‘I was so angry ,’ Peter Matthiessen said late in his life of his early days as a writer. ‘I was constantly in a contest … with my father.’ He’d grown up rich in Connecticut and New York, attended Yale, but found himself in ‘combat with the world’ for reasons he couldn’t understand; his early novels reflect this. In Race Rock (1954), a young man quits his father’s Wall Street firm and retreats to the family’s New England home, where he wanders aimlessly before taking part in a drunken game of Russian roulette that kills a childhood friend. In Partisans (1955), the son of a US diplomat also resists entering the family trade, under the sway of what’s called in the book only ‘the Party’, and sets off to track down a hero from the Spanish Civil War who’s gone into hiding. Matthiessen’s filial ambivalence may have been complicated by the fact that he’d joined the CIA, where his main job was spying on potential members of the Communist Party among literary expatriates in France. In 1953, he’d founded the Paris Review in part as a front for that work, a detail he kept from George Plimpton for years. His third novel, Raditzer (1961), depicts yet another young man of means resisting paternal influence: Charles Stark foregoes joining his father’s law firm to enlist in the navy just as the war is ending. Shipping out to the Pacific, he falls under the inexplicable sway of the title character, a social outcast worthy of Camus.
These three short books – published in quick succession and long out of print – are about men waiting to be called up to the war or recently returned home from it, men for whom the war has rendered absurd the complacencies of American life. They bear a familial resemblance to Dangling Man and The Victim (the novels Saul Bellow wrote before the urban immigrant outpouring of Augie March) and to Barbary Shore and The Deer Park (the novels Norman Mailer wrote between his initial success with the more conventional war novel The Naked and the Dead and his emergence as a hipster prophet). Like Bellow and Mailer, Matthiessen eventually escaped the GI existentialist mode, in his case not into the American city or the performance of ego but into travel and nature writing and the negation of self through the practice of Zen Buddhism.
By the time Raditzer appeared, Matthiessen had already published Wildlife in America, a study now widely considered a founding document of the modern conservation movement. (Even this had an odd paternal reflection: Matthiessen’s father had abandoned his architectural practice to become a trustee of the Audubon Society.) But his non-fiction writing career began in earnest in 1961 with the publication of The Cloud Forest, an account of his extensive exploration of South America. It was the first of six travel books funded by and serialised in the New Yorker over the next few decades. During this time, Matthiessen also did what he called ‘advocacy’ writing: books about Cesar Chavez, American Indian leaders and the imperilled commercial fisherman of Long Island, all written to raise political awareness about their subjects.
The travel books made Matthiessen’s reputation, but he seemed later almost to regret them. In 1999, he told the Paris Review that he was ‘a fiction writer who also writes non-fiction on behalf of social and environmental causes or journals about expeditions to wild places’. His travel writing, he said, was done to support his young family. He was more dismissive of the advocacy works: ‘From a literary point of view, they came from the wrong place.’ He’d begun as a fiction writer, he insisted, and that’s what he remained.
But, by volume of production, the evidence went the other way. His rare novels – At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965), about Christian missionaries in South America, and Far Tortuga (1975), about Caribbean turtlemen – grew so obviously out of his travels that they served as reminders of his main career. Matthiessen’s qualities as a non-fiction writer aren’t a novelist’s qualities – a strong storytelling sense, an eye for characterisation – but those of the naturalist or explorer. The travel books often seem static and episodic, perhaps because so many of them began as journals and serialised dispatches. Matthiessen is an endlessly curious noticer of the natural world, but his descriptions of humans tend towards the dry and anthropological. ‘Linguistically the Maasai are closest to the Bari of the Sudan,’ runs a typical passage in The Tree Where Man Was Born, his 1972 travelogue of East Africa, ‘and the many customs that they share with the other tribes of Nilotic origin include male nudity, the shaving of females, the extraction of two middle teeth from the lower jaw, the one-legged heron stand, the belief that the souls of important men turn into snakes, and the copious use of spit in benediction.’ Compare that with this passage, from the same book:
I can watch elephants (and elephants alone) for hours at a time, for sooner or later the elephant will do something very strange such as mow grass with its toenails or draw the tusks from the rotted carcass of another elephant and carry them off into the bush. There is mystery behind that masked grey visage, an ancient life force, delicate and mighty, awesome and enchanted, commanding the silence ordinarily reserved for mountain peaks, great fires and the sea.
