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Our Man in the Underworld

Oulipo Compendium

edited by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie
Make Now, 333 pp., $36.00 (paper)

In late 1965, shortly after finishing his second novel, Tlooth, Harry Mathews paid a visit to his friend Fred Warner, the British ambassador in Laos. Accompanying Warner to various embassy functions, he was surprised to find himself cold-shouldered by everyone he met. “What was I doing here?” they would ask.

Nothing, I explained, I was simply a writer who happened to be a friend of the British ambassador. “You are American?” I nodded, they nodded, and then pointedly ignored me.

It took Mathews a while to work out the reason behind this unfriendliness. An American in Laos in 1965 who claimed to be doing nothing? What could he be but a spook, one of the innumerable Alden Pyle figures dispatched by the CIA to Indochina. What bothered his interlocutors, however, was not the fact that he was in intelligence, but that his cover was so inept. What self-respecting spy, at least since Christopher Marlowe, ever claimed to be a writer? Accordingly Mathews decided to change his story, and at the next shindig claimed to be an engineer. Smiles all around: “You don’t say? Let’s have another drink.”

So began Mathews’s entirely fictitious and unwanted undercover life as a secret agent. An acquaintance from Paris (where Mathews had settled in the mid-Fifties) doing his military service in the French embassy in Vientiane puts two and two together, and passes back to head office news of Agent Mathews’s arrival. On his travels around Laos he gets a first taste of the difficulties he will have in ensuing years overturning such assumptions: at a party in Paksong, for instance, he goes to great lengths to try to convince a Filipino doctor that he really is a writer. The doctor’s favorite English poet is Gerard Manley Hopkins; Mathews recites all of “Binsey Poplars,” then “The world is charged with the grandeur of God…,” then “The Windhover.” The doctor is enraptured, and they spend twenty minutes discussing “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” “It has been a joy to meet you,” he tells Mathews, who is sure this display of literary knowledge has done the trick, only to be told: “How glad I am that CIA is training its men so well.”

In the interwar years left-leaning writers such as Auden and Isherwood and Louis MacNeice had greatly enjoyed pretending to be spies, and in their work created a dense and wide-ranging set of analogies between the writer and the secret agent: both are figured moving through society undercover, quietly noting down crucial indicators of impending change, seeking out strategic advantage for their side, and delivering their reports in carefully worded code. It’s one thing, though, to imagine yourself surreptitiously gathering enough information to write poems that will undermine the foundations of an unjust political system, and another to be taken for an operative in the pay of a government organization. “I wanted,” as Mathews puts it,

to play a part in the grand conspiracy of poetic subversion; in fact that was how I justified my life. But how could I get a hearing if people thought I was an ordinary, paid conspirator?

The bubbling energies of “poetic subversion” achieved their fullest eruption into French public life a couple of years after Mathews’s Laotian adventures, in May of 1968. Exhilarated by the heady possibilities for social change unleashed by les événements, he joined the band of poetic subversives occupying the offices of the Société des Gens de Lettres in the Hôtel de Massa. There they argued about what role the writer should play in the workers’ society about to rise from the ashes of capitalism. It was suggested that Mathews become archivist of the newly founded Writers’ Union—but it was also suggested by Tel Quel‘s director, Philippe Sollers, that he was a spy to be treated with caution. Though his protests seemed to be accepted, he was left with a sour sense that his integrity had been impugned.

By the early Seventies his reputation as an agent was firmly established in Parisian literary circles. “Just say it,” friends urged. Ironically, it was around this time that his disgust with the Nixon administration, and with US foreign policy in general, reached its zenith. Unlike all Mathews’s earlier fictions, his new “autobiographical novel” unfolds in relation to specific historic events: the withdrawal from Vietnam, the coup in Chile, the Watergate hearings, rising oil prices, terrorist bombs and assassinations, the activities of the French Communist Party and of its right-wing enemies, the Front National and the Ordre Nouveau. It couldn’t, however, be called a work of realism; among its more improbable minor characters are an Italian gangster called Chisly Will; the beautiful Florence, with whom Mathews tries to have sex on an altar in a church in Auteuil, though she is only forty inches tall; and a pallid priest who, to commemorate his drowned black male lover, vows to become as white as possible, and so never goes out in daylight.

