Tuesday, April 8, 2014

In Memoriam - Peter Matthiessen


Naturalist and author, Peter Matthessien has passed away at the age of 86.

Matthiessen had a life which would be considered to be adventuresome by any standards.

Born into New York privilege, he studied English and Natural History at Yale and the Sorbonne. Having met early success as a writer, he was recruited by the CIA to gather information on people as they funded cultural projects to stem the spread of communism in the 1950s. In Paris, Matthiessen founded The Paris Review with George Plimpton.

He traveled widely throughout his life and his fiction nonfiction were deeply influenced by his interests in spirituality and environmentalism. The first of his books I read (and now that I think further, perhaps the only one) was At Play in the Fields of the Lord. Originally written in 1965 and made into a movie starring John Lithgow and Kathy Bates in 1991, At Play in the Fields of the Lord in an atmospheric thriller that involves a weak and misguided missionary determined to convert a tribe of isolated Indians and a mercenary whose task it is to exterminate them. Kirkus Reviews described the   novel as, "A marvelously exciting yarn, savage satire, telling comment, some great moments."

Peter Matthiessen has had a long career, having published over thirty books, both fiction and nonfiction thoughout his life. In fact, his latest book In Paradise, is just about to be released.

"In the winter of 1996, more than a hundred women and men of diverse nationality, background, and belief gather at the site of a former concentration camp for an unprecedented purpose: a weeklong retreat during which they will offer prayer and witness at the crematoria and meditate in all weathers on the selection platform, while eating and sleeping in the quarters of the Nazi officers who, half a century before, sent more than a million Jews to their deaths. Clements Olin, an American academic of Polish descent, has come along, ostensibly to complete research on the death of a survivor, even as he questions what a non-Jew can contribute to the understanding of so monstrous a catastrophe. As the days pass, tensions, both political and personal, surface among the participants, stripping away any easy pretense to healing or closure. Finding himself in the grip of emotions and impulses of bewildering intensity, Olin is forced to abandon his observer’s role and to embrace a history his family has long suppressed—and with it the yearnings and contradictions of being fully alive." publisher

Matthiessen was honoured with many awards throughout his life, most notably to be the only writer to receive the National Book Award for both nonfiction (The Snow Leopard) and fiction (Shadow Country).

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