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Work and Play: A Conversation with Warren Motte

By Martin Riker

Warren Motte is among the most vibrant and resourceful critics of French contemporary fiction in the world today. Professor of French and Italian at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1981 with a dissertation on Georges Perec, which eventually became the first critical book on Perec published anywhere. He is the author of five books of scholarly criticism, editor of an anthology of writings by the Oulipo (the international organization of writers who use artificial constraints upon their writing processes in order to achieve unexpected and original effects in their work), along with countless articles and scholarly papers on writers such as Edmond Jabés, Italo Calvino, Raymond Queneau, William Burroughs, Marie Redonnet, Alina Reyes, and many others. His sixth book, a collection of essays on contemporary French writing entitled Fiction Now, was published in Dalkey Archive's Scholarly Series in 2008.


I spoke with Professor Motte at his home in Boulder, CO, in May 2007. We talked in his office, surrounded by books on all sides. Before we started, he handed me the September 2005 issue of MLN, a publication of Johns Hopkins UP, which contained an essay entitled "Reflections on Mirrors."

MR: What's this?

WM: That's something I thought you might be interested in. They asked me to give a paper at Hopkins on a subject of my choosing, and I decided to talk about something that I've been doing for 25 years but had never talked about. It's a fairly bizarre, very compulsive, very obsessive project--I've been collecting mirror scenes in literature since about 1980, when I was writing my dissertation, and squirreling them away on index cards, noting merely author, title, and page number. Every time I come across a mirror scene in a work of fiction, I pounce upon it. By now I have, by my estimate, between 10,000 and 12,000 of these scenes, far too many to be of any practical use. I'd always thought that one day I would go back to these and do a book about them, and that if I sat on them for long enough, like a mother hen, something would hatch. But you know I've sat on them for so long and they've become so abundant that they're...

MR: Intimidating?

WM: Yes. But I've always wanted to get a handle on them somehow, if just sort of a provisional handle, so after I finished up my last book, I had some time, and I decided to go back to these things and try to make sense of them. So I went back and started going through from the very first one I collected through more current ones, culling out the mirror scenes that I thought were the most pungent, and I've been doing that for a couple of months now, all day every day. And one of the curious things about it is that I'm revisiting in chronological order my reading since 1980. Not every reading, because not every book has a mirror scene. But, you know, I've gone through perhaps 2,000 books with mirror scenes in them, all in the order in which I originally read them.

MR: There's definitely something pleasurable in the way collecting reorganizes things, especially literary collecting. In this case, you've created a new kind of tradition, the mirror-scene tradition. It's as if suddenly the rules for categorizing literary works have completely changed.

WM: That's right.

MR: And I think it makes sense that you, Warren Motte, would be drawn to this, because you have an interest in the Oulipo, and the game-like techniques those writers use--structuring a book based on the sequences of chess moves, for example, or writing without any words that use a particular letter of the alphabet, or writing a narrative that exhausts one by one all the tropes in a rhetoric textbook--these playful techniques can also be seen as a kind of obsession with reordering, or rather, with reconceptualizing the idea of order in literature.

WM: In fact, any kind of collecting activity is an attempt to impose order upon the world, whether you collect stamps or Duke Ellington records or whatever it may be. And you're right, I am drawn to order. I am drawn to orderly form in literature. And yet there's part of me as well that finds deep pleasure in the disorder of literature. So there's this conflicted opposing desire in my behavior.

MR: Why mirror scenes? I could make a guess, but...

WM: It's a little complicated, in fact. Originally, the thing that I found really interesting was that often mirror scenes act as kind of "nodes" of meaning within a text, wherein the subject or the character reflects upon him- or herself, and at the same time the textuality reflects upon itself, even in a very naive text.

MR: I'm thinking of The Princess of Cleves... You've got me rattling through mirror scenes in my head.

WM: Right, exactly... And then on a third level, I realized, as I was well into this sort of thing, that these are moments when the reader sees him- or herself reading. And on a more personal sort of level, I've come to see myself, as it were, in a kind of a narcissistic way. You know, doubly, on a meta-level, as I go back through these readings, I'm re-reading myself read.

