept looking past what was right in front of them. One doesn’t have to look for symbols, one doesn’t have to look for explanations. You don’t need to explain those early books either. I think they are very up front. And one way that they’re up front is in the terrific unspoken or apparently unspoken drama that goes on in the life of the narrator, one which is barely indicated but always present. The narrator makes only two or three remarks in the course of The Conversions—about his wife divorcing him, for instance—but they’re enough to suggest all the things that he’s not saying that he should be saying. You can’t help being aware, even if you don’t know why, that the narrator has been reduced to a point of total fearfulness.
LT His pursuit of the inheritance, which sets him chasing fragments of an esoteric puzzle that, in fact, doesn’t exist, has all sorts of meanings. He’s on a quest, a journey. Is he worthy, is he smart enough? A lot of anxiety there.
HM John Ashbery was one reader who understood this straight off. Many people thought I was being too clever by miles, that I was playing games or just showing off or I don’t know what, indulging in a display of erudition. And that really isn’t the point at all. All the erudition gets blown up; it all turns out to have no significance whatsoever. In The Conversions there’s really only one character; the drama you get of one character who can’t or doesn’t dare tell about himself. I myself find this drama all the more moving by being so painfully, so inadequately expressed.
LT Which is where your work reminds me of Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies. In fact, Phoebe, the troubled young woman in Cigarettes, asks her father to read to her from Two Serious Ladies. I know that people talk about your work mostly in relation to Roussel…
HM I’m delighted to hear it. I read Two Serious Ladies three times and I don’t know how she did it. She achieves miracles by just putting one ordinary sentence after the other and she never indicates the way you’re supposed to feel about it. That’s something which I certainly hold as a model in my writing, but I got that more from Roussel than I did from her.
LT That “not indicating the way you’re supposed to feel about it” is why I think of you in relation to Jane Bowles. How would you describe Cigarettes to somebody who hadn’t yet read it, or what would you say your project was when you started it?
HM I had several things I wanted to do. For one thing, I promised myself not to do anything I’d already done in my earlier books. No erudition, no language games. The texture is very clear and if you took each chapter by itself, it would seem very conventional in style. I also wanted the book to be both traditional and modern. I had, almost from the very start, a desire to portray a passionate friendship between two middle-aged women—the friendship between Elizabeth and Maud at the end of the book. In a way, the whole book leads to that.
LT The portrait painted of Elizabeth by Walter Trale, another character, is so important in the novel. She is at the center and her portrait is a kind of centerpiece.
HM Actually, the painted portrait doesn’t turn out to be very significant.
LT But it has meaning in relation to people’s lives.
HM It does but it’s just a thing ultimately and it’s the characters who lay a lot of significance on it. I think it’s tempting for readers to do that too. Some people who have written about the book are tempted to see in the portrait a symbol of something mysterious. I think it’s symbolic of an object just being an object.
LT In the novel it seems to be important not because it’s essentially important, but because different people desire it, copy it, try to destroy it. It floats through the text as a kind of signifier.
HM That’s true. It’s a signifier without any signified beyond itself. It has no metaphysical significance of any kind at all. It plays an important role in terms of the narrative. It’s a kind of bait for the expectation, for the desire to find significance. In the end it’s just hanging on the terrace being a painting, we recognize its role to be purely narrative and nothing more than that. In a way the portrait is like the huge cultural constructs in my early books, you know in musicology or in art history or theology—they all turn out to be so much hot air. Of course between the opening chapters and the final chapter the portrait serves to remind us of Elizabeth herself, whom we’ve only known through her effect on three of the male characters. The reader, whether admitting it or not, has probably read the table of contents and seen that the last chapter is called “Maud and Elizabeth.” The reader knows after Elizabeth disappears that she’s going to come back.
LT All of the chapters present characters in pairs; each one gets paired with others in different chapters. You date some chapters 1936, and some 1963, which is the reverse of 36. I liked the structure very much; it underscores what things mean in relation to each other and in time.