Matthiessen’s best-known work, The Snow Leopard, is different. It recounts an expedition he and the biologist George Schaller took to Nepal in 1973. Schaller made the trip to study the Himalayan blue sheep, but the pair also hoped to spot the ‘near mythical’ snow leopard; at the time Schaller was one of only two Westerners known to have laid eyes on one. This quest alone would have given the book a narrative thrust often lacking in Matthiessen’s non-fiction. But Matthiessen, by then a serious practitioner of Zen Buddhism, was also on a separate quest to find the Lama of Shay at a remote mountain shrine, as well as mourning the recent death of his wife, Barbara, who’d introduced him to Zen. His description of Zen practice in the book is notable for its absence of mysticism. Here, again, he is primarily a naturalist:
In what is known as Bodh Gaya – still a pastoral land of cattle savanna, shimmering water, rice paddies, palms and red-clay hamlets without paved roads or wires – a Buddhist temple stands beside an ancient pipal, descended from that bodhi tree, or ‘Enlightenment Tree’, beneath which this man sat. Here in a warm dawn, ten days ago, with three Tibetan monks in maroon robes, I watched the rising of the Morning Star and came away no wiser than before. But later I wondered if the Tibetans were aware that the bodhi tree was murmuring with gusts of birds, while another large pipal, so close by that it touched the holy tree with many branches, was without life.
Matthiessen himself is more visible in The Snow Leopard than in any of his other books, even though he appears as a mercurial figure. He is irascible throughout, often in conflict with Schaller and easily annoyed by the laziness of the sherpas, an attitude that carries hints of blueblood frustration with servants. He writes of missing his son, whom he’d dropped off at kindergarten before leaving for Nepal, but doesn’t examine the impulse to leave a six-year-old who had just lost his mother in the hands of strangers for several months. This Matthiessen seems like an older version of the conflicted young men in the early novels, despite the occasional moments of peace meditation brings. The book was rapturously received, though Matthiessen refused to accept its success in a straightforward way. ‘He now sees it as a bit of an albatross,’ Matthiessen’s third wife, Maria, told a New York Times profiler. ‘People think of him as a non-fiction writer, but he thinks of himself as a fiction writer who wrote these other books.’
Not long after The Snow Leopard appeared in 1978, Matthiessen began the work that he hoped would change this perception, a fictionalised reconstruction of the death of the real-life 19th-century Florida sugar farmer Edgar Watson, who was shot and hanged by a posse of his neighbours in mysterious circumstances. His telling of the ‘Watson myth’, as he called it, has one of the strangest publication histories of any recent novel. At some point, the book became too unwieldy to publish in one volume, so he decided to divide it into three. The Watson Trilogy occupied the greater part of his attention for two decades. The first volume, Killing Mister Watson, was well reviewed, but the second and third instalments received less attention. Dissatisfied, he dedicated another decade to stitching the books back into a single novel, which was published in paperback by the Modern Library under the title Shadow Country when he was 81 and treated in the press as an odd reissue of the trilogy – until it won the National Book Award for fiction in 2008, at which point it was widely declared his masterpiece, proof that he’d been a novelist first and foremost all along.
It’s difficult not to be impressed with the sheer force of will involved in this undertaking, but Shadow Country is an awkward book. The first section, which recounts the events leading up to Watson’s death from the perspective of various posse members, is perhaps the best sustained piece of fiction Matthiessen wrote. But the subsequent parts – one a reconstruction of those same events by Watson’s son, the other told from Watson’s perspective – recapitulate rather than advance the narrative. The effect isn’t one of modernist refraction but of a writer who can’t settle on the best way to handle his material. It’s hard to escape the suspicion that Matthiessen, like Mailer, wasn’t so much a born novelist as an ambitious and talented writer from the last generation for which the novel was the holy grail.
Matthiessen ended his career as he began it, with a novel – one that echoes his earliest fiction in interesting ways and suggests a continuity only incidentally disrupted by his other work. Like most of his mature fiction, In Paradise – published in the week of Matthiessen’s death – has its roots in his travels, in this case a series of meditation retreats he attended at Auschwitz in the mid-1990s, led by his Zen master, Bernie Glassman. For years, Matthiessen considered writing about the retreats but felt ‘unqualified’ as a non-Jew to take on the Holocaust. He wasn’t sure there was anything more to be said on the subject, and if there was he wasn’t sure he was the one to say it. But the experience stayed with him, and after completing Shadow Country he decided to fictionalise it. The protagonist, Clements Olin, a Polish-American professor of Slavic literature who specialises in ‘survivor texts’, shares Matthiessen’s suspicion about other kinds of Holocaust literature: ‘Olin tends to agree with the many who have stated that fresh insight into the horror of the camps is inconceivable, and efforts at interpretation by anyone lacking direct personal experience an impertinence, out of the question.’ Elsewhere he says simply: ‘I’m not qualified to write about it. I wouldn’t know where to begin.’
Though he has experience with Zen meditation, Olin has joined the retreat mostly because it’s the most efficient way of visiting the site, which he wants to see as part of his research for a monograph on Tadeusz Borowski, the Polish Catholic survivor who wrote This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. It’s a bit hard to believe in an academic expert on Holocaust literature who has never visited Auschwitz – even harder once we learn that Olin was born nearby before being taken to America by his father and paternal grandparents. On his father’s side, Olin comes from a line of aristocratic Polish Lutherans, the sort who once in America call themselves ‘émigrés’ or ‘expatriates’ rather than ‘immigrants’. But his mother was a young teacher in Auschwitz who refused to abandon her family to come to America, and Olin doesn’t know what became of her during the war. Nonetheless, he calls himself ‘a stranger in Poland, with no close family lost in the war’: ‘he has no authentic witness to contribute and will probably only stay two or three days.’