MR: So there are a few levels of self-reflection at work in this project, in addition to the pleasures of collecting itself: there's the effort to recognize yourself in the activity, and there's also this kind of autobiographical accounting of the books you've read, seeing those books as a history of yourself as a reader. Can I ask about that, your history as a reader? This is something I wanted to start with anyway. You're a sophisticated reader and a person who writes about unusual books, mostly French contemporary fiction. You make your living at this, thinking about books and reading and teaching. I know you grew up in the U.S., and I have to assume that in the beginning you were a young guy reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald and so forth. I'm wondering how you got interested in French literature.

WM: I started out studying English and American literature, you're right. I was very happy studying that, but then gradually, and, as it were, ineluctably, I was drawn to the dark side.

MR: Which dark side was that?

WM: Foreigners!... Like many things it was sort of based on coincidence. As an English major at the university I attended, I was very interested in James Joyce, and had been reading and studying Joyce since I was in high school. When I was an undergraduate, I went around the English department trying to find someone who would sponsor an independent study on Finnegans Wake, because I had read it once but I didn't feel I'd fully appreciated it, there were lots of things I wanted to know about it. I had read Joseph Campbell's A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, and so forth, not finding a whole lot for my own purposes there, and I wanted to work with a scholar, an actual scholar, re-reading Finnegans Wake and finding out what was going on in that very rich, mystifying, and wonderful book. And I couldn't find anybody to help me out. So... I had been interested in a lot of other things as well, continental literature, French literature--I had read French literature; I learned to read French as a kid--so, faced with that, and also by virtue of the fact that things were going on in critical theory in France that really interested me but that hadn't seemed to penetrate the English department where I was doing my undergraduate work, I started taking courses in comparative literature. I fulfilled my requirements in English but took my electives in comp lit. And then when I finished my undergraduate degree, I was sort of casting around trying to figure out what I might do, whether I might teach high school English or something like that, or sell insurance, or become a priest, whatever career choice I was entertaining at the time, and one of the people in comparative literature with whom I'd worked asked me if I wanted to do a PhD in French with a full scholarship. And, you know, not having very much else on my plate at that time, I said Sure, why not? That's how I got into it. It was very much a coincidence.

MR: And your first book was your book on Georges Perec?

WM: That's right.

MR: And that was your dissertation.

WM: That's a revision of my dissertation.

MR: And Perec was not being written about at the time?

WM: No, that's the first book on Perec in either French or English. I was lucky enough to have a dissertation advisor, Jean Alter, who gave me free rein to write about what I wished; I didn't have to write yet another dissertation on Balzac or Proust. I think a couple of my teachers, Alter and Gerald Prince, had read Things, Perec's first novel, and perhaps A Void, his book written without the letter E, which was published in France in 1969. But people didn't really know who Perec was in this country, in fact in France he wasn't very well known at that time either, so when I started working on him, I was really groping around quite a bit. This is before Life, a User's Manual came out in 1978, which was when Perec started gaining broader acclaim, in France at least.

MR: So how did you get interested in Perec?

WM: I came across Perec like I come across most of the writers I write about, reading in a haphazard manner: I go to France and go to my bookseller and pull books off the shelves more or less at random, and become interested in some and not others, and sort of bumble my way through French literature. And that's what I did with Perec, I came across A Void, and I came across his wonderful memoir-novel W or the Memory of Childhood, and the books floored me. I've always been drawn to books that provide a variety of reading experiences, and Perec is very good for that. To take an obvious example, A Void, his book written using only words that do not contain the letter E. You can read that book on many different levels--on the level of the detective story, for instance, where the mystery is bound up in the fact that E has absconded from the alphabet. So you've got a hospital ward with 26 beds the fifth of which is empty, an encyclopedia set with 26 volumes but the fifth volume is absent, and so forth. But you can also watch this constraint work its way through the text on other levels, in terms of a literal poetics, or a narrative innovation. Perhaps most poignantly, you can watch as Perec's constraint enables this book to say things that Perec couldn't say otherwise. That is, the absent E becomes the signifier for other kinds of absences in Perec's life--the death of his parents, the fact that he felt he had lost his childhood, and so forth. The way that this process plays out enables him to say things that he could not have said in a more conventional way, things that were quite literally unsayable.

