Reading Peter Matthiessen’s work is a workout for me. I struggle with his slowness, his deliberation, his pacing and his meditative thoughtfulness. It is these, I think, that give his oeuvre its nuanced particularity and it for this reason I continue to struggle on with the dense prose, disciplining my own drive for facts and conclusions.
The conflict between Matthiessen’s drive to linger and consider, and my desire to get on with it whatever it is, has become over the past ten years or so a crucible in which I attempt to moderate my practices of reading, burning away my time poor practices of punchy one-line summation.
What Matthiessen does, in fiction and non-fiction, over and over again, is refuse to compensate for complexity, the reader is offered complexity and no opportunity for the humdrum reductionism that turns the world into travel literature or journal articles. The only simple thing is that in Matthiessen’s books complexity is, just there.
The contrast to my own bureaucratic writing practices, in the tower of Sauron, is something I need reminding of, on a regular basis.
In my writing the complexity of the world is another opportunity for vanity to take over and demonstrate my smarts by reducing something incredibly complicated (and sometimes astonishingly beautiful in one way or another) to three dots points and a quick recommendation. And then the urge to cover such a neat simplification with some unnecessary verbosity, acting as vital camouflage for disguising all the material that can’t be included in three dot points, is irresistible.
My reading of Matthiessen’s books reminds me, disciplines me, not to look for the shortest path or the quickest exit but to move slowly and examine in detail the obvious, the underfoot, and the left behind. In this way the anxieties of brevity are displaced by a calm thoroughness. I think this is about as good a deal as a reader is likely to find when crusing the shelves of any bookshop or library.
Peter Matthiessen is something of a hero to me.