I’m continuing a Nonfiction November focus with reviews of two recently (re-)released memoirs about women spending time in the Arctic north of Norway. I enjoy reading about survival in extreme situations – it’s the best kind of armchair traveling because you don’t have to experience the cold and privation for yourself.
A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter (1938; English text, 1954)
[Translated by Jane Degras]
In 1934, Ritter, an Austrian painter, joined her husband Hermann for a year in Spitsbergen. He’d participated in a scientific expedition and caught the Arctic bug, it seems, for he stayed on to fish and hunt. They shared a small, remote hut with a Norwegian trapper, Karl. Ritter was utterly unprepared for the daily struggle, having expected a year’s cozy retreat: “I could stay by the warm stove in the hut, knit socks, paint from the window, read thick books in the remote quiet and, not least, sleep to my heart’s content.” Before long she was disabused of her rosy vision. “It’s a ghastly country, I think to myself. Nothing but water, fog, and rain.” The stove failed. Dry goods ran out; they relied on fresh seal meat. Would they get enough vitamins? she worried. Every time Hermann and Karl set off hunting, leaving her alone in the hut, she feared they wouldn’t return. And soon the 132 straight days of darkness set in.
I was fascinated by the details of Ritter’s daily tasks, but also by how her perspective on the landscape changed. No longer a bleak wilderness, it became a tableau of grandeur. “A deep blue-green, the mountains rear up into a turquoise-coloured sky. From the mountaintops broad glaciers glittering in the sun flow down into the fjord.” She thought of the Arctic almost as a site of spiritual pilgrimage, where all that isn’t elemental falls away. “Forgotten are all externals; here everything is concerned with simple being.” The year is as if outside of time: she never reminisces about her life back home, and barely mentions their daughter. By the end you see that the experience has changed her: she’ll never fret over trivial things again. She lived to age 103 (only dying in 2000), so clearly the time in the Arctic did her no harm.
Ritter wrote only this one book. A travel classic, it has never been out of print in German but has been for 50 years in the UK. Pushkin Press is reissuing the English text on the 21st with a foreword by Sara Wheeler, a few period photographs and a hand-drawn map by Neil Gower.
With thanks to Pushkin Press for the free copy for review.
Notes: Michelle Paver drew heavily on this book when creating the setting for Dark Matter. (There’s even a bear post outside the Ritters’ hut.)
I found some photos of the Ritters’ hut here.
(Although I did not plan it this way, this book also ties in with German Literature Month!)
An Ode to Darkness by Sigri Sandberg (2019)
[Translated by Siân Mackie]
Ritter’s book is a jumping-off point for Norwegian journalist Sandberg’s investigation of darkness as both a physical fact and a cultural construct. She travels alone from her home in Oslo to her cabin in the mountains at Finse, 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Ninety percent of Norway’s wildlife sleeps through the winter, and she often wishes she could hibernate as well. Although she only commits to five days in the far north compared to Ritter’s year, she experiences the same range of emotions, starting with a primitive fear of nature and the dark.
It is a fundamental truth that darkness does not exist from an astronomical standpoint. Happy fact. I’m willing to accept this. I try to find it comforting, helpful. But I still struggle to completely believe that darkness does not actually exist. Because what does it matter to a small, poorly designed human whether darkness is real or perceived? And what about the black holes in the universe, what about dark matter, what about the night sky and the threats against it, and … and now I’m exhausted. I’m done for the day. I feel so small, and I’m tired of being afraid.
Over the course of the book she talks to scientists about the human need for sleep and sunshine, discusses solitude and dark sky initiatives, and quotes from a number of poets, especially Jon Fosse, “Norway’s greatest writer,” who often employs metaphors of light and dark: “Deep inside me / … it was like the empty darkness was shining”.
In occasional passages labeled “Christiane” Sandberg also recounts fragments of Ritter’s experiences. I read Sandberg’s book first, so these served as a tantalizing introduction to A Woman in the Polar Night. “Is there anywhere as silent as a white winter plateau on a windless day? And how long can anyone spend alone before they start to feel, like Christiane did, as if their very being is disintegrating?”
This is just the sort of wide-ranging nonfiction I love; it intersperses biographical and autobiographical information with scientific and cultural observations.
[Another recent book tries to do a similar thing but is less successful – partially due to the author’s youthful optimism, but also due to the rambly, shallow nature of the writing. (My review will be in the November 29th issue of the Times Literary Supplement.)]
With thanks to Sphere for the free copy for review.
Related reading: This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich
Do you like reading about polar exploration, or life’s extremes in general?
This is my second year participating in R.I.P. – Readers Imbibing Peril, now in its 14th year. I assembled a lovely pile of magical or spooky reads to last me through October and noticed they were almost all by women, so I decided to make it an all-female challenge (yes, even with a Dahl title – see below) this year. I’m in the middle of another book and have a few more awaiting me, but with just two weeks left in the month I don’t know if I’ll manage to follow up this post with a Part II. At any rate, these first four were solid selections: classic ghost stories, children’s fantasy, a horror novella about an evil child, and an Arctic chiller.
