Peter Matthiessen Matthiessen, Peter (Vol. 7) - Essay

Matthiessen, Peter (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Matthiessen, Peter 1927–

Matthiessen is an American writer, explorer, and naturalist whose adventures lend authenticity to his writing. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Peter Matthiessen is a naturalist, an anthropologist and an explorer of geographies and the human condition. He is also a rhapsodist who writes with wisdom and warmth as he applies scientific knowledge to the peoples and places he investigates. Works of lasting literary value and moral import have resulted, such as Matthiessen's non-fiction Under the Mountain Wall, Blue Meridian, or The Tree Where Man Was Born; or his last novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965), a dense, compelling yarn set in the Amazonian jungles.

Matthiessen offsets these dwindling oases (free from technology, where human nature and Nature peacefully coexist) with the Earth-raping, imperialistic, "modern" Western sensibility. His celebrations of life veil pleas for preservation of the existing ecological balances.

Far Tortuga continues this theme. It's a treatise on Caribbean turtling as a way of life being threatened by progress. But stylistically the novel is a new departure for Matthiessen, and for the English language.

Matthiessen's previous work was rich with narrative and traditionally rendered dialogue. Far Tortuga is fragmentary and elliptical, often bordering on verse. But despite its Spartan structure, this tale of the sea has the wholeness and grand scope of a major epic….

Speech is direct and matter-of-fact, humor rough and cynical. Actions are usually blunt and quick. Matthiessen captures the lilting rhythms of West Indian English cannily and lovingly.

Far Tortuga is a work of stark beauty and subtle, troubling undercurrents. It moves with the unerring inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Matthiessen, while taking the language a step forward, acknowledges his debts to Homer and Sophocles, Coleridge and Melville. The book will endure.

Conrad Silvert, "Boat Rotten, Mon, But de Book Not," in Literary Quarterly, May 15, 1975, p. 15.

Typographically, Far Tortuga is a fascinating book, and it is written in a style unlike anything I can recall. On the printed page, the text often appears more like poetry than prose because of the spatial configurations Matthiessen has developed in order to create a feeling for the sea, the passing of time, the repetitions of the natural world. Words are isolated, enveloped in white space. The descriptions are terse, but highly poetic. Characters are never identified by a "he said" but rather by their rich and colorful dialect. Initially, this lack of formal character identification is somewhat perplexing, but as the reader proceeds it soon becomes an easy matter to identify each speaker.

Besides the abundant white spaces in the text, there are illustrations representing the sun and the moon (the passing of time), the sea and the waves. At the beginning of the novel, there is a ship's manifest, listing important information about the members of the crew, and a diagram of the ship itself. The end-paper map of the Caribbean includes an insert of the Misteriosa Reef off Nicaragua. I found myself referring constantly to these drawings as I read the novel. Toward the end of the story, whenever a character dies there is simply a black blob on an otherwise blank page, followed by the name of the character under it. The presence of the author has been cut almost to zero. In the long run, however, one cannot help wondering exactly how much has been achieved by these means. By the end of Far Tortuga, I began to feel that Matthiessen's typographical innovations had made it difficult to become involved with the characters or the events of the story. Yet there are passages in which the sense of mood and atmosphere is overwhelming, where the writing is as fine as anything Matthiessen has ever done.

I have long admired Peter Matthiessen's work. He is one of the most versatile writers of our time, bridging the world of art and the world of the natural sciences. How can one forget The Tree Where Man Was Born or Blue Meridian? His earlier novel, At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965), seems to me to be a small masterpiece, unaccountably neglected. I do not have that feeling about Far Tortuga.

Charles R. Larson, "Another Voyage of the Pequod?" in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), May 31, 1975, p. 661.

The writing style [of Far Tortuga] is that of a poetic screenplay. Characters have no thoughts, they only speak; and there are no quotation marks around the speech. Quotes are indented. Asides and whispers are printed in small type and there is no attribution of remarks to anyone by the author. The characters all speak in Caribbean dialects, which are presumably varied but sound similar on first reading, and which have a melodic and implicitly comedic element to them on the printed page. (p. 28)

The book's form has impelled James Dickey to suggest that it points the way "that the English-speaking sensibility must and should go, from this book on … the way of passionate impressionism." Matthiessen, says Dickey, "is creating our new vision."