HM That’s very good. I had general ideas about what I wanted to do, but I had no idea what the book was going to look like. I had invented a design that amounted to a series of empty spaces to fill up. I stared at these empty spaces for two years, watching them fill up, watching them turn into a whole. The story gets told, but it is never told. Whatever it may be, the story of the novel isn’t told, just these other stories of the particular relationships.
LT Cigarettes is not only about relationships in a very direct way, but things that have tremendous impact on relationships, like money. Money moves through the text and interrupts lives in very different and fascinating ways. Who inherits it? Do you give it away? Do you squander it? Do you invest it? This too reminded me of The Conversions—the hero’s quest for the immense fortune. So I wanted to talk about money.
HM Oh dear, really? I don’t have much to say about money that isn’t in the book. I guess if I had to say something general about money, it would be that it’s completely empty, it has no meaning in it itself, no significance. It’s simply in reactions people have to it that it acquires an apparent role. It has no inherent power.
LT It’s used that way in your novel, Maud giving it to her daughter and then taking it back and then giving it again.
HM And the father giving it to the daughter, giving it and taking it back. Elizabeth, who’s obviously been through her share of thin spells (she’s broke at the time she meets Maud), finds it totally silly that Maud should get so upset about this. “You’re making a problem out of a million dollars”—a million pre-war dollars. For somebody like Elizabeth, and Irene too, money’s just something to get when you need it and use for what you need. For the others, money matters to them in some way, it’s involved in how they define life as having value or not. Maud isn’t a bad person at all, she’s a gentle, generous, and warm person whom Elizabeth manages to bring out of her state of perpetual reluctance. She’s not mean, but nevertheless, she does things which she then bitterly regrets.
LT I thought that the way in which money figured in people’s lives, people with money worrying about money in some way…
HM It’s an American hang up, I think.
LT This is your most American novel, I thought.
HM It’s not the point of the novel at all. But I suppose socially that’s true, in so far as it’s a depiction of a social milieu.
LT The novel talks about the meanness, cruelty of people. For instance, Owen is going to discover Allan’s insurance fraud. For pleasure. It’s a game to him. In your earlier books it looks like games play people, and in Cigarettes it’s people who play games.
HM They think they are. It’s interesting what happens in connection with Owen’s game. It actually cures Allan of his criminality, not because it frightens him, but because he’d finally been caught—appreciated. Owen may turn out to be smarter than Allan is, but at least Owen has gone to a lot of trouble to untangle these very smart frauds that Allan set up and that he’s never been able to tell anybody about. Owen acts like a tough macho knocking off another guy and showing him who’s boss, but he ends up doing Allan a great favor. Allan gives up this whole secret fraudulent career that he’s been pursuing for totally inadequate reasons. At least the reasons he gives sound unconvincing.
LT Characters in Cigarettes are motivated to do things but there’s no explanation as to whythey’re doing these things.
HM They certainly don’t seem to know why they’re doing them.
LT Maybe Allan wants to be discovered, wants attention, needs to be bad, those kinds of things, and yet that’s too reductive, really.
HM To go back to your very first question: How does allowing the reader to be the creator work? I could say that the reader has to bring his or her experience to bear to supply an explanation, has to invent some way of accepting these characters and their behavior.
LT The characters Morris Romsen, the art critic, and Lewis, the would-be writer, have, in Cigarettes, a physical sado-masochistic relationship that parallels, in my mind, the relationship of Allan and Owen in which the two men are playing elaborate games with each other that mean, somehow, affection and attention.
HM I always love to have people find parallels like that. You mentioned earlier that 63 was the reverse of 36. This is news to me, and I’m sure that one could discover an interesting numerical system going throughout the entire book which would also be news to me. It reminds me of my great friend Georges Perec’s explanation of Tlooth, my second novel. When he translated it into French, he imagined a semantic palindrome running through it. That is to say, some kind of hidden series of statements that could be read forwards and backwards and that he thought determined the course of the book. One piece of evidence he produced was a switch of the letters “m” and “n” in one chapter: bombe atonique (a soporific spray) and formication (meaning ant activity). I told him, you’re absolutely right. But I had been totally unaware of doing this. Things like that make me feel that whatever I’m doing must be right, at least as it allows this kind of connections or similarities to manifest themselves. That’s a sign there’s a whole lot of thought going on of which I’m unaware.
