In 1973, the American writer Harry Mathews, who was then in his mid-forties, was living in Paris. He had been divorced by his first wife, Niki de Saint Phalle; the editor Maxine Groffsky, with whom he had spent the last 12 years, had recently left him to go back to New York; his two children had also gone. It was, he later wrote, a time when his life was ‘at an ebb, professionally and privately’. He had published two well-received and tricky novels, The Conversions (1962) and Tlooth (1966); he was trying hard to find a publisher for the third. He had been befriended by Georges Perec and become a member of the Oulipo, the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, whose monthly meetings to discuss mathematical or combinatorial writerly inventions kept him going but whose fierce criticism could be discouraging. He went to parties, he toyed with bits of writing; but he never felt that he quite fitted in. ‘I have never had many friends in France,’ Mathews wrote in his 1987 ‘Autobiography’, ‘where friendliness or at least polite and discreet acquaintance rather than friendship is the rule’: a sentiment that could be applied to a foreigner’s experience in various countries at various times but certainly to Paris in the early 1970s, when there were good reasons (Indochina, Chile) not to trust Americans – even, or particularly, semi-naturalised ones. Mathews had independent means, and in a nervy political climate it wasn’t unreasonable for people to wonder what exactly he was doing among them. Occasionally they would suspect him of being a CIA agent.
This might have been Harry Mathews’s story. But it isn’t. It’s his story as I’ve chosen to tell it; or, more depressingly, as I am able to tell it. The least of its inaccuracies are the dates, which I took from My Life in CIA: they are only slightly wrong. There are far more alarming errors in every sentence. Take, for example, the phrase ‘he had been befriended by Georges Perec.’ I chose the word ‘befriended’ because the Harry Mathews in my version, abandoned and struggling in a foreign country, is logically deserving of pity and encouragement. It doesn’t begin to describe the real Harry Mathews’s relationship with the real Georges Perec: for which see the article he wrote in Le Monde in 1984, two years after Perec died – the most honest, precise and affecting obituary of anyone I can imagine being written. And you’ll notice that I’ve also fallen into the biographer’s trap of quoting the subject – the quotations taken out of context – to provide the final word on the point I have found myself making. Worst of all, carried away by my opening premise of public and private gloom, and labouring to get myself into position for my next point, I’ve failed to capture the sense of buoyancy and playfulness that should have been my main objective. Writing like this – starting with the facts in so far as they can be ascertained, and then trying to get closer to what you imagine your character’s feelings and motivations might be – is doomed. Not only have I not succeeded in saying what I was trying to say, but I’ve nearly convinced myself of something very like its reverse.
Mathews has a term for this kind of false story, at least when a person applies it to himself: it is a ‘publicity story’, something you use when called on to give an account of yourself. It has some approximate relation to the truth – it began with an attempt at honesty and accuracy – but you’ve repeated it so often that you no longer know what it means. And, since it’s never a good social move to tell people how wonderful your life is, and since when you’re alone you’re likely to mull over how awful it is, the story is likely to be gloomy and will certainly be boring. Here’s what might have happened to Mathews in Paris in the early 1970s: people gossip, rumours spread, until a woman at a party, ‘sheathed in provincial chic’, has cornered him to get him to admit it; everyone knows you’re CIA, why not come out and say so? So begins My Life in CIA, an extraordinary kind of memoir that unfolds into a perfect piece of fiction, as Mathews explains that he was forced, time and time again, boringly to deny that he was a spook. His publicity story would have been more engaging and more plausible than the one I found myself giving him, but the accusations grate, and his story – I’m just a writer, I don’t do anything – becomes more and more unsatisfactory. And when the rumours are flying, repeated denials just speed them along. So someone suggests that he switch tack: let them think what they will; at least that way he’ll have some fun. Here begins a fantastic narrative in which Harry Mathews scrawls signs in chalk on walls, drops a coded message through the window of a rented car, and encourages interested parties to tail him around the city in order to determine the significance of his secret assignments.
