No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, July 15, 1999

The Vintner's Luck -- Elizabeth Knox

A week after midsummer, when the festival fires were cold, and decent people were in bed an hour after sunset, not lying dry-mouthed in dark rooms at midday, a young man named Sobran Jodeau stole two of the freshly-bottled wines to baptize the first real sorrow of his life."

If I hadn't known better, I'd have suspected Neil Gaiman of writing this novel about wine, love and angels. It's set in Burgundy, France, beginning in 1808: Sobran, sampling the new vintage and bemoaning his luck in love, encounters an angel, Xas, whose wings smell of snow. Xas promises Sobran that he'll return in exactly a year, to toast Sobran's marriage: and so a relationship is born that spans 55 years. Initially the two meet annually on the anniversary of Xas's [not altogether unsymbolic] fall into the Jodeau orchard. Xas is a worldly sort of being for an angel: he's interested in gardening, wine and - above all - humanity. At first he's unwilling to speak of his angelic life: later, as the relationship between the two changes, their conversations move from simple, rustic pleasures to theology, war and the vast distances between heaven and hell.

If the novel focussed only on Xas and Sobran, on the nature of the angel and the man and the parallel sins, or moral crimes, which they commit, it would still fascinate. Sobran's friends, relations and employers - notably the Baroness Aurora, a local landowner and Sobran's confidante - are never merely supporting characters. As well as the tale of Xas's falls - definitely plural, and not for the usual reasons - and Sobran's moral dilemma when he discovers his friend's true nature, the novel includes several murders, several romances, and the tale of a woman's descent into madness.

The Vintner's Luck is a family saga as much as it's a theological fantasy - and, as an historical novel, it's firmly rooted in its setting. Sobran goes to war for Napoleon: Aurora has a breast removed (without anaesthetic - I detected echoes of Lady Mary Wortley Montague's account of a similar operation here); new techniques are used in the vineyard: and, meanwhile, science advances ...

Thursday, July 01, 1999

Antarctic Navigation -- Elizabeth Arthur

Antarctic Navigation is the first-person narrative of Morgan Lamont, an American woman born on the 60th anniversary of Scott’s last journal entry, who became obsessed with Scott as a child. She makes a variety of odd friends during her teenage years – a boy who attends special school (though it is not evident whether this is simply due to learning difficulties or to some psychiatric condition): the daughter of Swedish immigrants, who is obsessed with storage: an eco-terrorist who works as a forest ranger: a man whose sense of balance and location is so highly developed that he is constantly travel-sick, and severely disoriented by small magnetic anomalies … All of these characters come in very useful later in her life. After her mother’s death in a snowstorm (also due to a psychiatric condition), Morgan’s grandfather – the wealthy founder of a paint company – contacts her for the first time in her life, and after some stormy overtures gives her what she’s always wanted.

This is one of those novels which, rather irritatingly, begins with the protagonist looking back on the events which led her to where she is now, so you know where she ends up. (This authorial omniscience detracts, inevitably, from some of the crises through which Morgan drags herself and her allies). I also think that Elizabeth Arthur could have written a book about half the length of this one without omitting much of import. She’s keen on extended metaphors – albeit often fascinating ones – and will blithely devote an entire chapter to a discussion of a physics experiment, setting us up for a single image which works, and sticks. Arthur also spends a lot of time talking about ideas in classical Greek philosophy, most notably the concept of arete, or a ‘quality of excellence’. Morgan’s father died while writing a book on architecture, so there’s plenty of architecture. Naturally, too, she has done her research on Antarctic history: Wilson, Oates, Bowers and the whole crew of them are here, as well as some people, and events, that I haven’t yet come across elsewhere. That wealth of discursive detail is an aspect of this book that I find very appealing, but it does add to the wordage and tonnage: this is, quite literally, a weighty tome, almost Victorian in its scope and digression. (It’s a very good read, too, though sometimes one can’t help wishing she would just get on with it.)

