I am sorry to hear that Harry Mathews has died. Mathews in many ways relived the expatriate American writer story previously incarnated by Hemingway, Pound, Gertrude Stein and so many others. Mathews’ obituaries focus on his status as “the American Oulipian”, a member of the literary group whose most famous member was Georges Perec. I alluded to Oulipo in my review of The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel as part of a continuity of avant garde (if that isn’t an inherent contradiction):
Over time, the Latrourexians embarked on somewhat more interesting adventures – developing the various games featured inThe Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel. They are perfectly aware that they are not really innovators – acknowledging their debt to the Surrealists, Situationists, Fluxus, and Oulipo, amongst other–ists and groups sounding like laxatives. The Oulipo author Harry Mathews, in his recent My Life in CIA, describes something very similar to the Latourex concept.
Now I’m usually a sucker for these kind of things. There’s something attractive about the Latourex concept, something of the Chesterton of The Club of Queer Trades and his other, sunny fictions touched more by buoyancy than nightmare. And who has not spent some time playing Exquisite Cadavers, the Surrealist game which involves writing a sentence or paragraph, folding the page to hide all but the final words, passing it to a companion who does the same and passing the paper on, thus ultimately creating a jolly little tale?
Surrealism is an oddly unproductive set of techniques. The initial rush of novelty and amusement at the odd combinations thrown up by Exquisite Cadavers fairly quickly gives way to boredom. The avant-garde, ironically, has barely changed throughout the last century. There is simultaneously something very dated and very timeless about experiments in automatic writing, group writing, and the rest. On the one hand, nothing is as dated as yesterday’s cutting-edge, as a quick look at any Sixties “experimental” movie will confirm.
The rather lofty dismissive tone of the above is, I think, a form of reaction formation. I have always been drawn to literary games and writing-about-writing, and alternate between a sort of shame about this (seeing it, I think, as a rather cheap way out of Proper Writing) and an exhiliration. I wrote a rather facetious review of his 2005 novel “My Life In CIA” for nthposition – attempting to play a little literary game of my own:
What a coup! Agent Harry Mathews has, for a long time, had the perfect cover. An expatriate author, specialising in fiction that experiments with the boundaries of form, Mathews had the ideal cover job. People will forgive any amount of eccentric behaviour in an author, the more so if he is an “experimental” one. His work as a CIA agent in France from the early Sixties to late Seventies was nearly terminated by the events described in this book. Half formed rumour has continued to dog him since, and he has here hit on an elegant, ingenious solution; write an “autobiographical novel” claiming to be a work of fiction whose point of departure is a real situation. The action of the novel, I can exclusively reveal for nthposition, is all true (well, I cannot entirely vouch for some of the more spectacular sexual encounters). Only the pretence that Mathews was and is an innocent abroad who was never remotely connected with the Company is false.
The germ of this book is the supposed misconception in Paris in the late Sixties and early Seventies that Matthews was CIA. (A character in the novel tells him, and us, that “the first thing to remember is that nobody connected with the Agency calls it the CIA. It’s plain CIA.”) Mathews tells us that there were similar false rumours that he was homosexual, and that he was a millionaire. Thus he presents the rumours that swept Paris that he was CIA as just-one-of-those-things, one of those persistent rumours that are entirely false but nevertheless acquire the patina of truth. Most readers will have experienced something similar, discovering rumours have spread about themselves that are as hard to eradicate as they are false.
Having won the readers’ trust, what follows is a dazzling psychological gambit. We expect Mathews to blur the distinction between fact and fiction. The uninformed reader might assume that this is what he is doing. We are told of his early consternation at being told by well-informed Parisians that, bien sûr, he is of the CIA, and why is he denying it? A potential lover and some Chilean exiles encourage him to play the part, to live it up, to “make the role your very own. It’s a winner. Believe me, respectable men will flatter and pursue you for information you haven’t got” and think of all the women who are dying to get into bed with a real spy!”
Mathews, in the novel, begins to arrange “drops” and to behave as if he is being tailed. He acquires a friend who, working in the private intelligence-gathering sector, teaches him the tradecraft of espionage. His role is so convincing that the Soviets haul him into their embassy for a grilling. He is denounced as a decadent literary gadfly at Communist Party meetings and is sucked into the orbit of fascist groupuscles such as Nouveau Orde and the nascent Front Nationale. Finally he is forced to flee Paris and events take a shocking, bloody turn.
Mathews may seem an unlikely author of a page-turning thriller. Agent Mathews is the only American member of Oulipo, “Ouvroir de littérature potentielle”, the French literary circle that included Georges Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino and which explored the interface between literature and mathematics, imposing constraints on the writer that would lead to unexpected results. The paradigmatic Oulipo work is Perec’s novel “A Void” (La Disparition), which is entirely free of the letter e.
Of course, as Mathews says to another character in his “autobiographical novel”, Oulipo had and has no specific politics, although most members are probably broadly leftish. Aside from the obvious observation that, for someone working for the Company, an interest in cryptograms and the sort of cryptic crossword intelligence that informs the Oulipo spirit is essential, the benign, larky nature of Oulipo means that no one would suspect this memoir of being anything other than an ingenious literary game, rather than the blend of confession and apologia it really is. Of course, it is a false confession, a double bluff, a minor truth used to pass a big lie.
Aside from the technical and mathematical interest of his work, Mathews is also a writer of engaging, witty prose. He possesses that “literary vitamin” which George Orwell diagnosed as being missing from Wyndham Lewis’ novels, on which “enough talent to set up dozens of ordinary writers has been poured” but nevertheless “it would be a very heavy labour to read one of these books right through.” Mathews’ prose, even at its most “experimental” and opaque in terms of theme, somehow retains a certain readability. Novels like The Sinking of the Odarek Stadium and Cigarettes might confuse and baffle at times, but also have a clarity and sense of narrative purpose that carries the reader along. Perhaps Agent Mathews is not such an unlikely figure to write a thriller as gripping as a Jack Higgins or Frederick Forsyth.
In a neat example of life imitating art, few could read this novel without thinking of Our Man in Havana. Again, this is Agent Mathews’ genius at work – for this helps reinforce the sense that this is merely a rhetorical device, that therefore the more spectacular events are fictional. Echoes of real events are one thing, echoes of literary events are another – so the reader is seduced into assuming that the whole is a work of fiction.
So there is not a trace of falsehood or its cousin, fiction, in this “autobiographical novel.” Agent Mathews has not merely learnt from CIA – he has much to teach it. In times like these, the Agency needs men like Mathews.