Read it on the autobahn

Robert Macfarlane

  • The Discovery of Slowness by Sten Nadolny, translated by Ralph Freedman
    Canongate, 311 pp, £10.99, September 2003, ISBN 1 84195 403 9

John Franklin (1786-1847) was the most famous vanisher of the Victorian era. He joined the Navy as a midshipman at the age of 14, and fought in the battles of Copenhagen and Trafalgar. When peace with the French broke out, he turned his attention to Arctic exploration, and in particular to solving the conundrum of the Northwest Passage, the mythical clear-water route which would, if it existed, link the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans above the northern coast of the American continent. The first expedition Franklin led to the Arctic was an arduous overland journey from Hudson Bay to the shores of the so-called Polar Ocean east of the Coppermine River. Between 1819 and 1822, Franklin and his twenty-strong team covered 5550 miles on foot. Their expedition was a triumph of surveying – they managed to chart hundreds of miles of previously unknown coastline – but their inexperience in polar travel and inadequate supplies meant that the journey back to civilisation, across the ‘Barren Ground’, turned into a catastrophe. Food ran out while they were still days from safety, and the men were forced to eat lichen, their belts and their boots (which they boiled up to make leather soup). Nine men died of starvation. One of the French-Canadian guides, suspected of cannibalism, was executed.

There followed a career as a travel writer and salon-goer (‘the man who ate his boots’ was Franklin’s tag-line), a second long Arctic expedition, and a controversial spell as Governor of Van Diemen’s Land. Then, in May 1845, Franklin set off with two ships – the Erebus and the Terror – and 129 men on the voyage that would kill him. In July, the convoy was seen by two whalers, entering Lancaster Sound. Nothing more would be heard of it for 14 years. Had the ships sunk or been iced in? Were the men dead, or in need of rescue? Or had they broken through to the legendary open polar sea, beyond the ‘ice barrier’? Among the many responses to the Franklin Affair were Jules Verne’s Voyages et Aventures du capitaine Hattéras, a poem by Swinburne, a little-known series of paintings of the Erebus and the Terror by Turner, and a melodrama called The Frozen Deep, written by Wilkie Collins and produced by Dickens, with ‘authentic’ Arctic costumes for the explorers, and paper snow shredded and scattered onto the stage from above by ‘snowboys’.

Between 1847 and 1859, more than thirty expeditions were despatched in search of Franklin and his men, several of them funded by his widow-in-waiting, Jane. They explored thousands of miles of new land within the Arctic regions, and contributed to the development of sledge-travelling as a means of polar travel. It was not until 1859 that enough evidence had been gathered – reports from the Eskimos of the Boothia region, followed by relics of the expedition, then skeletons, and finally a piece of paper, cached in a cairn at the ill-named Point Victory – to reconstruct the fate of the expedition. The details are still uncertain, but it seems that in September 1846 in Victoria Strait, Franklin’s ships were caught in pack ice north-west of King William Island. Franklin died of a stroke in 1847, and was interred in a crypt blasted in the ice. Twenty-four men perished in the motionless ships before, in 1848, the survivors struck out on foot over the ice. Almost all succumbed to hunger, scurvy or lead poisoning while trying to reach land. The few who made it died shortly afterwards at an inlet on the Adelaide Peninsula, which was subsequently named Starvation Cove.

In his personal correspondence and in his published memoirs, Franklin comes across as a man dedicated to the external duties of war and exploration, who kept introspection and self-analysis to a minimum. His blandness makes him an amenably malleable subject for a novelist, and Sten Nadolny has taken full advantage of this licence. Most important, he has endowed his John Franklin with a defining character trait for which there is no historical evidence: Langsamkeit (‘slowness’, or ‘calmness’).

Slowness influences not only Franklin’s behaviour, but also his vision, his thought and his speech. The opening scene of The Discovery of SlownessDie Entdeckung der Langsamkeit – depicts Franklin as a young boy, playing catch badly because his reaction time is too slow. Despite the bullying of his peers, Franklin resolves not to fall into step with ‘their way of doing things’. For Nadolny, Franklin’s fatal fascination with the Arctic stems from his desire to find an environment suited to his peculiar slowness. He describes Franklin as a boy dreaming of the ‘open water and the time without hours and days’ which exist in the far north, and of finding in the Arctic a place ‘where nobody would find him too slow’.