Dickey's enthusiasm is shared by a slate of well known writers who, taken together on the book's jacket, surely comprise the heavyweight blurb roundup of the year. Eleanor Clark, Stephen Becker, Lillian Hellman, William Styron and even our foremost literary hermit, Thomas Pynchon, all wax rhapsodic over the novel, not like Dickey, on innovative grounds, but about the power of the story.

Matthiessen's writing and structural styles do set the book apart. But French experimenters in recent years have offered more radical stylistic departures from fictional conventions. Joyce did away with quotation marks an age ago. E. E. Cummings, Dylan Thomas and a whole generation of modern poets have diddled with linear irregularity, the line as sculpture, as impression. Steve Katz sculpted a novel with type. Ronald Sukenick was ahead of Matthiessen in the prodigal use of white space.

Where Matthiessen is truly strong and most original is in his command of detail. This is not a book that could have been written by a young man, not even a precocious one. It is the work of a mature writer with a poetic bent who has lived with the sea for much of a lifetime…. His achievement is, foremost, in the realm of experience—vast experience—transformed. (pp. 28-9)

There is also the deft, realistic delineation of the people, all very vivid. And yet there is a strange one-dimensionality about them all, except Raib. He alone makes the decisions, acts capriciously and is thrust into an internal conflict made truly visible…. The other people are subordinate to him, but also victims, partially, of Matthiessen's restrictive style of storytelling. However vivid the impressionistic strokes, the people exist, like the customers in Harry Hope's bar in O'Neill's Iceman, as types, each with diverse function, but never transcending that function…. There are hints of change, but since Matthiessen's style is to enter no one's head, we can see only behavior, the manifestation of internal conflict. The result is what even good cinema so often is—memorable but uncomplex. (p. 30)

William Kennedy, "Sea Spun Tale," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 7, 1975, pp. 28-30.

James Joyce, speaking as Stephen Dedalus, insisted that a beautiful object must possess "wholeness, harmony, and radiance"—signifying, I believe, that esthetic pleasure derives from our contemplation of a finished unity which best impresses us by the logical and inevitable interrelatedness of its parts. If Peter Matthiessen's interesting new novel [Far Tortuga] is judged by this standard, one must call it an adventurous failure; it is an attempt to make the alien familiar, which founders on a confusion of purposes, and it is only intermittently salvaged by its singular power to intrigue and dazzle. (p. 24)

The slowly building bulk of this novel demonstrates explorer-scientist Matthiessen's wish to communicate details about a unique and little-known way of life. The faster-paced climactic pages return our attention to character and plot (which were, previously, subordinated to a vivid rash of informational and pictorial effects).

Readers will be buffeted between lucidly powerful impressionistic descriptions and a bewildering articulation of semi-bearable dialect…. The narrative is distributed among hundreds of brief paragraphs separated by varying expanses of white page-space. This novel's "rigging" is really all a reader can respond to. It exudes a magnificent and paradoxical radiance; but beneath the beautiful surface, I cannot make out anything that even remotely resembles a harmonious whole. (p. 25)

Bruce Allen, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), June 28, 1975.

It is unsettling to open Peter Matthiessen's Far Tortuga and see not the usual blocks of rectangular prose but bits of verbal stuff scattered about among portentous-looking blank spaces…. The typographical layout resembles that of a play, with descriptive stage directions, dialogue inset, and occasional audio-visual effects at center page—here the booms, elsewhere pictograms to show time of day, the state of sea or weather, or (an ink splotch) the death of a character. It looks ominously like a page from the school of Ezra Pound.

The air of "poetic" self-consciousness isn't lessened by the speaking voices, whose accents, played against a cultivated, iambically tending narration, may suggest some sort of Caribbean minstrel show. And the story seems similar to other stories about the sea….

Yet …, Far Tortuga turns out to be enthralling. Matthiessen uses his method not for self-display but for identifying and locating his characters. The book keeps in close, attentive touch with these sailors' sense of one another, their interest in what they do and do not know about nature and man, their unpretentious concern, above all, for their work, the activities which quite literally sustain their lives and about which there is always enough to say….

