An American in Oulipo: The Harry Mathews Symposium
DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:
My Life in CIA by Harry Mathews. Dalkey Archive Press. 203pp, $13.95.
A little past the midpoint of My Life in CIA, Harry,our hero, goes on a date. This date turns wrong for Harry. A lot in My Life in CIA turns wrong for Harry. Not because he isn’t suave, svelte, and socially super-charged. Or because he isn’t smart, funny, charming, generally cheerful, and rather sweet. He is all of these things, all of them dropped nel mezzo del cammin (he is into his fifth decade) into the deep world-event-fueled waters of self doubt. Fine cracks in the shell of his self have started to form. He is still a champ but his gyre would seem to be widening; his things would seem to be falling apart.
Date night, which he thinks might go some way to tightening his gyre, even if just temporarily, looks like this: Harry is interrupted at the steamy outset of long-awaited sex; gets rolled up in a carpet and transported by car and dolly across Paris; finds himself at the home of a notorious right-wing thug named Zendol; receives an invitation (once he unrolls himself) to dine, and makes meaningful eye contact with a beautiful midget among the convives; becomes obliged to prove his poetic bona fides by improvising a poem (using the words swastika and haddock) while performing the Squat; proves his poetic bona fides; leaves the party in the company of the seductive midget; starts having sex with her in a church next to Zendol’s; is interrupted at the steamy outset by a gay sexton who gently comes onto him after his petite almost-partner scrams; hears the story of the sexton’s lost love; finds a taxi; goes home.
Harry, incidentally, always gets to go home in My Life in CIA. He is pleasantly domestic for such a swinging bachelor. He meets with members of the Oulipo, with KGB agents and crooked international players of various stripes (he also goes to dinner and to the movies with friends), then goes home. Except for at the end of the book where he doesn’t.
Here’s a little of the swastika/haddock poem. Who could resist? When the text says “squat” it means Harry squats. Over the course of this energetic recital Harry begins to spray sweat when he turns his head.
Not bitch fascist (squat!) with swastika
And bumper (squat!) double-cross sticker
Let’s anagram (squat!) and acrostic her
Let’s lock her in a paddock
In six feet of rotten haddock
Sing high (squat!), speak low (squat!)
Ho heigh (squat!), heigh ho (squat!)
Then we’ll go play chess (squat!) life-size in Marostica!
Squat squat squat,
Squat squat . . .
(Really! For sheer intricate silliness, this puts me in mind of the texture of Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist. The shared mechanisms of unrolling—it is a great scroll in Jacques and the aforementioned carpet in My Life in CIA—and interruption—in Jacques stories keep getting stopped, in My Life in CIA: squat squat squat—make the comparison feel that much more apt. Also, Mathews is on record as being a fan of Diderot. He and I discussed the philosopher, novelist, and editor of The Encyclopedia (much! more interesting than Voltaire, according to Mathews) in a conversation we recorded for the January 2012 edition of The Believer. During that conversation we touched on the fate of too many original writers and thinkers by evoking the famous statue of Diderot on the Boulevard St. Germain in Paris; its handsome head is more often than not covered in pigeons and pigeon shit. Someday, I hope, there will be a statue of Mathews. I also hope it will be wearing a hat.)
To write “Harry” in this note and not “Mathews” is to refer to the narrator of My Life in CIA and not the author of My Life in CIA, with whom the narrator nevertheless should be and is throughout the book most certainly confused.
My Life in CIA is set in the early 1970s, just after Mathews was elected to the Oulipo (for years he was referred to as its only American member) and during the United States–endorsed, if not sponsored, coup that overthrew the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile and installed military strongman Augusto Pinochet. This was an event that devastated Chile and sent unsettling ripples through the world, and these ripples quickly reached Paris, where post-war tensions between the left and the right were being energetically released.
During this period, Mathews spent time pretending to be a CIA agent. The idea was that rather than argue against the widely circulating rumor that he worked for the Agency, he would play it up. So he did things like draw strange chalk symbols on walls and take staged delivery of mysterious packages in public places and practice “evasive driving techniques.” At the same time, as an experienced man of means with an independent income (this seemed to be the profile that fueled the rumors), he spent a lot of time eating and drinking well. He cultivated the company of interesting and/or beautiful women. He went to art openings. Browsed in fine boutiques. Read newspapers. Wrote. He also spent time with friends, notably Georges Perec, and crossed paths with the novelist Marie Chaix, who was later to become his wife.
Harry does all of these things too in My Life in CIA. These things and a few more, with the precise parameters of the “few more” left to conjecture. We can have our opinions (Squat! yes, carpet no? Gay sexton yes, midget on the altar no?) but we can’t be sure which parts are Harry and not Mathews. My Life in CIA is called an “autobiographical novel.” It is fiction and it is not fiction. There is a photograph of Mathews on the cover of the U.S. edition. He is dressed in a dark suit and wears a fedora (hats of another era experts correct me if I am wrong; regardless, it would be a good hat for the future Mathews statue). This may or may not be a photograph of Harry too.
Actually, of course this is not a photograph of Harry. How could it be? Harry is made of words and those words live inside a book. Harry looks like words and the blanks surrounding those words and the more or less ghostly things we make of those words and their blanks when we offer them entry into our brains.
