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Saturday 8 November 2014

A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter (Translator: Jane Degras)

I was directed towards this book in reading Sara Maitland’s marvellous A Book of Silence earlier in the year, though it has taken me a while (as always) to get around to reading it. A Woman in the Polar Night is the self-penned account by Christiane Ritter, an Austrian housewife, of her year spent with her husband and another hunter, Karl, in Spitsbergen (otherwise known as Svalbard) in 1934. They lived for the year in a tiny cabin, no more than ten feet by ten feet in size, in the inhospitable environment on the outcropping called Grey Hook in the extreme North. Ritter left behind her child in order to spend the year with her husband in this uncommon situation. Having a love of all things icy and snowy, a particular affection for stories of endurance and adventure, I was probably a long way towards loving this book even before I started reading. Fortunately for me, it didn’t disappoint.

Ritter is initially breezy about her plans, dismissing the kindly (but interfering) advice of the men on the ship, each of whom expresses discomfort at the idea of her, a woman, living in the Arctic for a year. However, she soon begins to understand what they meant and her first impressions are definitely on the side of less than impressed as she describes:

“Stones, stones. Everywhere sleeping and waking, I see stones. I feel they are becoming an obsession. The stony land, the whole monstrous barrenness, clings to me like a bad dream.
Europe is already left far behind. It seems to me now like a magic land. Flowers and fruits grow out of the earth there. Out of the earth grows what man needs in order to live. Here, where nothing grows, I grasp for the first time the whole tremendous miracle of eternally growing food.
Secretly, though I do not wish to speak of it, I come to believe we shall die of hunger here, or at least of scurvy…”

She openly expresses her shock at the apparently laid back approach of the men, who seem to be assured that they will be able to source plenty of food. Soon, however, she is wolfing down the seal that the men are able to shoot and despite her initial reluctance she learns to accept the hunters life, the sparseness and the strange, bleak lifestyle.

What we see, then, in Ritter is a transformation and it is beautiful. She moves quickly from hating her new environment to a blissful, wondrous love. There is something ecstatic about the way she speaks of her new home, though it is doubtless that she experiences suffering, fear and a test of the limits of her endurance. She becomes lost on the ice, she seeks to protect the Arctic foxes that the men have come to hunt, she hears voices and spends weeks alone in the darkness and violence of an Arctic storm. Despite this, she learns to love and appreciate the beauty of her new, spartan home. As she describes here in what became my favourite chapter, chapter 8 – Peace After the Storm:

“It has become quite clear. A lofty, greenish-blue evening sky arches over the snowy landscape of the fiord. Like a shell opalescing in its own shadowy hues, the earth is floating in transparent space, in which light from distant fountains stirs and floats to and fro. Low on the eastern horizon there is a round, bright pool of light, blueish-pink in colour, the reflection of the sun, now slowly circling the earth far below our horizon. We ourselves live in shadow.
But it is as though things up here have acquired a light of their own, as though they themselves emitted rays of the most beautiful and mysterious hues. All the mountains, tremendous in the foreground and sharply edged in the distance are glassy-bright with rigid ice, glass bright the foreland and glass bright the cliffs along the shore that, transfigured by frost and surf into high, round domes of ice, drop steeply into the sea.[…]
I myself stand forlornly by the water’s edge. The power of this worldwide peace takes hold of me, although my senses are unable to grasp it. And as though I were insubstantial, no longer there, the infinite space penetrates through me and swells out, the surging of the sea passes through my being, and what was once a personal will dissolves like a small cloud against the inflexible cliffs.”

Ritter writes beautifully of a transformative experience with such wonder and ecstasy that I defy anyone not to want to spend a year in the Arctic, in the cold and isolation, after reading this book. What Ritter describes is an experience so awe inspiring and unique that it was life changing, that after her year in the Arctic she was a changed person but changed for the better. She had a new respect for nature, she had a love of quiet and solitude and a changed perception of her old life. As she describes here:

“As we go on with our conversation, we find ourselves pitying all the people in the towns of Europe, particularly the housewives, who besides being worn out by the unending struggle against soot and dust, moths and mice, also feel themselves obliged to keep up appearances. And then we talk about the aesthetic pleasures of Europe, which when we were there seemed so priceless to us – music, for example, that elevates the mind and lightens the heart and without which we could hardly live. Remarkably enough, the hunger for music is quite absent here. Our hearts are light, our minds are in a permanent state of elevation. Nature seems to contain everything that man needs for his equilibrium.”

It is an astonishing book. Written with simplicity and honesty, Ritter is matter of fact about her experience whilst transmitting something of such frail and incomparable beauty that I found myself quite envious of her experience. It is a gripping and mesmerising story, told with wonder and skill. A beautiful read, and one which I’ll return to over and over. A book which deserves to be much more widely known.

A Woman in the Polar Night receives a spellbound 10 out of 10 Biis. 

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