Thursday, September 23, 2021

Our hero / Peter Matthiessen by John Irving and Claire Messud

Peter Matthiessen, author of The Snow Leopard. Photograph: Eamonn Mccabe for the Guardian

Our hero: 

Peter Matthiessen by John Irving and Claire Messud

Friend John Irving and former student Claire Messud remember the author of The Snow Leopard 

Obituaries / Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen / Call of the wild

Friday 11 April 2014

John Irving

My friend Peter Matthiessen, who was 86, died on April 5 at his home in Sagaponack, New York, where we once were neighbours and read each other's novels – in their embarrassing, first-draft lives.

I remember what Peter wrote in the margin of my manuscript of The Cider House Rules. The boy who'd been born an orphan had left the orphanage, abandoning the old doctor who ran the place, for five long chapters – almost half the novel. It was Peter's opinion that the old doctor was a more important character than the young orphan who'd moved away (taking the unhappy reader with him).

"You know who your main character is, don't you?" Peter wrote. "Dr Larch has been missing too long."

Peter was right. In our fiction, both Peter and I liked characters who played God – good ones and bad ones. It was Peter who advised me that my old doctor should say something about the business of playing God. So I had Dr Larch say, "There is no such as thing as playing a little God; when you are willing to play God – at all – you play a lot." (Peter's interest in the temptation to play God is strikingly dramatised in his fourth and fifth novels, At Play in the Fields of the Lord and Far Tortuga – as well as in the later Watson novels.)

I read the single-spaced manuscript of what would become Peter's "Watson Trilogy" in first draft, when it was all one book. Certainly, Mr Watson was a man who knew how to play God; Watson even dies like a God. I remember suggesting to Peter that I thought he'd written more than one novel. And the day he brought me his Watson trilogy, he delivered it to my house on his bicycle – I still don't know how he managed to do that. (The eventual three novels in manuscript, even single-spaced, came in a box that would have sufficed as the coffin for a Labrador retriever.)

But Peter was physically very capable – more than most of my writer friends. Before I had a house of my own in Sagaponack, I was staying one summer in a house near Peter's ocean-front property. Peter often rowed his boat into the tidal inlet that passed behind my backyard. One morning, I saw his boat in the shallow, low-tide water. The empty boat was floating just off shore; I could see it from my lawn. Of course I was concerned that something had happened to Peter. I waded into the water and caught hold of the bow of the boat, towing it ashore. Peter, who'd been lying on his back in the bottom of the boat – with his bird-watching binoculars around his neck – sat up in the boat and stared at me. I was quite startled to see him, especially since I was imagining him lost at sea. I cried out – an expletive best imagined here. Peter said: "Well, there goes my last hope of seeing any birds this morning."

I know that many readers admired Peter most for his nature writing and his various travels into the wilds – his non-fiction, in other words – and Peter had more of a real life than many novelists have, and he took more of an interest in the actual lives of real people than most fiction writers do. But our friendship was based on our respect for each other's novels, and it was our fiction – at its most raw and unfinished – that we shared. Given my belief in rewriting, it was Peter's stamina for revision that I admired – as much as I admired his lyrical prose.

When Peter rewrote his Watson trilogy as a single, weighty tome, he wrote in the acknowledgements to "Shadow Country" that I was a generous neighbour with my time and comments – as he put it, "in the book's cretaceous days when the whole was still inchoate, crude, and formless". Ah, well – but this was what we were when we most trusted each other; we were "inchoate, crude, and formless". And those were special days for me – when I had a friend I dared to show what I was up to, when I was still unsure of what it was.

You can't ever duplicate a friend like that.

Peter Matthiessen

Claire Messud

Peter Matthiessen, who died this week, taught me creative writing in my final year at Yale. This was 1987, and although he was still relatively young – not yet 60 – he seemed to us both venerable and terrifying. This was in part on account of his august reputation – At Play in the Fields of the LordThe Snow Leopard and Far Tortuga were books my critical father admired enormously; and I'd read them with awe over the summer in anticipation of this class – but also on account of his aspect and demeanour. Matthiessen was craggy, his long, thin patrician face etched by experience, his eyes guarded by the jut of his brows. He did not, at first, smile much. Indeed, at first, he smiled not at all. He impressed us as austere, spare in his movements and his conversation, sparing in his praise.

Matthiessen started the term by announcing that there were just two things of importance he could teach us. One was that he'd been teaching for many years – about 30, I think, at that point, on and off – and had never seen a student of his published (at least five students from that one class are published writers, so either he was fibbing or we were lucky). The other was that, if we were writing for the ages, we must be careful not to use brand names in our fiction.

Peter Matthiessen

Matthiessen wrote for the ages. He lived his life knowing that he only had one, and he lived as though it mattered. He chose his subjects carefully: from extraordinary non-fiction books like The Snow Leopard (1978), to remarkable novels like Far Tortuga (1975) or his ambitious Florida trilogy, later re-edited and published as a single vast novel, Shadow Country (2008), each book represented a spiritual and physical commitment, as well as a literary one. A committed practitioner and eventually a priest of Zen Buddhism, Matthiessen was a man of inspiring integrity. He did not say what he did not mean; he did not act unintentionally. He was a model as a writer, and as a man.

Over the course of our semester under his tutelage, we came to see him not as august and austere, but rather as judicious and fair, and surprisingly to us, as someone with a great sense of humour. Seeing him laugh was a joy: the craggy face would crack open, and his hooded eyes would glitter.

His death marks the end of an era. Not because he was in some way representative – rather, he was sui generis – but because he was an inspiration of a rare kind: a spiritualist, an adventurer, a sage with a great laugh and an immortal gift: a remarkable and pure literary talent.


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