From the Publisher
A Newsweek Best Book of 2014
Praise for Peter Matthiessen:
“You could well school yourself as a young American writer, in the early 21st century, by reading and then rereading the works of Peter Matthiessen. But of course he wasn't just a writer's writer; he was for all readers. He was for the world.” National Geographic
“Matthiessen was unique in our literature, a descendant of Melville and Dostoyevsky who chronicled the heart of darkness at the center of the American fever dream. … The loss to American letters is immeasurable.” LA Review of Books
Praise for In Paradise:
“Matthiessen’s descriptions are poetic and scarifying…he creates indelible vignettes about what remains and what took place here. Like the rest of Matthiessen’s vast body of work, “In Paradise” leads us into questions that define our most profound mysteries.” –The Washington Post
“The beauty of [In Paradise] comes in [Matthiessen’s] powerful descriptions. With his command of the language, he can add something new and profound to that vast library of Holocaust literature. In Paradise allows Peter Matthiessen to once again demonstrate that he remains one of our most powerful writers.”–The Miami Herald
“The conflict between the drama of the self and its surrender in the shadow of the Holocaust is Matthiessen's bold subject...powerful.” –New York Review of Books
“Peter Matthiessen's In Paradise is a deeply intelligent study of Holocaust remembrance…bleakly funny… [and] eloquent” –The Wall Street Journal
“A fitting coda to [Matthiessen’s] career… Where better to look for some sort of human essence than in a landscape that embodies us at our worst?...This is the key message of Matthiessen’s life and writing that we are intricate, thorny, inconsistent, that the lines between good and bad blur within us, that we are capable of anything. The only choice is to remain conscious, to engage with openness.” –Los Angeles Times
“Written with a young man’s energy, In Paradise possesses an old man’s wisdom, which eschews the presumptions of age and the easy attainment of certitude." –The Daily Beast
“In Paradise is a fitting final addition to Matthiessen's oeuvre, in that it combines moral seriousness and imagination grounded in the world with elegance of expression and a willingness to take risk.” – National Geographic
“[In Paradise] … provides rare insight into the dark magnetism of a brutal landmark. What drives a survivor to return? What inspires conflicted visitors to join hands in spontaneous dancing? Matthiessen’s courage and clarity in addressing this topic [were] signal virtues of his career.” –Newsday
“Underpinned by an ambitious, near audacious, storyline… Matthiessen proceeds to set out his fictional stall in deftly assured fashion….[He] combines tactical restraint with lucid, compelling yet almost conversational prose. He has an ability to render a character in a detail or two…All of this craft combines to make much of In Paradise read like a masterclass in fiction…stunning.” –The Irish Times
“Affecting and powerful… In Paradise gets at the heart of the defining tragic enigma of the 20th century… [a] complex and worthy adieu.” –Jane Smiley, The Guardian
“A moving valedictory for one of America’s most wide-ranging and poetical writers… Matthiessen’s novel embraces humanity’s endless capacity to heal and reinvent itself.” – Financial Times
“In Paradise is…contemplative and moving, and in its haunting story of Holocaust survivors who revisit Auschwitz, we find one of the last century’s greatest authors penning a book worthy of his legacy.” –Grantland
“Matthiessen’s writing flexes the same kind of muscularity as others of his generation—Vonnegut, Styron, Doctorow—but his devotion to Zen Buddhism results in a spiritual journey that’s palatable even to the non-spiritual… [his characters] are fully realized people, and within them are the kernels of horror and joy shared by all of humanity” –A.V. Club
“Matthiessen can write with ecstatic beauty… In his new novel, In Paradise, he takes what may be his deepest look yet into the abyss…Profound and fiercely fresh.”–Tampa Bay Times
"An ambitious tale that tries to do nothing less than achieve some understanding of 20th century Europe’s defining event, the Holocaust.”–Buffalo News
“An eloquently written and thought-provoking novel… In Paradise demonstrates that Peter Matthiessen remained a vital part of America’s contemporary literary scene, an unflinching original who continued to write provocative narratives.” –Counterpunch
“Short and austere… Clements’ story and those of the others are anguished inquiries, harrowing reassessments and attempts — emotional, artistic and spiritual — to grasp the ungraspable.” –Minneapolis Star Tribune
“[In Paradise] deftly and ruthlessly pursues the battles that we face, both individually and also in dialogue with others, when we try to engage with horrors that can never be named.”–The Jewish Book Council
“An earnest, informed, often insightful and…subtle novel.” –Christian Science Monitor
“Contains some of the most frightening and passionate writing of Matthiessen’s long career … With In Paradise, Peter Matthiessen has created philosophical and moral cacophony of lasting worth and, indeed, of a strange power. It belongs on the shelf beside At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Far Tortuga, and Shadow Country. Of how many books can that be said?”–Open Letters Monthly
“The two-time National Book Award–winner doesn’t shy away from boldly tackling the most profound of subjects… Matthiessen expertly raises the challenges and the difficulties inherent in addressing this subject matter, proving…that the creation of art “is the only path that might lead toward the apprehension of that ultimate evil . . . [that] the only way to understand such evil is to reimagine it.” –Booklist (starred review)
"Not a mere recounting but a persuasive meditation on Auschwitz’s history and mythology...Matthiessen uses scenes of confrontation, recollection, bitterness, and self-examination to trace aspects of culture that led to the Holocaust and that still reverberate today."
