In Paradise (Matthiessen)

In Paradise 
Peter Matthiessen, 2014
Penguin Group (USA)
256 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781594633171

A profoundly searching new novel by a writer of incomparable range, power, and achievement.

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.

In Paradise is a brave and deeply thought-provoking novel by one of our most stunningly accomplished writers. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—May 22, 1927
Where—New York City, New York, USA
Death—April 5, 2014
Where—Sagaponack, New York
Education—B.A., Yale University
Awards—3 National Book Awards

Peter Matthiessen is an American novelist, naturalist, and wilderness writer. A co-founder of the literary magazine The Paris Review and a three-time National Book Award-winner, he has also been a prominent environmental activist. His nonfiction has featured nature and travel—notably The Snow Leopard (1978)—or American Indian issues and history—notably a detailed and controversial study of the Leonard Peltier case, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983). His fiction has occasionally been adapted for film: the early story "Travelin' Man" was made into The Young One (1960) by Luis Bunuel and the novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965) into the 1991 film of the same name.

In 2008, at age 81, Matthiessen received the National Book Award for Fiction for Shadow Country, a one-volume, 890-page revision of his three novels set in frontier Florida that had been published in the 1990s.

According to critic Michael Dirda, "No one writes more lyrically about animals or describes more movingly the spiritual experience of mountaintops, savannas, and the sea."

Youth and education
Matthiessen was born in New York City to Erard A. and Elizabeth (Carey) Matthiessen. (Erard, an architect, joined the Navy during World War II and helped design gunnery training devices. Afterwards, he gave up architecture to become a spokesman and fundraiser for the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy.) The well-to-do family lived in both New York City and Connecticut where, along with his brother, Matthiessen developed a love of animals that influenced his future work as a wildlife writer and naturalist.

He attended the Hotchkiss School, and—after briefly serving in the U.S. Navy (1945–47)—Yale University (B.A., 1950), spending his junior year at the Sorbonne. At Yale, he majored in English, published short stories (one of which won the prestigious Atlantic Prize), and studied zoology. Marrying and resolving to undertake a writer’s career, he soon moved back to Paris, where he associated with other expatriate American writers such as William Styron, James Baldwin, and Irwin Shaw.

There, in 1953, he became one of the founders (with Harold L. Humes, Thomas Guinzburg, Donald Hall,and George Plimpton) of the literary magazine The Paris Review. As revealed in a 2006 film, he was working for the CIA at the time, using the Review as his cover. In a 2008 interview with Charlie Rose, Matthiessen stated that he "invented The Paris Review as cover" for his CIA activities.) He returned to the U.S. in 1954, leaving Plimpton (a childhood friend of his) in charge of the Review. Matthiessen divorced in 1958 and began traveling extensively.

In 1959, Mathiessen published the first edition of Wildlife in America, a history of the extinction and endangerment of animal and bird species as a consequence of human settlement, throughout North American history, and of the human effort to protect endangered species. It was one of the first books to call attention to climate change (then called global warming), by mentioning that polar ice cap formation caused the lowering of the seas, and that the isthmus over which Mongoloid people crossed from Asia to present-day Alaska (North America's first human immigration) is now submerged by the Bering Strait.

In 1965, Matthiessen published At Play in the Fields of the Lord, a novel about a group of American missionaries and their encounter with a South American indigenous tribe. The book was adapted into the film of the same name in 1991.

In 1968, he signed the "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.[7]

His work on oceanographic research, Blue Meridian, with photographer Peter A. Lake, documented the making of the film Blue Water, White Death (1971), directed by Peter Gimbel and Jim Lipscomb.

Late in 1973 Matthiessen joined field biologist George Schaller on an expedition in the Himalaya Mountains, which was the basis for The Snow Leopard (1978), his double-award-winner.

Interested in the Wounded Knee Incident and the 1976 trial and conviction of Leonard Peltier, an American Indian Movement activist, Mathiessen wrote a non-fiction account, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (1983).

In 2008, Matthiessen revisited his trilogy of Florida novels published during the 1990s: Killing Mr. Watson (1990), Lost Man's River (1997) and Bone by Bone (1999), inspired by the frontier years of South Florida and the death of plantation owner Edgar J. Watson shortly after the Southwest Florida Hurricane of 1910. He revised and edited the three books, which had originated as one 1,500-page manuscript, which now yielded the single-volume Shadow Country, his latest award-winner.

Crazy Horse lawsuits
Shortly after the 1983 publication of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Matthiessen and his publisher Viking Penguin were sued for libel by David Price, a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, and William J. Janklow, the former South Dakota governor. The plaintiffs sought over $49 million in damages; Janklow also sued to have all copies of the book withdrawn from bookstores. After four years of litigation, Federal District Court Judge Diana E. Murphy dismissed Price's lawsuit, upholding Matthiessen's right "to publish an entirely one-sided view of people and events." In the Janklow case, a South Dakota court also ruled for Matthiessen. Both cases were appealed. In 1990, the Supreme Court refused to hear Price's arguments, effectively ending his appeal. The South Dakota Supreme Court dismissed Janklow's case the same year. With the lawsuits settled, the paperback edition of the book was finally published in 1992.

