My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973by Harry Mathews
"It's outrageous that an educated man and a gifted writer like Mr. Mathews could make such a public confession of such shameful activities." Q. Kuhlmann, author of The Eye of Anguish: Subversive Activity in the German Democratic Republic
"So what you have at the end of the day is a book that's easy to like, an unusual pleasure: an American expatriate spy fantasy, and a very entertaining novel. Of course it is a novel. Right?"--New York Times
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"A taut manhunt."--Guardian
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My Life in CIAA CHRONICLE OF 1973
By Harry Mathews
Dalkey Archive PressCopyright © 2005 Harry Mathews
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThat 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. We spent much of our time in neighboring Alpine villages south of Grenoble. Andree's husband practiced law in Chambery, a two-hour drive away: he often stayed there safely through the working week.
What was she doing in Paris? No, what was I up to? Not my last book, what else?
A crow in silhouette stood on a roof across the street, against white sky. What else? She smiled knowingly. Seeing me turning pale: "Harry, it doesn't matter," she said, "not to me certainly." I shook my head: "Just say it."
She took my arm. Quite by chance, she'd learned I was CIA. A colleague of her husband's who worked with French counterintelligence had seen my name on a list of U.S. agents.
I'd known what she would say, and I hated hearing her say it. At 41 I still longed to be thought of as open and good, to seem wonderfully transparent (and transparently wonderful, no doubt). It hurt to be thought of as a spook. Not because by that time it had become shameful but because it was simply wrong.
I'd gone through something like this already. Many people in Paris "knew" I was gay, because for years I used to dine several times a week with my best friend, and he was gay. QED. I didn't disapprove of homosexuality, on the contrary; but how could people see me for whoever I was if they made such a basic mistake?
Still another source of misunderstanding was my having "independent means." This had earned me the reputation of being very rich, which I was happy not to be. (Some people even cited my unexplained wealth as proof of a CIA connection, which was nonsense: if the Agency was giving me money, it would have given me a job, too.) When my grandmother died in 1952, she left me seventy-five thousand dollars outright. For several years this generated enough income to support my family comfortably. Later, when I started invading capital, luck in what I sold kept me going. In the late '60s I made good money working on two movies in Italy, and that helped. (I'd also inherited twenty thousand dollars from my grandfather in 1959, but I'd used this to publish a literary magazine and to settle loans I'd taken out to buy my house in the Alps and an apartment in Paris.) I'd lived well, and I never spent more than ten thousand a year on current expenses. This didn't stop most people from assuming I was a millionaire.
A CIA label was more of the same, and in terms of public opinion, worse. I'd quickly learned that arguing I wasn't CIA (or gay, or very rich) was a waste of time. It just kept the likelihood alive. I was crazy to care so much; but I did.
That morning on Rue du Bac, Andree had made official what I'd thought was only hearsay.
The first time I'd been tagged as an agent in Paris was in 1967, at a left-bank gallery opening. A writer named Michel Loriod was arguing with me. He lost his temper and suddenly shouted, "Everyone knows you're CIA. By definition your opinions are worthless." I'd been blindsided. I couldn't think of anything to say.
Loriod spoke with absolute conviction, as though he too "knew." Had this meant another counterintelligence connection? Later he worked for the French government; but then? Maybe as a paid informer? He was poor; but whenever things got really bad, he had a reliable stratagem up his sleeve. He'd approach one of his friends, a beautiful Egyptian writer connected like him to the Surrealist group; she'd pass the word to a well-known Surrealist artist; the artist would give Loriod a painting for him to sell. This must have been preferable to peddling information about the art world. He was inclined to fits of violent moral indignation, which also disqualified him as a snoop, since he wasn't clever enough to fake them.
Loriod briefly figured later in my CIA career, during what were called "the events" of May, 1968. Early that month, Niki, my ex, called me in New York: she said Paris was heading towards civil war. She'd gotten our 13-year-old son out of the country, but Laura, our daughter of 17, couldn't be budged. I had to come and look after her, right now.
Like everything in France, airports were shut. I flew to Brussels, rented a Beetle, loaded it with four 10-liter jerrycans of gas, and reached Paris the next afternoon. From my apartment on Rue de Varenne I heard explosions - only police grenades, I later learned, but they did sound like war. I called friends. I luckily caught Sarah Plimpton at home, and she said she would pick me up and give me a tour. It wasn't war, only some kind of wild civic psychodrama - a true cultural revolution while it lasted, undeniably rough but exhilarating.