LT Tlooth seemed the most overtly political of all your works, with its sects, groups, with Jacksongrad being the name of the camp, like a play on Stalingrad, or on a concentration camp or a gulag. But the book begins with a baseball game that also places it in and refers to the United States, spreading the political spectrum left and right.
HM I’m sure politics is at least implicitly involved, but really the substratum of those first three novels is a religious one. Obviously, in The Conversions where there’s a sort of white goddess legend. She’s black actually but it’s still a matriarchal goddess cult. But even in Tlooth religion is lurking in all the corners.
LT The names of the sects, Fideist, Americanist, Defective Baptist, Resurrectionist.
HM That’s right. Elsewhere there are various forms of Christianity, including the Nestorian heresy, which is described in the chapter “Spires and Squares.” And then in The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, my third novel, there is Buddhism as well as Catholicism. Certainly politics are present too—it was the middle of the ’60s, after all.
LT I thought about religion in regard to Tlooth and then in relation to your work generally. I began to think you were saying that faith in language, as a way to communicate, is like faith in religion. That you have to believe in language, you have faith that you can communicate, even if you’re not really able to communicate, as you have in a religion.
HM I’m very moved by that. Did you know that was how Perec felt?
HM I’m glad to know that I ultimately agree with him, having had many arguments with him about the question of how communication actually works in language, of whether communication is possible at all. For Perec, writing was a kind of salvation. It was justification by works. You know that expression, much discussed during the Reformation? And Perec, I think that if he hadn’t felt that writing was a vocation in the absolute sense of the word, a calling, like a priest, he would have died even sooner that he did.
LT When did he die?
HM In 1982.
LT Perec was, like you, a member of the OuLiPo. Could you say what it is and give its history?
HM Thank you. Anything else?
LT You may want it to be the last question.
HM Well, you’re opening—it’s not a can of worms, on the contrary—it’s a jewel case full of pearls but there is so much to say about the OuLiPo, especially in connection with Perec, who introduced me to it and through whom I was elected to the group.
LT Who started it?
HM It was started by Raymond Queneau, who is by now fairly well known in America in translation, and Francois LeLionnais, a great friend of Queneau’s and like him, very interested in mathematics, an extraordinarily versatile and brilliant man. The OuLiPo was created to satisfy their mutual needs—LeLionnais’ case, to form a workshop of experimental literature, in Queneau’s case, to carry him through to the end of this extraordinary book he was writing called A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems. The book consists of only ten sonnets in which any first line can replace any other first line, any fifth line can replace any other fifth line and so forth which means that it’s 10 to the 14th power, there being 14 lines in a sonnet.
LT Because of the permutations.
HM The creation of the OuLiPo accompanied his bringing that work to a conclusion. The OuLiPo has had as its purpose the invention and rediscovery of what the French call contraintes and we call, for want of a better word, constrictive forms. Rediscovery of forms like the palindrome, the lipogram. The palindrome is something you can read backwards and forwards, the lipogram is writing in which you leave out one or more letters. In both these cases Perec did the most extraordinary work. He wrote a palindrome which is several thousand characters long, in which he describes Perec writing a palindrome—he was a real virtuoso in his language. And he wrote this extraordinary novel called La Disparition, “The Disappearance,” but it can’t be translated that way into English because, like the rest of the book, the title excludes any word that contains the letter “e,” a letter that is even more frequent in French than it is in English. Leaving out the letter “e” would mean that the opening sentence of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past — Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure would have only two words left. Not only did Perec do this tour de force writing without using the most frequent letter in the language, he also turned this deprivation into the subject of his novel and wrote about it brilliantly and funnily and entertainingly.
LT That’s an amazing feat. From what I’ve read about Perec, his life was forged from deprivation, a World War II experience, parents killed in concentration camps, loss of native country. So that absence and lack were central to his existence, and his choosing to write a book that leaves out something essential like the letter “e” parallels his being left without parents and country.
