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My Life in CIA (American Literature Series) [Paperback]

Harry Mathews
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
Price: 10.99 & FREE Delivery in the UK. Details
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Book Description

1 July 2005 American Literature Series
Through a series of improbable coincidences, in the early 1970s Harry Mathews, then living in France, was commonly reputed to be a CIA agent. Even his closest friends had their suspicions, which were only reinforced each time he tried to deny such a connection. With growing frustration at his inability to make anyone believe him, Mathews decided to act the part. My Life in CIA documents Mathews's experiences as a would-be spy during 1973, where amid charged world events the coup in Chile, Watergate, the ending of the Vietnam War he found himself engaged in a game that took sinister twists as various foreign agencies were interested in him for their own dubious purposes. Harry Mathews has turned these strange events into a spellbinding thriller that relentlessly blurs the line between fact and fiction.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 248 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press (1 July 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1564783928
  • ISBN-13: 978-1564783929
  • Product Dimensions: 21.7 x 16.1 x 1.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 653,494 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"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

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic fantasy 22 Jan 2009
Format:Paperback
A really engaging fantasy. All the ingredients of a spy novel but brilliantly undercut by the elements of memoir and surrealism. I found the premise intriguing and wasn't disappointed. Imaginative ambition like this, and often promoted by the Dalkey Archive -- a publisher making great use of Flann O'Brien's book title, is well worth investigating further. I've included Transhumance as one of the key words because Matthews writes a wonderful episode where he's escaping his would=be assassins by travelling with shepherds moving their livestock to new grazing.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This was just a really pleasant book. 16 Jun 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Multiple passages were beautiful and kind of heart..., not breaking, not rendering but heart something-ing. Don't come for CIA excitement, though there is a touch of action in the second half.

This is more like if a Graham Greene character merged with RR or BP from Spy Game and they had a set of nice dinners after student protests and poetry arguments. I'm sure if I'd spent more than a weekend in Paris "My Life in CIA" would have been even more enjoyable.

I read it because Slate's Troy Patterson listed it as a favorite book in a Reddit AMA (Pnin; Speak, Memory; Nightwood; My Life in CIA; Sabbath's Theater; The Waves). The font size is large and every fourth page only has a half page of text so that, and the lovely aura that it finishes with bump it from four to five stars.
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Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Somerset Maugham meets Austin Powers 10 Jan 2006
By Debra Hamel - Published on Amazon.com
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. Certainly some of what Mathews has to say seems impossible, as for example his account of one particular sexual escapade in an Oriental rug emporium: when he and the woman are interrupted, she rolls him in a carpet to hide him, and he is then carried off by ostensibly unwitting laborers, who load him in a truck and deliver him across town; emerged from the carpet some time later, he insinuates himself into a dinner party and soon runs off for another bit of (unfortunately also interrupted, but in its early stages interpedal) intercourse on a nearby church altar with a woman he's just met. Part of the game for readers is deciding whether and when to believe what the authors is telling us.

Mathews's book is not all as compelling as the above story would suggest: the author writes a lot about the little engagements that made up his (character's) life in those days, down to guest lists and meals consumed, and these slow down his narrative--though they add to the story's verisimilitude, which, again, may be the point. In short, My Life in CIA is an odd but interesting book about an unlikely game that became--maybe--for a time disturbingly real.

Reviewed by Debra Hamel, author of Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece (Yale University Press, 2003)
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best spy novel since Harlot's Ghost 4 Sep 2005
By Slade Allenbury - Published on Amazon.com
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.
6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Is This Fiction? 6 Aug 2005
By Richard Cummings - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Harry Mathews is an interesting writer but his 1973 chronicle may or may not be disinformation. He has talent to spare and is highly amusing, but what matters is what he leaves out. Present at the creation of The Paris Reivew in 1953, twenty years earlier, when he was a close friend of Peter Matthiessen, Mathews has, since 2003, been the Paris editor of The Paris Review. Matthiessen was in C.I.A. and used The Paris Review as his cover. The Paris Review was funded entirely by C.I.A., according to Matthiessen, who related this to his friend, novelist John Sherry. It is fascinating to see all the literary journals and book reviewers falling all over themselves to praise Mathews as a great avant garde writer who is really joking about the C.I.A. connection. But anyone familiar with the real history of The Paris Review would not be so sure it's all a joke.

Richard Cummings
5.0 out of 5 stars Our Man in Paris 21 April 2014
By eregibra algibra - Published on Amazon.com
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.
5.0 out of 5 stars An Autobiographical novel?? 21 Mar 2011
By Ignatz Shmigelski - Published on Amazon.com
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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