Our Man in Paris

Photo by Brendan BernhardThe Central Intelligence Agency has been good to Harry Mathews, even if he never belonged to it and hated what it came to represent. My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973, his novel-cum-memoir about pretending to be a spy, has been flying off the shelves of independent bookstores. In France, where he’s lived for half a century, he has been invited onto four different television shows to discuss it. One might cite the invites from French TV as proof of European cultural superiority — imagine an avant-garde novelist being given such attention on our own screens — if it weren’t for the fact that Mathews has been on French TV only once before. But then, none of his previous works bore the acronym “CIA” in the title — irresistible to any red-blooded media Gaul. A large man with dark eyebrows and a maximum-storage-capacity forehead, Mathews, 75, was groggily rising from a nap when I met him midafternoon at his swank pied-à-terre off Fifth Avenue in downtown New York. (He also keeps homes in Paris, Key West, and Lars-en-Vercors, a village in the French Alps.) His wife, the French novelist Marie Chaix, quickly provided him with a cup of espresso, and he soon began to resemble a plausible version of the man who wrote such gems of cutting-edge fiction as The Conversions (1962), Tlooth (1966), The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1971), Cigarettes (1987) and The Journalist (1994). The adjectives “original” and “unique” get thrown around a lot in book reviews, but Mathews’ novels — particularly the early ones — really were unlike anyone else’s, at least in English. (The pioneering French Surrealist, Raymond Roussel, was a major influence.) On a personal level, Mathews allied himself with the New York School of poets, John Ashbery being a particularly close friend, and, like Ashbery, he left New York for Europe in the 1950s. Mathews’ early novels didn’t make him a household name, but they did win him adulatory blurbs from Anthony Burgess, Terry Southern, Thomas Disch and the like, and a devoted readership he still retains. Raised in luxurious circumstances on the Upper East Side, he inherited sufficient funds to enjoy the life of an expatriate bon vivant, and he approached literature in the spirit of play, like a wealthy amateur of genius. Though he’s perfectly willing to praise his own books — “It was exhilarating to write a novel like The Conversions,” he notes, “because no one had ever written one like it before” — there is no discernible trace of ego or careerism in his writing, and he seems perfectly satisfied with his lot. “I got the audience I wanted, which is really the audience of poetry readers,” he says. “I think there are about 2,000 of them left in America. In France, it’s still considered admirable to read good books. Here, there are a lot of extremely well-educated people who have never read a poem in their lives, or not since they left school. It’s sad. And the books they read are airport books, if that.” Had Mathews eventually moved back to the U.S., as his pal Ashbery did in 1966, he might have become much more famous than he has, simply by virtue of being available to journalists. Instead, he deepened his attachment to France and became the only American member of OULIPO, or the workshop for Potential Literature, a legendary group of mathematicians and writers founded by Raymond Queneau and dedicated to elaborately, perhaps pointlessly, rule-bound literary experimentation. Mathews’ friend the late Georges Perec came up with the most famous Oulipian work when he wrote an entire novel — La Disparition — without using the letter “e.” Mathews translated a portion into English, also without the letter “e.” Someone once compared the Oulipian enterprise to that of “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape.” This happens to be a pretty decent description of My Life in CIA, in which Mathews sets his own trap and then struggles mightily to escape it. (The definite article was left out of the title because, Mathews claims, real CIA types never say “the” CIA.) The year is 1973, and Mathews, our hero, is a groovy, bell-bottom–wearing, 43-year-old novelist with a passionate love of the arts and exotically named girlfriends hanging on his arm. The only mood-spoilers are American foreign policy (Vietnam, the coup against the Allende government in Chile) and, closer to home, the fact that almost all his French friends seem to think he’s a spy. For Mathews, who was passionately against the war in Vietnam from its inception, and whose French friends are mostly socialists or communists, this is a near-traumatic embarrassment, a black shadow that hangs over all his days. (“I wanted to play a part in the grand conspiracy of poetic subversion,” he writes. “But how could I get a hearing if people thought I was an ordinary, paid conspirator?”) It all came about, he says, because a diplomat friend invited him to Laos in the 1960s, French intelligence spotted him there, and after that the rumor spread that he was an American operative. For several years, Mathews would heatedly deny that he was in the agency, but this only