Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The buried continent

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, exploring

It's a two-ended book, with an anomaly I'll come to presently. The Ends of the Earth: An Anthology of the Finest Writing on The Antarctic, edited by Francis Spufford, is half of a volume whose other half's title ends with "...The Arctic". The second half is separately edited and will be reviewed in a later post.

The publishers used an old pulp-double-volume method to put the sections of the book back-to-back, so one turns it over after reaching the end of either part, to read the other. Each half is about 200 pages plus apparatus.

I chose to begin with the Antarctic. Imagine my surprise to find a flyleaf map of the Arctic, and a flyleaf entitled "The Arctic". I turned the volume over, so the cover was reading "The Arctic" and found the flyleaf map and flyleaf, and the writing within, all referring to the Antarctic. It seems the cover is on the wrong way. That's much easier to do with a B2B book. I wonder how many volumes went out this way...

The human history of the Antarctic covers little more than a century, and the first piece of writing in the book is a selection from Frederick Cook's Into the Night of 1900. Ironically, one of the longer items is the ten-page introduction by the Editor.

The writing of the earlier, pre-Radio era, usually considered the Heroic era, consists of expanded diary entries. The writers are clearly struggling to put what they see into words. Nowhere else could they have seen sights to provide a context for Antarctic vistas.

By the time Richard Byrd wrote Alone (1938), from which the 11th Chapter, "The Blow" came, he wasn't all that alone, having radio contact with more northerly friends. Curiously, Byrd's excerpt is the next-to-last piece of narrative in the collection, the last being Diane Ackerman's "White Lanterns", which tends a bit toward the romantic but retains narrative force (All the writing is evocative, of course, that being the only context the writers could supply). The seven other more recent pieces are either fiction or romantic idealism. It's a curious mix.

After the first half-page, I skipped right over a bit by H.P. Lovecraft. I don't like his Chthulu writing, and I could see this was more of the same: horror that in the end says nothing but infers everything.

Considering the historical flow of the pieces themselves, each is consistent with the generation from which it came. It is only fitting for Nicholas Johnson's "Blue Collar" to sound like a NPR bulletin; that is obviously what the writer was raised on.

From first to last, the writers are doing their best to express the inexpressible, whether describing the many colors of penguin heads' decorations (only the head shows above water, so why should evolution decorate the rest of the animal?), to the many-arced sundogs visible only there, to the unearthly blue of crevasse and iceberg, to the bone-crushing weariness of living in perpetually frozen clothing. Evocative the writing has to be. None of us could understand emotionless narrative.

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