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My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973 Paperback – January 20, 2015


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 203 pages
  • Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press; First Edition edition (January 20, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1564783928
  • ISBN-13: 978-1564783929
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 6.3 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #618,776 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Leading a life of letters and leisure in Paris in the late 1960s and early '70s, Mathews (Cigarettes; The Human Country; etc.) wanted to "play a part in the grand conspiracy of poetic subversion," but people mistook him for "an ordinary, paid conspirator." Idle rumors grew a life of their own for this American ex-pat writer: people thought he was CIA, and when his denials fell on deaf ears, he decided to embrace the role, a story he embellishes in this staccato autobiographical novel peppered with literary, artistic and political references. Playing spy "seemed more promising than moping at home in front of my mirror wondering how fast I was losing my hair," the 41-year-old Mathews muses as he faces middle age in 1973. So he invents a fake travel agency for cover and bones up on the language of the spy trade with the help of his friend Patrick, who does corporate intelligence work. Mathews's shaggy dog tale turns risky when agents begin approaching him for real intelligence, "Patrick" turns out to be a false identity and Mathews goes on the run. Real people—his former and current wife, his agent—share page space with possibly fictitious events—a lecture Mathews gives to dyslexic travelers with departure anxiety—in this lively bit of novelistic truth telling and biographical embellishment.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

In this Walter Mitty-toned novella, a factual autobiographical substrate blends into fiction, but who can tell where? Suffice it to say that novelist Mathews, an American living in Paris circa 1973, can't convince his French artistic friends he is not a CIA agent, so he resolves to fake the part--it beats soaking up idle time by learning ancient Greek, he thinks. Knowing a spy needs cover, Mathews sets up as "international travel counsel," and the audience attending his seminar yields several recruiting prospects. "Patrick," also in the consultancy "business," develops into Mathews' boon companion to whom he confides his charade. A second prospect from that seminar (a Russian) becomes the plot's vehicle for eliding Mathews from a world of fantasy espionage into something more real, and menacing. Strangers contact him; he accepts a courier mission; Patrick vanishes; the Soviet embassy summons him, as does French counterintelligence, which warns Mathews a Stasi assassin is pursuing him. Evolving in mood from ludicrous to serious, the yarn's inventive literary elements elegantly mesh into a stylish amusement. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Debra Hamel VINE VOICE on January 9, 2006
Format: Paperback
In 1973 Harry Mathews was an American writer living in Paris. With sufficient means so he did not have to work, Mathews's days were apparently filled with operas and ballets, erudite conversations with the local literati, the occasional bit of writing, and innumerable sexual encounters with any number of women, some of them married, who seem to have fallen on him after little more than a handshake. The picture that emerges is part Somerset Maugham, part Austin Powers, the expatriate shedding his "snug black velvet bell bottoms" for the odd sexual romp.

Mathews explains that he had a reputation in Paris for being gay, rich, and CIA--none of which was true. The last misconception particularly irked him, and he habitually attempted to convince people that he wasn't an agent. Finally, unable to quell the rumor, he tried a different approach: he pretended that he was CIA. He took every opportunity to behave mysteriously, going so far as to fake dead drops and to adopt as cover the job of secretary in a fictional travel agency for which he had stationery made up. Mathews took the whole spy game rather further than was sensible or ethical, and he wound up exciting the attention of people who ultimately decided that he'd be better off eliminated.

Mathews's adventure is certainly an interesting one--the sort of thing one might like to try oneself--but one reads the book not knowing whether it is fact or fiction, or rather, how much of the story is fact and how much fiction. That, apparently, is the point: the book, billed oxymoronically as an "autobiographical novel," plays with truthfulness and credibility.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Slade Allenbury on September 3, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
It's also the funniest spy novel since Our Man In Havana. And like Peter Cary's "My Life As A Fake," the book is a thrilling exploration of what happens when fictions take on a life of their own. Matthews is known as a literary avant gardiste, but there is nothing mannered about his prose. It is lean but elegant and never gratuitiously calls attention to itself. The story on the other hand demands, deserves, and gets a reader's attention. It starts off in a light and chatty vein. We learn about Mathews' friendships with George Perec and other members of the Oulipo literary movement. Mathews' economically but effectively evokes political and cultural scenes of the early 1970s: the overthrow of Allende in Chile, Cold War paranoia, the singers and movies and ballet performers who were in the news back then. For the longest time the story seems like a pleasant trip through Paris circa 1973 with a witty and literate tour guide constantly on hand to help with the translating and the recommending of restaurants and wines. But as Mathews' masquerade as a CI agent becomes more and more outlandish, ironically it becomes more convincing, until he finds himself the target of a potentially deadly manhunt (unless of course it is all just a joke perpetrated by his Oulipo friends). The irony, of course, is that Mathews began impersonating a CI agent specifically for the purpose of convincing people that he wasn't CIA. Surely no one in the CIA would be stupid enough to behave like a CIA agent in public -- would he? The ending is both thrilling and beautiful. Every word of it is true, even if it turns out to be nothing more than fiction.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By eregibra algibra on April 21, 2014
Format: Paperback
Matthews tells the rather hilarious story of how everybody in Paris thought he was C.I.A. (In Europe, in the seventies, this was very common if you had any connection to the US at all.)
So Harry decides to use being C.I.A. as a cover for his - artistic - inactivity and creates a sort of a travel agency in the Department of Var where he entertains a mountain hide-away and holiday home. Back in Paris, he gives a workshop on how to avoid missing trains and flights and uses routes in Russia (and South America) as an example. That gets him into deep trouble. He has this information worked into a tapestry in form of a map, gets even more entangled, and escapes being murdered by the skin of his teeth.
Along with this racy tale we are provided details about the author's vivid sex life and other reminiscences. Harry knew "tout Paris", and all of Paris knew Harry.
I'm sure it's all true and like Harry Matthews for not sparing himself nor the Cold War antics of "intelligence" no matter where it hailed from.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Ignatz Shmigelski on March 20, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I became aware of Harry Matthews when I heard his "Country Cooking from Central France" on Selected Shorts. Before the reading, there was some discussion of this title, and made me want to read it. Looking at the jacket, the book is described as "An Autobiograpical Novel," What the heck does that mean? His life as he imagines it?

The book is set in 1972 at the height of the cold war, and the paranoia of that time. The protagonist is an American ex-pat living in Paris. His friends make frequent suggestions that he is really a covert operative for the CIA. As a joke, or on a lark, the protagonist decides to foster this image of himself and keep his friends guessing. Not being an actual agent, he has no idea how to go about this task, but starts acting strangely or mysteriously. He soon attracts the attention of the various covert agencies who do not know what to make of this odd character, and are highly suspicious of his activities. There interest in him and his affiliations soon causes real drama.

I could not put down this book. It is a funny tale on the state of paranoia in the world at that time. Even though this is set in a particular time, we still live in a fearful society and the book easily translates to modern readers.

Highly recommended
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