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Mr. Horace Engdahl, please meet Mr. Peter Matthiessen

The National Book Foundation announced the finalists for the 2008 National Book Awards this month, and as always it's an interesting — and argument-provoking — list.

The finalists for fiction include two debut authors, Rachel Kushner for Telex from Cuba and Salvatore Scibona for The End, and Aleksandar Hemon for his second book, The Lazarus Project. All three novels focus on the immigrant experience in America.

The other two finalists are accomplished authors who already have major awards under their belts. One is Marilynne Robinson, nominated for Home (see review above). The other is Peter Matthiessen for Shadow Country, his epic one-volume transformation of an even more epic trilogy.

I was happy to see Matthiessen's nomination for several reasons. I loved Shadow Country, a masterful saga about a historical figure, Edgar Watson. A century ago he was among the first to see the vast economic potential of Southwest Florida, building an empire of sugar plantations and other businesses on the edge of the Everglades. He was also a violent, secretive man who may have been a multiple murderer — and who was shot to pieces by a posse of his neighbors.

It's a fascinating, complex story, and Matthiessen more than does it justice. He won a National Book Award for nonfiction in 1979 for The Snow Leopard, but Shadow Country may be his great work, so I'm rooting for him. The awards will be announced Nov. 19.

Matthiessen's nomination also reminded me of another much-discussed recent literary award — or rather, the much-discussed remarks by one of the judges.

In September, Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the award jury for the Nobel Prize for literature, raised hackles on this side of the pond with his dismissive remarks about American literature.

Engdahl said that American writers don't get much traction for Nobels (the last one went to Toni Morrison in 1993) because they are "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture."

"The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," Engdahl said. "That ignorance is restraining."

A few weeks later, the Nobel was awarded to French writer Jean- Marie Gustave Le Clezio. He has a successful career in Europe but is little read or translated here; his win made such fairly well-read folks as David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, and David Ulin, book editor of the Los Angeles Times, (and me) say, "Um, who?"

Not to take anything away from Le Clezio (and if, like me, you're interested in sampling his writing, the New Yorker last week published his short story The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea in English). What we've found out about him here in our isolated land sounds quite interesting. He is widely praised for, among other things, his writing about other cultures and his environmental concerns.

But Engdahl's notion of American authors seems a little, well, insular. He might want to learn a bit about Matthiessen, an American author deeply engaged with the wider world.

In a writing career that has stretched more than half a century, Matthiessen has published 10 books of fiction and 21 of nonfiction. He has written with a trademark combination of meticulous research and lyrical passion about the cloud forests of South America, the fragile habitats of Africa, the astonishing international travels of cranes. He has written books about the men who make a hard living fishing off Long Island, the horrific injustices committed against American Indians and the impact of the modern world on the land of Nepal and the Amazon River basin.

Long an influential environmentalist and human rights activist, Matthiessen has written with deep insight about the natural world and human culture on every continent. He is also a Zen Buddhist priest.

Too sensitive to trends in his own mass culture? Insular? Ignorant? I'm not nominating Matthiessen for a Nobel (although it's not a bad idea). He is simply one of many American writers who embrace and confront the world as fearlessly and creatively as writers in any other land.

Horace Engdahl ought to get out a little more.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Mr. Horace Engdahl, please meet Mr. Peter Matthiessen 10/25/08 [Last modified: Sunday, October 26, 2008 1:10pm]

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