Getting back to your original question, though: Perec's books floored me, and as is my wont when I find some really excellent books, I read everything I could of that particular writer. Then in 1978 when Life, a User's Manual came out, that too floored me.

My critical study of Perec appeared in 1984. And I should say that while it was the first book on Perec, it has been largely eclipsed by everything that's appeared since then, and scholars have found out lots and lots of things about Perec that I never suspected when I wrote my book. So it's a book that's very dated now. But in any case, that's how I came upon Perec, and it was through Perec that I became interested in the Oulipo. I'd read some Raymond Queneau and really liked that, but I didn't know about the Oulipo until I started reading Perec. So it was in the mid to late '70s that I started getting into those things.

MR: Since then you've published four other critical books: a book on Edmond Jabés; a book on ludic literature, or what you call "playtexts"; a book on the minimalist writers working in France, largely in the 1980s; and Fables of the Novel, which offers essays on French writers from the 1990s. What your subjects have in common, it seems to me, are a few things: an interest in the everyday, the quotidian; an interest in playing games, in seeing word games and narrative games as serious material for literary creation; and an intense interest in workmanship, in writerly craft. All of these commonalities seem to point to an aesthetics of process rather than of product; in other words, you are drawn to writers who are themselves drawn first of all to the way a thing is made, and only secondarily to the made thing itself. Is that a fair assessment?

WM: Yes, I think it is. I'm interested in the way things are put together, and more particularly in the actual gestures that account for that putting together. That's not to say that other considerations, such as theme, character psychology, social and political discourse, and so forth leave me indifferent; quite to the contrary in fact. But I've always been intrigued by questions of literary form, and by the extremely various shapes that literature can assume. Moreover, in the best of cases--Beckett, Jabés, Burroughs, Calvino, Cortázar, Toussaint, Perec and the Oulipians come immediately to mind, but there are many others--formal choices are deeply imbricated with the other dimensions of a given text, enabling a richer, more powerfully interactive and dynamic literary discourse.

MR: Your most recent publication is an essay titled "Everyday Odysseys: Touring the Country of the Quotidian" (published in the Denver Quarterly, 41:4, 2007), which is about literature of the quotidian, obviously, but is also--in my opinion--very close to being an essay on conceptual art. As I was reading what you have to say about Jacques Jouet's "Metro Poems"--poems written between stops in the Paris metro--Francois Maspero's Les Passagers du Roissy-Express--written at each of the stops of the "B" line of the RER, a commuter train between Paris and its suburbs--and Cortázar and Dunlop's memoir composed along the superhighway (since published in English translation by Archipelago Books as Autonauts of the Cosmoroute), I thought about these projects and your interest in them in relation to your earlier work with the Oulipo, Perec, etc. In both those earlier subjects and these more recent ones, there's a concept of process at work, but is it the same concept of process?

WM: You know I think many things could be said about the three texts that I dealt with in that essay. To begin with, all of them in a sense are experiments dealing with literary shape. And I think that in terms of the way we encounter them--or at least this has been my experience throughout my career--as we grapple with experiments in literary shape, they in turn shape us. Do you know what I mean? Just like the reader of A Void becomes shaped by that kind of restricted language which itself has a very strange shape.

The other connection one might make--and clearly the connection with Jouet is a compelling one since he's a member of the Oulipo--but in terms of the others as well, is that in all three of those experiments, the insistence is on the artisanal character of the exercise, rather than the artistic inspiration. In other words, it's about work rather than about inspiration, and that's central to the Oulipian ethos as well, they refuse the notion of inspiration.

MR: I think the reason my mind goes toward conceptual art is because you talk about something like "literary shape," and with a book like A Void I think of the literary shape as being given to an experience of the page. Yet with these books you discuss in "Everyday Odysseys," it seems that literary shape is being imposed upon life itself.