–Library Journal (starred review)
"Matthiessen…ponders Auschwitz decades after the Holocaust, in a novel that’s philosophical, mordant and surprisingly romantic…An admirable…study of the meaning of survivorship." –Kirkus Reviews
Early in this novel by Matthiessen (Shadow Country), which follows a meditative retreat at Auschwitz, main character Clements Olin thinks, “Nobody knows whom to be angry with in such a place.” Indeed, the story centers on the search for understanding on the part of the retreaters, and their attempt to spiritually confront the evil that occurred at the site. What makes Matthiessen’s latest stand out from the scores of other Holocaust books is that Olin, a non-Jewish academic of Polish descent, is aware of the vast Holocaust literature (“You got some new angle on mass murder, maybe, that ain’t been written up yet in maybe ten thousand fucking books?” someone asks him)—and feels self-doubt to the point of defeat about what he’s doing in Auschwitz in the first place. More concretely, Olin is there for two reasons: one is “personal” and “too sentimental” and isn’t revealed until later in the book; the other is to figure out why Polish author Tadeusz Borowski, who survived the death camp, later committed suicide at the peak of his fame, three days after the birth of his daughter. The strongest sections relate to these more concrete missions—passages about Olin’s family history, in particular, stand out. But the novel focuses mainly on the abstract: what it feels like to spend days on end at the death camp—the frustration, alienation, and otherworldliness of it. Throughout, there’s a hum of absurdity underneath (“Who sets out winter food for little birds in such a place?”), and at times it comes to the surface in the form of directionless bickering among the retreaters, only to fade back again into the landscape, which, it seems to Olin, is always in winter. Agent: Neil Olson, Donadio & Olson, Inc. (Apr.)
Attending a multidenominational retreat at the site of the Auschwitz concentration and death camp in 1996, American scholar Clements Olin plans to research poet Tadeusz Borowski's connection to the camp while also rediscovering his own Polish gentile roots. A large group composed of many nationalities, including German gentiles, has gathered to bear witness, make personal statements, and explore other avenues for attempting to come to grips with the horrifying reality behind the dreary and forbidding ruin they see. As spiritual leader, Ben Lama gently guides and occasionally soothes members when accusations fly as Olin becomes attracted physically and emotionally to a young nun participating in the event. Away from the group, he explores the surrounding area and gradually learns unsettling truths about his family. Facts and uncertainties about the camp and the nature of the genocide are woven into the story, and the role of the Catholic Church during the war is also examined. VERDICT Not a mere recounting but a persuasive meditation on Auschwitz's history and mythology, this novel from three-time National Book Award winner Matthiessen uses scenes of confrontation, recollection, bitterness, and self-examination to trace aspects of culture that led to the Holocaust and that still reverberate today. [See Prepub Alert, 10/4/13.]—Jim Coan, SUNY at Oneonta Lib.
