Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Quotes About Harry Mathews's Cigarettes (1987)

Cigarettes.... [I]dentified by the author as his only "purely Oulipian novel." Its method of composition has not be revealed beyond a statement that it is based on a "permutation of situations".

-- Oulipo Compendium, ed. Harry Mathews & Alistair Brotchie, rev. ed., p. 126

During this time, I decided to write an Oulipian novel. And I created this abstract scheme of permutations of situations in which A meets B, B meets C, and so forth. There’s no point in looking for it now because no one will ever figure it out, including me....

-- Harry Mathews

MATHEWS: I’d never been able to write about the world I grew up in, but Cigarettes allowed me to do it, with Saratoga Springs standing in for the Hamptons.

INTERVIEWER: Could you have done it without the method?

MATHEWS: No, I don’t think so. That’s the way I tell the truth. Oddly, the one novel I wrote using an Oulipian structure is the most conventional.

-- Ibid.

In the Oulipo, there are two schools of thought. People like Calvino and Perec said that the author should acknowledge the methods he’s been using. And the other clan, which included Raymond Queneau and myself, thinks it’s much better not to let on, because this will keep the reader straining to find out.

-- Harry Mathews in Ibid.

NTERVIEWER: Cigarettes... Why that title?
MATHEWS: The question, “Why is the book called Cigarettes?” is a question that should be asked.

-- Harry Mathews Interviewed by Lynn Tillman

Update: And now a quote from Cigarettes about writing -- one that seems, on its face, as if it is also about the writing of Cigarettes itself (as well as its ostensible subject within the novel) -- therefore, a quote that also seems to me to fit appropriately under the title of this blogpost:
Morris was showing him what writing could do. He advanced the notion that creation begins by annihilating typical forms and procedures, especially the illusory "naturalness" of sequence and coherence. Morris did more than state this, he demonstrated it. He made of his essay a minefield that blew itself up as you crossed it. You found yourself again and again on ground not of your choosing, propelled from semantics into psychoanalysis into epistemology into politics. These displacement seemed, rather than willful, grounded in some hidden and persuasive law that had as its purpose to keep bringing the reader back fresh to the subject.

-- Harry Mathews, Cigarettes, p, 135
(Derik Badman thought of applying this quote to Mathews own writing years before I did; but he gave only the first two sentences of the above, so I thought it was worth my quoting it at somewhat greater length.)

Update 2: And for completeness's sake, from Mathews's essay "Translation and the Oulipo", a comment reiterating the above in slightly different wording (via):
I had a similar experience with my novel Cigarettes. My "object of desire" was telling the story of a passionate friendship between two middle-aged women. That was all I knew. I had concocted an elaborate formal scheme in which abstract situations were permutated according to a set pattern. This outline suggested nothing in particular, and for a time it remained utterly empty and bewildering. It then began filling up with situations and characters that seem to come from nowhere; most of them belonged to the world I had grown up in. I had never been able to face writing about it before, even though I'd wanted to make it my subject from the moment I turned to fiction. It now reinvented itself in an unexpected and fitting guise that I could never have discovered otherwise.

For Perec and me, writing under constraint proved to be not a limitation but a liberation. Our unreasonable home grounds were what had at last enabled us to come home.


phosphorious said...

This raises an interesting question:

Can a work of literature be declared "oulipian" after the fact? That is, if some work, Moby Dick say, were found to obey some oulipian constraint, would it then be considered an example of the form?

Stephen said...

Phosphorious - the Oulipo is very cognizant of its precursors (whom it calls, with a wink & a nod, "anticipatory plagiarists"). So if it was found to obey a constraint, and it was presumed to be deliberate on the author's part, it would most certainly count as Oulipian.

But if you're asking a slightly different question -- what if the work just happened to obey a tight constraint, unknown to the author or anyone else -- it's trickier. I think I'd say that either the constraint would be so cumbrously defined, clearly invented just to retroactively apply, in which case it would hardly deserve the label "constraint"; or the event would be so unlikely as to be practically speaking implausible, and we'd have to presume a previously unknown author's intention.

So while we can imagine an author writing a brief passage that happened to contain no "e"'s for example (I've asked about a related case before), if we discovered an entire work without "e"s it would seem sufficiently improbable that a hidden intention would be the all-but-inevitable explanation.

And any structural constraint would be the same: either be equally unlikely, or it would be a ex post facto hodpodge that, as I said, wouldn't deserve the name.

A D Jameson said...

All works of literature obey constraints.