Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Inside an Oulipo Meeting

Readers of my work, especially Something Beginning With and Messages, probably won't be surprised to hear that I'm fascinated by the Oulipo Group.

A treat therefore to pick up the latest copy of Paris Review in the London Library, and find an interview with the only American member, Harry Mathews, and even more of a treat to get a description of just what goes on at the monthly Oulipo meetings. The first surprise was that, apparently, they have a 'very strict Agenda'.

First up is 'Creation', where a new method of experimentation is discussed, with descriptions and examples. Then comes 'Rumination', where possible creations 'not yet worked out' are examined. Then is 'Erudition', a conversation about works by writers not members. And lastly, 'Action, past and Future', which features Oulipion activities around the globe, and lastly, 'Small Talk'.

According to Mathews,
'We try to get through creation and rumination before drinking, because once we sit down to dinner things can get rather disorderly.'
But not, it seems, that disorderly, because
'Now we meet at six because Jacques Roubaud likes to go to bed early and Ian Monk has a train to catch.'

So now you know.

It's a brilliant interview; I was scribbling notes and quotes down from it like mad. How about this, which sums up perfectly how I feel about my writing but never quite crystallised it before:
'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.'
Or this, which is exactly what I'm going through at the moment:
'William Gaddis once said to me - that an unfinished novel is like having a sick guest in the house. I dream of the day when it'll be over'.

So here's to sick guests getting better and walking straight up the best seller lists (with bouncing rubber covers, of course, so they survive their fall from the top floor window).

I must admit to my own The Man Who ... Bateman" moment when I laughed out loud in the library at one snippet of the interview, which was the reaction of Mathew's publisher when he first saw him: 'He said, I didn't imagine you looked like that. I think he was expecting a gnome.'

And to finish with Mathew's own gnomic invention, the perverb - take two proverbs that can be divided easily into halves and cross them, eg A rolling stone leads to Rome, and All roads gather no moss.

And if you dare to ask what the point of it all is, this is what Mathews says:
'It's very liberating. It allows you to make up something that you never would have if you didn't have this nasty problem to solve.... as though you were wandering through a jungle and suddenly you come into a clearing that is a beautifully composed garden.'

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