The OuLiPo, or Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. The group’s initiatory text was a sequence of ten sonnets written by Queneau entitled Cent mille milliards de poèmes: these sonnets all use the same rhymes, and are grammatically constructed so that any line in any sonnet can be replaced by the corresponding line in any of the other nine sonnets. Each sonnet in the original edition was cut into 14 strips, enabling the curious reader to construct a poem which began, say, with line 1 from sonnet 7, took its line 2 from sonnet 3, its line 3 from sonnet 10, and so on. This novel procedure allowed Queneau’s 140 lines to generate, potentially, 100 million million (10 14) poems, which would take, he later calculated, someone reading 24 hours a day around 190,258,751 years to peruse in their entirety.
Most OuLiPian texts astonish not by their powers of expansion, however, but by their self-imposed laws of constraint. The best known of these are Georges Perec’s lipogrammatic La Disparition (1969), composed without once using the letter e, and his Les Revenentes (1972), which contains no vowels except e. Over the years OuLiPians have developed or recovered all manner of demanding exercises: ‘snowballs’, popular in classical times, in which each word is one letter longer than its predecessor (‘I am the text which begins sparely, assuming magnitude’); ‘isograms’, in which no letter appears more than once; tautograms, in which all words must begin with the same letter (‘OuLiPians ordinarily operate out of ostensibly oddball overproportion’); palindromes (the longest of which, by Perec, is more than 5000 letters long); and ulcérations (in French) and ‘threnodials’ (in English), which employ only the 11 most common letters of the language. As Jacques Roubaud, one of the group’s most gifted practitioners, observed in 1991: ‘An OuLiPian author is a rat who himself builds the maze from which he sets out to escape.’
Harry Mathews is the only American member of the OuLiPo, to which he was introduced by Georges Perec in 1972. He soon invented what came to be known as ‘Mathews’s algorithm’, a formula for arranging material based on the principle of permutation first illustrated by Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes. Both Mathews’s algorithm and Queneau’s sonnets are examples of what the OuLiPo call ‘combinatorial literature’, which might be defined as the business of applying mathematical concepts to uses of language. OuLiPian texts often derive their forms – or perhaps that should be formats – from the permutations generated by a particular concept or set of equations. Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi (1978), for instance, describes 100 rooms in a Parisian apartment block in a sequence that follows the route a knight at chess would have to take to land on the 100 squares of a 10 x 10 chess board without landing on the same square twice. Further, he employed a mathematical formula called the 10 x 10 Greco-Latin bi-square to decree which 42 of a set of predetermined elements or themes would appear in each chapter. Analogous permutations underpin texts such as Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979), Roubaud’s ∈ (1967) and Mathews’s Cigarettes (1987).
Cigarettes depicts the world of affluent East Coast respectability into which Mathews was born in 1930. He has not disclosed the law of permutation that governs its intricate set of intertwined plots, but we learn in an epilogue that the novel is in fact the work of one of its characters, Lewis Lewison, an aspiring writer (his first poems are published in Locus Solus, ‘a little magazine whose reputation was unrivalled’), and a no-holds-barred masochist. In one episode the ill-fated Lewis arranges to have himself crucified by a circle of S/M devotees, only to have the police – accompanied by journalists – raid the event just after he’s been nailed to the cross and hoisted aloft. To the consternation of his parents, photographs of their son as aspirant Christ appear on the front pages of the next morning’s papers. In another, Lewis’s sadist lover, the art critic Morris, coats him in quick-drying cement, and harangues him in camp slang:
‘Even if I don’t like reading you the stations, I won’t spread jam. So please, Louisa, get it and go. You’re a mess, a reject, a patient – I could go on for days. And don’t tell me – I have your nose wide open. I’m sorry. Spare me the wet lashes, it’s all summer stock. Because the only one you’ve ever really been strung out on is your own smart self, and you always will be. Think I’m going to stick around and watch the buns drop? And for what – to keep catching my rakes in your zits? Forget it, Dorothy. This is goodbye. Remember one thing, though. No matter what I’ve said to you, no matter how I’ve turned you out, the truth is’ – Morris’s eyes become wet; he turns a surprising shade of red – ‘the truth is, and I’m singing it out: I lo –’ Morris is staring past Lewis as his voice breaks off. Has he stopped because the telephone is ringing? His colour veers from red to grey. He turns to lean on the back of a chair, except that no chair is to be found where he leans: he sinks to his knees before lying face down on the floor.