The movement in [their dialogue] toward the eloquence of Homeric or Old English epic could seem forced, but those too were oral styles, spoken and heard by men of deeds about men of greater deeds. Even a line that might be straight out of "The Seafarer"—"Dat was bad food, after dem storms. Dat was hard farins"—sounds like the product of an acute ear and not of a superimposed literary sophistication….

[All] "practical" language has its persuasive and theatrical dimension, and the voices in Far Tortuga sound remarkably right for their situation….

[The] risk of a merely touristic pleasure passes as one stops noticing the dialects and becomes familiar with the personal and social tensions among the crew. Serious currents are running here….

What, despite appearances, does not happen in Far Tortuga is a straining by literary means to make more of an acutely observed life than it would make of itself. Matthiessen avoids the gestures toward large "symbolic" meanings that sea stories so often get burdened with, and the book is less of a literary "event" than some would have it. In a dust-jacket comment James Dickey insists that it "will certainly point the way that the English-speaking sensibility must and should go,… the way of passionate impressionism," but this is to inflate its currency. Matthiessen's is not a passionate book but a spare and sober one, sympathetically respectful of its subjects but very cool. And this "impressionistic" method surely wouldn't work for a different kind of material. The blank spaces on the page create and sustain a slow regularity of tempo, isolating utterance in the midst of emptiness, that beautifully suits an elegiac story about the sea but would seem pretentiously arty in most other connections. Far Tortuga is an adventure story of great purity and intensity, worth comparing to the best of Conrad or Stevenson, but one such book should be enough. (pp. 34-5)

Thomas R. Edwards, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), August 7, 1975.

"Far Tortuga" is a visionary novel of the sea, told in Caribbean dialect and poetic log-book descriptions of the water, wind, clouds, birds and sea life. It follows the voyage of a decrepit schooner hunting green turtles off the Central American coast, and of its nine-man crew, caught in an outmoded way of life. The book's ambition is to plot the boundaries of nature and culture, to locate its mongrel crew at the juncture of history and ecology. It risks a lot and demands considerable patience: the dialogue is eccentric, and the descriptions can seem precious, self-indulgent, mere exotic picture-painting; the narrative is melodramatic and has pretentions to myth; but the originality of its form, the sustained beauty and rhythms of its language, and its precise and serious love of its subject reward our attention and engage our affections. (p. 2)

The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 28, 1975.

[Peter Matthiessen] … is a naturalist and an explorer, and thus a world traveler, a writer who seeks brooding absorption in landscapes not native to him. Race Rock is about the New England coast, Sal Si Puedes about California Chicano farmers, At Play in the Fields of the Lord about the South American jungle—to mention only those I've read—and each is a book I wanted to like more than I actually did. Matthiessen never quite gets beyond a sense that he is forcing his material, willing it into a respectful special shape. This is true of Far Tortuga too, though it is a singular and fascinating book…. Many will not be able to imagine reading a long novel written in language … far removed from the native speech of writer or reader, and in this case the strain is very great because the language is that of non-white semi-literate fishermen, and the suspicion is unavoidable that Matthiessen is patronizing or sentimentalizing his characters.

Not so. Whatever else is wrong with Far Tortuga Matthiessen makes acclimatization to the western Caribbean easy, because he respects his characters for just the right reason—they are his, and he is absorbed in their lives. (p. 620)

But, perhaps as the result of sensing his success with these people and their world, Matthiessen has tried to inflate his adventure story into a long novel. Far Tortuga is as long as The Iliad, and Matthiessen knows his world much less well than Homer knew his. The first and last hundred pages are marvelous, and there the story is firm and so the characters speak out of situations as well as out of selves. In between there is just much too much. Page-by-page Matthiessen's integrity and love bring it all off, but it is a tour de force, after all, and so many will not finish Far Tortuga because they will be worn down by its excessive length. A pity, for it is a fine book, a one-of-a-kind book, but if it becomes only a coterie enjoyment and enthusiasm, it will not be entirely the fault of its readers. (p. 621)

Roger Sale, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1975–76.