Mathews’s solution to his dilemma is simple in essence, but complex in execution: rather than denying he’s an agent, he’ll accept the role that’s been thrust upon him, and start leading a veritable double life. The first thing he needs is cover, so he founds the Locus Solus travel advisory service, and almost immediately gets booked to address a group of Paris-based Americans who suffer from a peculiar optical dysfunction: when trying to depart from crowded railway stations, they cannot tell whether timetables should be read left to right or right to left. Here Mathews’s membership in the group called Oulipo, to which he has just been elected, comes in useful.

The Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle was a group founded in Paris by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais in 1960. Oulipians share an interest in the ways in which restrictive forms can be used to shape or generate literary texts. Georges Perec’s La Disparition of 1969, for instance, is a full-length novel that never once makes use of the letter e, while his Les Revenentes of 1972 contains no vowels except e. Other favored Oulipian forms include “snowballs,” in which each word is one letter longer than its predecessor (“I am the text which begins sparely, assuming magnitude constantly…”), “isograms,” in which no letter appears more than once, and “tautograms,” in which all words begin with the same letter: as a Mathews tautogram puts it, “Oulipians ordinarily operate out of ostensibly oddball overproportion.” The group was from the outset interested in palindromes (“Able was I ere I saw Elba,” etc.), the longest of which, composed by Perec in 1969, stretches to over five thousand letters!

Excited in particular by a bilingual palindrome of Luc Étienne’s, (“T’es sûr, Ned dort nu?”/”untrodden russet”), Mathews develops a cunning plan for his travel-stress dyslexics: clearly they must only consider taking trains with palindromic departure times, such as 04:40, or 13:31, or 21:12. While this severely limits the range of journeys available, he is still able to offer them a tempting sample itinerary for a trip to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia and back, which involves catching the 03:30 from Sverdlovsk, the 10:01 from Omsk, and the 22:22 from Novosibirsk. Such a journey would certainly have delighted the eccentric writer, and very peculiar traveler, Raymond Roussel, author of Locus Solus (1914), and a key influence both on Oulipians such as Perec and Mathews, and on New York School poets such as Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery, who, like Mathews, published translations of Roussel’s work into English. The dandyish Roussel took care never to use a single observation from his extensive travels in any of his books, and rather than sightsee in the numerous countries he visited, would spend his time locked in a cabin or hotel room, furiously writing. “Chez moi,” he proudly declared, “l’imagination est tout.” A couplet from the third canto of his extraordinary final poem, Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique (1932), was used as the motto on the title page of the wonderful little magazine Locus Solus (1961–1963), edited by James Schuyler, Harry Mathews, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashbery.

In the audience at Mathews’s talk to the dyslexics is one Patrick Burton-Cheyne, who wrote a doctoral thesis at Duke University entitled “Traded Craft in the Work of Eliot and Ashbery,” but now works, or so he claims, for Zapata Petroleum, amassing data on factors that might affect the oil industry. Mathews expounds his scheme of passing as an agent to him, and learns in return that “the first thing to remember is that nobody connected with the Agency calls it the CIA. It’s plain CIA.” Patrick’s success in the world of corporate-funded information gathering owes much to his literary critical training: whereas before

he’d spotted the usefulness of applying the philosophy of Peirce and Husserl to the writing of Mallarmé and Stevens; now he investigated the incidence of alcoholism among the wives of Siberian workers and the funding of subversive movements in Pakistan when he prepared his forecasts of oil prices.

Analogously, Mathews’s successful assumption of his CIA identity emboldens him in literary circles: “I was playing my own private game, and that made me feel safe.” He no longer feels inferior to the Parisian intellectuals he meets, and listens unimpressed to their dissections of the work of Foucault or Derrida or Lacan.

Another in the audience at his lecture for timetable dyslexics was Marie-Claude Quintelpreaux—one of four Marie-Claudes in the book. She calls him up claiming her brother is a chronic recluse who she hopes might be stimulated by the idea of palindromic travel. Mathews agrees to a meeting; there is, in fact, no brother. “Vous me plaisez beaucoup,” Marie-Claude tells him, before slipping out of her blue caftan. “Her formal vous carried great erotic authority.” But what she is offering turns out to be tantric sex, or rather nonsex: they kneel naked face to face for hours on end, his erection nestled in her navel, chanting om. At later meetings they hold positions with names such as the Roulade, Bathing the Lambs, and the Spenserian Stance. Mathews begs for consummation, but is firmly instructed: “The sensual being is like a child and must drink milk until ready for solid meat.”