Ice is a slow mover. The compressed blue ice which is visible deep inside an Alpine crevasse will have fallen as snow several decades earlier. Polar pack ice takes at least two years to form. Frazil, the film of crystals which first appears on the surface of the sea, thickens into nilas, a silkily pliant layer which can keep time with a gentle ocean swell; nilas in turn consolidates into young ice, which then deepens during several seasons to become pack. Ice demands a corresponding patience from those who venture onto it. The explorers who have thrived at high latitudes and at high altitudes haven’t usually been men of great speed. They have tended instead to demonstrate unusual self-possession, a considerable capacity for boredom, and a talent for what the Scots call ‘tholing’, the uncomplaining endurance of suffering.

These were all qualities which the historical Franklin possessed in abundance, and so Nadolny’s concentration and exaggeration of them isn’t unreasonable. Even as an adult, his slowness of thought means that he is unable to speak fluently, so he memorises ‘entire fleets of words and batteries of response’, and speaks a languid, bric-a-brac language. In the Navy, his method of thinking first and acting later initially provokes mockery from his fellow sailors. But Franklin persists in doing things his way, and gradually earns the respect of those around him. To a commodore who tells him to speed up his report of an engagement, he replies: ‘When I tell something, sir, I use my own rhythm.’ A lieutenant says approvingly of him: ‘Because Franklin is so slow, he never loses time.’

Nadolny also brings his central metaphor of slowness to bear on the novel’s language. The narrative is written in a free indirect style which tracks the developing voice of the central character. The chapters describing Franklin’s early years are a medley of fragments, rhetorical questions, associative jumps and exclamation marks. In the later sections recounting Franklin’s first Arctic expedition, Nadolny brilliantly sets the narrative pace to the rhythms of the frozen landscape, and to the ‘slowness which is bred by hunger’. Days pass in a single sentence. When things do happen, our perception of them is filtered through Franklin’s way of seeing. Pieces of time drop out of the narrative at key moments, and we are left to infer what has happened. Here, for instance, is Nadolny’s description of a confrontation with one of the mutinying guides in the final days of the first Arctic expedition:

At this very moment Michel appeared in the tent entrance, his rifle at his hip, ready to fire. He was aiming at John. Hepburn drew his pistol fast. Michel turned the barrel of his rifle towards him. The picture of this scene remained fixed in John’s eyes . . . They did not say a word for minutes. Hepburn spoke first: ‘You shot him through the forehead, sir. He suffered nothing; he didn’t even know it.’ John answered: ‘This journey was one week too long.’ The next day they saw the fort at the lake shore.

Forster and Conrad pulled this trick of omitting the central action from a passage, so that the reader is at first as disoriented as the participants. It happens with the collision of the Patna in Lord Jim, with the ‘incident’ in the Marabar Caves, and with the carriage crash in Where Angels Fear to Tread.

Since it was first published in Germany in 1983, The Discovery of Slowness has sold more than a million copies and been translated into 15 languages. It has been named as one of German literature’s twenty ‘contemporary classics’, and it has been adopted as a manual and manifesto by European pressure groups and institutions representing causes as diverse as sustainable development, the Protestant Church, management science, motoring policy and pacifism.

The various groups that have taken the novel up have one thing in common: a dislike of the high-speed culture of Postmodernity. Nadolny’s Franklin appeals to them because he is immune to ‘the compulsion to be constantly occupied’, and to the idea that ‘someone was better if he could do the same thing fast.’ Several German churches have used him in their symposia and focus groups as an example of peacefulness, piety and self-confidence. A centre for paraplegics in Basle organises a regular Marsch der Langsamkeit (a ‘march of slowness’ or ‘of the slow’), inspired by the novel. Nadolny has appeared as a guest speaker for RIO, a Lucerne-based organisation which aims to reconcile management principles with ideas of environmental sustainability. The novel has even become involved in the debate about speed limits on German roads. Drive down an autobahn today, and you will see large road-side signs proclaiming ‘die Entdeckung der Gelassenheit’ (Gelassenheit means ‘tranquillity’ or ‘unhurriedness’), a slogan which deliberately plays off the title of the novel.

A management journal in the US described The Discovery of Slowness as a ‘major event not only for connoisseurs of fine historical fiction, but also for those of us who concern themselves with leadership, communication and systems-thinking issues’. It’s easy to see where the attraction lies for the management crowd. The novel is crammed with quotations about time-efficiency, punctiliousness and profitability: ‘As a rule, there are always three points in time: the right one, the lost one and the premature one.’ ‘What did too late mean? They hadn’t waited for it long enough, that’s what it meant.’