The Mainly True Tale of the Writer and the Spy
On Discovering Your Uncle is a Character in a Kay Boyle Novel
Last winter, I spent a weekend with my aunt and uncle in Charlottesville, Virginia. Auntie Carol is in her mid-eighties and Uncle Donald is ninety-three, but they both seem several decades younger than their ages would suggest. (I have often wondered, particularly during my last twenty-odd years as a parent, if this is because they have no children.) This was the first time in my life that I ever spent time alone with Carol and Donald—only seeing them infrequently as a child and only slightly more as an adult—and it was a real pleasure to finally converse more than we would at the occasional Thanksgiving dinner. To me, they have always been the “cool” relatives, the aunt and uncle that dressed with style, who were early-adopters of Apple products, and who had a travel schedule that I longed for and could only read about in the Sunday Times.
For a little over two days, we talked and got to know each other a little better. Carol, my father’s younger sister, married Donald in 1971, a second marriage for both. Hired by the CIA in the early 1950s, they met through colleagues and then remained with the CIA for some years after they married. As a result of that, perhaps, their lives have always been somewhat murky to me. One of my only childhood memories of Carol is her arrival at our staid suburban home in New Jersey late one night. In my recollection, she is wearing a houndstooth mini-skirt and knee-high black boots, climbing out of a rented, red convertible. Her hair is teased and pinned up in an elaborate French twist. She gives me a gift from far-off lands: a tiny gold Vietnamese boat for my charm bracelet. By the time I come home from school the next day, she is gone.
Donald was both more elusive and less elusive. A large-hearted, gregarious man, he has a big laugh and a voice to match. When Carol and Donald visited, which happened more after they retired and I was an adult, he filled up the often-quiet room. He and my father shared a name, sharp intellects, and wonderful senses of humor. I remember them having in-depth conversations about Henry James, but also exchanging cringe-worthy jokes and puns, particularly when my grandfather was around. What they did not discuss, at least not in front of me, was World War II, even though they had both served in Europe. Donald flirted with my mother and made her laugh; she threw her head back in such a way that for the first time I saw what she must have looked like before she became my mother.
When I was young I didn’t know what Carol and Donald did for a living. At some point, my parents began referring to “The Agency,” and it took me quite a while to realize they were speaking of the CIA. Gradually, after retirement and the passing of time, we began to hear more. When my children were in elementary school, we met Carol and Donald at the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. “That device never worked,” Donald boomed as we walked into a room filled with tricks of the trade. In the makeup room, Carol said quietly, “These people were so talented. I would have been able to walk right by you on the street, and you would never have known it was me.”
About ten years ago, Donald began to write his memoirs, and he continues to edit and revise his manuscript today. His is a life that deserves a memoir. His parents were killed in a car accident when he was still in high school, and he and his sister had to forge their own way after that. He intentionally created a life for himself far removed from the Iowa plains where he grew up. He became a bomber pilot in World War II, did a stint in Germany after the war, and then joined the CIA. The agency career meant time spent in many countries, including Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam, leaving the latter country only months before the fall of Saigon.
My siblings (and my mother, before she died) had already read Donald’s memoir, but somehow I never had. I was anxious to read it, though, to learn more about him and the life that he led. During my visit, Donald gave me a copy of the bound manuscript with instructions not to share it with anyone and to send it back quickly and safely; he is understandably concerned about leaking any confidential bits about his life with the Agency.
He also told me about Kay Boyle, pulling a few of her books off his shelf in order to read excerpts. He had known Kay and her husband, Joe von Franckenstein, in Germany after the war when they had all lived in Marburg. Kay was writing novels and short stories as well as acting as the German correspondent for The New Yorker; Joe was a colleague of Donald’s in the military government that existed after the war. Joe and Donald met when they first arrived in Marburg. Both men were waiting for housing, so they lived, wifeless, in officer’s billets. They enjoyed each other’s company immensely and spent long evenings together playing chess and drinking scotch.