Arthur – or shall we say ‘Morgan’, so as not to fall into the Fatal Trap of confusing author and character, as some might – is keen on Scott. Morgan reads the Huntford book [The Last Place on Earth - very pro-Scott] (it’s not named, but the internal chronology and a couple of remarks indicate that this is the book) and immediately begins to argue Scott’s case. She also reads Scott’s wife’s autobiography, and finds herself strangely repelled by Kathleen Scott and her agenda. Indeed, she is rather jealous of the woman.

What Morgan wants to do is to prove that Scott could have succeeded: that it was bad luck, rather than poor planning: that it wasn’t just because Scott refused to kill his dogs (and this is a theme she keeps returning to: that Amundsen was some sort of sadist for using and killing dogs, and that Scott was sane and kind. I have a feeling that, while Shackleton was a cat person, Morgan Lamont is a dog person. Does this explain anything? Almost certainly not.). Morgan describes Scott as "a person of great intellectual curiosity, who had to overcome a natural inclination to laziness, and who found himself pulling a sledge across 1800 miles of ice, because he had not wanted to kill other intelligent animals." Because of this less-than-pragmatic approach to the use of animals, Morgan is also relieved that recreating Scott’s expedition won’t involve using fur ‘except for the mittens, boots and sleeping bags’ – though she remains silently on why it should matter what you use the fur for, once you’ve killed its original owner to get it. In fact, the expedition end up using fake fur for mittens etc, which is not exactly historically accurate.

Some of her historical asides simply don’t add up, too, and I’m unsure who to believe. Huntford asserts that Scott bought his butter in Denmark: Arthur has "we bought New Zealand butter, just as they had"

Another new concept, to me, was that of Antarctica as the Counterweight continent – the idea, dating from Classical Greece, that there must be a southern landmass, to balance the weight of all that known land.

Arthur, trying to describe the first sight on Antarctica, resorts to ‘the language of a chemist’, and remarks that Dr Wilson, on Scott’s expedition, did the same. I hadn’t known that: but I do know where I’ve seen the trick before, which is in Kim Stanley Robinson's Blue Mars, when Sax is trying to describe the many shades of purple through which the sky passes at sunset. Nothing new under the sun… and, of course, Robinson would have read Wilson’s journals, assuming that he was at all interested in matters Antarctic before getting over there on the Writers’ and Artists’ Programme. [see my review of Kim Stanley Robinson's Antarctica, published a year after Antarctic Navigation]

I also learnt a lot about the United States Antarctic Program: for example, the list of medical conditions that disqualify someone (even a Proper Scientist) from being employed in Antarctica. I can understand AIDS, hepatitis, pregnancy … but epilepsy? Thyroid problems? Asthma? Grrr. Guess I won’t be going as a US employee, then. All these conditions are, as Arthur points out, treatable: I’m allowed to drive (not that I can) despite being classified as epileptic, because I have not had an ‘episode’ for over two years (actually nearer four – and nothing to do with the lousy medication, either). I can certainly treat my asthma: the Antarctic Program, incidentally, doesn’t differentiate between allergy-type asthma and other types, so even someone with hayfever can be excluded on that ground, despite the remarkable lack of pollen on the Ice.

The Americans aren’t, or weren’t, kind to their Antarctic workers: while those of other nationalities could expect to see something of the continent (and were allotted helicopter time as a matter of course), the Americans were forbidden even to venture onto the sea ice. (Morgan gets deported from Antarctica for an illicit excursion to Scott’s hut). One of the characters explains this with what I found a very interesting theory: that Americans, far from being pioneers, are terrified of the wilderness, and hate the idea of being a loser or a failure. Scott was a loser, ergo not a hero. And why are Americans scared of failure? According to this character, because they are all descended from dismal failures:

Wherever they came from – Scotland or Ireland, Germany or Poland – they had failed and they had nothing left to lose. They had the clothes on their backs, one potato, and a pocket handkerchief. In another minute, if they stayed where they were, they were going to die. So … they climbed aboard some ship .. once they got there they found a huge bloody wilderness, worse than anything they could have imagined.

