Travel Writing Giants – Remembering Peter Matthiessen and Patrick Leigh Fermor

Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen

BBC Radio Four rarely disappoints. At least not over the course of a few hours where there will be enough variety and quality for everyone. On Good Friday the Point of View programme was given over to William Dalrymple William who celebrated the writing of Peter Matthiessen who died this month. Dalrymple compares him with another of his favourite travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor. “Both were footloose scholars who left their studies and libraries to walk in the wild places of the world, erudite and bookish wanderers, scrambling through remote mountains, notebooks in hand, rucksacks full of good books on their shoulders.”

Listen here on BBC iPlayer. The programme begins after about 30 seconds. If you are in a location where this is not possible, the text is below.

Happy Easter to all of you.


William Dalrymple pays tribute to two fellow travel writers – Peter Matthiessen, who died recently, and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

The great American writer Peter Matthiessen died earlier this month at his home in Sagaponak, New York, after a prolonged struggle with leukaemia. He was 86.

Matthiessen was one of my great literary heroes, a wonderfully versatile and profoundly truthful writer whose sentences oozed integrity and an austere clarity of thought and spirit. His writing drew on his richly restless and enviably courageous life, which was as remarkable an artefact as anything he actually wrote. He remains the only author to win the National Book Award for both fiction and non-fiction.

Matthiessen, a craggily handsome man, with clear blue eyes and a face that seemed to have been sculpted out of basalt, was at different times a naturalist-explorer and a deep sea fishermen, a pioneering environmentalist and editor, an artist and activist defending the rights of migrant labourers and Native Americans, as well as a CIA agent who underwent a strange metamorphosis into literary shaman and Buddhist sage. He lived and travelled in a variety of wild landscapes (rainforests, oceans, mountains, deserts and swamps) around the globe, and he set his books in these remote places – the Peruvian Andes and the jungles of New Guinea, Tierra del Fuego and the Tibetan Plateau, the Serengeti and the Bering Straits.

He is perhaps best known for a single great masterpiece, The Snow Leopard, a jewel of a book and one of the great travelogues of our time. The book tells the story of a long journey on foot to the Crystal Mountain in the Himalayas to study the wild blue sheep and to catch a glimpse of the rare and almost mythical snow leopard. But for Matthiessen, a Zen Buddhist recovering from the recent death of his wife, it was more of an inner journey of recovery and resignation than some zoological field trip.

In many ways, Matthiessen resembles Patrick Leigh Fermor, another lyrical writer who travelled widely and lived richly, setting his books across the globe. Like Matthiessen, Paddy – as everyone knew him- lived an enviable life. In his teens he walked from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, while in his sixties he swam the Hellespont, in homage to Lord Byron who swam it in 1810. In between, he joined possibly the last cavalry charge in European history, participated in a Haitian voodoo ceremony, and pursued a passionate affair with a Byzantine princess. He was car-bombed in Greece, knifed in Bulgaria and pursued by German troops after being parachuted into occupied Crete where he kidnapped the Nazi commander.

Paddy and Peter were very different men of very different generations. Matthiessen was a blue-blooded New Yorker, descended from Friesian whalers, and grew up on post-war Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, in the same building as George Plimpton, with whom he later co-founded the Paris Review. The American 1960s marked him forever. He experimented with psychedelia, especially LSD, became an anti-Vietnam activist and his friends were the great New York writers of that era – Kurt Vonnegut, EL Doctorow and William Styron. Leigh Fermor, by contrast, had the speech patterns, polished brogues and formal manners of a pre-war British officer, and his conversation was peppered with the likes of “ripping”, “topping”, “I say!”, “frightful rot” and so on. His friends tended to be Brits of a similar background and era – Noel Coward, Dirk Bogarde, Diana Cooper, the Mitfords and later, Bruce Chatwin.
Nepal Himalayas Matthiessen describes the Nepal Himalayas in lyrical terms

It is also true that these two great descriptive writers wrote very dissimilar prose. Matthiessen’s writing had a spare and austere simplicity, yet was as beautiful and craggy as his wonderfully weather-beaten face. Here he is waking up in the Nepal Himalaya: “A luminous mountain morning. Mist and fire smoke, sun shafts and dark ravines: a peak off Annapurna poises on soft clouds… Pine, rhododendron, barberry and purple gentians. Down mountain fields, a path of stones flows like mercury in the sunlight; even the huts have roofs of silver slates.”

