R29 Book Club: Peter Mathiesson's Last Word

bookclumembedPhoto: Courtesy of Riverhead Hardcover.
Hello there, and welcome again to the R29 Book Club (that is to be read aloud in a radio voice, if you can't tell). This month, we'll be reading In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen. Before you sit down and start this alternately depressing and enlightening book, you should read up a bit about the man himself. Not only is he a fascinating person, this book is somewhat based on a real experience. Jeff Himmelman's extensive piece for The New York Times magazine is a great place to start.
Matthiessen was part of a unique generation in American history — both as an author and as a particular type of yuppie who, seeking enlightenment, rejected (at least in theory) the material trappings of life as East Coast royalty in favor of a decidedly more esoteric existence. That's not to say his life wasn't without its pomp and prestige. He was, in his life and sometimes all at once, the founder of The Paris Review, a McCarthy-era CIA agent spying on fellow literary expats, a non-fiction writer, an explorer, and an intense student and teacher of Zen. He is probably most known as a writer of fiction, and it's that identification that seemed to resonate with him most on a personal level.
Matthiessen died of Leukemia on April 5, so we'll be reading his last words to the public that loved, lauded, and sometimes snubbed him. In Paradise a fictional tale (based on a real-life experience) about a group of people on a spiritual retreat at Auschwitz. Does that sound like a slightly off-color situation? Because it is. Guilt is prominent in this book. There are Germans who feel guilty for their nation's involvement in the Holocaust. There are survivors who feel guilty for surviving. There are Americans who feel guilty for living a cushy, nice life untouched by misery and torture and the systematic murder of millions. And, there is always an undertone of guilt for the simple fact of existing at Auschwitz, guilt over the subtle implication that these visitors are using such a grim site in search of selfish relief of some psychological problem.
Form and content aren't exactly aligned on this one. In Paradise is an incredibly complex tale, emotionally speaking. In terms of the writing and the storyline, it has the author's trademark clarity and simplicity, even in its tangents and abstractions. It's both easy to read and very, very hard. It's also very worth it. With that in mind, grab a copy and start reading. We'll meet next Friday to talk about the first four chapters. See you then!

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