Fear: Tales of Terror and Suspense (selected by Roald Dahl) (2017)
“Spookiness is, after all, the real purpose of the ghost story. It should give you the creeps and disturb your thoughts.”
I was sent this selection of Dahl-curated ghost stories as part of a book bundle in advance of a blog tour for Roald Dahl Day last year. For now I’ve read just the five stories by women, and will polish off the rest next year.
This collection originated from a television series on ghost stories that Dahl proposed for the American market in 1958 (the pilot was poorly received and it never got made). For his research he read nearly 750 ghost stories and whittled them down to the top 24. Women authors dominated early on in the selection process, but by the end the genders came out nearly even, with 13 men and 11 women. It’s disappointing, then, that only five of the 14 stories included here are by women – one of whom gets two entries, so there’s just four female authors recognized. And this even though Dahl claims that, when it comes to ghost stories, “it is the women who have written some of the very best ones.”
Any road, these are the five stories I read, all of which I found suitably creepy, though the Wharton is overlong. Each one pivots on a moment when the narrator realizes that a character they have been interacting with is actually dead. Even if you’ve seen the twist coming, there’s still a little clench of the heart when you have it confirmed by a third party.
“Harry” and “Christmas Meeting” by Rosemary Timperley: A little girl who survived a murder attempt is reclaimed by her late brother; a woman meets a century-dead author one lonely holiday – I liked that in this one each character penetrates the other’s time period.
“The Corner Shop” by Cynthia Asquith: An inviting antique shop is run by two young women during the day, but by a somber old man in the evenings. He likes to give his customers a good deal to atone for his miserly actions of the past.
“The Telephone” by Mary Treadgold: A man continues communicating with his dead ex-wife via the phone line.
“Afterward” by Edith Wharton: An American couple settles in a home in Dorset, and the husband disappears, after a dodgy business deal, in the company of a mysterious stranger.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (1968)
This was my second attempt with the late Le Guin, who would be turning 90 on the 21st; I didn’t get far at all with a buddy read of The Left Hand of Darkness last year. I enjoyed this a fair bit more, perhaps because it’s meant for children – I reckon I would have liked it most when I was ages nine to 11 and obsessed with various series of fantasy novels featuring dragons.
Long before Harry Potter was a glimmer, this was the archetypal story of a boy wizard learning magic at school. Ged meets many cryptic mentors and realizes that naming a thing gives you power over it. In his rivalry with the other boys, he accidentally releases a shadow beast and has to try to gain back control of it. It’s slightly difficult to keep on top of all the names and places (Le Guin created a whole archipelago, which you can see in the opening map) and I found my interest waning after the halfway point, but I did love the scene of Ged fighting with a dragon.
A favorite passage: “But you must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on the act. … A wizard’s power of Changing and of Summoning can shake the balance of the world.”
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing (1988)
Shelve this alongside We Need to Talk about Kevin as a book to make you rethink having kids. Harriet and David Lovatt buy a large Victorian house within commuting distance of London and dream of filling it with children – six, eight; however many. Their first four children are all they’d hoped for, if not spaced out as much as they intended. The Lovatts enjoy hosting the extended family at Easter and Christmas and during the summer holidays. Although there are good-natured jokes about the couple’s fertility, everyone enjoys the cozy, bustling atmosphere. “The Lovatts were a happy family. It was what they had chosen and what they deserved.”
[MILD SPOILERS ENSUE]
Everything changes with pregnancy #5, which is different right from the off. This “savage thing inside her” is kicking Harriet black and blue from the inside and grown to full term by eight months. When Ben is born Harriet thinks, “He’s like a troll, or a goblin.” Like a succubus, he sucks her dry, biting her nipples black and blue; he screams and thrashes non-stop; he’s freakishly strong and insatiably hungry. He strangles house pets and eats a raw chicken with his bare hands. Although he learns basic language and social skills from watching his older siblings and mimicking his idols from a motorcycle gang, something in him is not human. Yet Harriet cannot bear to leave Ben to rot in an institution.
At first I wondered if this was a picture of an extremely autistic child, but Lessing makes the supernatural element clear. “We are being punished,” Harriet says to David. “For presuming … we could be happy.” I think I was waiting for a few more horrific moments and a climactic ending, whereas Lessing almost normalizes Ben, making him part of a gang of half-feral youths who rampage around late-1980s Britain (and she took up his story in a sequel, Ben in the World). But I raced through this in just a few days and enjoyed the way dread overlays the fable-like simplicity of the family’s early life.
Dark Matter: A Ghost Story by Michelle Paver (2010)
I read Paver’s Thin Air as part of last year’s R.I.P. challenge and it was very similar: a 1930s setting, an all-male adventure, an extreme climate (in that case: the Himalayas). Most of Dark Matter is presented as a journal written by Jack Miller, a lower-class lad who wanted to become a physicist but had to make a living as a clerk instead. He feels he doesn’t truly belong among the wealthier chaps on this Arctic expedition, but decides this is his big chance and he’s not going to give it up.