Lewis eventually manages partially to shatter his concrete shell and telephone for help, but it arrives too late to save Morris, who has suffered a fatal heart attack. Poor Lewis has no trouble, however, in completing Morris’s final unfinished sentence: ‘The truth is, I loathe you.’
Mathews’s ‘Autobiography’ (also published in 1987) suggests a number of links between himself and Lewis – for instance, as children both used thieving as a way of securing their mothers’ exclusive love. Lewis’s quest for extreme sensations perhaps mirrors his creator’s impatience with the complacencies of the Wasp milieu in which he grew up (private schools in Manhattan and Massachusetts, followed by Princeton and Harvard, from which he graduated with a BA in music). He, too, scandalised his parents, though rather less dramatically: when he was 19, on a mid-college tour of duty with the Navy, he went AWOL to elope with a woman he’d met on a train, Niki de Saint Phalle.
His parents tried to have the marriage annulled, which precipitated a family rift. In 1952, Mathews and de Saint Phalle and their one-year-old daughter set sail for Europe. For a while they lived in Deyá, Mallorca, where Mathews came under the influence of Robert Graves, whose The White Goddess lurks behind some of the arcane mystic lore that turns up in the plot of his first novel, The Conversions (1962). A much greater influence on his early fiction, however, was Raymond Roussel, to whose work he was introduced by John Ashbery in 1956: Roussel’s ‘sovereign genius’, Mathews later declared, ‘demonstrated to me that psychology was a dispensable fashion, that the moral responsibilities of writing did not lie in a respect of subject matter, and that the writing of prose fiction could be as scrupulously organised as Sir Philip Sidney’s double sestina’. Both The Conversions and Tlooth (1966) present the reader with a cornucopia of improbable inventions, bizarre artefacts, linguistic riddles and mind-boggling discoveries, all recounted in a studiedly neutral tone that is at once lucid, precise and wholly unrevealing of its author’s ‘psychology’. Like Roussel’s, Mathews’s multifoliate narratives seem designed to defy paraphrase or explication: the opening chapters of The Conversions, for example, feature a ritual adze engraved with seven cryptic scenes relating to the life of a medieval female saint; a race between three worms whose progress is accompanied by ascending notes blown on ancient serpents; an inset narrative relating the struggle for survival of three enthusiastic amateurs of old German music stranded in the Arctic, where they sing Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott in Schütz’s harmonisation; and a competition between the narrator and the chief of a group of Long Island gypsies, which requires each to hold a terracotta jar filled with boiling water and describe as quickly as they can the scene moulded on its lid:
Of a group of nine men on their knees, clubs laid aside, I said: Victorious Yankees pray for humility.
The chief: From the dead God’s eye swarm fat swine.
My next scene showed two men, one of them looking in amazement at the other, who was chiselling at the bust of an old man set in the middle of a fence. I said of it: Confounding Brunelleschi, Donatello carves a venerable God from a fencepost.
The chief: Cool drink in hand, Somerset Maugham is gently toothdrilled.
This particular contest offers a mise en abîme of Mathews’s early prose style: streams of arcane information are fiercely compressed into the fewest possible words; fabulously baroque vignettes succeed each other according to some severe logic of correspondences one can never quite fathom. Both novels make use of comically simple overall plots; the protagonist of The Conversions has to discover the meaning of the scenes on the adze in order to claim an inheritance left him by the enormously wealthy Mr Wayl, while the narrator of Tlooth, once a violinist, seeks revenge on a surgeon who amputated the index and ring fingers of her left hand. Her first attempt occurs in the course of a baseball match in a Siberian concentration camp where both are imprisoned: as Evelyn Roak, the surgeon, steps up to the plate, the narrator, who is catcher, substitutes for an ordinary baseball one with a small bomb concealed in it; the first three pitches are foul, at the fourth Roak swings and misses, and the fifth flies way over the plate, disappearing ‘irretrievably, and with an abysmal liquid reverberation, into a drain’. Much of the comedy in Tlooth and The Conversions derives from Mathews’s ingenuity in fusing the outré and the banal.