The previous week a self-appointed bevy of writers had invaded Hotel de Massa on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Jacques, an elegant property that housed the respectable Societe des Gens de Lettres (the French Authors Guild). The new occupants founded a Writers Union on the ground floor. I was soon enrolled by friends and so became (pace Stephen Spender) its first English-speaking member. We didn't do much except talk, but even that helped - it kept several dozen bright-eyed intellectuals busy while students and workers made things happen.
We talked and argued about subjects like: How does the writer function as worker in a workers' society? Can commercial publishing ever be fair? Sometimes we discussed the positions we should take in the current situation, and it was then that the arguments turned venomous. The great majority of us supported the student-worker movement, but there was a small, noisy minority that followed the French Communist Party line and was dead set against it. The minority consisted of the editorial board of the review Tel Quel plus Paule Thevenin (she'd once been Antonin Artaud's companion); it was animated by Tel Quel's director, Philippe Sollers.
Sollers had already developed his peculiar literary persona: a versatile editor; a brilliant critic; except for his fervent erotic curiosity, provocatively inconstant in his beliefs; also jealous, paranoid, and obsessed with control.
On the night of May 24, Sollers's minority walked out of the Union after a vote had left it isolated. Later, Sollers often came back alone and talked to us good-naturedly enough. One evening Maurice Roche and I joined a group at a nearby cafe. It included Maurice's companion, Violante do Canto, Sollers, and Jean Pierre and Marie-Odile Faye. At some point I remarked how much I regretted not having better French, since I would have liked to take up Clarisse Francillon's generous suggestion that I "look after the Union archives." Sollers looked at Maurice as if to say, "And you say he's not a spy?" (There had been a spy. Marie-Odile caught him phoning from a back room using terms like "R2M to 316.") Two days later Jean Pierre told me Sollers had been taking Union members on strolls round the garden and telling them that I was CIA. So I took him for a stroll and asked him how he could talk such rubbish. Marcelin Pleynet, the secretary of Tel Quel and my friend, could have set him straight. Sollers backed down. He was only repeating what he'd heard from Loriod. He promised not to mention the subject again; he kept his word.
But for three weeks I'd been caught up in the general elation, and it was painful now to think that anyone who'd shared that elation doubted my motives. Fortunately, people involved in May, 1968 didn't care much what a little-known American writer was up to. Not even Michel Loriod: he acted with such consistent good sense that I gave up resenting him.
Then May was over; and I was still disappointed and bewildered. It was a kind of bewilderment I'd first experienced three years before, many thousands of miles from Hotel de Massa.
I met Fred Warner in Cairo in the autumn of 1963. He came to a party at Lili Bellenis's apartment on El-Gezira where I was staying as a paying guest. Warner was six feet six inches tall. He had a long, lively face and an intense manner. He seemed to laugh all the time, and he had an answer to everything. He spoke in what sounded to me like a caricature of Oxford English. I couldn't stand him. I felt no differently when I saw him at lunch next day at the home of the architect Hassan Fathy near the Citadel. That was where I found out that Warner and I were going down to Luxor by the same train.
On our first day there, soon after we'd arrived, he told me he'd hired a taxi to visit the temple of Dendera and would I like to share it? I could hardly refuse, any more than I could refuse his suggestion that we dine together that evening. "We'll find a place in the old town," he said. "You must never even contemplate eating at our hotel. It is guaranteed to provide international cuisine at its very worst." I suppose that's when I started listening to him.
At dusk we walked into town. Fred led the way through a maze of streets he'd never seen before to a locals' restaurant, where I had the best grilled lamb I'd ever eaten. On our way back he stopped at a corner - he'd intercepted some signal beyond my ken. He took us down a back alley to a house where a wedding feast was in progress. We were welcomed and led inside. Fred congratulated the bride and groom in his most urbane English. The crowd around us didn't understand a word but responded gleefully. We didn't stay long. (On the way out, a black-garbed mother sitting on the steps pointedly unveiled her daughter for my inspection. The girl was fifteen years old at most, pale as ice and heartbreakingly beautiful.) As we walked to the hotel, I listened to Fred's comments on the scene we'd just left and realized that as a traveler I was a novice.
We went to Dendera next day. As Fred was entering the door of an underground temple chamber, a medium-size bat struck him square in the chest; he only grunted in surprise. We hired feluccas to go across the Nile and visit tombs, other temples, and Hassan Fathy's village of New Gurna. Finally Fred persuaded me to sail with him to Abu Simbel on the Hapi, a little steamer of dark wood and old-fashioned comforts. These included an experienced Greek chef and a beautiful, passionate Cairene stewardess named Mimi. (Passionate all right, but not to the point of compromising her chastity, no matter how long the kisses lasted.)
