Note: Sadly, Peter Matthiessen died today, April 5th, at 5:15pm EST after an illness of some months. He was 86 years old.
Matthiessen was born in New York in 1927. Shortly after graduating from Yale, he embarked for France, where he co-founded The Paris Review. (He later disclosed that he was working for the CIA at the time and used the Review for cover.) An active environmentalist and champion of human rights, Matthiessen produced such great works as The Snow Leopard, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. His epic Shadow Country, three novels that he painstakingly reworked into one volume, covers the life of Edgar J. Watson, Florida sugarcane farmer and infamous murderer. Shadow Country won the National Book Award in 2008.
Read on for our recent interview with Peter Matthiessen--
Peter Matthiessen, three-time National Book Award winner and esteemed author of both fiction and nonfiction, has never backed away from writing about difficult subjects. In his new novel In Paradise he sets his story in the mid-90s, at a spiritual retreat at Auschwitz—the result is a book that is as profound and searching as anything he has written before. In Paradise is our spotlight pick for the Best Books of April
The Amazon books editors recently had the opportunity to ask Mr. Matthiessen some questions about In Paradise—
Chris Schluep: When I first started reading the galley, I thought, “I didn’t know Peter Matthiessen was Jewish.” But you’re not. How aware of this were you while writing the novel?
Peter Matthiessen: I was aware that I wasn’t Jewish, of course, and I was only somewhat hindered by doubt on that score. It was more that I wasn’t qualified in other ways. I wasn’t a veteran of the camps, and perhaps more important, I hadn’t lost family in them; some people don’t think you’re entitled to write about the camps unless you’ve had first-hand experience of them. And of course I was humbled by the many powerful accounts of life in the camps: who needed mine? If I couldn’t bring something fresh to it, why do it at all? Nonetheless, there was a strange experience I wanted to write about. In the mid-1990s an international group of more than a hundred went to Auschwitz. We chose to go in the winter, because that was the toughest time for the prisoners, and we stayed in the former SS barracks and meditated on the selection platforms in all weathers. It was a way of honoring or “witnessing” for the more than a million who had died there. In addition to the violent impression the place itself made on us, so grim and relentless—the towers and gates, all that barbed wire, the few decrepit barracks still standing--most of us experienced a peculiar event in the course of our stay there, a manifestation of … something. I couldn’t purge myself of the wish to write about it. I’d kept a journal of my time there, and later I sketched out a factual account, but I found no way to do justice to the experience with the bare facts, which were nebulous. Under those circumstances, I felt I could go deeper with art, with a novel. As a character in the book, an old painter, says, “The only way to understand such evil is to reimagine it. And the only way to reimagine it is through art.”
CS: One of your greatest gifts as a writer is the ability to express authentic outrage in the face of injustice. Is this something you’ve actively sought to do throughout your writing career?
PM: I’ve mainly sought to keep my voice down, let the evidence speak for itself. Which is not to say that I wasn’t really angry about certain situations– Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers, the neglect of American Indian people, the systematic exploitation of the environment for unworthy purposes that results in its ruin. I’ve always lived by Camus’s idea that the duty of the writer is to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, and perhaps that’s more true of the death camp victims than anybody else. I don’t want to urge good behavior on people – I don’t think that’s my role--but there’s nothing in human nature that separates us from the potential for doing such evil again. We all have this capacity – we can’t only blame it on the Germans.
CS: Do you view that as a part of your writing legacy?
PM: I’ve never really thought about my “writing legacy.” I’m not sure I have one.
CS: One of the characters—Anders, the evolutionary biologist—questions whether a potential for evil behavior can be called “unnatural” or “inhuman," and there’s a great Solzhenitsyn quote in the novel along the same lines. Where do you fall on this? How does your understanding of Buddhism inform your reaction to evil?
PM: I have to agree with Solzhenitsyn (and Anders) in the tragic absence of any more sensible explanation. To get to the bottom of evil has taxed far greater minds than mine, at far greater length, so I’ll avoid the temptation to define it definitively. But Buddhism has a teaching, which comes in three parts: We shall not do evil; we shall do good; we shall do good for others. The last part is key. I have to agree with his Holiness the Dalai Lama – the only essential virtue is kindness, compassion. To the extent that everybody in In Paradise, including my main character, Clements Olin, is trying to behave decently, to be open to the others on the retreat, the book recommends that. But in a few cases, it’s a painful recommendation. I quote someone in the book as having said that the point of life is to help others through it. Essentially that would be a Buddhist thought, and at my best, so to speak, I try to go along with it.
CS: If I were to summarize the book to someone, I’d say it’s about art, spirituality, and love in the face of the void. But that seems too schematic, and it narrows it.
PM: Those labels all apply, of course, but others do, too. I never describe it if I can help it. I try to avoid restraining it that way.
CS: It’s evident in reading the novel that you’ve read much literature on the Holocaust. Could you provide a short reading list for our readers?
PM: I think Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz is the one absolutely essential text, because it’s so concentrated, and he expresses himself so vividly and beautifully. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, by Tadeusz Borowski (who is the subject of Clement Olin’s research in In Paradise) captures the lunatic aspect of the whole phenomenon of the death camps – how terrible and how ordinary they were, the disgusting food, the living circumstances that sooner or later would kill you, as they were designed to. Borowski just describes it; Levi spells it out. And then there are the extraordinary diaries and letters of Etty Hillesum, a wonderfully intelligent and thoughtful young Dutch woman, with a family, a lover, aspirations to be a writer, who died at Auschwitz in 1943. And you read with dread, because very quietly, through the eyes of this enormously sensitive person, you see the Holocaust developing, life narrowing down, and you know that these people are going to get arrested, sooner or later.
CS: Is there a book you haven’t written that you would like to write?
PM: Many. Where do I start?