Though its plot spins in all manner of implausible directions, the overall narrative arc of My Life in CIA is very much that of the bildungsroman. The protagonist is not, however, negotiating the uncertainties of early adulthood, but a midlife crisis. The Mathews of 1973 the book presents is isolated and uncertain. His partner of twelve years, Maxine, has returned to New York for good; his two children by his first wife, the artist Niki de Saint Phalle, have also recently left home. His third novel, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, has been rejected by almost every New York publisher. Mathews’s quest, like that of, say, David Copperfield or Stephen Dedalus, is a double one, for artistic potency and sexual happiness: at many places the two strands intertwine, as when he finds himself in the apartment of a notorious fascist mobster called Zendol, and is challenged to improvise a poem that bases its rhymes on six words—swastika, haddock, jonquil, plectrum, gardenia, and farthing. What’s more, he has to sing it to the tune of “Watergate Squat” from Air America’s last album, and also while performing the Squat, an energetic dance that has recently been all the rage in Paris. Mathews is delighted by this opportunity to show off in front of the tiny Florence, one of the guests at this unusual party, and here again his Oulipian training stands him in good stead:

But girl as fair (squat!) as spring jonquil

Turns me on (squat!) more than plonk will

Without her I’ll (squat!) never be tronquil

I drink to her in select rum

Pluck her sweet chords with my plectrum…

Zendol, it turns out, is merely setting him up to play the fall guy in some nefarious scheme, and Florence has to contrive his escape into the nearby church, where Mathews yet again finds himself the victim of coitus interruptus:

I bent over to kiss her. She pulled me towards her. She loosened my own clothing and took my confused member between her delicate feet: their cool sheath coaxing me slyly. I responded, all would soon have been well if another light hadn’t started moving in the back of the church, half hidden by the choir screen.

Someone’s here.”

Merde!” She sat up and looked round. “It’s the sexton. You’ll be all right. Adieu!

In fact it’s the pallid priest “minding [his] keys and pews,” who then recounts in beautiful Dantescan terms the loss of his black lover, and his subsequent vow not just to remain chaste, but to forgo the light of the sun forever.

Florence is one in a chain of women who lead, in classic bildungsroman fashion, to the author’s womanly ideal. The book is dedicated to Marie Chaix, Mathews’s wife of thirty years, whom he first glimpses at the restaurant Les Îles Marquises while he is enjoying a dozen oysters, grilled golden bream (daurade), a portion of Munster, and a half followed by a full bottle of Riesling. (Like The Journalist of 1994, My Life in CIA records in full and mouth-watering detail the meals its narrator consumes, and the wines too, often including details of grape, region, and vintage.) Mathews bribes the waiter to reveal to him the name of this “long-haired brunette with full lips and breasts,” and learns she is the author Marie Chaix, born Marie-Claude Beugras, the daughter of a high-ranking collaborationist and member of the fascist Parti Populaire Français. He immediately acquires her memoir, Les Lauriers du lac de Constance (which the real-life Mathews has translated into English), and broods on the author’s photo. He learns she is married, has a four-year-old daughter, and lives near Saint Tropez:

I longed for her. I imagined her among silvery-gray olives and low-pruned vines, or in upper pastures where sheep had been wintering, full of thyme and rosemary and bordered with stands of holm oak. I couldn’t go looking for her now; but there’d be other times.

Those “upper pastures where sheep had been wintering” are where the book reaches its narrative, and erotic, climax. Acting the spy may make Mathews feel the world “was my world now, all mine,” but his various schemes also end up entangling him in the plots of the extremist descendants of Monsieur Beugras, and have him fleeing Paris for his life. He heads for the mountainous district of the Vercors in the pre-Alps, with Zendol, armed with a pump-action shotgun, in hot pursuit. As in a schoolboy’s adventure story, Mathews attacks him on a hiking trail with a ski pole, and fells him with one blow. This murder signals the end of the novel’s complications, and its transition to the pastoral: he falls in with a couple moving their sheep to their winter pastures in Provence, and we move decisively beyond the paranoia, frustrations, and self-questionings that have dominated the book up to this point.

