Taking Chances
& Looking Back

by Wendy Smith

PETER MATTHIESSEN, who died on April 5 at the age of 86, was the only writer ever to receive the National Book Award for both nonfiction and fiction. The Snow Leopard, which won in 1979, is characteristic of the nonfiction that earned Matthiessen his stellar literary reputation; it’s a boundary-smashing work evocatively describing a trek through the Himalayas and his search for spiritual understanding. But he always considered fiction his true calling and was especially pleased to receive the NBA for Shadow Country in 2008. This dark novel set in the Everglades at the turn of the 20th century searingly depicts the casual environmental destructiveness, pervasive racism, and endemic violence of that wild pioneer era. Yet it also captures Florida’s natural beauty and its buccaneering appeal as a place where people could reinvent themselves, free from the constraints of settled society. Encompassing virtually all of Matthiessen’s most important themes, the story of Edgar Watson (a real-life figure in Florida history) consumed the writer for two decades.

He talked about that lengthy involvement, and many other aspects of his six-decade career, on a frigid January afternoon at his home in Sagaponack, Long Island, as he prepared for the publication of a new novel, In Paradise. (Matthiessen passed away three days before its official release, on April 8.) Although he had been undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia, his searching intellect and robust sense of humor remained evident. About In Paradise, for example, which might seem an offensive title for a book set in a concentration camp, he remarked that it could have been even more provocative: “I was going to call it Dancing at Auschwitz. That would have stirred some feathers!”

The discarded title refers to a mysterious event that occurred during an actual meditation retreat Matthiessen attended at Auschwitz in the 1990s. In the novel as in real life, the participants join hands and move around the camp mess hall in a circle, singing. They are “transcending the atmosphere of grief and banishing lamentation,” thinks protagonist Clements Olin. “Horror penetrates our bones but at the same time there is joy,” says another character.

“We were all baffled by it afterward,” said Matthiessen. “A few people got angry, but I felt very powerfully moved by the dancing; it lifted me right out of the blackest gloom. That’s what made me want to write this novel: How does this happen?”

The final title comes from an older form of the gospels with an alternate version of Christ’s response to the thief being crucified with him who begs to be taken to paradise. Instead of answering, “Thou shalt be with me this day in Paradise,” Christ replies, “We are in Paradise right now.” As Clements Olin sees it, that means, “Everything right here at this moment, Paradise, agony, and God.”

“That would be Zen position,” commented Matthiessen, himself a Zen master teacher. “And Olin is a Zen practitioner, so he might have that in mind, but I didn’t want to pin it down too closely. I love things that aren’t explained, and I don’t think you’ve got to write dystopian science fiction; I find ordinary, day-to-day life infinitely strange!”

By happy coincidence, Matthiessen’s editor for In Paradise had also worked on Killing Mister Watson, first in the trilogy of 1990s novels that eventually became Shadow Country. It was always intended to be a single volume, he explained. “When I first presented it, it was about 1500 pages; Random House said, ‘We can’t do this,’ so I broke it into three parts. They were in the main very well received, especially the last volume, Bone by Bone, but I didn’t like the second one, Lost Man’s River. The trilogy was like a dachshund: its belly scraped the ground, while the two ends stood firm. I just couldn’t bear it going out like that, and I thought it would only take me a year or two to bring it under 1000 pages: it took six or seven!”

The process was murderous. “Don DeLillo once said to me, ‘Cutting is cutting the good stuff; the rest is just editing.’ So the cutting hurt” — he made a gesture as if slashing open his stomach — “I cut what I thought was some very good stuff, but I had to do it.”

It was worth the agony. Shadow Country brought the trilogy’s material into clearer focus, and the National Book Award judges took the unprecedented step of honoring a book that had been reworked from previously published fiction. Their decision was controversial, but Michael Dirda’s enthusiastic essay in the New York Review of Books made a strong case that Shadow Country was so extensively revised as to constitute a new and better work.

“He actually took the trouble to take passages from the original novels and compare them with passages from Shadow Country, showing there’s hardly a sentence that isn’t rewritten,” Matthiessen recalled. “He singlehandedly put me back on the map, for which I am very grateful.”

Bolstered by these late-life accolades for his fiction, Matthiessen in his 80s could be more positive about such nonfiction works as The Tree Where Man Was Born and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. “I’m not sorry that I spent so much time writing about social justice and the environment, because I believed passionately in both, Also, in the 1960s and ‘70s The New Yorker serialized about eight of my books, so I didn’t have to write anything else; they supported me. Far Tortuga, which I think is my best book, certainly my most original one, came out of a nonfiction piece I did for The New Yorker [about turtle fishing in the Caribbean]. I told William Shawn after I did the research, ‘You know, Mr. Shawn, I’m going to hold back the best material; I’m going to do a novel with it.’ He’d spent a fortune on the article, but he said, ‘Go ahead, Mr. Matthiessen, do what’s right for you.’ There’s an editor for you!”

Highly experimental in both writing style and typography, Far Tortuga epitomizes the qualities that made Matthiessen prefer writing fiction. “I think that my novels are out of the ordinary,” he commented. “I don’t mean the quality — they may be good or bad, but they aren’t your usual thing; I was always trying to break new ground. They were enterprising; I took chances.”

He was taking chances right to the end with In Paradise, which dares to find joy and even dark humor amid the ashes of the Holocaust. And he was still considering future projects in January as he battled a life-threatening disease. “There’s a lot of pressure on me to write a memoir,” Matthiessen acknowledged, “but I’m not particularly tempted. It seems to me a poor way to wrap up your career, by writing strictly about yourself.” Instead, he was thinking about writing another novel, although well aware he was unlikely to be able to finish it: “I’ve got a respectable body of work, 30 books; perhaps that’s enough.”

It will have to be enough for those who learned to cherish Peter Matthiessen through those extraordinary books, and we can only be grateful that he left such an indelible record of his personal quest for meaning, which illuminates our shared, flawed humanity. •

May-June 2014

“I’m not sorry that I spent
so much time writing
about social justice
and the environment,
because I believed
passionately in both.”

Peter Matthiessen was
the only writer ever
to receive
the National Book Award
for both nonfiction
and fiction

“There’s a lot of pressure
to write a memoir, but I’m
not particularly tempted.
It seems to me a poor way
to wrap up your career,
by writing strictly
about yourself.”