The Conversions was first published in instalments in Locus Solus (1961-62), the short-lived magazine edited by Mathews himself (who also funded it with a legacy from his grandfather), Ashbery, James Schuyler and Kenneth Koch. Like most avant-garde magazines, Locus Solus (named after Roussel’s second prose novel, published in 1914, and with an epigraph from his final long poem, from 1932, Nouvelles impressions d’Afrique), was founded primarily as a forum for the work of the editors and their friends. Unlike most other avant-garde magazines, however, Locus Solus (which some enterprising publisher really ought to reprint) was much too cool to bother with manifestos or justifications of its editors’ aesthetic criteria: it neatly sidestepped the war between the ‘cooked’ (the academic and formal) and the ‘raw’ (the bardic and beat) then fissuring American poetry, instead suggesting by example the ways in which American experimental writing could incorporate foreign models without being overwhelmed by them. Issue Two, for instance, was devoted to the principle of literary collaboration, and included, alongside in-house co-productions by its editors, poems jointly written by Fletcher and Shakespeare, by Kakei and Basho, by Coleridge and Southey, by Eluard and Péret, by Cowley and Crashaw, and by Breton and Tanguy, as well as two of the finest works of the then much underrated Ern Malley, a gifted Australian avant-garde writer whose complete works were concocted in a single afternoon by James McAuley and Harold Stewart to parody the pretentiousness of contemporary poetry. ‘La poésie doit être faite par tous,’ as Lautréamont, one of Mathews’s favourite writers, once declared.
Like many bilingual writers, Mathews is particularly fascinated by the kinds of collaboration involved in attempts to convert one language into another. Translation figures again and again in Mathews’s work because it fuses the business of reading and writing, and foregrounds the reader’s part in the creation of whatever experience a novel makes possible. Indeed, for Mathews, creation, translation and collaboration are more or less interchangeable terms. This conviction is most fully and elaborately embodied in his third novel, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1975), which is made up of letters exchanged by a married couple, Zachary McCaltex – a lapsed Catholic American librarian – and Twang Panattapam, a businesslike Buddhist from a Montagnard hill tribe. The ostensible plot concerns their attempts to recover a treasure trove from a galleon wrecked off the coast of Florida in the 16th century; while Twang burrows into archives in Italy, Zach hunts for clues in and around Miami. Twang writes a peculiar hybrid English which makes special demands on her correspondent, and on the reader: ‘To raed this has need, not idees but a tenshn (to-trans-late of Twang),’ as she explains in her first epistle. Piecing together her reports on her researches into Florentine politics and history is a bit like working through a history of the Medici as rewritten by an Asian James Joyce. The novel’s eccentric form and use of culturally diverse protagonists allows Mathews to dramatise the sheer messiness of collaborating and translating, the tangents, cross-purposes and missed meanings involved in interacting with another in a partially shared language. As they close in on the map that will lead to the treasure, their investigations begin to throw up all kinds of rarefied epistemological questions, especially when Twang starts reading Wittgenstein.
A short story from around this period, reprinted in Mathews’s collected stories, The Human Country, presents the relationship between languages in even more antithetical terms. ‘The Dialect of the Tribe’ (a phrase of Mallarmé’s appropriated by T.S. Eliot in ‘Little Gidding’) takes the form of an academic article in which an unnamed professor discusses a small New Guinea tribe whose peculiar language has no content, but instead somehow enacts the process of translation. Every Pagolak sentence embodies the ‘magic of changing’ in a manner that renders elusive the thing being changed. Pagolak is all process, like an abstract expressionist canvas, or like the pure ‘mode of intention’ that Walter Benjamin envisioned linking the different languages of the world in ‘The Task of the Translator’ (1923). This, of course, makes Pagolak untranslatable – indeed, any version of a Pagolak sentence in a foreign language will conceal rather than reveal the original’s meaning. By the end of the story the professor has abandoned his native tongue altogether, and is haranguing his readers in Pagolak, insisting that if only they’d pay due attention, then ‘tak nalaman namele Pagolak kama’.
