Monday, December 13, 2021

Buffon's Ounce, the lonza leggera, and The Long Walk

Slawomir Rawicz was a Polish military officer in World War II who in the 1950s dictated to a ghost-writer a stirring account of how he and several companions engineered their escape from a Siberian prison camp, crossed the Gobi Desert, and then trekked over the Himalayas to safety in British India. Among the incidents he related was a close encounter with two Abominable Snowmen. Just by itself that latter claim might have raised eyebrows, and in fact the consensus now is that Rawicz's account, which was published in 1956 as The Long Walk, celebrated for decades as both an adventure yarn and an anti-Soviet testimony, and eventually filmed (as The Way Back) by Peter Weir, is essentially fictional. Still, at least it makes a good story.

I'm not the only one who has noted the likely influence of Rawicz's book on Harry Mathews's novel Tlooth, which came out in book form in 1966 after having been serialized in the Paris Review. Tlooth, like The Long Walk, describes a clever escape from Siberia and a southward journey over the Himalayas. (It differs from the earlier book in involving, among other things, dental malpractice, obscure religious denominations, and an exploding baseball.) There are no yetis in Mathews's book, but there is a cryptic if not cryptozoological sighting in a chapter entitled "Buffon's Ounce." The narrator and his companions reach a high pass:
There, in midafternoon, a shout stopped us.

"Look!" Beverley pointed uphill.

I saw a pale spotted creature clamber catfashion over snows into the rocks.

Robin remarked, "Una lonza leggiera e presta molto."
That's the last we hear of the animal. The Italian line is from the first canto of the Inferno, where Dante is brought up short by three beasts, the third of which is "a lithe and very swift leopard" — except that what Dante actually meant by lonza has been long debated. Which brings us to the meaning, otherwise unexplained, of the title of the chapter. "Buffon" is Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, a French naturalist known, among other things, for disparaging the animals of the New World as being inferior to those of the Old (to the fury of Jefferson*), and "ounce" (or in French, "once") is an obsolete word for a large wild feline, based on an etymological misunderstanding of a derivitive of the Latin word "lynx." (A form like "lonza" was misinterpreted as "l'onza.) What Buffon described — he was the first Westerner to do so — was in fact the snow leopard, shown above in an 18th-century engraving based on his work.

But there's one more weird twist to this convoluted story. Tlooth was published, as I said, in the Paris Review. Its author jokingly claimed that he was often mistakenly assumed to have been in the CIA, and even wrote a novel (My Life in CIA) based on that premise. One reason that Mathews might have plausibly been assumed to have been in the CIA was his connection with the Paris Review, one of whose co-founders, the writer Peter Matthiessen, later admitted that he had used the magazine as cover for his CIA work. In 1979 Matthiessen would win the National Book Award for a book about his travels in the Himalayas. Its title was The Snow Leopard.

* And thus a tale for another time: Jefferson's obsession with the remains of the extinct American mastodon, Charles Willson Peale's excavation of a specimen of the same, Peale's painting of his excavation, an album called Kew. Rhone inspired by the painting, a book, celebrating the album, that includes a contribution by Harry Mathews...


Michael Leddy said...

Do you sometimes — and I’m not joking — get the feeling that something’s in a book so that you alone will figure it out?

Chris said...

I do with Harry Mathews. Or more often so that someone else will alone figure it out.