The Company He Kept: Novelist Flirts With Espionage

My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973, by Harry Mathews. Dalkey Archive Press, 203 pages, $13.95.

A few weeks ago, the arts section of The New York Times turned its solemn eye on literary fiction. On Monday, the fine novelist and short-story writer Steve Stern got conscripted as the surely reluctant poster boy for this year’s literary-fiction-is-not-selling feature. This is news? Herman Melville and Nathanael West discuss the problem daily on Mount Parnassus. Almost 40 years ago Wilfrid Sheed, in his classic essay “The Minor Novelist,” dryly observed: “He tries to keep away from Sunday supplements which discuss the death of the novel. He has a theory that it is bad luck to read more than three articles on the subject a week.”

The next day in The Times, the fine novelist and short-story writer (and poet, and essayist, and native New Yorker-Beekman Place variety-and all-around bon vivant and civilized gent) Harry Mathews got off much easier in John Strausbaugh’s adroit and amusing profile. While his books didn’t escape being tagged with the description “chronically underappreciated,” the piece otherwise gratifyingly focused on his intriguing (in a couple of senses) new novel/memoir My Life in CIA. Personally, I can’t think of an American writer since Nabokov whose commitment to the principles of aesthetic bliss and autonomous, self-delighting creation makes the dreary counting-house particulars of sales figures and such more distasteful and beside the point. But then I’m just wild about Harry, and have been since the 70′s, when I discovered his vertiginous, unregenerately avant-garde novels The Conversions (1962) and Tlooth (1966).

That’s “C.I.A.,” by the way, not ” the C.I.A.”-the definite article is a shibboleth that marks you as an outsider. In the course of his Paris-centered literary-expat life in the 50′s and 60′s, Mr. Mathews’ Ivy League, upper-class background and peripatetic habits gave rise to the suspicion that he was a Company man whose novelistic career was a mere cover for spy-guy activities of a darker hue. This was a perfectly reasonable surmise in the agent-infested Europe of the Cold War, where the C.I.A. notoriously funded such highbrow ventures as Encounter magazine.

The suspicion just happened to be dead wrong, and it pained Mr. Mathews keenly to be so misapprehended. “I wanted to play a part in the grand conspiracy of poetic subversion,” he laments. “But how could I get a hearing if people thought I was an ordinary, paid conspirator?” Then two lefty Chilean friends observe that “you have been given the makings of a glorious comedy” and advise him to “Show them they’re right. Make the role your very own.” In other words, the solution to his vexing identity crisis is to become the novelist of his own life. Call him Meta Harry.

What ensues is a delicious mixture of plausible autobiographical fact and sheer fabrication that reads as if Chuck Barris had decided to recast Confessions of a Dangerous Mind after attending a meeting of the intellectually acrobatic French literary group Oulipo-Mr. Mathews is its sole American member-and brought in Flann O’Brien and Georges Perec for the rewrite. Over the course of the meticulously observed political events of that ugly year 1973, when he’s not ingesting the best food, wine and culture that Paris had to offer (the angst, melancholy and lust-tinged loneliness in this book are nothing if not elegantly appointed), Mr. Mathews busily constructs a spookish alter ego for himself.

He co-opts the name of Locus Solus, a literary magazine he co-founded, for the title of a putative travel agency specializing in services for those suffering from “travel-stress dyslexia.” The cure? Trains and buses whose departure times read the same from left or right. He cultivates a friendship with an unlikely fan and lapsed literary scholar whose real job is performing oil-market analysis for Zapata Petroleum, Bush père’s old outfit. He commissions the weaving of a Khadistan saddle blanket (is there even such a country? Beats me) that encodes a map of a Siberian energy complex. This last wheeze leads to a Marx Brothers–ish farce: Mr. Mathews gets himself rolled up inside an Oriental rug and delivered to a home where he becomes the uninvited guest at a French right-wing dinner party and just misses getting a foot job from an attractive midget.

Inevitably, Mr. Mathews’ stratagems take on a life of their own and threaten to pull him in over his head into real danger. But the hugger-mugger is grounded in the believable particulars of the author’s life, and whenever the proceedings lean even slightly Ludlum-wise, he instead swerves (Charles) Ludlam-wards with some adroitly rendered piece of Oulipian business or absurdist nonsense. I’m particularly fond of his unconsummated dalliance with one Marie-Claude Quintelpreaux (COINTELPRO-get it?); their chaste bouts of not-screwing achieve an almost tantric level of complexity. The book’s climax is a beautifully rendered pastoral idyll of sheep-wrangling in Mr. Mathews’ beloved Vercors region of France; the scene ends with a ski pole sped on its fatal trajectory with the apostrophe, “Athena, guide my arm!”

In short, in My Life in CIA, Mr. Mathews has resuscitated that sadly neglected genre, the put-on. At one point in the book, he tells us that “Since the age of ten I had made a habit of escaping from the world of everyday disappointment into the paradise of art, where satisfied desire was the rule.” The year 1973 was a major node of everyday disappointment, yet the author manages to re-enchant it with his high wit and linguistic agility, and the sort of no-sweat aplomb and insouciance that he shares with his literary friends and allies, the New York Poets. He accomplishes this with such nimble charm-his hard work and literary discipline gracefully concealed-that one is tempted to dub Harry Mathews the Fred Astaire of American letters. I won’t fight that temptation.

Gerald Howard is a book editor in New York.