After the wives arrived, the two couples lived just up the hill from one another in Marburg and saw each other frequently. Later, when Joe and Kay moved to Frankfurt, Kay held a literary salon of sorts that Donald and his wife were flattered to attend. Other guests included Eugene and Maria Jolas, the publishers of transition, the experimental literary journal that famously published sections of Finnegans Wake, among other modernist works. Kay was also good friends with The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner, known as Genêt, with whom she shared political beliefs. Later, back in the States, Donald kept in touch with his friends, traveling up to New York from D.C. to visit with them when he could. When Kay and Joe got caught up in McCarthyism, Donald wrote a testimonial for Joe; both Kay and Joe lost their jobs and struggled to make ends meet. Given Joe’s aristocratic family and lineage, he refused to go into business; he even spent time working as a short-order cook. Joe died in 1963, less than a year after being rehired by the State Department, and Kay and Donald drifted apart after Joe’s death.
Donald enjoyed Kay’s company and her strong personality, particularly appreciating the way “she was always ready to spring into action to defend victims of injustice.” He also described her as “a feisty character, given to excess.” She did whatever she wanted to do, and they all joked “that she was always one child ahead of her marriage.” Her education was modest but Donald greatly admired her writing: “She could write like hell. To her, writing was like breathing.” And her writing practice showed that to be true. “Each morning, regardless of whether the dinner guests had left at midnight or 2am, Kay would be pounding the typewriter by 5am, continuing until she had completed her daily quota,” he told me. But Donald quickly learned that to be her friend also meant that you might end up in her fiction. Several years later, after he had returned from Germany and was studying at Columbia University, he was in the library and picked up the most recent copy of Harper’s Magazine. Pleased to see a story by Kay in the issue, he turned to the story and was shocked when, before the end of the first page, he recognized himself as Rod Murray, the main character. Later, he was the model for Seth Honerkamp in Generation Without Farewell, a novel published in 1960, which is considered to be her “German” novel. Kay and Donald never discussed his presence in her fiction.
“The truth is that it wasn’t fiction at all,” Donald said about his turn as a protagonist in the short story “Aufwiedersehen Abend.” As a reader and a writer, I have long been fascinated by that intersection of fiction and non-fiction. Where does one begin and the other end? Do we have the right to take our friends’ stories and make them our own? And what is our obligation to the “truth?” I rather like Tim O’Brien’s definitions of “story-truth” and “happening-truth”—story-truth being what the truth feels like and happening-truth being that actual happening—and his belief that story-truth often gets closer to the heart of the thing. When I do borrow something from someone else’s life to put in my fiction—even something so small as a gesture or a line of dialogue—I worry that I have stepped over an invisible line in the sand. But I also fret when I change details that I know to be true because I think that the revision will make for a better story.
Perhaps this is a genetic obsession. My father, a psychoanalyst, wrote a classic text entitled Narrative Truth and Historical Truth where he considered a related question from the analyst’s chair. He notes, “Narrative truth is confused with historical truth, and the very coherence of an account may lead us to believe that we are making contact with an actual happening.” He is concerned with the analysis and interpretation of the truth and the presentation of that revised truth to the analyst. He goes on to say: “Out of this confusion grew Freud’s belief that every interpretation always contains a piece of historical truth and that this ‘kernel of truth’ as he called it, is what makes the interpretation effective.” My father believed that an analyst needed to pay close attention to the narrative truth, to reflect on the way that the story was being told.
* * * *
After I returned home from my visit, I read Donald’s memoir. When I finally turned to Kay Boyle, I did so knowing Donald’s narrative truth. Understanding that the events in “Aufwiedersehen Abend” were true, I looked forward to learning more about him, to have the opportunity to see him through a different lens. In the story, we are introduced to Rod Murray in the second paragraph. The narrator mentions that Rod Murray (always called by his first and last names) “had been a bomber pilot once, and now his name, and his title as Information Services’ Officer, were stenciled on an office door in a building designated as American Military Government in an ancient university town.” The focus here is on the present; the war and the past are dismissed at the start and end of the sentence with those simple words “once” and “ancient.”