Personal life
In his book The Snow Leopard, Matthiessen reports having had a somewhat tempestuous on-again off-again relationship with his wife Deborah, culminating in a deep commitment to each other made shortly before she was diagnosed with cancer. Matthiessen and Deborah had practiced Zen Buddhism. She died in New York City near the end of 1972.

In September of the following year came the field trip to Himalayan Nepal. Matthiessen later became a Buddhist priest of the White Plum Asanga. Before practicing Zen, Matthiessen was an early pioneer of LSD. He says his Buddhism evolved fairly naturally from his drug experiences.

In 1980, Matthiessen married Maria Eckhart, born in Tanzania, in a Zen ceremony on Long Island, New York. They live in Sagaponack, New York.

In 2005, Matthiessen, along with Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, and James Galvin, was hailed in The Land's Wild Music by Mark Tredinnick, which analyzed how the landscape nourished and developed Matthiessen's writing.[14]

• 1979 National Book Award, Contemporary Thought, for The Snow Leopard
• 1980 National Book Award, General Non-Fiction (paperback), for The Snow Leopard
• 1993 Helmerich Award (the Tulsa Library Trust)
• 1995–1997 - designated the State Author of New York
• 2000 Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities
• 2008 National Book Award, Fiction, for Shadow Country
• 2010 Spiros Vergos Prize for Freedom of Expression.

(Author bio from Wikipedia. Retrieved 4/3/2014.)

Book Reviews
[A] meditative retreat at Auschwitz.... Passages about Olin’s family history, in particular, stand out. But the novel focuses mainly on the abstract: what it feels like to spend days on end at the death camp—the frustration, alienation, and otherworldliness of it. Throughout, there’s a hum of absurdity.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) Not a mere recounting but a persuasive meditation on Auschwitz's history and mythology, this novel from three-time National Book Award winner Matthiessen uses scenes of confrontation, recollection, bitterness, and self-examination to trace aspects of culture that led to the Holocaust and that still reverberate today. —Jim Coan, SUNY at Oneonta Lib.
Library Journal

(Starred review.) The two-time National Book Award–winner doesn’t shy away from boldly tackling the most profound of subjects… Matthiessen expertly raises the challenges and the difficulties inherent in addressing this subject matter, proving…that the creation of art "is the only path that might lead toward the apprehension of that ultimate evil . . . [that] the only way to understand such evil is to reimagine it.

In Paradise as a whole feels overly formal; the framing device of the retreat makes the philosophizing feel potted...and Clements' emotional longings, constricted. A burst of spontaneous dancing on the retreat gives the book a similarly surprising lift, but it's quickly back to hand-wringing and self-loathing. An admirable, if muted, minor-key study of the meaning of survivorship.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Soon after arriving at Auschwitz, Olin wonders if it’s even possible to "bear witness" to the Holocaust, especially given the number of years that have passed in the interim and how few survivors remain from that time. "Their mission here, however well-intended, is little more than a wave of parting to a ghostly horror withdrawing into myth," he says. What do you think? Is it still possible to bear witness to the Holocaust? If yes, what does that witness look like to you? If not, why not?

2. Peter Matthiessen was a lifelong naturalist who wrote prolifically about the "wild places" of the world—about far-flung landscapes and people who "lived on the edge of life." Do you see elements of the natural or the wild in In Paradise? Where?

3. A distinct thread of dark humor wends its way through In Paradise, emerging in Earwig’s provocations, Olin’s musings, and the interactions of the disparate groups on the retreat. What purpose can humor serve in a work like this?

4. Olin, when reflecting on the seminal Holocaust works of Levi and Borowski, muses that even the victims weren’t truly innocent in the death camps—that everyone was complicit, except for the children. He echoes Viktor Frankl’s infamous line, "We who have come back, we know. The best of us did not return." As members of the same race, Olin insists, we all share culpability. What do you think?

5. The epigraph that opens In Paradise is quoted again during the scene of "the dancing." How do you interpret Akhmatova’spoem? What is that "something not known...but wild in our breast for centuries"? How does it relate to the dance? To In Paradise as a whole?

6. On the surface, Olin and Earwig seem to be diametrically opposed. Do you see any parallels between their characters, in what they are searching for, or how they make sense of their personal histories? What does In Paradise have to say about questions of home and longing and identity?

7. What do you think Ben Lama means when he says, "In this place, we are all struggling with our dark angels?"

8. Olin, after reading Sister Catherine’s diary, recites the parable from the Gospel of Luke about Christ and the penitent thief crucified alongside him, in which the thief begs to be taken to Paradise, and Christ responds, "No, friend, we are in Paradise right now." Why do you think Matthiessen drew the title of his book from this story?

9. A longtime student of Zen Buddhism, Matthiessen participated in three witness-bearing retreats at Auschwitz in the later years of his life and had long wanted to write about what he experienced there. But as "a non-Jewish American journalist" he felt he had "no right to do so" as nonfiction. Who do you feel has agency when it comes to telling the stories of genocide? Does this differ from the telling of other truths? Should this be true?

10. One of the major themes of In Paradise is love—sacred love, but also erotic love, and, as with Olin’s feelings for Sister Catherine, the connection between the two. How did you perceive their relationship? Why?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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