Mathews aficionados will be familiar with this transition, for something very similar happens both in Cigarettes (1987) and The Journalist: an imaginative goal has been reached which doesn’t so much tie up the earlier narrative threads as make them seem to have happened long ago, in a different novel, or life. Concerned only with herding the sheep, and his battles with the recalcitrant Madeleine, their packhorse, Mathews’s life in CIA, with all the term has come to codify, drops effortlessly away. His prose turns quietly lustrous, as if itself letting go of the anxieties that originated and propelled the novel’s quest. On the last night of his journey moving the sheep to Violès in Provence, where, he remembers, Marie Chaix is living, he is visited in his sleep:

C’est moi.” A rustle of clothing; she slipped between the covers. She lay naked on top of me and worked fast. She had me where she wanted before I was half awake. “Go ahead. Don’t hold back.” There were floods of color in the darkness…. “Ssh. It’s over. You got your man—you did the right thing.” I opened my eyes but it was so dark I couldn’t even see her teeth. “And a woman, too.” She was soon gone.

Raymond Queneau once described Oulipians as “rats who construct the labyrinths from which they plan to escape.” Mathews’s labyrinths are often revealed to be largely the constructions of paranoia; however, one is also subliminally aware that the narrative is fulfilling a predetermined set of constraints, that plot and characters are at the mercy of some secret algorithm or buried mathematical formula. This is what makes his explorations of paranoia so different from those of, say, Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon. In their extravagance and seeming absurdity, Oulipian constrictions make possible a kind of neutralizing of the forces that create the feeling of being trapped or controlled; by taking for granted that life is a labyrinth, and then imposing one’s own arbitrary maze on top of the one that life presents, the Oulipian achieves, paradoxically, a weird and delightful illusion of freedom. It’s an odd but beguiling aesthetic equation, and in many ways analogous to Mathews’s decision to pretend to be CIA. The fictive usurps upon the real, until fantasy and truth become indistinguishable. Hence, in a coda, when Mathews overhears two middle-aged men in a restaurant in Berlin in 1991 talking about him, and learns he has been “terminated with extreme prejudice,” he is free to comment: “There was not the slightest doubt that this man was telling the truth.”

Oulipian writers have produced numerous wonderful books, but a key tenet of the group is that their experiments are conducted in the spirit of disinterested curiosity, rather than with any specific literary work or goal in mind. The records of their monthly meetings, published in the Bibliothèque Oulipienne, reveal a delight in mathematically inspired linguistic experimentation for its own sake. The Oulipo Compendium, edited by Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, first published in 1998 but now updated and expanded, is a magnificent encyclopedia of their dizzying exercises and wondrous inventions, taking us from the Ur-Oulipian text, Raymond Queneau’s A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems of 1960, to the latest developments in various Oulipian offshoots, such as the Oulipopo (Ouvroir de Littérature Policière Potentielle), the Oupeinpo (Ouvroir de Peinture Potentielle), and the Oubapo (Ouvroir de Bande Dessinée [comic strips] Potentielle).

Queneau’s founding work of 1960 makes particularly vivid the idea of potentiality that drives all Oulipian activity. It consists of ten sonnets each, in the original edition, cut into fourteen strips. The reader is invited not just to read the sequence through, but to divise his or her own set of sonnets by starting with, say, line one of sonnet four, followed by line two of sonnet eight, followed by line three of sonnet one, and so on. Since each sonnet obeys the same rhyme scheme, and all are grammatically devised so any given line is interchangeable with the corresponding line in the other nine sonnets, these poems can be used to generate 1014 , i.e., 100,000,000,000,000, poems which, Queneau once calculated, would take someone reading this short book twenty-four hours a day 190,258,751 years to read from start to finish. It was while at work on this daunting project that Queneau contacted François Le Lionnais, an expert in mathematics and chess problems, and the Oulipo was born.

The group’s most brilliant member was undoubtedly Georges Perec, whose Life: A User’s Manual is one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. We learn in the entry on the book in this Compendium of the ten-by-ten Greco-Latin bi-square which generated the “schedule of obligations” that determine the forty-two “themes” that must appear in each of its ninety-nine chapters. Each chapter describes a room in a Parisian apartment block which is ten stories high and ten units wide, and the order in which they are presented was determined by the route a chessboard knight would have to take to cover all the squares on a ten-by-ten board without landing on the same square twice.

Most of Perec’s work has been translated into English, even the e-less La Disparition as A Void (by Gilbert Adair) and Les Revenentes as The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex(by Ian Monk). Aside from Perec, however, and Mathews himself, the Anglophone world has been offered few glimpses into the extraordinary procedures of the Oulipo. This Compendium is an invitation to the yet-to-be-initiated to open a Pandora’s box of mind-bending marvels and feats of exemplary ingenuity.

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