We follow Rod Murray as he joins a community gathering, attempts to hire dancers for a colleague’s going-away party, and attends the trial of a pro-Nazi journalist. Then, at the precise halfway mark of the story, we’re with him as he eats lunch alone in the Special Services’ Club. It is here that he thinks back to his days as a bomber pilot:
And in a month like this one, Rod Murray thought as he leaned on the balustrade in the chill, gray light of afternoon, he had flown with the others before dawn up this valley, bypassing the university town, and the others before it, the steel hearts of the engines throbbing northward as they crossed these hills toward Kassel, moving in formation toward what they had come out to do… Kassel, he thought, hearing again the pulse of the bombers as they bore such annihilation to that one town that the dust and debris, and the broken galleries and pilasters of where it once had stood, had no more relation to the present than the hushed, volcanic twilight of Pompeii.
Rod Murray is repeating the echoes of the past established in the opening paragraphs. But his reflections enable him to gain a foothold in a present inexorably connected to that past.
The second half of the story is all about “the going-away party”: the final preparations, the arrival of the dancers and the musicians, and, finally, the guests. Structurally, we can feel the story descend from that midway mark. The dancers and musicians are thin and hungry, the dancers having just come from Berlin, and the musicians, medical students at the university in town. The violinist keeps one side of his face averted, but Rod Murray finally sees that the man’s face is horribly scarred. The violinist tells Rod Murray about his father, an army surgeon, who performed plastic surgery on many who were wounded, but learned that “a man’s face will change back again to what he is like himself, inside.” Murray reacts as follows:
“That is fantasy,” Rod Murray said, but he felt this knowledge chilling his blood.
“No, it is the truth,” said the violinist, and he put down his glass so that Rod Murray could fill it with white wine again. “If you do not believe this is true, then there is nothing left to believe.”
The violinist did not have surgery because his face, he goes on to say, “would look like a musician’s face, or a poet’s face. It would have the old mark of loneliness on it, and this they could not have.” The party continues, with Rod Murray finding it difficult to look at the dancers, given their painful thinness and his increasing awareness. Finally, he asks the violinist where he was fighting when he was wounded, and the story ends as follows:
“Oh, nowhere. I wasn’t on any front,” the violinist said, and he dropped his head, as if in apology, upon the violin’s wood. “I lived in a town farther up toward the north, a place called Kassel. I didn’t have time to get to an air-raid shelter. I was home on furlough. That’s all there is to it,” he said.
“Kassel,” Rod Murray repeated. He set the cut-glass goblet down on the top of the grand piano, and he stood there, stunned for a moment, at the sound of the town’s name.
“Kassel. My God,” he said. “You were in Kassel.”
Before they began to play he picked up the goblet again, and he finished drinking the punch that was in it. And it seemed to him then that if the others, the Germans and the Americans alike, were to go away and leave them together for a little while, something quite simple and quite comprehensible might still be said.
For years, my parents had a black-and-white photo of Donald displayed on their mantel. Taken at a party in Saigon in the late 1950s, ten years or so before he married my aunt, he’s caught mid-laugh, holding a cigar and a martini glass, wearing a bow tie and tails. The pants have wide vertical stripes—white and red, perhaps—with a solid jacket to match. All the others in the photo pale in comparison: the men wear traditional white dinner jackets, the women don plain cocktail dresses with cat eye glasses. He is the center of attention in the photograph and seems to be enjoying the moment immensely. We all loved that photo; it made us smile, too. It represented the vibrancy that we knew as Uncle Donald.
In light of that, it seems fitting to me that “Aufwiedersehen Abend” ends with a party scene. But now, through reading Boyle’s story that was written about my uncle without his knowledge, I have learned a truth about him that I didn’t know before. In our gut we feel Rod Murray’s distress increase as he realizes the impact that his actions may have had, and we understand his desire to try and make it right. I don’t know if Donald felt these emotions but I’m reminded once again of Tim O’Brien’s binary of story-truth vs. happening-truth. Whether this happened or not, the story-truth is there.