Mathews’s adventures begin gently. A friend of a friend, running to catch a bus and missing it, sees him get on at the last moment. The friend’s friend catches the next bus, only to find that Mathews is waiting, again, at the following stop. Perplexed, he decides to follow him. Mathews disappears into an art gallery on the rue de l’Ancienne Comédie only to exit less than a minute later and head off briskly down the street before catching another bus going in the opposite direction. Mathews hears this story of his own peregrinations from the ‘pretty, smart, thrillingly cool’ twentysomething Marie-Claude Podopoulos, the daughter of an eminent cardiologist; she is intrigued. ‘So, my darling, what are you up to?’ There is a simple answer, involving an exhibition opening that turned out to have been postponed, a case of wine that needed to be collected, and a chequebook left at home; but Mathews, seizing his chance, merely tells Marie-Claude that if he were her nosy friend ‘je ferais attention’. So a stranger with time on his hands becomes the first member of Mathews’s audience in a game of veiled mysteries that reveal further mysteries, as he charts circuitous and devious routes around the city, taking in smart restaurants, glamorous cafés and atmospheric churchyards.
To observers, the mappable movements of the man – at first accidental, then carefully constructed – seem to mean something. For Mathews, the wanderer himself, they mean only that he is involved in a satisfying game of his own devising, with elaborate rules and formal patterns. But there are pay-offs. Not only has he piqued the interest of several women friends, but – buoyed by the logic of his secret existence – he now finds that he can penetrate the arcana of Parisian society. At gatherings of film-makers, artists and writers (the great names trip off the tongue: Jean-Noël Vuarnet, Sylviane Agacinski, Jim West, Mary McCarthy, Gregory Mazurovsky, Richard Foreman, Kate Manheim, Louis and Zuka Mittelberg, Bruno Marcenac, Michel Loriod, Maurice Roche), he now can see that all the high-flown references he had barely understood – to Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan – were no more than intellectualising flim-flammery, rehashed versions of commentaries on commentaries. By learning to play his own private game, he has opened up the public game of others.
It isn’t enough. This sort of hackwork in the spy world is mere dilettantism. He decides to take things more seriously and, knowing that a true spook would never be without good cover, sets up a spurious travel agency called Locus Solus (tagline: International Travel Counsel), headed by a non-existent Pole called Elzbieta Sosnowska. He lists the new company with the Association of American Residents Overseas, procures professional-looking stationery, and enlists the help of the postman in Lans-en-Vercors: the village near Grenoble where he had spent much of the previous dozen years and which had been the nominal headquarters of Locus Solus, the little magazine he had once edited with John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler. His thinking was that the prime currency of intelligence work is information about places, and travel agents have access to a great deal. He might even make some money.
The AARO invites him to give a talk to an eclectic group of dyslexic ex-pats, an invitation he gladly accepts. His ingenious solution to the problem of anxiety-induced innumeracy – which could render victims incapable of telling the difference between a 15.20 flight to Venice and a 20.15 flight to Mallorca – is a system whereby travellers are advised to restrict themselves to palindromic departure times: the 23.32 train from Moscow to Sverdlovsk; the 03.30 from Sverdlovsk to Omsk three days later; the next morning, the 10.01 to Novosibirsk; and finally the 22.22 – second-class only – to Krasnoyarsk. Various diverting Siberian excursions are suggested along the way. He doesn’t fail to mention that there is an alternative itinerary, via Perm II – a town which is closed to foreigners thanks to its nuclear reactors. He advises against that particular detour, since it means taking the Kuzbas Express, which leaves Moscow at a dangerously pseudo-palindromic 05.55. But he also hopes that certain members of his audience will note his transgressive suggestions and be curious as to why he thinks outsiders might be permitted to consider them. He isn’t disappointed. An idle Oulipian game becomes deadly serious when one member of the partly sleeping audience collars him to talk about Plishkin, a dissident nuclear scientist under house arrest in Khadistan. A writerly technique, a virtuoso performance in real-life Oulipianism, has now yielded dividends.
