In 1973, the American writer Harry Mathews, who was then in his mid-forties, was living in Paris. He had been divorced by his first wife, Niki de Saint Phalle; the editor Maxine Groffsky, with whom he had spent the last 12 years, had recently left him to go back to New York; his two children had also gone. It was, he later wrote, a time when his life was 'at an ebb, professionally and privately'. He had published two well-received and tricky novels, The Conversions (1962) and Tlooth (1966); he was trying hard to find a publisher for the third. He had been befriended by Georges Perec and become a member of the Oulipo, the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, whose monthly meetings to discuss mathematical or combinatorial writerly inventions kept him going but whose fierce criticism could be discouraging. He went to parties, he toyed with bits of writing; but he never felt that he quite fitted in. 'I have never had many friends in France,' Mathews wrote in his 1987 'Autobiography', 'where friendliness or at least polite and discreet acquaintance rather than friendship is the rule': a sentiment that could be applied to a foreigner's experience in various countries at various times but certainly to Paris in the early 1970s, when there were good reasons (Indochina, Chile) not to trust Americans - even, or particularly, semi-naturalised ones. Mathews had independent means, and in a nervy political climate it wasn't unreasonable for people to wonder what exactly he was doing among them. Occasionally they would suspect him of being a CIA agent.
LRB 21 July 2005 | PDF Download