Peter Matthiessen, who died Saturday at age 86 of complications from leukemia, was complex, even contradictory, in the most compelling sense. Born into privilege, he attended Hotchkiss boarding school and Yale and founded the Paris Review in 1953 with George Plimpton and Harold L. Humes. Yet he later became a Zen monk, and in his own fashion was something of an ascetic.
He was perhaps best known as a writer of nonfiction, particularly "The Snow Leopard," the 1978 account of his trip to the Himalayas with naturalist George Schaller that won not one but two National Book Awards. Still, he always preferred his fiction, holding the writing of novels as the highest goal.
"Nonfiction at its best is like fashioning a cabinet," Matthiessen told the Paris Review in 1999. "It can be elegant and very beautiful but it can never be sculpture. Captive to facts -- or predetermined forms -- it cannot fly."
The irony, of course, is that in nonfiction efforts such as "Men's Lives," which explored the culture of Long Island's fishermen, or "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse," which offered impassioned support for Leonard Peltier and the American Indian Movement, he not only flew but also soared. And yet, for Matthiessen, these were largely "advocacy books," written "for a cause."
Matthiessen was engaged in causes throughout his 60-year career, especially environmental ones. The earliest book of his that I remember reading was "The Tree Where Man Was Born," a deft piece of writing about East Africa, accompanied by Eliot Porter's astonishing photographs.
The title of that book suggests Matthiessen's signature concerns, which were often more global than cultural, less about any current fascination than the elusive experience of being a human being. "It is its very evanescence," he once explained, "that makes life beautiful, isn't that true? If we were doomed to live forever, we would scarcely be aware of the beauty around us. Beauty always has that element of transience that is spoiled when we draw clumsy attention to it."
Clumsiness was anathema to Matthiessen, who was nothing if not elegant -- both in his sentences and the structure of his books. For "Far Tortuga," his 1975 novel about a turtle fishing expedition in Nicaragua, he stripped back the language so acutely that the narrative becomes a kind of tone poem, in which voices echo without attribution, and silence can't help but assert itself.
"From the start," he told Plimpton not long after the novel's publication, "I was feeling my way toward a spare form, with more air around the words, more space … [E]ventually, I attempted using white space to achieve resonance, to make the reader receive things intuitively, hear the silence in the wind, for instance, that is a constant presence in the book."
"Far Tortuga" took eight years to finish, which tells us something about Matthiessen's attention to detail, his desire to get it right. "Shadow Country," which won the 2008 National Book Award for fiction, took even longer: three decades that changed how he thought about both his characters and himself.
The saga of Edgar Watson, a Florida planter of the early 20th century who was shot to death by his neighbors after killing as many as 55 people, "Shadow Country" was originally published in the 1990s as three separate novels, then radically reconfigured into one long book.
"Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this revision," Matthiessen recalled to the National Book Foundation, "was orchestrating its many elements throughout six years of drastic cutting and editing, all the while adding and subtracting voices and eventually rewriting almost every sentence -- 'deepening and distilling,' as I think of it."
Such a comment highlights Matthiessen's aesthetic. As he wrote: "Fiction -- the best fiction -- will always matter because it strives to penetrate our great and terrible human nature, our human condition. Perhaps it can help reconcile us to our final inconsequence and the absurdity of man's fate." He will likely be remembered for his environmental writing, but I prefer to focus on his observational eye.
This is what literature offers, after all -- the ability to slow down time, if only for a moment, to zero in on the universal in the smallest things.
Much was made several years ago about the revelation that Matthiessen had worked for the CIA in the 1950s, creating the Paris Review as a cover for his activities. It's another complexity, another contradiction, but ultimately, it seems important mostly as a way station in the journey of the author's life.
As he said about Watson, "I understand [him] (and myself) much better after all these years of frequenting his brain and to some degree I find I can forgive him. … I think my task was to make the reader feel the humanity of a 'bad' man and even perhaps a twinge of regret at the waste of such ability when he is killed."
Matthiessen worked until his last days; his final novel, "In Paradise," comes out this week. In many ways, it's a fitting coda to his career, the story of a meditation retreat at Auschwitz, based on an experience the author had in 1996.
On the one hand, that seems antithetical: "In this empty place," he writes, "… what was left to be illuminated? What could the witness of warm, well-fed visitors possibly signify? How could such 'witness' matter, and to whom? No one was listening."
At the same time, where better to look for some sort of human essence than in a landscape that embodies us at our worst?
This is the key message of Matthiessen's life and writing -- that we are intricate, thorny, inconsistent, that the lines between good and bad blur within us, that we are capable of anything. The only choice is to remain conscious, to engage with openness.
"The old man has been ravened from within," he writes in "The Snow Leopard." "That blind and greedy stare of his, that caved-in look, and the mouth working, reveal who now inhabits him, who now stares out. I nod to Death in passing, aware of the sound of my own feet upon my path. The ancient is lost in a shadow world, and gives no sign."