Arthur, among her other strengths, has an eye for travel writing: there are episodes that remind me of Jan Morris, and others that remind me of Bill Bryson. For example, the much-delayed flight from Christchurch to McMurdo Base:

… the drug-sniffing Labrador was brought out from somewhere to inspect us again. he took his job just as seriously this time as he had the last, because he was a Navy dog, and he understood that his masters were absolutely convinced that someone on this flight had managed to pick up some drugs while on a secured quarterdeck, completely surrounded by military policemen.

Morgan doesn’t come across as a woman, even when in love. Imagining conversations with the not-quite-ghost members of Scott’s expedition, she observes that Cherry-Garrard didn’t particularly like women.

But I wasn’t a woman when I was there. I wasn’t a man, either. I was a human being as they were, every one of them. The advantage of an all-male company in that age which had brought them to the Antarctic was that it had allowed men to act like whole human beings.

Seems a drastic remedy …

Morgan Lamont does become more fallible – and perhaps more likeable – after an encounter with an Argentinean male feminist. (She also becomes more womanly). And she certainly ends up following in Scott's footsteps: the expedition is evidence of a fallibility, stubbornness, and even stupidity, that's reminiscent of Scott as portrayed by Huntford. Morgan makes mistakes – big ones – and suffers for them: unfortunately, so do some of her companions.

She's so in love with the idea of Scott as martyr that it takes an apparent visitation from the ghost of Scott to persuade her to save her own life. She sees Scott as almost a Christ-figure, dying for others and suffering without complaint, "pulling behind them on their sledges the weight of Empire". This ties in neatly with her personal feelings of guilt, as news of the Gulf War reaches Antarctica and she realises that her expedition is funded by Lamont Paints, who made their money by supplying the US Navy with paint. "I knew now what I was dragging behind me." This crisis of conscience, coupled with the knowledge that she has endangered her companions by insisting on authenticity (an insistence that goes by the board on the first day of the expedition, but it's too late to change very much by then), drives Morgan into a severe depression – sheer self-indulgence, when one is part of a team crossing one of the most inhospitable landscapes on Earth. She is saved by the ghost, or spirit, or hallucination of Scott – the only one of his expedition whom she had never felt was somehow present in the hut – who appears from the blizzard to tell her, basically, to get a grip and obey him.

I have mixed feelings about Morgan Lamont. In some ways she's a strong woman looking for someone (probably male) to lead her. She enthuses about the other female member of the expedition – Gronya, the storage fanatic – but doesn't actually say very much about her, or report much of her speech. When another member of the expedition develops a, potentially disruptive, crush on Gronya, we hear a lot about his feelings, but nothing of hers. Morgan is also a cheat, and guilty – as charged, above – of Scott-like stupidity. She seems to treat the whole thing as a game, or a dramatic presentation, although all their lives depend on her actions.

In some ways Arthur is rewriting and recasting Scott's expedition (I had fun trying to decide which of her characters matched up with the Last Five from Scott's polar trip), and exploring how it might have been different, and what motivated Scott. Reading Antarctic Navigation as a simple travel narrative would be a big mistake: reading it as an exploration of the whole Scott myth is far more interesting. The spiritual and supernatural elements reminded me of that bit in The Waste Land about 'Who is the third who walks always beside you?'.

There are some beautiful images in this novel, and some profound philosophy. I don't like Morgan Lamont, but I am prepared to accept that without her this novel would not work. I am still not convinced, though, that "the planet spins faster as the two Poles than it spins anywhere else on Earth", or that "someday the South Pole would be the place where the Earth stopped spinning". I'll grant some poetic truth … but I'm not sure that 'truth = beauty \ beauty = truth' is a valid argument when it comes to science.