The peripatetic Matthiessen (Shadow Country, 2008, etc.) ponders Auschwitz decades after the Holocaust, in a novel that's philosophical, mordant and surprisingly romantic. Clements Olin is a 55-year-old professor of Slavic literature with a specialty in works by Holocaust survivors. That interest has been an abstraction for him for much of his career, but as he visits the Nazi camp for a two-week spiritual retreat in 1996, his understanding becomes more emotionally concrete. Clements is one of 140 pilgrims there, and the agenda includes a mix of tourism, meditation, and evening dinner discussions that inevitably turn into heated arguments about God, anti-Semitism, patriotism and man's capacity for evil. Chief among the instigators is Earwig, who rains contempt upon the visitors, whom he considers "soft and runny as one-minute eggs." Clements is tolerant of the man's profane reprimands—he's the necessary point of entry for Matthiessen's musings, after all—but the professor has other things on his mind. First of these is learning what happened to his mother, who lived near the camps and may have been sent there; second is Sister Catherine, a young nun whose spiritual unsteadiness serves as a magnet for Clements' own spiritual and romantic anxieties. Matthiessen handles these threads gracefully and without a studious reverence for his novel's difficult subject; Earwig is the book's comic relief as well as its angry id. Even so, In Paradise as a whole feels overly formal; the framing device of the retreat makes the philosophizing feel potted (today, the perils of patriotism, tomorrow, the complicity of the Catholic Church, and so on) and Clements' emotional longings, constricted. A burst of spontaneous dancing on the retreat gives the book a similarly surprising lift, but it's quickly back to hand-wringing and self-loathing. An admirable, if muted, minor-key study of the meaning of survivorship.
Read an Excerpt
He has flown all night over the ocean from the New
World, descending from moon stare and the rigid stars into the murk and tumult of inversion shrouding winter Poland.
From the airport, a cab takes him to the city and sets him down in an empty square where a row of buses, closely parked, stand side by side facing a wall; the cab is gone by the time he discovers they are locked. (The imprisoned air inside, he thinks, must be even colder than this outside weather.) At the corner café he is informed that buses to that destination won’t be available before spring, and that he has missed the morning train he would have caught had he been driven to the depot; there will be no other until evening.
At a loss, he drinks black coffee at the counter, scowling at the unshaven traveler reflected in the dirty mirror. His antiquated Polish is eked out by the primitive English of a young couple who have overheard his inquiries about hiring a car and boisterously endorse the waiter’s protest that the cost would be far too high. Concerned that a visitor to their fair land has been inconvenienced, they offer to escort him to that small museum he had mentioned: the waiter will keep an eye on his old suitcase. On the way he can ad- mire the Royal Palace and cathedral on Wawel Hill and the St. Mary’s Basilica destroyed in the thirteenth century by Asian Tatars and rebuilt in the fourteenth with that strange crowned tower. “Like black icicles!” the girl cries. Thus their guest can at least enjoy the historic center of Poland’s oldest city, still so beautiful, they say, because Cracow, like Paris, had been spared bomb and fire in the war. Pardon? Oh no, sir, they giggle, they have never been to Paris!
Exhausted, he trails his merry guides past the medieval Cloth House on the Market Square. Mirek and his love- struck Wanda will not let him visit this city he knows more about than they do without dragging him into a shop to find a souvenir of Poland “for delight your sweetheart in America.” Wanda supervises the selection of a silken lozenge of transparent amber. “Beauty gift for Mama!” This golden drop encasing flecks of ancient insects is the very essence of his ancestral earth, yet its acquisition further sinks his spirits. He knows no one who would have much interest in this scrap of fossil tree sap, never mind “delight.” He has no sweetheart, only a married lover he does not much miss—in fact, is rather glad to get a rest from—and no surviving family in the New World. Were they still alive, his father and paternal grandparents would have disapproved this trip, having always warned him against returning to this region of southwest Poland just because he happened to be born there. “You have no memory of that place, and our own memories are sad,” his father said.
The one thing he will make sure he sees in Cracow is the Leonardo da Vinci portrait of a Renaissance girl holding a white winter weasel in her lap. Long ago, his father had shown him a faded reproduction clipped from an art magazine (“She reminds me so of your dear mother!”). Alas, on this cold Sunday of 1996, Young Woman with Ermine is locked away behind the small museum’s obdurate wood door. His guides stare at the notice as if hoping that at any moment it might change its mind. Disappointed for their guest and sensing his annoyance, the poor things are looking a bit desperate.