In contrast, Paddy’s books, with what Lawrence Durrell called their “truffled style and dense plumage”, were sometimes “madly, intoxicatingly over-written”. Yet at his best he was a soaring prose virtuoso with hardly an equal in modern English letters. For many of us his descriptions of walking through midwinter 1930s Germany have the status of sacred texts: “Sometimes the landscapes move further back in time,” he writes in the Winterreise chapter of his masterpiece, A Time of Gifts. “Pictures from illuminated manuscripts take shape; they become scenes which Books of Hours enclosed in the O of Orate, fratres. The snow falls; it is Carolingian weather… Then the rooks fell silent; the light dwindled over the grey fields; and life ebbed with a shudder like a soul leaving the body.”

Yet these two very different writers had so much in common. Both were footloose scholars who left their studies and libraries to walk in the wild places of the world, erudite and bookish wanderers, scrambling through remote mountains, notebooks in hand, rucksacks full of good books on their shoulders. Both were writers of great sensitivity and erudition, yet both were also men of action who became intelligence agents – Leigh Fermor in wartime Crete, while Matthiessen worked for the CIA in post-war Paris spying on American expatriate communists suspected of KGB links.

Both men moved easily from the world of the flesh to the world of the spirit and back. They understood what Paddy described in A Time to Keep Silence as “the capacity for solitude that accompanies the silent monastic life”.

The same was true of Matthiessen, who while the lively centre of many a mescaline-fuelled literary party in his youth, ended his day as a Roshi, or Zen Master. “Zen is really just a reminder to stay alive and be awake,” he said in one of his last interviews. “Zen is about appreciating your life in this moment. If you are truly aware for five minutes a day, then you are doing pretty well. We are beset by both future and the past, and there is no reality apart from the here and now.”

The world of literary travel writing, usually associated with the drumbeat of hooves across some distant steppe, has recently begun echoing instead with the slow tread of the undertaker’s muffled footfall. Within the last few years or so, Wilfred Thesiger, Norman Lewis, Ryszard Kapuscinski and Eric Newby have all – like Peter and Paddy – gone on their last journey. But for me, Leigh Fermor and Matthiessen remain, along with Bruce Chatwin, the greatest of them all.

On my last visit to see Paddy at the villa he built in Kardamyli, deep in the Greek Mani, I went with him to see the Byzantine chapel around which Chatwin had had his ashes scattered. The chapel was very small with a domed, red-tiled roof and round arcaded windows. It was a perfect place for anyone to end their days, and as we headed back I asked Paddy whether he would like to be buried there too.
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“Oh no,” he replied instantly. “My wife, Joan, is buried in Gloucestershire. I’d like to end up there. England is not a foreign country to me.” The same was true of Matthiessen who in the end found peace in Sagaponak, where he set up a Zen meditation centre at the back of his estate.

It’s a characteristic of many of the greatest travellers that they come back home in the end. TE Lawrence, another wandering writer turned intelligence agent, was the same. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom he wrote about what is I think a surprisingly common dilemma, and one I certainly recognise in my own life – that of the traveller who moves abroad, embraces another culture, immerses himself in it, and then finds that he has been changed forever by the experience and cannot ever fully return.

I had dropped one form and not taken on the other,” wrote Lawrence, “the inevitable fate of the man who could see things through the veils at once of two customs, two educations, two environments.” Matthiessen could not have put it better.

A Point of View is broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 BST. Catch up on BBC iPlayer



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