Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen

Far away eastward, far below, the Marsa River opens out into Lake Phewa, near Pokhara, which glints in the sunset of the foothills. There are no roads west of Pokhara, which is the last outpost of the modern world; in one day’s walk, we are a century away.

After a few aborted attempts to read Peter Matthiessen’s’ most popular ‘The Snow Leopard’, the lock-down gave me at last the time and space needed to join the famous author-adventurer-conservationist on his trek into the thin air of the Tibetan mountain-range.

In the last months of 1973, Matthiessen teamed up with the legendary naturalist George Schaller for a trip to the Dolpa region in western Nepal. The reason for the expedition was that Schaller wanted to study the Bharal, the Himalayan Blue sheep. His intention was to find out if the animal was more a goat than a sheep. Or if it was someting different altogether, a proto-sheep or a proto-goat, a common ancestor to both. The lama (Spiritual Master) of the Shey gompa (monastery) had in the past, and in his capra-philic wisdom, protected these beautiful animals. The result was that the Bharal were still very abundant in the wider area around the Gompa. And this in turn attracted wolves and even the elusive and therefore mythical snow leopard.

While the study of the sheepish goats would not offer sufficient attraction to an adventurer, such as Matthiessen, the long walk in fact offered many more excitements. The hope of glimpsing the Snow Leopard, this near mythic beast, was reason enough for the entire journey. But, even if that was very unlikely, the journey would still unwind along such wonders as the Blue Lake, the Saldang, the Crystal mountain and the Shey Phoksundo. For Matthiessen, a keen student of Zen, it would also allow him to practice his new acquired knowledge in the very environment where Buddhism had its cradle. It would even allow him to personally meet a famous Lama. Matthiessen from the start understood that he had embarked on a true pilgrimage, a journey of the heart.

The book ‘The Snow Leopard' recounts, in the form of a realistic travelling journal (with dates, maps and all), the long walk, Peter Matthiessen undertook, towards the Tibetan monastery hidden high up in the Himalayan Mountain range. It is a faithful recollection of the three-month tour, a genuine expedition with Sherpa’s, carriers, yaks and all. The long trek, in a snowy, cold and unforgiving mountainous area has its hidden and not so hidden dangers. The travelers are mentally and physically challenged to the extreme and find themselves more than once on the brink of life threatening situations. But the book is more than just a description of an arduous trek. Matthiessen elegantly mixes the journal entries of the expedition’s progress with digressions on what preoccupies his mind and lyrical descriptions of a sublime nature.

The long and lonely walks on the interminable paths leading around and finally up the mountain liberate the mind for long bouts of introspections. Mentally, Matthiessen was not in the best of shapes for such a trip. Feelings of guilt, sadness and uselessness seep into his mind as he grows tired and encounters more and more obstacles on his way. Confronted with the overwhelming sublime vistas of the mountain range, emotions wash over him and bring him to tears. A year earlier Matthiessen lost his second wife to cancer. Memories of her last days grieve him and feelings of guilt of leaving his orphaned children behind constantly besiege him. Like anyone who has chosen to live an independent life, it comes at the cost of doubts and remorse.

Matthiessen who is a Zen apprentice, constantly switches, whenever possible, to his concentration, introspection and Shikantaza exercises. He commits his feelings and doings unadorned to the pages and from all this honest introspection and self-explaining rambling appears a real man of life and blood. And maybe it is all a bit too honest. The narrator at times comes over as arrogant, egotistical and impatient with the ways of the locals. He is aware of it though and writes down how he regrets it. Matthiessen can never entirely shed his American-Ivy League upbringings. He likes to indulge in the ways of the locals but when confronted with their dangerous or unhealthy lives he turns away in a reflex of self-protection. In the preparation of his earlier book, Far Tortuga, he joined a crew of fisherman but when he experiences their true living conditions, he bails out without finishing the voyage. In the Snow Leopard, on his way back, he constantly outdistances his travelling companions (who carry his stuff) in an impatient grumbling pace. At each camp-fire he then regrets his attitude. One cannot but compare it to Eric Newby’s attitude to the locals in the Hindu Kush. How more humane, with its mix of mock-attitude and self-depreciation.

Matthiessen, an ecologist, is mostly interested in nature and wildlife around him. The writer has but a mere descriptive eye for the man-made wonders he sees; when he visits for example the age-old monastery lost between the peaks of the mountain range...

Then he (The Lama) enters the little prayer room that looks out over the snows through its bright blue window. On the walls of the prayer room hang two fine thangkas, or cloth paintings, and the altar wall has figures in both brass and bronze of Karma-pa, the founder of this subsect, (…). On both sides are shelves of ancient scrolls, or ‘books’, as well as thangkas (the old thangkas on the wall are in poor repair, and these rolled-up ones must be even more decrepit). The walls all around are crowded with frescoes and religious paintings, and each corner is cluttered with old treasures, all but lost in musty darkness.

It is a pity. One can only regret that Robert Byron, Chatwin or Norman Douglas are not around to elaborate further and illuminate us with their comments on the architecture of the impressive shey’s and the significance of the old thangkas displayed in the decrepit vaults of the ancient monasteries and anchoretic dungeons.

Matthiessen regularly interrupts the narration of his progress, to tell us about his experimentations with hallucinogens, the story of Siddhartha, how Asian cosmology compares with the findings of ‘modern’ physics and so on. Together with the Kathmandu scenery (his second visit) the book is basically a wrap-up of all the subjects an entire generation of hippy youth gobbled up in the last ten years preceding this book. Rather than giving the book a generous and nostalgic gloss fifty years later, one must conclude that the Snow Leopard, despite its scope, has not aged very well on all levels. At times, it is a bit boring. I suspect the Snow Leopard is one of those cult books that, in the words of journalist H. Anderson, lost their Cool’.

Matthiessen belongs to that post-war generation of writers - adventurers - discoverers who through their books, and to finance their lifestyle, contributed to open a pristine world to a larger public. They are then surprised and lament that the vanguard of encroaching commercial tribes and their reader-adepts following in their wake have destroyed the very wonders they described. They then turn into fierce environmentalist and defenders of the local communities and set-up half efficient organizations to protect what is been destroyed. Alas, all is business. And the Shey Phoksundo National Park, so magisterially described, is no exception. The internet shows that we now can book Snow leopard tours and Matthiessen tours to follow on the steps of the famous writer. Rafting those wild rivers is an option and bungee jumping over the Bhote Koshi River is a must. Matthiessen's son has lately reenacted with his father erstwhile companion Schaller, the trip all over again; walking in his dad's steps. His introduction contributes to the marketing of the Folio society’s beautiful edition of The Snow Leopard, including Schaller's original pictures. Images that are scandalously missing in my first signed edition.

As said Matthiessen is most entertaining when he describes wildlife around him. The shape of the valleys and mountains create natural amphitheater that allows a wide theatrical overview of the surrounding valleys and mounts. Matthiessen and Schaller can follow a flock of Bharal’s chased by a pack of wolves and cheer when an animal is caught or escapes by daring jumps. Schaller confesses that he has never been able to follow so well an entire chase in his long career.

We suspect that the writer is motivated by more than mere scientific interest, when he describes the kinky rutting behavior of the sporting blue sheep: male mounting male, dipping their snouts in the urine streams of the females. Both Matthiessen and Schaller exult whenever there is another ‘beautiful’ penis - lick.

There are a few true nuggets of amused wonder to be found among the 340 pages of the book.

The Nepal government takes yeti seriously, and there is a strict law against killing them. But one of the Arun Valley scientists has a permit to collect one of these creatures, and I asked him what he would do if, one fine morning, a yeti presented itself within fair range; it seemed to me that this decision should not wait for the event. The biologist was unsettled by the question; he had not made this hard decision, or if he had, was not at peace with it.

Cut away a few of the introspective ramblings 
in Matthiessen book and you are left with a wonderfully narrated voyage in the most sublime environments this planet can show. Fortunately for the reader, the overwhelming beauty abounds in 'The Snow Leopard’. The descriptions of the beautiful vistas, the gorgeous natural phenomenon’s and the animal sightings take the overhand from the introspective brooding in the second part of the book. The writing is beautiful too. Matthiessen’s Zen stuff works like John Ruskin’s ‘drawing advice’; to make one stop the time and take in the details’. Matthiessens spiritual exercises help him to 'see the world more clearly and to live with a deeper sense of presence. This and the wonderful trip he does (and of which we are a bit jealous) remains the major attraction of the book. It is not likely to disappear soon.

The trail follows the south bank of the Ghustang, a wild torrent off the Dhaulagiri glacier that cascades down over the rust-colored boulders through a forest of great evergreens, merging farther to the west with the Uttar Ganga and the lower Bheri. Where bamboo appears, four thousand feet below our Dhaulagiri camp, a log bridge crosses the torrent and a trail climbs an open, grassy slope of stolid oaks and lithe wild olives that dance in the silver breeze of the afternoon.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Genre fiction

Genre fiction, also known as popular fiction, is a term used in the book-trade for fictional works written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre, in order to appeal to readers and fans already familiar with that genre. The main genres are crime, fantasy, romance, science fiction, western, inspirational, historical fiction and horror. Genre fiction is generally distinguished from literary fiction and mainly read for entertainment or to escape from reality. Literary Fiction on the contrary provides a means to better understand the reality of the world and to delivers an emotional response.

Saturday, December 28, 2019


One must draw everything one can from words, because it’s the one real treasure a true writer has. Big general ideas are in yesterday’s newspaper. If I like to take a word and turn it over to see its underside, shiny or dull or adorned with motley hues absent on its upperside, it’s not at all out of idle curiosity, one finds all sorts of curious things by studying the underside of a word – unexpected shadows of other words, harmonies between them, hidden beauties that suddenly reveal something beyond the word. Serious wordplay, as I have in mind, is neither a game of chance nor a mere embellishment of style. It’s a new verbal species that the marvelling author offers to the poor reader, who doesn’t want to look; to the good reader, who suddenly sees a completely new facet of an iridescent sentence'. ( Nabokov )

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Reading Oscars 2019

The year is once again steaming towards Christmas and New Year eve, so it is time for a short moment of reflection and appraisal of our readings during the last twelve months. Let’s immediately call Rick on stage to hand him the prize for the:

Best book written by a self-exiled and banned (real and virtual) author 2019 

The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas by Rick Harsch!!!

Rick’s inconveniences remind us that you can still be banned and socially punished in the 21th century for writing a poem. He is a true heir of Jonathan Swift and a faint but very real warning of the world described in Shalamov’s stories. 

(pumping a fist in the air) Free Rick!

Looking at my reading list, I can separate the books I finished and the books I left half-read. Let us look at the unfinished first:

Promising books but unfinished at this moment

Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov 
Forget about Bear Grylls. The ultimate survival guide is written by Poet and Gulag survivor Varlam Shalamov who relates in his stories what you need to do and not do to survive a forced-labor camp in the arctic region for more than a decade. Modern survival manuals miss the most important chapter: How to cope with the horrors inflicted by your fellow men?

Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner
I am a huge fan of both gentlemen and I thought that reading their correspondence would add to the pleasure. It did, but only in an inconclusive manner.

The game by Alessandro Baricco
The Italian philosopher Barrico is trying to explain his public what the ICT is doing to us. He is searching for patterns and explanations in our changing relation with the virtual world. To do that he uses a metaphor that complicates things even more. Never really clear in his explanations our friend Barrico

Last witnesses by Svetlana Alexijevitsj 
Hundreds of chapters of Russian adults remembering how as kids they experienced the loss of their parents and the horror of war. It is again and again the stories like the one my father (who lost his dad in the war) and my father in law ( who lost his mother in the war ) told me. How much can one take?

Curiosités esthétiques by Baudelaire Charles 
Art reviews written by that cursed poet Charles Baudelaire. The title says it all. An esthetic curiosity.

Les Demoiselles de Concarneau by Georges Simenon
I should have finished this one. Well written, awful crime, poignant atmosphere. Maybe it was because it was the third Simenon in a row that I failed to finish it.

La Méditerranée by Fernand Braudel 
Strongly recommended by Rick. The history of the Mediterranean explained by what happened in the mountains and the plains surrounding it. A book demanding full attention. Something I can rarely give nowadays. 

The Outlaw Ocean: Crime and Survival in the Last Untamed Frontier by Ian Urbina
Wanted to read that one, but it just happened that this book is at the bottom of the stack. 

L'Afrique Fantome by Michel Leiris 
Written by a famous sociologist when sociology was not famous yet. Africans and their ghosts. What can you say?

Trois tristes tigres by Guillermo Cabrera Infante 
Good one! Funny and well written, really like it. But again, the pages demand an attention I cannot summon for longer periods.

Gabriela, girofle et cannelle : by Jorge Amado
Not started, no idea what it is about.

The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans by David Abulafia
All the books above have been shoved aside by this one. The three first chapters are brilliant and super interesting. If I’ll manage to keep on gobbling the words and hanging to its phrases, this is the book I likely will finish first.

The three nominees are:

Most likely to be finished soon

Trois tristes tigres by Guillermo Cabrera Infante 
Les Demoiselles de Concarneau by Georges Simenon
The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans by David Abulafia


The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans by David Abulafia

Now let’s turn to the next category, the finished books, which is of course already an important sign of appreciation: 

The Finished books


The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazan 
Surprisingly good book written by a 19th century Countess, novelist, journalist, literary critic, poet, playwright, translator, editor and professor. She looks like your preferred Grandma but she is in fact the Spanish Mother of Naturalism and belief me, she narrates the things like they bloody well are. She didn’t make any friends with this book. Not with the Spanish Aristocracy, nor with the clerics, nor with the politicians. A recommendation! 

Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo
Another great book. A visit to a Mexican Ghost town inhabited by rambling skeletons. Loved it. I even managed to write a short review about it. That means something nowadays.

Scoop: A Novel About Journalists by Evelyn Waugh
Funny, British. A journalistic excursion into Africa during a “Coup d’état”. 
Maybe the story is not even that exaggerated. Which makes it less funny than initially thought.

All the King's by Robert Penn Warren
Great book this one! The narration of a political henchman who loses his soul in the everyday business of Politics. Very well written, with looping describing sentences “à la Gogol” that go nowhere. Loved it, finished it in one go.

Lenz by Georg Büchner
Very short description of a man slipping into insanity. One of the first novels on such a topic.

The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas by Rick Harsch
A milestone! 700 pages of undiluted Rick Harsch, full of Americana and Anti-Americana. 
A prose protest song from the wildest living word – artist alive. A joyful heir of Joyce.
Knowing Him, makes it even more fun. Fcuking Keno!

La Veuve Couderc  and La maison du canal by G. Simenon
A nice discovery this year: my compatriot Georges Simenon. The House by the Canal is an interesting story but the writing is awful. It is of course one of the first of the many hundreds Simenon will write. The Widow Couderc is much better and the writer brilliantly describes a situation which is about to burst. Great writeri

The three nominees are

All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas by Rick Harsch
The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazan 

Winner (Rick has got already his prize): All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren


The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
Can’t really remember what this book was about. A famous writer loving his library? Yes, that will do as a description.

Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski
This book was recommended by a young women I met 2 years ago. “This book describes my Youth” she said. After reading Bukowski sobering narrative of growing up in solitude, with an abusive father, a weak mother and serious social issues, I hope she meant it figuratively. 
I am afraid she didn’t.

Faber & Faber: The Untold Story of a Great Publishing House by Toby Faber
Interesting self-adulation of a famous publishing house. Interesting because printing and selling books involves big risks and needs good business sense. Not for Romantics.

Homage to QWERTYUIOP by Anthony Burgess
Love Burgess. This is British wit as we love it. Intelligent, sharp, cultured. 

Les routages en course et en croisière by Jean-Yves Bernot
Computer aided navigation, Meteorology and Yacht race strategy by one of the most famous “routeurs” of sailing records. Love the books by Bernot for their sheer intelligence. The “Homo Ludens” at his best.


Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Il donnait des baffes à la bonne

  « C'est exactement, l'histoire du chimpanzé de ma mère. Quand elle l'a acheté, il était maigre, il puait la misère, mais je n 'ai jamais vu un singe aussi affectueux. On lui a donné des noix de coco, on l'a gavé de bananes, il est devenu fort comme un Turc, il donnait des baffes à la bonne. Il a fallu appeler les pompiers... »

Topaz / Marcel Pagnol

Monday, October 14, 2019

The famous literary canon compiled by Pierre Boncenne and presented by Bernard Pivot, boasted to list the 2500 best books worth reading in a lifetime. 

In the last pages of “La Bibliothèque Idéale”, the Nobel prize winners were listed according to their nationality.  As the “Bibliothèque” was printed in 1988, the last winner mentioned was the 1987 laureate Joseph Brodsky. 

I was curious to know how many of the future Nobel prize winners Boncenne could predict and till what year his foresight stretched.

I selected all winners since 1988 and checked their names in the glossary with surprising results :

1988: Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt) listed in 1987 as one of the ten best writers from the Maghreb
1989: Camilo Cela (Spain) listed in 1987 as one of the fifty best writers from Spain 
1990: Octavio Paz (Mexico) listed in 1987 as one of the ten best writers from Latin America 
1991: Nadine Gordimer (South Africa) missed !
1992: Derek Walcott (St Lucia) missed !
1993: Toni Morrison (USA) missed !
1994: Kenzaburo Oe (Japan) listed in 1987 as one of the fifty best writers from Asia 
1995: Seamus Heaney (Ireland) missed !
1996: Wislawa Szymborska (Poland) missed !
1997: Dario Fo (Italy) missed !
1998: Jose Saramago (Portugal) listed in 1987 as one of the fifty best writers from Portugal and Brasil 
1999: Gunther Grass (Germany) listed in 1987 as one of the twenty-five best writers from Germany 
2000: Gao Xingjian (China) missed!
2001: Vidiadhar Naipaul (India) listed in 1987 as one of the fifty best writers from Asia 
2002: Imre Kertesz (Hungary) missed !
2003: John Coetzee (South Africa) listed in 1987 as one of the fifty best writers from England ( British Commenwealth ) 
2004: Elfriede Jelinek (Austria) missed !
2005: Harold Pinter (Britain) listed in 1987 as one of the fifty best writers for theater. 
2006: Orhan Pamuk (Turkey) missed !
2007: Doris Lessing (Britain) listed in 1987 as one of the twenty-five best writers from England 
2008: Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio (France) in 1987 listed as one of the fifty best writers from France
2009: Herta Muller (Germany) missed !
2010: Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru) in 1987 listed as one of the ten best writers from Latin America
2011: Tomas Transtroemer (Sweden) missed !
2012: Mo Yan (China) missed !
2013: Alice Munro (Canada) missed !
2014: Patrick Modiano (France) listed in 1987 as one of the fifty best writers from France 
2015: Svetlana Alexievich (Belarus) missed !
2016: Bob Dylan (USA) missed for obvious reason
2017: Kazuo Ishiguro (Britain) missed
2018: Olga Tokarczuk (Poland) missed !
2019: Peter Handke (Austria) missed !

This means that they predicted Modiano’s reputation 26 years in advance!
Most impressive is Mario Vargas Llosa’s record, of whom in 1987 it was already obvious that he was one of the greatest talents in the Spanish language but who received the price only 22 years later!

Sunday, October 6, 2019

The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas by Rick Harsch

I've had the pleasure to be an early reader of Rick Harsch's latest novel "The manifold destiny of Eddie Vegas”. It is a very entertaining book, exceptionally well written and with a theme that will certainly unsettle you with its terrible truths.

While “The Manifold Destiny” is written for the experienced reader of sophisticate taste, Rick Harsch, devoid of the usual authorial arrogance, respects and is kind to his audience. Even if his book is written in an elaborate language and artfully crafted sentences there is always sufficient “story" to pique your curiosity and enough entertaining things unfolding on the pages to keep you reading all along the 700 pages. That and the manageable length of each chapter is a relief from the doorstoppers which seem to be so fashionable nowadays! Unlike the Gaddises, the Wallaces and other Don Dellilo behemoths, Harsch's works come in an acceptable and digestible word - count format. 

In the "Manifold Destiny" two storylines develop parallel to each other. Both narrative arcs are separated by a few hundred years but merge towards each other as the narration reaches the end. One storyline develops in the present and follows two young men on their peregrinations between Europe and the USA, with the occasional flash-back to recent history: Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. Both men wrestle with father - issues at the same time their fathers struggle with their own toxic legacy.

The second storyline describes the adventures of the earlier forefathers of the main character, each of them a witness of, and a minor player in those bygone periods of heroic Americana myth: The Mountain Men, the Oregon trail, the Gold rush, the Indian wars, the Boot-legging...

Harsch debunks these historical and heroically chunks of Americana by reminding the reader that what drives these “heroic times” is nothing more than opportunism, greed, violence, racism, genocide and a continent-wide ecocide. The chapters playing out in the "present time" (Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam) do not need to be demythologized as they are remembered in our collective memory as violent moments causing enormous damages to indigenous populations. Still, here too, Harsch digs up lesser known horrific facts to avoid any possible tendency to describe war as heroic: Psychological warfare in Vietnam, Commercial competition of the private military militias in the Iraq, war crimes in Afghanistan and the blind terror of the all-seeing drones.

Harsch is at times funny, sad, angry or serious, but the total world view resulting from all this is bleak. The characters seem to move around on the whim and without clear goals. As already made clear in the witty title of the book, man’s destiny, (if destiny there is), or multiple destinies are largely dependent on the roll of the dice or the shuffle of the cards. 

The metaphor of poker, or gambling in general, is seeping through all chapters.  That one finds himself in an uncomfortable situation is often caused by a random chain of events.
"Fucking Keno" is after all the memorable first and damning opening sentence.

The feature of this novel, most likely to delight even the most blasé reader, is Rick Harsch exciting writing. Harsch is a true word - wizard, a sentence - crafter of rare talent. Cunningly and with a permanent twinkle in the eye he hand-picks words, kneads them to his liking and assemble them in elaborate phrases. His recounting of the history of the American West, using a vast array of highly sophisticated narrative technique has something highly eclectic and comic at the same time. Imagine James Joyce rephrasing the stories of Fennimore Cooper, De Lillo editing the action scenes written by Sebastian Junger or Gaddis correcting Raymond Chandler. Understandably, it is not an easy book, it is after all aimed at the more experienced readers.  Any confidence with the literary techniques of American Pomo or Modernism will help appreciate the skills deployed in the novel. Reading notes are the “rigeur" for those who intend to fully enjoy the read. 

And a great read it is. Harsch shows he is really a Master of the Word. At key moments of the novel, Harsch stops assembling sentences and offers the reader only words. Words in a series of lists; multiple page long lists of seemingly random words, you are likely to skim to proceed for further impatient reading. But these lists, which should be read attentively, preferably viva voce as in a religious litany, contain more than the eye first notices. 

The last list, when it’s terrible secret dawns on you, will certainly shock you.

Rick Harsch has with his "Manifold destiny of Eddy Vegas” written a Masterpiece and as far as I am concerned, as good a candidate for the “Great American Novel” as any other more celebrated book.

You might argue that Harsch is lesser known than his best-selling peers.

That’s my point: 

So was Melville in his days.

Highly recommended !