Another story from the 1970s, ‘Remarks of the Scholar Graduate’, features an even more ingenious linguist who is able to decode the puzzling script of very early Bactrian civilisation, despite the fact that each word consists simply of seven horizontal lines. One particular array of these lines, he persuasively reasons in a lecture delivered at his old school, is the written version of the Bactrian mantra, ‘God copulates with the soul of (the) mother,’ which is in fact the cardinal meaning of all Bactrian declarations. Later Bactrian scripts and dialects, indeed perhaps modern languages also, are all a corruption of this all-purpose, all-signifying sentence. The lecturer propagates his idée fixe with numerous sideswipes at the theories of his arch-rival, Gartner, and with a conviction and intensity that has us doubting his sanity. Like so many of Mathews’s obsessive first-person narrators, the scholar graduate evokes the deranged exegetes who populate the fiction of Kafka and Nabokov, while the fiendish speculations of such as Borges and Bioy Casares seem to have influenced Mathews’s inquiries into the nature of language. Both Bactrian and Pagolak recall the mysterious Ursprache of Borges’s Tlön, which contains no nouns but only impersonal verbs, and in which famous poems consist of a single enormous word.
The mysteries of Pagolak were initially revealed by an Australian scholar, Ernest Botherby, who, on his anthropological travels in New Guinea in the 1890s, also came across two tribes who lived two days’ journey apart, but were seemingly oblivious of each other. The Ohos’ language is even more limited than the Bactrians’: it has only three words, which Botherby translates as ‘Red makes wrong.’ That of the Uhas he finds equally rudimentary, its only phrase being ‘Here not there.’ On his return from the Uhas to the Ohos, Botherby is eager to inform the tribal chiefs of the existence of their neighbours; his gestures are readily understood, but he pauses before discussing the Uhas’ language:
How do you render ‘Here not there’ in a tongue that can only express: ‘Red makes wrong’?
Botherby did not hesitate long. He saw, as you of course see, that he had no choice. There was only one solution. He grasped at once what all translators eventually learn: a language says what it can say, and that’s that.
This parable serves in the title essay of Mathews’s collection of non-fiction pieces to introduce a discussion of translation and the OuLiPo. OuLiPian methods are not, Mathews concedes, likely to appeal to commercial editors, focusing as they do, like Pagolak, on the act of conversion. Phèdre’s famous lament, ‘C’est Vénus tout entière à sa proie attachée,’ emerges from the ouvroir in a variety of barely recognisable forms: ‘I saw Alice jump highest – I, on silly crutches’ (each French word replaced by an English word with the same number of letters); ‘Save our news, toot, and share as uproar at a shay’ (a phonetic transliteration, which can then be expanded into a mini-narrative about someone creating pandemonium by bellowing as a one-horse carriage passes); ‘Look at Cupid’s mom just throttling that god’s chump’ (demotic, and no e); ‘At this place and time exists the goddess of love identified with the Greek Aphrodite, without reservation taking firm hold of her creature hunted and caught’ (each word given its dictionary definition). For Mathews, the point of such exercises is the way they force writer and reader into unfamiliar realms, and make us acknowledge language as an ongoing continuum rather than a stable set of agreed truths, just as the word ‘truth’ itself is morphed into the nonce-word ‘tlooth’ in the title of Mathews’s second novel – a title the book’s French translator, Georges Perec, OuLiPianly rendered as Les Verts Champs de moutarde de l’Afghanistan. ‘If we think of writers as translators,’ Mathews argues, ‘what they must translate is not something already known but what is unknown and unpredictable. The writer is an Oho who has just heard what the Uhas say.’ In a further twist he also insists that it is only by venturing into the unknown that writer and reader can hope to make provisionally legible whatever narratives lie buried within, for one’s own life’s story is as mysterious as the kaleidoscopic permutations of language: a great book, as Proust once asserted, is never ‘invented by a great writer – it exists already inside him – but it has to be translated by him.’
The ‘persevering Maltese’ refers to a painting in Venice by Carpaccio known as ‘The Vision of St Augustine’: the saint has just been informed by a miraculous voice of the death of St Jerome, to whom he was about to write a letter. To the left, bathed in celestial light, sits an alert and expectant Maltese dog, who seems to be asking of his astonished master: ‘What next?’ OuLiPian constraints, Mathews suggests, help liberate the kind of open-ended curiosity embodied by Augustine’s pet, and are needed by a writer if he is to bring to light inner obsessions and private habits of connection.