HM You got it. Instead of having to deal with this anguishing problem of having had his tongue cut out by history, he deliberately gave up an element which makes writing normally easy, and imposed an extremely harsh rule on himself which he then was able to triumph over. He did it so well that some critics didn’t notice. But they weren’t very attentive critics. Let me add that in the OuLiPo we also invented a great many forms of our own.
LT How many people are in the OuLiPo?
HM We never exclude our dead members, who include not only Queneau and Perec but Calvino. But without our dead members, I think, if you counted everyone, we have about 15 or 16, and there are 12 who are active. We meet once a month for dinner.
LT In Paris?
HM Yes, it’s a working lunch or dinner, and we’d better get the work done before the dinner starts. It gets rather too delirious to get serious business conducted after the meal starts. Why don’t we have lunch?
HM I remember earlier in the interview saying that for me rewriting was writing. And I’ve had two experiences in which that was not the case. The first was the title poem sequence of Armenian Papers which I wrote at the end of working days right off and hardly corrected at all, and the other was this book which has just come out called 20 Lines A Day. It’s a collection of my warm-up exercises in which I overcame the terrors that we know of the blank page by giving myself something very short to do: writing at least 20 lines, no less than 20 lines, about anything that happened to come into my head. And the writing turned out to be very interesting even though there was practically no rewriting involved. I just wanted to say that because it’s not what I usually do and it never the less seems to have worked.
LT Was doing the 20 lines like automatic writing?
HM No, it wasn’t. I only did one set of automatic writing and I discussed it in one of the 20 line pieces. It was like automatic writing only in that I set myself a limited task, but it was quite different in that I had a subject which I stuck to. Or several subjects. But the writing was as they say, “off the top of my head.”
LT Certain themes return in your work, one of them, the journey. Which reminds me of Barrett Watten’s designation of you in his essay in the Harry Mathews Number of The Review of Contemporary Fiction: “Harry Mathews, having chosen exile… ” I wondered how you felt about that. You’ve been living in Europe since 1952?
HM That’s right.
LT How did you see that move then and how do you see it now?
HM When I first left America I was very happy to leave the country and what I have to immediately add to that is that I didn’t know the country and I didn’t even know New York City, what I knew was the life of the well-to-do Upper East Side and that life seemed very discouraging to me in terms of what I wanted to do. I was talking to Larry Rivers the other day about that and how, when I went down to what later became my stamping grounds, Greenwich Village, among painters, I felt so out of my element, I felt even worse there than I did among the Upper East Side crowd which was not particularly appealing to me (although of course, there are good friends to be found in all places), so then I went to Europe. It was like a kind of going into exile or might have been interpreted as that, although what it really felt like was going back to a place which was very familiar and which had been sort of mysteriously familiar. I didn’t come back to the United States at all for six years and then I came back a little bit, I didn’t like it and then I came a little bit more and liked it a little bit more, and of course by then I’d met John Ashbery and through him many other friends here and I was discovering a whole other aspect of New York City and the country. I don’t know America very well, I haven’t traveled it nearly as much as I’d like to, but that original aversion to it vanished. And in any case, even if my departure might have been a kind of expatriation at the beginning, it never amounted to a separation from my identity as an American. I’ve never been anything else, I’ve never thought of myself as being anything else. It always astonishes me when people ask me, “Oh, you live in France, well, do you write in French or are you a French citizen?” First of all, that doesn’t happen all that easily in France, it’s not the way it is here where people come, move here and do become citizens. I may have had a desire to reinvent myself in terms of being, if not a Frenchman, a person living in France, a person living in Italy, a person living in Spain; I very quickly learned that you never leave home. And I think the great advantage of having gone to Europe and having lived there is that it allowed me to become more aware of my American-ness than I would have if I had stayed here.
LT How did Locus Solus, the magazine that you did with other Americans in Paris, come about?
HM Only John Ashbery was in Paris. Jimmy Schuyler and Kenneth Koch were living in New York at the time. And it came about because we, all of us, wanted to be published more. We did this sort of self-centered thing, we published ourselves and our friends. I hadn’t yet found a publisher for The Conversions, my first book. I’d published a few poems here and there, John had published his first book, Kenneth had published one or two books and Jimmy had published, I think, a novel and a book of poems. But we were all anxious to see more of what we wanted, not only in terms of publishing ourselves, but of seeing writing we liked published. Although this is much truer of them than of me. I was much less in touch with what was going on in America than they were because of the fact I’d been living in France, I hadn’t kept up, and I didn’t have the contacts.
