Out the Montauk Highway, south toward the water, then a quick right before the beach and you’re there, at the Sagaponack house where the author and Zen teacher Peter Matthiessen has lived for the last 60 years. The home used to be the garage and outbuildings of a larger estate, and there is an improvised, of-the-earth sprawl to the place. One side of the main house is grown over with ivy, and under the portico, in between two piles of chopped firewood, an immense finback whale skull balances on blocks. Just to the left of the front door sits a tree stump covered stupalike with shells and other found objects. After I ring the doorbell and rap a few times on the glass, Matthiessen emerges from his living room and waves me in.
He has spent much of his career going back in time — up to ancient villages in the remote reaches of the Himalayas, out to the vast plains of Africa in search of the roots of man — but now time has caught up to him. He’s 86, and for the last 15 months he has been countering leukemia with courses of chemotherapy. You can still see the intensity in his long, serious face and clear blue eyes, but there is an unexpected softness to him as he pads back toward the living room in an old sweater and stockinged feet. His latest novel, “In Paradise,” is being promoted by his publisher as his “final word,” but Matthiessen doesn’t want to talk about the book or his career in those terms. He has no desire for sympathy points. Though he did not want to dwell on it, he acknowledged that his medical situation was “precarious,” and a few weeks after our two days together his health would decline to the point that he had to be admitted to a hospital, with family standing by. It gave our conversations the feeling of stolen time.
‘In Paradise,’ Matthiessen Considers Our Capacity For Cruelty
At age 86, Peter Matthiessen has written what he says “may be his last word” — a novel due out Tuesday about a visit to a Nazi extermination camp. It’s called In Paradise, and it caps a career spanning six decades and 33 books.
Matthiessen is the only writer to ever win a National Book Award in both fiction — for his last book, Shadow Country, and adult nonfiction for his 1978 travel journal, The Snow Leopard.
Matthiessen is filled with the vitality of past adventures as he leads a tour of his country-style home on the East End of Long Island. I visited him in March, on the day before he was to begin a round of experimental chemotherapy for cancer.
On the living room wall are a dozen large black-and-white photographs of New Guinea tribal warriors. The pictures were taken in 1961 — half by the author, the others by his traveling companion, Michael Rockefeller, who disappeared on that expedition, and may have been the victim of cannibals. Matthiessen wrote a book about that journey called Under the Mountain Wall — one of his many nonfiction chronicles of man and his relation to the natural world.
His new novel, In Paradise, is based on a different kind of journey — a trek into the Heart of Darkness. In 1996, Matthiessen, who is a Zen Buddhist, traveled to Poland on a meditation retreat. It took place at the former Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz. What he saw floored him — he recalls the barbed wire, the watch towers, and the crematoriums.