It was only, for instance, after he had devised an elaborate formal scheme for Cigarettes that the novel’s characters and situations were able to emerge ‘from nowhere’, as it seemed, though in fact that nowhere was the world of his childhood. Cigarettes is, to my mind, one of the most brilliantly original – and underrated – novels of the 20th century, a dazzling mosaic of interlocking stories which combine to create an intricate and mesmerising portrait of a particular society in a particular era. The book’s complexities are all in its structure and patterning. Mathews allows himself none of his early fiction’s linguistic high jinks: the style of Cigarettes – which we must assume to be Lewis’s – is unremittingly purposeful and direct, concerned wholly with the business of character and storytelling. It’s a novel, the reader should be warned, that can prove as addictive as its title promises; but though I have read it many times, I never feel I have quite plumbed the ‘mysteries of construction’ (to use a phrase of Marianne Moore’s) that underlie it.
Cigarettes features 13 characters; each of its chapters presents a pairing (Lewis and Morris, Morris and Walter, Lewis and Walter, and so on) in the fictional equivalent of a round dance or game of tag. Several plot strands, involving a portrait and a racehorse, link many of the stories, but each chapter is also as complete and satisfying in itself as a well-wrought short story. Perhaps the most moving of these describes the tribulations of Lewis’s sister, a young painter called Phoebe, who is afflicted – as Niki de Saint Phalle was – by hypothyroidism, a glandular disease that causes depression and hallucinations. Her case is misdiagnosed, and she finds herself swept into vertiginous cycles of self-loathing and ecstasy, paranoia and visionary exaltation. Mathews brilliantly traces the precise contours of her mood swings, their pace and imagery, their irrational, irresistible force. One moment she sees herself in the mirror as a skinned rabbit’s head, the next she is overwhelmed by an all-consuming radiance:
She rose to meet and savour it, gliding through rings of splintery light, up, up. Where was she going? Higher, she found or mentally assembled webs of incandescence out of which the flakes came sprinkling. She guessed, she knew what they were: stars. The teetering stars had spilled into the gloom of her mind. She had no strength to resist that shower or the spidery filaments above it that sucked her in.
She is haunted by a set of letters, bstqldst, which, as in some kind of OuLiPian torture, she must wrestle into an expression of her oscillating states: ‘Beasts stalk the question lest demons sever trust,’ perhaps, or ‘But soon the quest lured drab saints thither.’ On a train the letters seem to signify the noise of the wheels and engine, but then momentarily dissolve into the formula: ‘Cigarettes, tch, tch/Cigarettes, tch, tch.’
Phoebe’s collapse is in no sense symbolic or presented as part of some necessary artistic via negativa: the reduction of her life to eight random consonants, however, which then metamorphose into a nonsense phrase which in turn furnishes the book’s title, does mime the primary alchemical processes of verbal disintegration and recombination to which Mathews frequently draws attention in explanations of how he writes his books. His collection of non-fiction, for instance, includes worksheets for the composition of a poem called ‘Birth’ which shows his fondness for Rousselian procedures such as homophony (‘twelve hundred metres > Delft under Demeter’) and polysemy (‘Apostles [twelve] cento [hundred] meters [as in prosody]’); the random elements are then divided and combined (‘For Demeter, cento meters/Delft under the Apostles’) and used to generate lines which describe the ‘prodigious pastiche prosodies’ that greet the arrival of the goddess of marriage, and missionaries walking down corridors of blue and white tiles.
This deliberate ‘prospecting’ in language, to use Roussel’s term, involves jettisoning the idea that creativity has to be spontaneous to be authentic. Cigarettes concludes with a celebration of inauthenticity, and a complex meditation on the struggle between the forces of determinism and the powers of play. Lewis notices at a train station a perfectly dressed man who seems to be on his way to some glamorous event:
A blazer of not-quite-navy blue followed the slope of his shoulder and the fall of his slack right arm with uncluttered smoothness. Above the flattened collar of the jacket appeared a neat ring of off-white crêpe-de-chine shirting, its points drawn together with a glint of gold beneath a rep tie of plum and pewter stripes, whose mild bulge was nipped by a more visible clasp of gold above the open middle button of the blazer.
Lewis later learns that his immaculately attired fellow traveller is in fact an unsuccessful professional actor who supplements his income by escorting single women to fashionable parties. The imperious way the actor invents his own presence prompts Lewis to brood on the unfathomable layerings of identity, and the extent to which we are shaped by forces wholly beyond our control, rough-hew them how we will: nevertheless, we persist in our absurd, stubborn conviction that ‘you are only you, and I I.’