LT So you didn’t meet Georges Perec until much later?
HM Yes. In 1970.
LT Cigarettes is dedicated to him, and it felt especially right because of the ending, with its meditation on death.
HM A lot of people died in my life, in a very short time. Between 1980 and 1986 both my parents died, Georges Perec died, several other friends died. So as I was writing Cigarettes, I had experiences of death which are probably reflected in the book. Historically I dedicated it to Perec because when we met we were both going through fallow periods and then he really climbed out of his pit and wrote this fantastic book, Life, A User’s Manual, which Cigarettesdidn’t pretend to rival. But the fact that he did it and with such panache and such exuberant diligence, got me out of my reluctance to start a novel again. I was reluctant because of the great difficulty I’d had in publishing The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium. I didn’t want to go through that again. It had been a lot of work and it ended with a lot of disappointment in years of waiting for it to be published. I said, Georges had a lot of excuses not to write if he didn’t want to and he came up with this extraordinary novel, so I should, too. Cigarettes has nothing to do with Life, A User’s Manual, but his having done the book did inspire me.
LT Cigarettes’ last pages are very moving.
HM Did I tell you that the pages about the actor in the railroad station (near the end of the last chapter) were the first pages of the book I wrote and the ones that immediately follow—the concluding pages—were the last? There’s the description of this impeccably dressed actor who is hired to be an extra man at social functions, but he’s also an extra like an extra in the movies. I cared about him. I really cared about that passage, with the book ending with that description. Let me just read it.
“In such circumstances, I sometimes think that only the residual strength of the dead beings inside me gives me power to survive at all. By that I mean both the accumulated weight of the generations succeeding one another and, as well, from the first of times when names held their objects fast and light shone among us in miracles of discovery, the immortal presence of that original and heroic actor who saw that the world had been given him to play in without remorse or fear.”
It’s clearly the original and heroic actor of whom I had no inkling at the time I began the book who provides the unheroic actor in the railroad station.
LT This would be a good place to end, at the end of the novel, but I have the alphabet questions I initially planned to ask.
HM Ask them all, go ahead. Harry Mathews from A to Z, Sort Of…
LT “A” for art world. In Cigarettes there’s quite a lot about the art world.
HM That question could have a very long answer—I was married to Niki de Saint Phalle, and I’ve known artists all my life. I’ve been friends with people in the group on both sides—dealers, editors of art magazines, and so forth. I really have no particular insight or attachment other than that.
LT “B,” beauty, there’s an elegance, a beauty to your writing.
HM Beauty is something which moves in after the point of works of art have been lost.
LT “C,” Cigarettes the title. Why that title?
HM The question, “Why is the book called Cigarettes?” is a question that should be asked.
LT “D” is dreams. Do you use them directly?
HM Occasionally. I think that Phoebe’s egg hallucination is a dream I had. And the chapter called “The Otiose Creator” in The Conversions was a dream of Niki de Saint Phalle.
LT ”E”—we’ve gone over this—exile.
HM Yes, though I’ve never been exiled.
LT “F,” fantasy, father, fake, any of those?
HM That’s a very interesting grouping you’ve made. More about you than about me, perhaps.
LT “G” is games and genius.
HM Games yes, genius no.
LT You use games, you don’t care about genius?
HM No comment, please.
LT “H,” horses.
HM A very good letter. I don’t want to find out why but—I love horses. I used to love playing them. My second job, when I was 19, was walking hots at Suffolk Downs.
LT “I,” insurance, a scam in Cigarettes.
HM People are very much concerned in Cigarettes with keeping control, and that’s got to do with assurance, which is the English name for insurance, and also with taking out insurance, like Allan’s wanting the woman to have an orgasm before he does being “money in the bank.” They’re all into that. To go back to what you said about money, it shows that money isn’t just what happens with the money—it happens in all the other things they do.