WM: I agree, and that's a facet of these experiments that may seem to be a little paradoxical. They are very conceptual, I think. They entertain very close relations with other types of conceptual art, and yet at the same time they're extremely grounded in the quotidian world, the world we inhabit and that we recognize as our own on the most fundamental level. I mean, Jouet's "Metro Poems" are poems written in the subway, which is the most banal and least poetic space imaginable, or at least one of them. They are intended to demonstrate that even the most vacant spaces of our lives can be invested with poetic meaning if you work at it hard enough. And think about the superhighway in Cortázar and Dunlop: what do you do, how are people to "be" when they're on the superhighway? Is it just going from one place to another, sort of an empty passage from one place to another, or do we take that in hand and try to invest it with some meaning?

MR: Not altogether unlike your own collection of mirror scenes, by the way. The MLN essay is a literary product, perhaps not the ultimate product of all these collected mirror scenes but certainly a significant one; yet the process--the much larger project of creating these notecards over all of those years--would seem to be a kind of conceptual art. Also a deeply Perecian project.

WM: I don't think I would call it "art," but it is certainly "conceptual." Also deeply Perecian in conception, I think, yes. A lot of what Perec was involved in is trying to rehabilitate daily life.

MR: This is something else I wanted to ask you about, the role of daily life in recent French fiction, and the role Perec played in creating this literary climate. I'm particularly interested in how often in recent French fiction this interest overlaps with a sense of playfulness--the ludic--and whether that's an inevitable overlap.

WM: It seems to me that in the kinds of things that you and I read there's a lot of that overlap, and that's probably why we read it. But that kind of overlap is generally thought of as being taboo, right? On the one hand you have "play" and on the other hand you have "seriousness." You have the "play sphere" as Johann Huizinga would put it, and on the other hand you have "work." And that distinction, which you can trace from Plato onward, that distinction between the world of imagination and the so-called real world is not really questioned until you come to the 1960s, or not questioned profoundly and in a performative way, until you get people like Jacques Ehrmann saying Well, you know, play is basically articulation. And then you get Jacques Derrida coming along and talking about "free play," and so forth. So to me, the highest expression of that notion of the articulation of play and the quotidian is the idea that daily life can be played. Which seems so counterintuitive to somebody who has been brought up in a culture that values seriousness and purpose, that values "work"--you play when your work is done and so forth... But in the kind of stuff that interests me, this suggestion that daily life can be played is often very obvious. In terms of Perec's influence, it seems to me that many contemporary French writers, particularly the writers published by Editions de Minuit and certainly the POL writers, read Perec and were influenced by him. Not perhaps directly influenced and not perhaps the kind of influence one might expect, because the formal games that Perec played with such brio are not as apparent in writers such as Toussaint, Echenoz, Redonnet, people like that. But I think they were very interested in the possibility of pursuing this notion of everyday life as being a site worthy of a novelist's interest. And of developing that and expanding that horizon of possibility in the kinds of things that they were doing.

MR: In the introduction to Fables of the Novel, you make a comparison between the contemporary French writers you are covering in that book and the French New Novel movement of the 1950s and '60s, but if I remember, it's a comparison of a cultural sort, talking about the level of innovation rather than the type.

WM: I think that there are affinities on two levels. On the one hand, many of the novelists that I'm interested in now have found a home at Editions de Minuit, which of course was the place that housed the New Novelists, for the most part. I think also there's another affinity that prevails between them, that neither the New Novelists nor the New Minuit writers, as they've been called... neither constitutes a "school," and perhaps not even a "group"--perhaps even that word is not quite apt. They have been talked about as a group or school for practical reasons, because it's easier to do so, but to see them as a school is in many ways very reductive, because there are many important differences that prevail between, let's say, Robbe-Grillet and Butor and Duras, on the one hand, and Christian Oster, Marie Ndiaye, and Marie Redonnet on the other. That being true, there are significant concerns which they share. It seems to me that among those things that they do share, there's one that is overriding and that colors all of their writing, and that is the will toward literary innovation. That is, whatever else they may be after, whatever other problems they may choose to grapple with, it seems to me that the prize on which they focus is the will to make the novel different, to expand the novel's horizon of possibility.

