Oulipo Week: Harry Mathews

Every week is Oulipo week here at City Lights of course, but as the Oulipians are invading San Francisco this weekend we thought we’d offer a crash course in some of their tactics and methodologies…

“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


What exactly happens at an Oulipo meeting?


We have a very strict agenda. First there’s “creation.” A member will propose a new method and supply a description and an example. There has to be at least one new creation per meeting. Then comes “rumination,” which means possible creations that you have not yet fully worked out. Then “erudition,” which is discussion of Oulipian works by writers who are not members of the group. Then “action, past and future,” which describes Oulipian activities around the globe—a brief report on, say, a presentation of Oulipian texts in Warsaw. And then “small talk.” At the last meeting, during small talk, I pulled out my old Florida license plate, which read oulipo and which I donated to the archives, and they were thrilled with that. And then I told them about somebody I know in Scotland who always buys houses for palindromic sums. He claims that he gets good deals that way. Say it’s £30,003—although these days that’s probably not enough for a crofter’s hut in the Orkneys.


Do you have an audience in mind when you’re writing?


I’ve always said that my ideal reader would be someone who after finishing one of my novels would throw it out the window, presumably from an upper floor of an apartment building in New York, and by the time it had landed would be taking the elevator down to retrieve it. (Paris Review)



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