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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Matthiessen’

A Field Guide to the Ass-End of Hell

May 1, 2014 | by

On reading Peter Matthiessen in the Everglades.


I first encountered Peter Matthiessen in a hurricane, with the roof-flown certainty that we’d never meet again. Just passing through, the memory blurs at 135 mph. I was in the Bahamas reading Killing Mister Watson, sweating out a Category 4, trying to concern myself with an Everglades outlaw who produced excellent cane syrup and, in the wake of his murder, a bunch of conflicting yarn-burners. I only made it through the beginning, apparently no further than E. J. Watson himself, ventilated by thirty-three neighborly slugs upon stepping off his boat and into his own lore. This just after the hurricane of 1910 had wasted Chokoloskee. Announced by a comet, the storm upchucked the marl, catapulted Watson’s infant son through the mangroves, and, as Matthiessen had it, “blew the color right out of the world.”

My hurricane merely blew the color out of the TV. With an earful of low-pressure williwaw, I had problems getting all those Watson thoughts inside my head, preparing to duck shard as the windows bowed, wondering if the author’s next word would be my last. Kind of a morbid, if not meteorologic, approach to one’s literature, imagining the final line that accompanies you and your velocity into the whateverafter, joining LeQuinn Bass (last words: “Well, shit”), the Owl Man of Deep Wood (“Finish it”), Belle Starr (a screech—she was shot in the back, off her horse), and whomever else Bloody Watson managed to ether before it was all said and blown away. The last thing you’d want to read should be the first. Read More »


The Original E-Book, and Other News

April 7, 2014 | by

floppy disks

  • As obituaries and touching remembrances of Peter Matthiessen poured in this weekend, The New Yorker made some of his travel writing available to nonsubscribers—specifically “Matthiessen’s mesmerizing account of his journey, by ship, to the Amazon and throughout the wildernesses of South America.”
  • Tales of Faulkner in Hollywood: “‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.’ The quotation from Dante is what Faulkner considered a fitting road sign for drivers to see as they crossed the border into California.”
  • Before Americans loved baseball, we gathered to take in another grand national pastime: competitive walking. It was, if you can believe it, even stranger and blander than it sounds.
  • The irredeemably cheery mascots on cereal boxes are staring directly into your child’s soul, experts say. “Researchers found that children’s cereals are typically placed on the bottom two shelves and the mascots deploy ‘a downward gaze at an angle of 9.67 degrees.’”
  • For the origins of the e-book, look to the floppy disk. Specifically, look to Peter James’s Host, a novel published on two disks in 1993. It “has now become a historical artifact, accepted into the Science Museum's collection as a very early electronic novel.”
  • Archipelago Books turns ten.



Peter Matthiessen, 1927–2014

April 5, 2014 | by

Linda Gavin/Courtesy of Riverhead Books

Linda Gavin/Courtesy of Riverhead Books

We have received word that Peter Matthiessen, a founding editor of The Paris Review, died today after a long battle with leukemia. A Zen priest, novelist, environmentalist, and two-time winner of the National Book Award, Peter was a heroic figure to generations of readers, including our own. He lived a life of adventure but was, even in public, the first to admit his vulnerabilities and flaws. As a writer, he held himself to the highest standards—his own—even in the face of incomprehension or disregard. As the most senior member of our board, and one of the last living founders of the Review, he was unfailing in his encouragement and love of this magazine; we have lost a progenitor, a guiding spirit, and a cherished friend.


You are one of the few writers ever nominated for the National Book Award in both fiction and nonfiction. Define yourself.


I am a writer. A fiction writer who also writes nonfiction on behalf of social and environmental causes or journals about expeditions to wild places. I have written more books of nonfiction because my fiction is an exploratory process—not laborious, merely long and slow and getting slower. In reverse order, Far Tortuga took eight years, At Play in the Fields of the Lord perhaps four, and the early novels no doubt longer than they deserved. Anyway, I have been a fiction writer from the start. For many years I wrote nothing but fiction. My first published story appeared in The Atlantic the year I graduated from college and won the Atlantic firsts prize that year; and on the wings of a second story sale to the same magazine, I acquired a noted literary agent, Bernice Baumgarten, wife of James Gould Cozzens, the author of a best-selling blockbuster called By Love Possessed, whose considerable repute went to the grave with him.


And when did you start your first novel?


Almost at once. It was situated on an island off the New England coast. I had scarcely begun when I realized that what I had here at the very least was the Great American Novel. I sent off the first 150 pages to Bernice and hung around the post office for the next two weeks. At last an answer came. It read as follows: “Dear Peter, James Fenimore Cooper wrote this 150 years ago, only he wrote it better, Yours, Bernice.” On a later occasion, when as a courtesy I sent her the commission on a short story sold in England, she responded unforgettably: “Dear Peter, I’m awfully glad you were able to get rid of this story in Europe, as I don’t think we’d have had much luck with it here. Yours, Bernice.” Both these communications, quoted in their entirety, are burned into my brain forever—doubtless a salutary experience for a brash young writer. I never heard an encouraging word until the day Bernice retired, when she called me in and barked like a Zen master, “I’ve been tough on you because you’re very, very good.” I wanted to sink down and embrace her knees. Read Matthiessen’s Art of Fiction interview and his story “A Replacement,” and listen to him on the art of travel writing.  