LT “J,” jokes and jealousy.
HM Jealousy is no joke. Jealousy is a bad joke. Jealousy is an unspeakable emotion.
LT Many of the relationships in Cigarettes, for instance, between Morris and his sister, Irene, and between the two sisters, Pauline and Maud, depict that unspeakable emotion.
HM Jealousy is hateful and very hard to deal with and I think it’s probably more unspeakable in a man than it is in a woman.
HM Sexual jealousy, that is. I don’t think I can stand going into it.
LT “K” for Kafka. Especially because of Tlooth.
HM Not The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium? I had an epigraph from Kafka at the beginning. He’s finally being read in a way he deserves—one of the most explosively stimulating, funny and unclassifiable writers that’s ever lived. And the tremendous effort to make thoroughgoing interpretations of his books, which was the way he was read when I first came into contact with it—treating his work as allegory to my mind sprang from that terrifying ambiguity.
LT For “L,” lines, as in 20 Lines a Day.
HM Twenty lines a day keeps the dustbin away.
LT “M,” memory.
HM Memory is an irresistible fiction.
LT And then for “O,” “P,” and “R,” the OuLiPo, Perec, and Roussel. “Q” is quizzes.
HM I thought it was Queneau. Queneau’s the only living “writing father” I ever had; and the OuLiPo is my writing home in France; and Perec—Perec is irreplaceable.
LT “S,” sexual difference. In Cigarettes, Louisa, the mother of Lewis, is afraid of men, they’re incomprehensible to her. And in the chapter “Priscilla and Walter,” Priscilla talks about men’s fear of women. This fear may be one of the themes of the book.
HM I think that’s true and it seems undeniably true that men are terrified of women and women are terrified of men. The reasons aren’t the same, but they’re compelling on both sides and totally imaginary. Although, in the case of women’s fear of men, men have gone out of their way to provide a lot of evidence for that fear.
LT “T,” translation.
HM Ahhh. Vaste sujet! Maybe writing is never anything else but translation—ultimately, a translation which cannot be identified.
LT “V,” vice and virtue.
HM That makes me feel comfortably 18th-century.
LT In Cigarettes, people want to do good sometimes, worry about it, but feel they’re doing wrong. There’s an interplay of good and bad—not great evil. Maybe there’s a better “V” we can think of.
HM No, it’s a very interesting one and, after all, that’s what came to your mind. In all four novels, virtue is wishful and vice is a misinterpretation of reality. A misinterpretation of what’s there.
HM What was “U”?
LT Oh, “U”! I missed that. The unconscious. It’s perfect that I forgot it.
HM It speaks its own language which is not what we say or write. I like to invent ways in which I can outwit myself and allow it to manifest itself.
LT What would be a “W”? Virginia Woolf?
HM What is “W,” just “what.” What I haven’t said in this interview, and one thing would be that despite apparent appearances, my books have always been written out of passion concern and love.
LT “X.” All the X words.
HM X is an algebraic symbol. It means what you say it means. Not only what it means. It’s a variable.
LT You play with variables.
HM So I would say that anything I have said in this interview, the opposite is probably also true.
LT “Y”? What about yearnings?
HM It’s a word which I think I have used several times and it’s a word which has always touched me a great deal—it seems to be what runs life.
HM Not necessarily, “Whatever is, it shouldn’t be that way.” There’s also room for, “Whatever is, should be more so.”
LT “Z,” zealot because of the sects and religious references. I was wondering where your zeal lies.
HM You can’t have too much of it. You can’t have too much zeal, but you can’t have too few zealots.
Harry Mathews has covered the literary terrain: as short story writer, poet, novelist, essayist, translator and editor. His most recent and highly acclaimed novel Cigarettes has just come out in paperback from Dutten. Two other books, 20 Lines A Day, “part journal, part biography, part writers manual, part genius,” and The Orchid: A Remembrance of Georges Perec have just been published by Dalkey Archive Press and Bamberger Books, respectively.
Lynne Tillman’s most recent book is Haunted Houses. She is the co-director and writer of the film Committed. As “Madame Realism” she comments on art and culture in Art in America.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby