Driving back from Burlington this afternoon, I listened to a CD my father had made and mailed me, of Peter Matthiessen reading The Snow Leopard. Matthiessen’s voice is deep-hued and burled at the edges, reminding me not of a smoker’s rasp but of hands gnarled and split from hard physical work. The passage he read had such sorrow, describing lying awake in a muddy and manure-filled hut in the rain, thinking of his eight-year-old son halfway around the world, a child who had lost his mother to cancer the previous year. Matthiessen read a letter his boy had sent him, asking him please to return by Thanksgiving. Matthiessen believes he will not be able to fulfill his son’s request.
Against this personal grief, Matthiessen contextualizes the abysmal poverty of India, the great and unmitigated human suffering of Calcutta, while he also sees a land saturated in hundreds of years of religion. With his immense skill, Matthiessen writes with a profundity that neither glorifies his own misery, nor is abashed by the sheer scale of impoverishment. His writing examines both his grief and a nation’s misery by keen attentiveness, and then he steps back, removes himself just one pace.
A few weeks ago, when I spoke with another adult about an occurrence in my younger daughter’s life, I felt a presence in my chest, a pressure against my ribs, real as flesh. Walking up the staircase in that old building, I thought, This is grief. This is how it feels to hold grief in my body. That same afternoon, driving through Hardwick, I passed a woman I knew by acquaintance. She sat in her car, windows rolled up, one hand clenched over her lower jaw, her face contorted in grievous weeping. I stopped for an errand in town and then walked back along the street, with no particular plan, only the mere thought to tap on her window and say, I know you. You and I, we are much the same. But I found only the empty space on the pavement and a smear of rain and split oil, with its dirty stamp of a rainbow.
Listening to Matthiessen read, I saw how he took his particular misfortune and, through writing, opened it up to the human arena of loss and desire, against a background of the beauty inherent in this transient world.