Take a Mental Vacation—Listen to Travel Writers

March 24, 2014 | by

Theroux on Train

Paul Theroux on a train, doing what he does.

What do Paul Theroux, Ryszard Kapuściński, Peter Matthiessen, and Jan Morris have in common? All four have advanced the art of travel writing, or writing that foregrounds a sense of place. And over the years, all four have been interviewed at 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center, where The Paris Review has copresented an occasional series of live conversations with writers—many of which have formed the foundations of interviews in the quarterly. Now, 92Y and The Paris Review are making recordings of these interviews available at 92Y’s Poetry Center Online and here at The Paris Review.

As yet another cold front shunts frigid air in our direction, it’s especially nice to hear smart people talk of exotic climes and faraway places. So you can listen to Paul Theroux, who spoke to our beloved founder, George Plimpton, in December 1989:

I came from, not a small town, but basically not a very interesting place. I felt that the world was elsewhere and that nothing was every going to happen to me, or that I wouldn’t actually see anything, feel anything, any sense of romance or action, or that my imagination wouldn’t catch fire until I left home. So it was very important for me not to rebel but simply to get away, to go away …

Or a conversation with Jan Morris, who appeared at 92Y that October:

I resist the idea that travel writing has got to be factual. I believe in its imaginative qualities and its potential as art and literature. I must say that my campaign, which I’ve been waging for ages now, has borne some fruit because intelligent bookshops nowadays do have a stack called something like travel literature. But what word does one use? … I think of myself more as a belletrist, an old-fashioned word. Essayist would do; people understand that more or less. But the thing is, my subject has been mostly concerned with place.

Or Peter Matthiessen, another cofounder of The Paris Review, from 1997:

It’s broad daylight, good visibility, yet mountains move. You perceive that the so-called permanence of the mountains is illusory, and that all phenomena are mere wisps of the cosmos, ever changing. It is its very evanescence 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 …

Or Ryszard Kapuściński, from 1991:

If we write about human beings, in the most humanly way we are able to, I think everybody will understand us. I find humanity as one family. People really are very much the same in their reactions, in their feelings. I know the whole world. I can’t find much difference in the way men react to others’ unhappiness, disasters, tragedies, happiness. Writing for one man, you write for everybody.

These recordings are the next best thing to a vacation. Their release is made possible by a generous gift in memory of Christopher Lightfoot Walker, who worked in the art department at The Paris Review and volunteered as an archivist at 92Y’s Poetry Center.



William Styron in Letters, Part 4

December 6, 2012 | by

To George Plimpton

September 18, 1953 Ravello, Italy

Dear George:

Last night I did something which I only do once or twice in a generation: I stayed up all night with a bottle of Schenley’s and watched the dawn. That sort of thing is a perverse, masochistic business and at around 9 A.M. I was entertaining the idea of writing two or three novels before I went to bed, but oblivion closed in an hour later, and I just woke up. It is now almost sunset. This is mainly by way of saying that if this letter doesn’t have a Chesterfieldian elegance + grace you will at least have been apprised of the reason.

My main reason for writing this letter is one-fold, I have been forced down certain channels of contemplation by a recent communiqué from John (“The Second Happiest Day”) Phillips, to use current journalese. Primarily, I was interested in his remarks about a Hemingway issue of PR; and I think at this point and without further ado I can shoulder my burden as advisory editor of the snappiest little mag on the Rive Gauche and say that I think it’s a great idea. Peter and THG apparently (according to Marquand) are not so enthusiastic about the proposition; as for me I think that if you really have enough interesting, fresh material in the offing (it must be interesting, fresh, original, and there must be quite a bit of it) then it might be one of the literary coups of all time. As Marquand said, print the word Hemingway in neon all over each page and both covers. Anything goes. Read More »


William Styron in Letters, Part 2

December 4, 2012 | by

Rose Burgunder and William Styron.

To John P. Marquand, Jr.

April 17, 1953 Rome, Italy

Dear Jack:

I received your telegram, and I must say that Rose and I feel that there would be nothing more delightful than to play Byron with you for a while, and we were especially intrigued by the line which said a special tour was being arranged, or would be arranged, “in our honor,” which conjured up visions of open, bullet-proof sedans, police escorts, and jonquils being thrown into our faces by a frantic populace. It would indeed be nice. But we have talked this thing over and have decided that in view of the fact that we will probably be getting married within the next few weeks, and that Rose’s brother and wife are expected at any moment, it would put a strain on our nervous resources to come, at least my nervous resources, already depleted by a soggy, constant drunkenness brought on in part by the prospect of marriage, by insomnia, by clots, and by a general spiritual enervation resulting from the realization that already, going on 28, I am a wash-up as a writer and fit only to do the “Recent & Readable” part of the book section in Time. In other words, I will be going through a crisis this spring and although I don’t doubt that Greece is an excellent place to weather such a storm, I hope you can understand my position. I hope also, by the way, that when you finish diddling your Greek lady-in-waiting you will come back to Rome in time to take part in the shoddy ceremony which is due to be enacted in the city hall. That will be some time toward the end of this month, no doubt, or the first week or so in May.

Read More »