By the time we disembarked at Assuan, Fred and I were friends. I came to rely on him for information about the world - he had hands-on knowledge of how it worked. He reminded me of Christopher Tietjens in Parade's End: the best kind of Tory, honest, scrupulous, fascinated by everything in life - art, business, war, farming, philosophy, politics, money, natural science. Also impatient, irascible, unfair (especially to those close to him), and fond of even boring grandees. He could sink for weeks at a time into a melancholy where no one could reach him.
He worked as a diplomat most of his life. In 1960 he successfully organized the international conference that led to a temporary truce in Laos; so it was logical that his first ambassadorial posting would be to Vientiane.
That was in 1964. A year later he invited me to stay with him. I'd just finished my second novel, I had no plans, I accepted - who wouldn't have? In November, 1965 I flew to Bangkok and on to Vientiane a few hours later.
Through the plane window I saw Fred, at ramrod attention, standing in steamy sunshine on the blacktop. The temperature in the sun must have been over a hundred. Fred wore a double-breasted dark suit and tie. Behind him a limo was waiting. It took us to the Residence, where I would live off and on for eight weeks.
I'd arrived in time for the main annual Buddhist holiday, which lasted a week and centered on a fair at That Luang, a kind of pagoda built around a legendary gold-leaved Buddha. For me, it meant a round of embassy evening parties.
Laos is poor and isolated, but the American war in Vietnam had made it a diplomatic hot spot: it was semi-neutral territory for the Ho Chi Minh Trail and U.S. Air Force bombers. Vientiane embassies were staffed now by first-rank diplomats. I was evidently the only tourist in the country (druggies came much later). I had no idea of what I'd walked into.
On my first night I slept twelve hours; after that I was ready for fun. The Australian Embassy was doing the entertaining the next evening. I was introduced to the ambassador, then wandered about, glass in hand, until I found a friendly-looking group. They were all smiles at the sight of my new face. What was I doing here? Nothing, I explained, I was simply a writer who happened to be a friend of the British ambassador. "You are American?" I nodded, they nodded and then pointedly ignored me.
The same thing happened again that evening and the evening after that. On the third night, at the British Embassy itself, I thought I knew what might be wrong. I approached three unfamiliar guests. Smiles again, and: what was I doing here? I was an engineer, plumbing was my specialty, and I was being sent to the camps up north - apparently there were problems. "You don't say? Let's have another drink."
I'd been remiss not because I'd lied, but because I'd lied badly. First and last, unofficial agents have to supply plausible cover.
Now that I had joined the club, I became popular in diplomatic society; and that was when the French marked me down as an American agent. Aside from Fred, I had one friend in Vientiane when I arrived: a handsome young Frenchman named Gerard Lacotte. I'd met him in Paris; now he was doing his military service in a minor position at the French embassy. A good, decent man - and that was no reason not to tell his superiors that the word in Vientiane was that I was CIA. So social prattle was enough to get me on that fateful list. Intelligence services make use of whatever they can get. At least that was Fred's explanation, after I told him about meeting Andree on Rue du Bac.
For two years I made myself sick on account of this "injustice." I told my tale over and over to anyone who would listen. Of course each time I told it, another listener started thinking that maybe I was CIA. The worst effect was on me. I wanted to play a part in the grand conspiracy of poetic subversion; in fact that was how I justified my life. But how could I get a hearing if people thought I was an ordinary, paid conspirator? Every time I protested my innocence I felt a bitterness as futile as jealousy itself.
I had one more CIA experience in Laos.
Outside Vientiane I usually traveled with Fred.
Excerpted from My Life in CIA by Harry Mathews Copyright © 2005 by Harry Mathews. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Born in New York in 1930, Harry Mathews settled in Europe in 1952 and has since then lived in Spain, Germany, Italy, and (chiefly) France. When Mathews published his first poems in 1956, he was associated with the so-called New York School of poets, with three of whom (John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler) he founded the review Locus Solus in 1961. Through his friendship with Georges Perec, he became a member of the Oulipo in 1972. The author of six novels and several collections of poetry, recent publications are THE NEW TOURISM (Sand Paper Press, 2010), Sainte Catherine, a novella written in French (Editions P.O.L, 2000), The Human Country: the Collected Short Stories (Dalkey Archive Press, 2002), The Case of the Persevering Maltese: Collected Essays (Dalkey Archive Press, 2003), OULIPO COMPENDIUM (co-edited with Alastair Brotchie; Atlas Press and Make Now Press, 2005), and My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2005).
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