The mention of Plishkin, and the various events that ensue, including his attempt to speak openly to a Communist cell about Nixon, le ouateurguète and the real motives behind American activities in Laos and Vietnam, lead to Mathews deciding that to increase the stakes he ought to have something to sell; so he commissions a carpet-restorer to weave a Khadi shawl that incorporates, in nearly invisible blue and red thread, a would-be map of Soviet nuclear installations. After collecting the finished shawl, he meets the weaver – a pretty, exotic woman called Rkia – in the back room of the shop where she works. Their clothes are off and things are just about to get exciting when someone enters by the front door and quick-thinking Rkia rolls him up in a Persian rug and scarpers. Inevitably, the gabeh he is wrapped in is deposited on a dolly and he is driven away; he is delivered to an elegant library containing a rosewood table and Voltaire armchairs; Fantin-Latour portraits hang on the walls. The house turns out to belong to a man called Zendol, who invites the interloper to join his dinner party, where the guests include two beautiful forty-inch twins with ‘tiny Eurasian features’: Harald and Florence, Francis Bacon’s favourite models, according to his neighbour at the table. ‘Not that he ever paints them, but he wants to make sure no one else does. He thinks they’re witches.’ Zendol, a leading member of a fascist splinter cell with links to the killers of the Baader-Meinhof’s Christa Knemius, is scornful of Mathews’s claim to be a writer and poet and challenges him to compose a poem incorporating rhymes supplied by the guests while dancing the Squat.
But then, in the middle of all this glorious craziness, which sweeps you along in an involving rush, an incredible thing happens: we learn that one of Francis Bacon’s favourite models has a cold. There isn’t time to elaborate or expand on it, and perhaps an aside on such a humdrum specificity would ruin the proceedings; but, if we’re reading carefully, we’ll notice that at one point the silent Harald sniffles. Later: ‘Florence refused to go along. Nicole thought the game was amusing and proposed jonquil and plectrum. That was fair enough: hard rhymes are a traditional part of bouts rimés. Jean-Baptiste hesitated before deciding on gardenia and farthing. Harald blew his nose.’ Harald’s affliction is a minute instance of a process that has been underway throughout the book: we are constantly confronted by both the frankly incredible and the incontrovertibly real; they are so intricately bound together that it becomes impossible to tell which is which. It’s a meaningless exercise anyway. The events leading up to the adventure in Zendol’s mansion are impeccable in their logic and are supported by the related facts the book gives such a precise account of: the mood in Paris in 1973, the student activism, the worsening situation in Chile, and the living Harry Mathews’s interactions with his real-life acquaintances. Without knowing quite how we got here, we are suddenly in the middle of an episode that might have been taken from The Conversions, in which a writer is challenged by a Gypsy chief to play a game that involves describing and decoding the runic scenes that adorn the lids of a series of clay pots, before the pots – which contain boiling water – burn the hands of the player holding them. In The Conversions the puzzles presented are inscrutable and the methods of their composition are disguised. Now Mathews has led us to the same point step by step, revealing the tricks of his trade, and still the effect is dazzling.
