Harry Mathews: A Meal Should Last Forever

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 loggernautHarry Mathews has written some of the most formally inventive, and perversely moving, American fiction and poetry of the last 50 years. As the American standard-bearer for the otherwise predominantly European OuLiPo, his influence can be felt throughout the cultural sphere. He splits his time between France and Key West, where we conducted this interview last April.

Mathews has increasingly seemed to me a sage arbiter not only of all things literary, but also of living well. It made sense, therefore, to ask him a few questions about food and wine and their relationship to literature, all of which I have enjoyed heartily in his presence. This conversation between Mathews, the Key-West-based poet and publisher Arlo Haskell, and myself took place over dinner at the erstwhile Key West Italian restaurant Antonia's. We were joined by Marie Chaix, Mathews's wife, and Ashley Kamen, who by the time you read this will have become Haskell's. -Stuart Krimko

Harry Mathews: Is the recorder on now?

Arlo Haskell: It is, but we'll pretend like it's not.

HM: You've already asked me an extremely recordable question.

Stuart Krimko: It was really just an appetizer question. I'd asked you whether anyone had asked you in particular about the ways in which food and wine play into your work.

HM: One basic thing is that I don't drink whiskey. I love it, but I don't drink it so much anymore. T.S. Eliot said that he often had a glass or two of whiskey to get the creative juices flowing, which was amazing, coming from him, and quite understandable. I can see how he might well need it.

SK: Maybe he could have used more.

HM: Yes, especially in his later period. But I know that if I've had a glass of something at lunchtime, it's easier for me to work in the afternoon. And I work better in the afternoon than I do in the morning.

SK: Thomas Bernhard once said half a liter at lunch and half a liter in the evening. Of course, he was tubercular, so I think it was palliative.

HM: Maybe. But it does get you over some hesitation. When I got to writing Cigarettes, I would sit down, and especially when I was rewriting it, because I rewrote it four times—well, three-and-a-half times. Perhaps we should pause, since I'd like to order something. We're talking about food, after all. Are you finding the wine OK, Marie?

AH: What is the wine we're starting with?

HM: It's a verdicchio, which is a wine that appears in Dante, in the Purgatorio. I may be able to quote—I'll give you a translation of it. They're in the Circle of the Gluttonous. "And this one," Virgil says, pointing, "held in his hands the Holy Church, and died...." Have you ever seen Mad Men? Our waiter looks like the English guy.

SK: You mean the one who's cowed by his father?

HM: Yes, his father hits him over the head, it's terrible. Some scene. But back to food and drink.

SK: I thought it was interesting that I asked you about food and wine as they affect the characters in your books, and you took it upon yourself to talk about how they affect you. The last book of yours I read was The Journalist, and sometimes I felt that it was food that was holding the narrator together.

HM: People reacted with incredulity to the family meals in that book. Americans in particular said that nobody cooks like that, and I would tell them that this is considered normal for a working wife in Europe, in Italy, in France outside of Paris. People come home for lunch and they expect a real meal. And at dinner it's not the way it used to be, when people would just have some soup and cheese—they have a real meal then, too, and the wife is expected to produce these things. People didn't believe me.

SK: The geography of that book is a pleasing puzzle to me.

HM: It is never named. I imagined it taking place somewhere like Czechoslovakia, or Hungary. Someplace where they grew wine—well, I didn't know that they grew wine in Czechoslovakia then, but they do, and lots of it. Or Austria, some middle European place. Where did you think it was supposed to be?

SK: I kept jumping around. I suppose walking into the book, reading the first word, I assumed that I was someplace American. But that was only because you are. And then for some odd reason, given a few turns of phrase, though it was impossible given the wine, I thought that we were in the UK.

HM: There were vineyards near the town where it took place, so it had to be someplace south of the UK—Germany, France, points south. I thought it could have taken place in the United States, but my American friends told me no, even though they praised my description of office life. But hardly anyone's read The Journalist.

SK: I have.

AH: So have I.

SK: That makes two of us. Including you, that means more than half the people at this table have read it.

AH: According to this survey, then, 60% of Americans have read The Journalist. And Marie's French, so if we counted her, we'd have 80%.

HM: We're married, so she is American, and she has read it. Well, she had to. It was not a big hit here, and interestingly it also had trouble finding readers in France. Nobody knew what to make of it.

AH: It's a hard book.

HM: You think it's a hard book? I thought it was one of my easiest.

AH: Easier than My Life in CIA?

HM: No, CIA is obviously easier. We need to finalize our next wine decision here. That bottle of verdicchio is not only empty, but gone. That's like literature, isn't it?







  {buy the by}

purchase selected works by Harry Mathews:

The Human Country


My Life in CIA

The Case of the Persevering Maltese: Collected Essays

Singular Pleasures

{download printer-friendly version of this interview}

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