Daniel Soar

  • My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973 by Harry Mathews
    Dalkey Archive, 203 pp, £8.99, July 2005, ISBN 1 56478 392 8

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.

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