James Bond meets Georges Perec
Regardless, My Life in CIA is not a difficult book.
When it was published, commentators remarked on its readability, about how its pages seemed almost to turn themselves.
On the one hand it is a delightfully breezy memoir of the elegant life, a look at ever-tempting Paris through the eyes of someone who not only knew it well but knew how to make the most of it: sex, art, interesting conversation, serious intellectual endeavor, excursions to the countryside, a bit of skiing, past trips to exotic Eastern locales, a dash or two of casual boredom, a drop of real but resolvable (I have already evoked mid-life crises) melancholy. On the other it is a remarkably fresh spy story, one that begins as an elaborate, low-stakes joke and is transformed into the deadliest game. Homo ludens buoyed aloft then dashed back to ground. Mathews most certainly did not do all that is described but Harry does. James Bond meets Georges Perec, and the latter gives the former a fist bump.
Also, for 50 years Mathews has had at his command one of the most elegantly economical prose lines in American letters, and nowhere has he made handsomer use of it than in My Life in CIA. Here is how the book opens:
That she was the natural child of an Orsini could not be proved or disproved; but those dark flashing eyes, that dusky complexion betrayed the Italian blood in her veins.
Paris, 1971; a bright, faintly overcast spring morning, like a swath of gauze dipped in cool buttermilk; and there she was, sheathed in provincial chic, on Rue du Bac.
One is struck straight away by the very few words that Mathews uses here to tickle awake his vanished world. Plus the layers of counterpoint he will employ throughout the text: the compact precision of “a bright, faintly overcast spring morning,” set next to the “gauze” and “buttermilk” of the simile that follows, set next to “sheathed in provincial chic”; all of it carefully exploding out of that evocative dateline.
One is struck too by the liberal (almost promiscuous) use of the lovely, slippery semi-colon with its ambiguous combinatory properties; the whiff it inserts of chance and parataxis; its air of ornament; the good possibility that, whenever it rears its dotty head, it will be misunderstood. There is many a writer who won’t touch a semi-colon. I once heard Michael Ondaatje say publically that he tried not to use them because he couldn’t understand what they were supposed to do. Or that is what I remember Michael Ondaatje saying about semi-colons. It was something like that.
The power of recall that Mathews offers Harry in My Life in CIA is awe-inspiring. He remembers, basically, anything he wants to. Whether it happened outside the book or not. Mathews would say (I’ve heard him say it) that it does not. If it is in the book it is in the book and what is in a book is real. Nevermind whether or not in 1973 he, Mathews, left a meeting of the communist party (which he may or may not have been attempting to pretend to infiltrate as part of his CIA game) and went to the Place de la Contrescarpe and had a dozen oysters and two glasses of muscadet; Harry does this. Harry also notices the plants still flowering outside his (did Mathews’? maybe; it doesn’t matter) mountain home: “hawkweed picris, purple clover, white ox-eye, small-flowered crane’s bill, hemp-nettle, vetch.”
and a woman, too
This is the kind of detail that Ernest has at his fingertips in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and it is surely an important part of the artifice that inhabits and enlivens the work of the memoirist, whether willfully writing fiction or not. But where Hemingway is all portentous Thanatos in that book (I won’t speak for his others), Mathews (à la Calvino) is all lightness and quickness. Even when the subject is slow—as when describing the exquisite agonies of frolicking with a beauty whose interest in tantric non-sex repeatedly works him into a weeping frenzy—the writing is quick.
She told me to get undressed. She had us kneel face to face: Closer, not touching but almost. Your lips very close to mine, so, we tilt our heads first to the right so our mouths make an x, then breathe out and say om on one long note. No, just let it float out. Then the head goes to the opposite side . . .
Even when at novel’s end the sex gets to happen, the writing is quick.
In a moment there was nothing, very bright nothing. She stopped my mouth with one hand. Nothing: everyone was gone. It was warm and light. It was all gone. I started sobbing. “Ssh. It’s over. You got your man—you did the right thing.” I opened my eyes but it was so dark I couldn’t even see her teeth. “And a woman, too.” She was soon gone.
Probably I mean Mathews
Speaking of speed. Over the weekend I watched former Chinese Olympic champion Xiang Liu win a hurdle race in Rome. He beat a world-class field and ran a blistering time. When he had finished the race (which entailed sprinting at top speed while navigating ten four-foot hurdles spaced evenly over a distance of 110 meters with large, fast individuals running in their own narrow corridors next to him) Xiang broke into a kind of goofy dance. He rocked from side to side while skipping around and throwing his arms alternately up into the air. He was holding the winner’s bouquet of flowers as he did this. And for a second, it occurred to me that I was seeing Harry. That there Harry was, in his best dream of himself, wearing a singlet, holding a bouquet and dancing around on a track in Rome, having just run his hardest race without the slightest hitch.
down the sunny boulevards
“Literature and game playing, literature as game playing. . . . The words evoke a weedy figure: the playful writer,” Mathews once wrote in a piece called “In Quest of the Oulipo.”
He goes on:
The playful writer, probably male, never young (although often juvenile), sauntering nonchalantly down sunny boulevards . . .
Replace sauntering with sprinting and you have the marvelous image My Life in CIA leaves behind it.
Laird Hunt is the author of numerous works of fiction. His novel Kind One will be published by Coffee House Press later this month.
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