Even as the others drop out due to bereavement and illness, he stays the course, continuing to gather meteorological data and radio it back to England from this bleak settlement in the far north of Norway. For weeks his only company is a pack of sled dogs, and his grasp on reality becomes shaky as he begins to be visited by the ghost of a trapper who was tortured to death nearby – “the one who walks again.” Paver’s historical thrillers are extremely readable. I tore through this, yet never really found it scary.
Note: This book is the subject of the Bookshop Band song “Steady On” (video here).
And, alas, three DNFs:
The Wych Elm by Tana French – French writes really fluid prose and inhabits the mind of a young man with admirable imagination. I read the first 100 pages and skimmed another 50 and STILL hadn’t gotten to the main event the blurb heralds: finding a skull in the wych elm in the garden at Ivy House. I kept thinking, “Can we get on with it? Let’s cut to the chase!” I have had French’s work highly recommended so may well try her again.
The Hoarder by Jess Kidd – Things in Jars was terrific; I thought Kidd’s back catalogue couldn’t fail to draw me in. This was entertaining enough that I made it to page 152, if far too similar to Jars (vice versa, really, as this came first; ghosts/saints only the main character sees; a transgender landlady/housekeeper); I then found that picking it back up didn’t appeal at all. Maud Drennan is a carer to a grumpy giant of a man named Cathal Flood whose home is chock-a-block with stuff. What happened to his wife? And to Maud’s sister? Who cares!
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell – Purcell is now on her third Gothic novel in three years. I had a stab at her first and it was distinctly okay. I read the first 24 pages and skimmed to p. 87. Reminiscent of The Shadow Hour, The Familiars, etc.
Have you been reading anything fantastical or spooky this October?
By Diane Ackerman
A perfect tonic to books like The Sixth Extinction, this is an intriguing and inspiring look at how some of the world’s brightest minds are working to mitigate the negative impacts we have had on the environment and improve human life through technology. As in David R. Boyd’s The Optimistic Environmentalist, Ackerman highlights some innovative programs that are working to improve the environment. Part 1 is the weakest – most of us are already all too aware of how we’ve trashed nature – but the book gets stronger as it goes on. My favorite chapters were the last five, about 3D printing, bionic body parts and human–animal hybrids created for medical use, and how epigenetics and the microbial life we all harbor might influence our personality and behavior more than we think.
By Joanna Connors
Connors was a young reporter running late for an assignment for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer when she was raped in an empty theatre on the Case Western campus. Using present-tense narration, she makes the events of 1984 feel as if they happened yesterday. It wasn’t until 2005 that Connors, about to send her daughter off to college, felt the urge to go public about her experience. “I will find you,” her rapist had warned her as he released her from the theatre, but she turned the words back on him, locating his family and learning everything she could about what made him a repeat criminal. She never uses this to explain away what he did, but it gives her the necessary compassion to visit the man’s grave. This is an excellent work of reconstruction and investigative reporting.
By Åsne Seierstad
An utterly engrossing account of Anders Behring Breivik’s July 22, 2011 attacks on an Oslo government building (8 dead) and the political youth camp on the island of Utøya (69 killed). Over half of this hefty tome is prologue: Breivik’s life story, plus occasional chapters giving engaging portraits of his teenage victims. The massacre itself, along with initial interrogations and identification of the dead, takes up two long chapters totaling about 100 pages – best devoured in one big gulp when you’re feeling strong. It’s hard to read, but brilliantly rendered. Anyone with an interest in psychology or criminology will find the insights into Breivik’s personality fascinating. This is a book about love and empathy: what they can achieve; what happens when they are absent. It shows how wide the ripples of one person’s actions can be, but also how deep individual motivation goes. All wrapped up in a gripping true crime narrative. Doubtless one of the best books I will read this year.
By Bill Streever
“Cold is a part of day-to-day life, but we often isolate ourselves from it, hiding in overheated houses and retreating to overheated climates, all without understanding what we so eagerly avoid.” In 12 chapters spanning one year, Streever covers every topic related to the cold that you could imagine: polar exploration, temperature scales, extreme weather events (especially the School Children’s Blizzard of 1888 and the “Year without Summer,” 1815), ice ages, cryogenics technology, and on and on. There’s also a travel element, with Streever regularly recording where he is and what the temperature is, starting in his home turf of Anchorage, Alaska. My favorite chapters were February and March, about the development of refrigeration and air conditioning and cold-weather apparel, respectively.
By Mary Elizabeth Williams
“SPOILER: I lived,” the Salon journalist begins her bittersweet memoir of having Stage 4 metastatic melanoma. In August 2010 she had a several-millimeter scab on her head surgically removed. When the cancer came back a year and a half later, this time in her lungs as well as on her back, she had the extreme good luck of qualifying for an immunotherapy trial that straight up cured her. It’s an encouraging story you don’t often hear in a cancer memoir. On the other hand, her father-in-law’s esophageal cancer and her best friend Debbie’s ovarian cancer simply went from bad to worse. As the title suggests, Williams’s tone vacillates between despair and hope, but her writing is always wry and conversational.
(For each one, read my full Goodreads review by clicking on the title link.)