All The things one might do there – sea-level measurements, measurements of the ice thickness using the echo so that subsequent generations could one day establish whether the inland ice was increasing or decreasing. Gravity measurements, measurements of glacier motion. So many measurements! The question of how low the temperature fell there in the winter’s night was of the greatest general interest.
Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire (2019)
Published by Seagull Books
Here I am differing with Alfred Wegener, esteemed proponent of continental drift as depicted by Jo Lendle, but then I’m not a scientist. However, I am fascinated by them. They come across as a different species sometime. I mean who in their right mind would choose to explore Greenland, not once, not twice, not even thrice but four times? Particularly given the previous spectacular failures of Scott and Shackleton in the Antarctic. It’s definitely a(n alien) mindset, but one I was happy to explore comfortably from my reading chair (😃) while Scotland was swathed in snow at the beginning of 2021. Because some books demand that they be read in the depths of winter – no other time will do.
In his afterword Lendle explains that he has used literary licence and compressed Wegener’s four exploratory missions to Greenland into three. Historians beware! Not an issue for me, however, as I’m pretty sure that the general trajectory of Wegener’s life and motivations will be true. Alfred Wegener was the son of a clergyman man who in childhood lost an elder brother, when he fell through the ice of a Berlin canal. Was this the beginning of his fascination with the cold things of the earth? His pursuit of the scientific not exactly supported by his father, but Wegener went his own way anyway. It led to some incredible experiences – I’ll just mention one here – the day Wegener threw his fiancée out off a hot air balloon … mid-flight!
(She married him anyway!!!)
The novel is written using free indirect speech, so there is no dialogue. As a result, I admit I found it dry and distanced in parts. However, when we get to the field trips, to the realities of polar exploration – the logistics and detail of which must be based on surviving diaries – then you feel the cold, the battle for survIval, and the absolute lack of sentimentality towards the animals, who are there to work, or, when the going gets tough, to be eaten.
As for the final doomed trip, for which Wegener had left behind his wife and two daughters, the writing is on the late thawing summer ice. One thing leads to another with the odds of success becoming gradually more improbable until they become impossible. Wegener’s final trek through the swirling ice-field in November 1930 is a finely imagined hallucinatory journey …
… and as he placed his final footprints in the snow, never was I in more glad of a hot toddy. Seated in my reading chair in Scotland, I was in exactly the right place!