On the return, in an effort to intrigue them, he relates how over the centuries this portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, Count Ludovico Sforza’s adolescent mistress, had wandered in times of war and conquest—sealed up in castle cellars, stolen, sold, and finally recovered, only to be confiscated by Hans Frank (crony and former lawyer of the Leader in Berlin, now Governor General of Occupied Poland) and displayed in his office in the Royal Palace—
“Is up there!” Eager to contribute, the girl is pointing at the fortress castle looming in the mist on its rock hill over the river. “We can visit!” shouts Mirek, eager, too. Damn it, can’t they see I’ve had it?
Inside, they are shown the empty office where the Leonardo—and perhaps also a Raphael, never recovered— might have illumined these drab walls, doubtless vaunted as trophies, spoils of war, by hausfrau Brigitte Frank, she who styled herself “a Queen of Poland” as fit title for so grand a personage as the new lady of the Royal Palace. And perhaps it was this Nazi queen (said to have been detested by her husband) who had seen to the theft of “the Cecilia” in early 1945, when this awful family fled the Red Army rumbling across Poland from the east and installed her in their chalet in Bavaria, from where, eventually, she would be rescued by Allied soldiers rumbling across Poland from the west.
“I have always been a student of that period,” he ex- plains, embarrassed by their awe of so much knowledge. But as they make their way outside again into the city, he tells his rapt young friends that rather wonderfully, the masterpiece—one of but four known Leonardo portraits of women, including the Mona Lisa and La Belle Ferronnière, both in the Louvre—turned up in Paris and was eventually restored, thank God, to Cracow. “Thanks God!” the lovers agree fervently, at the same time confessing prior ignorance of its existence and their amazement that a treasure so renowned might ever have been found anywhere in their battered land.
They head for the warmth of that café in Kasimierz, the old Jewish quarter named after King Kasimierz of the sixteenth century—a “Golden Age,” he mentions, of be- nevolence toward Jews, who were fleeing to Poland from pogroms and persecutions all over Europe. However, his companions, though they nod and smile, cannot come up with a response to all his information, which he’d hoped might stoke a faltering conversation. He tries to mend his pedantic tone but soon falls back on his research for want of a better antidote to their blithe ignorance, instructing them that in former times, their city was a cultural center of this country’s Jewish population. After September 1939, when southwest Poland was seized by the Third Reich, the Jews were driven from their houses into a ghetto over near the river, permitting Obergruppenführer Frank to boast that Cracow was the first Juden-frei city in the Occupied Territory.
The girl looks at her companion. Juden-frei? What can he be telling us?
“But of course you know your own history much better than some foreigner who has never been here.”
They share his rueful smile. “Not even to Cracow?” the girl entreats him, hand circling to summon up its fabled spell. “But you are speak okay Polish,” Mirek says, urging their guest to tell them more about this “Juden-frei”: how amusing that in all their lives they have never met a single Jew, not one!
He watches them chortle at the idea of knowing Jews. “I suppose that’s not so strange, under the circumstances,” he says. “Very few survived the war and scarcely any have returned even today. Small wonder.”
“Is small wonder!” Mirek agrees fervently. “Is small wonder!” the girl says. Uneasy, the lovers peer about them for some trace of missing Jews as if these buildings dark with centuries of soot were rife with Hebrew secrets.
In coal fog and December rain, the thousand-year-old city lies steeped in his own weariness and melancholy. He
has no wish to visit the Old Synagogue, built in the Renaissance. Thank you, he says, but he is too tired from his night of travel. “Okay, no problem,” Mirek laughs. “Tired is natural.” And Wanda smiles, “Okay, tired is natural, no problem exactly.” The lovers hug in celebration of their juicy life (and perhaps also to warm themselves: Mirek wears only a thin white turtleneck under his light leather-type jacket and Wanda a denim jacket with over-bold white stitching and an orange faux-fox collar).
So delighted are these lovers with their rare opportunity to practice English that they offer to drive their captive stranger all the way to his destination “just for the fun.” Don’t be silly, he protests, it is much too far, they will have to return on icy roads in the winter dark— “No, no, sir, please, sir, you are the guest of Poland!” If he insists, the guest of Poland can help pay the petrol, is okay? “Yes, it is okay exactly,” the girl laughs. Anyway her parents live in a nearby town and maybe her boyfriend can stay over, too, if Papa will permit.