served to further inflame his accusers. Then, over dinner, some Chilean friends make a suggestion that’s too clever by half. Instead of denying you’re in the CIA, they tell him, why not pretend you are CIA? Act mysterious. Adopt the lingo. Get a cover job. Lastly, they add, “Don’t ever deny you’re CIA. It’s never worked, anyway — certainly not with us!” For some reason, this strikes Mathews as a smart idea, and he and his friends celebrate by going out to the cinema to see Francis Veber’s comic masterpiece, The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe, in which a goofy classical musician is mistaken for a spy and trailed around Paris. And so the game begins. Mathews, who seems to have oceans of spare time, delivers mysterious packages, leaves chalk marks on walls, always goes one station past his stop on the metro. He also invents a suitably shady cover job for himself, offering advice to business travelers, particularly those venturing behind the Iron Curtain. In one amusing scene, he delivers a lecture to dyslexic business travelers. He counsels them only to take trains whose departure times are identical whether read backward or forward: 01:10, 12:21, 23:32, etc. He also gives several talks to French communists in Paris about Vietnam and Watergate, hoping to be publicly denounced as a spy. (In fact, he is denounced as a member of OULIPO, “a gang of cynical formalists,” as one Party member puts it. “They claim to be materialists, but they utterly disregard the dialectic of history . . . Monsieur Matiouze, you are informed that you will no longer be welcome among us.”) Before long, various spooks start paying attention. A woman with whom he has been enjoying delirious bouts of tantric sex gets him to deliver a package to a man who turns out to be a far-right rabble-rouser with the unlikely name of Chisly Will. An enigmatic stranger named Patrick Burton-Cheyne enters his life and then mysteriously disappears. Mathews’ existence begins to resemble that of a real spy — a spy in serious trouble, moreover, once some East Germans decide to assassinate him — and his memoir slides slowly into thriller territory, complete with a long, bucolic chase scene like something out of The 39 Steps. It would make a great, offbeat film, I suggest to Mathews. Has anyone approached him about it? “Oh, there’ve been a couple of feelers put out here,” he replies with the world-weary shrug of a novelist whose work, until now, nobody would ever dream of filming. “Someone in France with very highfalutin ideas and a very low budget has also been in touch. Actually, I’ve always thought my books would make terrific movies.” If My Life in CIA has a fault, it’s that it has very little to say, on a moral level, about the actual Cold War struggle. In one scene, Mathews is invited to address a group of communists in a park, “under the trees.” This struck me as an amusing image, I tell him, because there are so many communists in the Paris he writes about you’d think they grew on trees. Mathews laughs. Though no communist himself, he says, “I had sympathy for the leftists, because if there was one thing I loathed, it was the professional anti-communists.” On the other hand, he concedes that many French left-wing icons took forever to come clean about the horrors perpetrated by the totalitarian regimes they endorsed. “It’s hard for anyone who wasn’t around during the early years of the Cold War to realize how scary things were,” he says, sounding, just for a moment, like a real CIA man. “Not just in terms of the nuclear threat or possible military confrontation, but because of the tremendous propaganda effort made by the Soviet Union to take over Europe. They held the intellectual high ground for 30 years after the war. When you come down to it, the United States has done a lot of awful things, but what the Soviet Union did . . . it beggars imagination. The French learned about the gulag in 1919. And they learned about it again in 1926. And then in ’33. And then, at the end of the Second World War, Albert Camus and several other people said, ‘This is what’s going on. We cannot in all decency . . .’ And it was at that point that Camus was [portrayed] as a fascist hyena. Sartre didn’t admit what was going on until ’77 because of Solzhenitsyn and all the Soviet dissidents. By then there was a critical mass of undeniable evidence.” But all this only comes out in con­versation. In the book itself, stigma attaches only to the American side. While this may make it an accurate portrayal of the time, one is left with the fact that, as usual, the communist sympathizers and fellow travelers get a free pass. As to how much of My Life in CIA is true, Mathews shrugs nonchalantly and lifts a dark, ironic eyebrow. The line between fact and fiction is not one he pays much attention to, it appears. Showing me out of his apartment, he says I’m welcome to phone if I need any further information and quotes. “Or,” he adds, “you can just make it all up.” The expression on his face suggests he would find the latter a much more intriguing prospect. MY LIFE IN CIA: A Chronicle of 1973 | By HARRY MATHEWS | Dalkey Archive Press | 203 pages | $14 paperback