In his 1997 essay ‘Translation and the Oulipo’, Mathews gives an account of a befuddled ethnolinguist called Ernest Botherby who, encountering two undiscovered New Guinean tribes, tried to explain to one the existence of the other. He was hindered by the fact that the language of each tribe contained only three words, which could be used to express only a single sentence: ‘Red makes wrong’ in the case of the Ohos, ‘Here not there’ for the Uhas. After struggling to think of a way to translate ‘Here not there’ into a language in which the only possible sentence was ‘Red makes wrong’, he came to the unavoidable conclusion that ‘a language says what it can say, and that’s that.’ For Mathews, who often refers to the similarities between translation and writing, it would seem that certain things one wants to say are terminally unsayable: a depressing thought. But it’s also slyly misleading. He also suggests, here and elsewhere, that the key to translation – and to writing – is to start at as great a distance as possible from your source, and gradually to approach it. If you’re translating Proust into English you don’t want to get caught in the trap of the too-close equivalent and the faux ami that you can’t get out of your head once you’ve thought it. So the trick is to take in the original and then say it as if it were your own thought expressed in your own voice to a friend in a coffee shop. ‘Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure’ might then be initially rendered as: ‘When I was a kid, it took me years to get my parents to let me even stay up till nine.’ The problem to which this sideways step is the solution isn’t all that different from the problem of writing an account of the life of Harry Mathews. If you stick too closely to what you understand to be the correct facts, there are certain things that will be forever inexpressible. But, as My Life in CIA proves, there is nothing that can’t be said – with exhilarating accuracy – so long as you play the game right.
Playing the game is easy for Mathews, the most unfaultable living writer of English I know: see Cigarettes (1987), his best novel. It describes the lives of New York’s rich, each subtly shifting chapter devoted to a particular pairing of characters: Owen, who is blackmailing Allen, whose daughter Priscilla has an affair with Walter, who is the mentor of Phoebe, who forges a portrait of Elizabeth, who everyone loves. One of his quieter books is Twenty Lines a Day (1988), the result of his decision to follow Stendhal’s advice to begin each day by writing something – anything – without hesitation or revision. It’s a collection of pieces – some angsty, some descriptive – that displays an improbable range of modes and approaches. You might not guess it if you idly flicked through one of his more apparently rebarbative fictions, but he can write anything in any way. He’s a chameleon. A certain kind of writer, convinced of the ultimate value of beautiful and burnished prose, will struggle to achieve the effect he feels he can nearly grasp. Mathews presumably achieves such effects in his sleep: see, for instance, certain sentences in My Life in CIA, which – once the horror of his undertaking has sunk in – turns, in one of several modal shifts, to pastoral idyll: ‘We’d pass villages, and I’d look at the ordinary people in them, people who slept in beds and got bored with their jobs and with each other, and I felt I was a god in a world of puppets.’ By this point in the book, Mathews has suffered death threats and been implicated in fascist activities; he has fled across the Alps and found refuge with a shepherd and his family. The game has to end. There’s a particular reason: Allende is dead. It’s unthinkable: ‘I’d made myself party to a monstrosity.’
He knew something was about to happen. A small news item in the Herald Tribune had reported that the Chilean authorities had refused entry to a US navy brass band – all of whose members, Mathews notes, were (incredibly) commissioned officers: plainly, a ‘grotesque ruse’ to infiltrate intelligence agents into Santiago. His CIA training has helped him here, but what has helped more is his addiction to newspapers: he long ago learned that if you read the right news the right way, looking for the hidden patterns, you can see through the obfuscation and draw your own conclusions. There’s another writerly analogy at play here, one that explains Mathews’s approach to the idea of reading. A writer who plays games – by forgetting the facts for the moment and following intricate rules – will have said what he wanted to say, but he may also have said something he didn’t know he knew. He will have discovered meaning in what he has written, just like his reader. ‘This,’ Mathews writes in ‘For Prizewinners’, a 1982 lecture, ‘is the first way writer and reader participate with one another: in creating the experience for which the writer has provided the means.’ Their game is the same. Mathews was delighted when Perec, after translating Tlooth into French, declared that he had discovered that the book was constructed around ‘a secret verbal palindrome. He found convincing evidence for this, including the exchange of “m” and “n” in the words atonic bomb and formication – something I had done unintentionally.’ Tlooth certainly contains plenty of ants; and the violinist protagonist, whose career has been ruined by the work of a rogue surgeon, tries to take revenge with a bomb disguised as a baseball. But maybe Perec was right. And maybe I’m right about Harry Mathews: maybe he was never in the CIA.