MR: They are all practitioners of what is somewhat problematically called "experimental" writing.

WM: Somewhat problematically, that's right. You know, I had for a long time thought the word "experimental" described the literature that most interested me, and yet experimental literature is generally taken, as you know, to designate literature that is highly bound up in questions of form. So it might not apply very closely to literature that's invested in other kinds of experiments: experiments in theme, in voice, in idea, and so forth--works that can be very deeply interesting to me. Then for a time I thought that I was interested in the avant-garde, but that term has fallen into a kind of... well, it's belated, now, it's vexed, and I don't think that it really is a performative term any more. Now, John O'Brien has talked about "subversive" literature in one of the pieces in CONTEXT, where he describes the kinds of books he's looking for in his catalog, and I think that's a very apposite way of thinking about the kind of literature that interests me. But recently I've become convinced that more than anything else the books I'm interested in have a critical dimension, and by that I mean several things: on the one hand, they take a critical position with regard to literary tradition, put that tradition on trial in a variety of different ways--on the level of the page, and so forth. They put themselves forward in a way that promotes or enables a critical reading as well, so that you can read them flat on your back on your sofa if you wish, but they reveal their richness most abundantly when you approach them from a critical perspective, in other words with an awareness of the kinds of gestures that they perform with regard to convention, the canon, and so forth firmly in the mind.

MR: Forecast the future of French fiction. In your more recent books, you've worked on authors of a particular decades, the '80s, the '90s... I haven't read the manuscript for Fiction Now yet, but from the title I assume it covers...

WM: Next week.

MR: So what does next week look like for French fiction?

WM: Well, one thing that's intrigued me in recent years is the return to narrativity. Gerald Prince describes narrativity as basically the set of elements in a narrative that makes a narrative "narrative," the fundamental traits--and also as that dimension of narrative which draw us in. Narrative is the force in a story that engages our attention, that pleases us deeply, that makes us want to come back for more, to keep reading to find out what happens and so forth... the sets of fundamental constitutive elements that grab us.... And there has been I think a return to narrativity. In other words writers such as Jean Echenoz, Christian Gailly, Lydie Salvayre, Eric Chevillard, and so on not only wish to innovate and push things forward, and not only constantly question the traditions and protocols that they inherit, but they also wish to tell a good story. So whereas in the New Novel some people may have said, "You know, there's no story here. There's a guy who's jealous, but once you've said he's jealous... maybe his wife slept with Franck, but who knows? There's no story here... or this other story is just about a soldier wondering around a town, who cares?"... Whereas while that's going on in the New Novel, there seems to be, in the last 20 years or so, a return to certain kinds of storytelling that had not been massively apparent in progressive writing in France for a long time. And I think Perec had a lot to do with that. You know he said about Life, a User's Manual that you could read it in a number of ways, but one of the ways he wanted you to be able to read it was flat on your back on your sofa.

MR: Would it be fair to say that this is something you have in common with the authors you write about today, or many of them at any rate, that you all in some way are working off of or out of the influence of Georges Perec?

WM: Perec taught me how to read in creative ways. I often think that I learned to read in three stages. I first learned to read before I went to school... which didn't stop my teacher from calling my parents and saying I was slow. I already knew how to read but I wouldn't read for her because she was so intimidating. She was really awful. My parents just laughed at her and said I already knew how to read. Then a second stage in learning to read was when I got into Dickens. When I was a young kid I got really into Dickens. And then it was Perec and beyond Perec the Oulipo that really taught me to read creatively. So yes, Perec did lead me to a lot of different things, and he's conditioned many of the ways I've read professionally since I started reading him. He showed me that something like the common distinction between play and work is reductive when faced with the complexity of human behavior. So I can sit down with a novel and be at play even though I'm in fact working. You'll readily understand that I find such a notion both pleasing and reassuring.




Work and Play: A Conversation with Warren Motte was originally published in Puerto del Sol. It is reprinted here with the permission of the author.


Published Jan 26, 2010   Copyright 2010 Martin Riker

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