The conceit allows Olin to take part in the retreat while also standing at a distance, observing the scene with scepticism. There’s Ben Lama, the ‘unofficial spiritual leader’ of the retreat, an ‘ex-hippie ex-Orthodox Jew’ obviously modelled on Glassman. There’s Anders, a ‘Nordic Jew’ and evolutionary biologist who gives a long speech – based on one Matthiessen apparently gave himself at the retreat – about the evil in every man and the possibility that the Holocaust was not anomalous; it upsets many of the other participants. There’s Miriam, an American who tries to raise her experience of anti-Semitic bullying as a schoolgirl to the level of historical trauma. Most interesting is a character with the oddly metaphorical name Earwig, who alienates the other participants with angry irreverence but seems to have some hold over Olin, who can’t help agreeing with his cynical dismissal of the whole enterprise. ‘Their mission here, however well intended,’ Olin thinks, ‘is little more than a wave of parting to a ghostly horror already withdrawing into myth.’
The question of what these people are doing at the site, what good their presence could possibly do, is raised constantly, and never answered in a satisfying way. ‘As for “bearing witness”,’ Olin thinks, ‘the term strikes his ear as anachronistic and over-earnest … Witness to what, exactly? The emptiness?’ The retreatants fight in petty ways, as if the dark spirit of the place has descended on them, until one night when a few of them begin to dance ecstatically while a cantor leads them in song. Olin joins in. Others stand apart, horrified. The scene, which appears to have been drawn from experience, is the novel’s central moment. ‘Neither the participants nor the abstainers,’ Matthiessen writes, ‘have any idea what’s happening, and Olin is baffled, too, knowing only that in this simple ceremony something extraordinary is taking place, like a transfusion of elixir.’
For most writers, giving a novel set almost entirely at Auschwitz the title In Paradise would be a provocation or a bit of cheap irony, but Matthiessen seems to mean it, or at least to want to mean it. The words from the last section of the Requiem Mass – In paradisum deducant te Angeli – also make a prominent appearance in At Play in the Fields of the Lord, where the stark beauty of the Amazon is contrasted with the utopian scheming of Christian missionaries. Here they arrive in the form of a parable:
Christ crucified is importuned by a penitent thief, in agony on his own cross on that barren hillside. ‘I beseech you, Jesus, take me with you this day to Paradise!’ In traditional gospels, Jesus responds, ‘Thou shalt be with me this day in Paradise,’ but in an older text – Eastern Orthodox or the Apocrypha, perhaps? – Christ shakes his head in pity, saying, ‘No, friend, we are in Paradise right now.’
It’s daring, if awkward, to import such a notion into a novel about Auschwitz: if the death camps make a mockery of the idea of a benevolent God, they also make a mockery of any sense that orbis sufficit. Far more than anything Matthiessen wrote in the intervening years, In Paradise reads like the work of the man who wrote his earliest novels, with their expressions of absurdity in the face of historical horror. Earwig is a direct descendant of Raditzer, the evil man whom the good man finds irresistible, just as Olin shares a lineage with the confused protagonists of those books. He even has their seemingly inexplicable anger towards his aristocratic father, although in his case that anger is eventually explained.
Halfway through the novel, we learn that Olin has long suspected that his mother was a Jew left by his father to perish in the camps, and that he’s come to Auschwitz in part to investigate the possibility. Given the close third-person perspective of the narrative, there’s no excuse for withholding this information for so long, but it’s dealt with in such a perfunctory way that it hardly matters. Olin finds it easy to establish that his mother was a victim. The whole thing is handled almost furtively, as though Matthiessen were embarrassed by it but felt it necessary in order to justify writing about the Holocaust at all. Needless to say, solving the problem of who is entitled to write about the Holocaust by giving your character a superficial survivor’s backstory is no solution at all. It cripples the novel, as does a romantic subplot between Olin and a young nun, about which the less said the better.
It’s telling that the least successful parts of the book are precisely those most obviously the product of imagination, and this could certainly be taken as yet another sign that Matthiessen’s true skills lay in the meticulous observation and description of the natural world. But reading the book as the final word in a long, distinguished, sometimes confounding career, I found myself wondering instead whether the Olin of the first half of the novel – the aristocrat without the murdered Jewish mother – wasn’t the kind of character Matthiessen was born to write, though he spent so much of his life running away from that fact. Not history’s victim, but the son of privilege who nonetheless finds himself in combat with the world, angry for reasons obscure to him, locked in a contest all the more urgent because its true meaning can’t be found anywhere, no matter how widely, how restlessly, he searches.