A three-time winner of the National Book Award and co-founder of The Paris Review, novelist Peter Matthiessen died on Saturday. He was 86.
A noted naturalist, Matthiessen is most strongly identified by his lyrical non-fiction on environmental topics, though his fiction and non-fiction sometimes overlapped. From The New York Times:
He holds the distinction of being the only writer to win the National Book Award in both fiction and nonfiction. And his fiction and nonfiction often arose from the same experience.Matthiessen co-founded The Paris Review in 1953, and he went on record as saying that he used the literary journal as a shield to cover his covert activities after being recruited by the CIA:
His fourth novel, “At Play in the Fields of the Lord” (1965), grew out of his reporting for “The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness” (1961). The novel, set in the Peruvian wilds, depicts the interaction between missionaries and tribesmen — at one point Mr. Matthiessen, an early user of LSD, has his protagonist drink a native hallucinogenic brew — and Western civilization’s damaging impact on primitive peoples. A film adaptation directed by Hector Babenco was released in 1991.
Mr. Matthiessen’s fifth novel, “Far Tortuga” (1975), was inspired by a New Yorker assignment in which he reported on the vanishing Caribbean tradition of turtle hunting. Highly experimental — it drew on recordings of sometimes cryptic Caribbean dialogue — the novel drew mixed reviews.
He delved into another isolated world for his late-career “Watson” trilogy — “Killing Mister Watson” (1990), “Lost Man’s River” (1997) and “Bone by Bone” (1999) — parts of which he compressed into one long opus, “Shadow Country” (2008). It won a National Book Award, though many critics thought a reworked version of previously published fiction did not deserve the honor.
“I used The Paris Review as a cover, there’s no question of that,” he told The New York Times in 2008 after his C.I.A. connection had been discussed in “Doc,” a documentary film about Mr. Humes by his daughter Immy Humes. “But the C.I.A. had nothing to do with Paris Review.”That assertion was challenged in 2012 by an article in the online magazine Salon; drawing on The Review’s own archives, it suggested that there were C.I.A. ties that had bypassed Mr. Matthiessen or had outlived his two-year relationship with the agency.Matthiessen was diagnosed with leukemia in 2012. He died in hospital near his home in Sagaponack, New York. His final novel, In Paradise (Riverhead), will be published today. Again The Times:
“I was getting information on people,” Mr. Matthiessen told Charlie Rose in a television interview in 2008. “I was a greenhorn.” He described the episode as “youthful folly.”
His last novel, “In Paradise,” tells the story of a group that comes together for a meditative retreat at the site of a former Nazi death camp. Such retreats were familiar to him. He regularly welcomed Zen students to a zendo, a place of meditation, on his grounds.
“Zen is really just a reminder to stay alive and to be awake,” he told the British newspaper The Guardian in 2002. “We tend to daydream all the time, speculating about the future and dwelling on the past. Zen practice is about appreciating your life in this moment. If you are truly aware of five minutes a day, then you are doing pretty well. We are beset by both the future and the past, and there is no reality apart from the here and now.”