A book that bears re-reading, that is my test for deciding how good and valuable a book is. It is not often that I re-read books, and when I do I am usually disappointed. I can remember taking Lord of the Rings and Gormenghast on long trips abroad, and being surprised that the magic of the first reading was not there a second time around. The one book that has never disappointed me through several re-readings is The Snow Leopard by Pater Matthiessen, which is why, if I had to recommend just one book, this would be the one. It is my ‘desert island’ book – there is so much to read in it. It has dense passages about the meaning of life, love and death, which I need to mull over. But it also has beautiful descriptions of nature and scenery, which are a joy to read again and again; and there is an adventure to keep you turning the pages.
At one level it is quite a simple adventure story, as the author and a geologist/naturalist companion, travel through remote Himalayan mountains in North West Nepal, up towards Tibet. It is certainly the story of a quest – to study Bhirwal (blue sheep), and hopefully to see the reclusive snow leopard. But interwoven into the book are many other themes and quests. Much of the book is about relationships, both with his traveling companion and with his wife who is referred to as ‘D’. It discusses ideas about death and mourning. In some of its most intense passages, it talks about the death of his wife from cancer, before the trip. The author writes about his struggle to come to terms with her death. They had a complex relationship and had discussed getting divorced before she got ill. It talks about his grief and his guilt, and his search for truth and meaning in life.
The Snow Leopard contains a lot of discussion about Buddhist ideas and meditation, as well as about other ancient cultures. This catches my imagination as it takes me back and back in time. I really enjoy the way the book mixes things that are easy to enjoy – the adventure and the descriptions – with things that are much more difficult to digest, but which bear many re-readings. These focus on the author’s search for meaning in his life. Each time I read the book, I feel I gain new insights, as my different life experiences at different times in my life have made me focus on different aspects of the book.
Some idea of the range of this book can be grasped from the two quotations below. They are only pages apart. In the first he is talking about the death of his wife, and it is almost unbearably poignant. Their relationship was not straight forward – they had decided to divorce not long before she died:
One day, knowing she was dying, D remarked. ‘Isn’t it queer? This is one of the happiest times in all my life.’ And another day, she asked me shyly what would happen if she should have a miraculous recovery – would we love each other still, and stay together, or would the old problems rise again to spoil things as before? I didn’t know, and that is what I said. We had tried to be honest, and anyway, D would not have been fooled. I shrugged unhappily, she winced, then we both laughed. (pp105-6)
The second quotation gives a good example of his intensely observed nature writing, which is often a mixture of vivid observation and mysticism. In this example he is observing a wolf unsuccessfully stalking a bharal (blue) sheep:
In the frozen air, the whole mountain is taut; the silence rings. The sheep’s flanks quake, and the wolves are panting; otherwise all is still, as if the arrangement of pale shapes held the world together. Then I breathe, and the mountain breathes, setting the world in motion once again. (p184)
I am envious of this facility to sit so still and just observe so acutely, and I really do recommend you read this book. You will not be disappointed.
After many years living in Tottenham, Glyn moved to Dolgellau in 2009 to be nearer the mountains. He first came across The Snow Leopard during a trip to Nepal in 1989. He enjoys reading books about mountain expeditions. Other such books he would recommend would include Annapurna by Maurice Herzog, The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, as well as any of the books by HW Tilman and Eric Shipton.