Book Review: A Woman In The Polar Night by Christiane Ritter, translated by Jane Degras #WITMonth #WomenInTranslation

I love the idea of ‘the north’. I guess the idea of Father Christmas at the North Pole set up that notion of a magical fantasy in the snow from a young age, along with children’s classics such as The Snow Queen. More recent fiction includes Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which was my first introduction to Svalbard. I initially assumed it was an imaginary place, especially as Pullman’s writing is so lyrical and evocative. But of course it is definitely real, as we find out through Christiane Ritter’s travel memoir A Woman In The Polar Night.

Translated from the original German by Jane Degras and published by Pushkin Press, this is a fascinating account of Ritter’s encounter with the far north through her year-long visit to Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago.

From the Blurb:

In 1934, the Austrian painter Christiane Ritter travels to the remote Arctic island of Spitsbergen to spend a year with her husband, an explorer and researcher. They are to live in a tiny ramshackle hut on the shores of a lonely fjord, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement.

At first, Christiane is horrified by the freezing cold, the bleak landscape the lack of equipment and supplies… But as time passes, after encounters with bears and seals, long treks over the ice and months on end of perpetual night, she finds herself falling in love with the Arctic’s harsh, otherworldly beauty, gaining a great sense of inner peace and a new appreciation for the sanctity of life.

 

Ritter opens her first chapter with a telling title: The Beckoning Arctic. She explains how she is persuaded to travel:

“To live in a hut in the Arctic had always been my husband’s wish-dream. Whenever anything went wrong in our European home, a short circuit, a burst pipe, or even if the rent was raised, he would always say that nothing like that could happen in a hut in the Arctic. After taking part in a scientific expedition, my husband remained in Spitsbergen, fishing in the Arctic from his cutter, and in winter, when everything was frozen over, hunting for furs on the mainland. Letters and telegrams used to come from the far north: ‘Leave everything as it is and follow me to the Arctic.’

But for me at that time, as for all central Europeans, the Arctic was just another word for freezing and forsaken solitude. I did not follow at once. Then gradually the diaries that arrived in summer from the far north began to fascinate me. They told of journeys by water and over ice, of the animals and the fascination of the wilderness, of the strange light over the landscape, of the strange illumination of one’s own self in the remoteness of the polar night. In his descriptions there was practically never any mention of cold or darkness, of storms or hardships.”

 

And so we are off with Ritter on her adventure. We cannot help but be swept along by her growing curiosity about the north. Sure, we sense that she has surely got the wrong impression, that surely there will indeed be cold, darkness, storms and hardships. But how bad can they be? Would her husband be so keen for her to join him if he thought she would be in danger?

After the long journey north, she arrives along with her husband and fellow explorer Karl at their destination. It’s a swift reality check:

“How quiet it is here on the island; the beat of the ship’s engines is still in my ears. The waves break monotonously on the rocky strand, cold and indifferent. Involuntarily the thought comes into my mind: Here we can live; we can also die, just as it pleases us; nobody will stop us.
The scene is comfortless. Far and wide not a tree or shrub; everything grey and bare and stony. The boundlessly broad foreland, a sea of stone, stones stretching up to the crumbling mountains and down to the crumbling shore, an arid picture of death and decay……..Now we are alone for a year.”

 

They get stuck in with necessary practicalities:

“We unpack. How many days it takes is difficult to say. For here there are no days because there are no nights. One day melts into the next, and you cannot say this is the end of today and now it is tomorrow and that was yesterday. It is always light, the sea is always murmuring, and the mist stands immovable as a wall around the hut. We eat when we are hungry; we sleep when we are tired.”

 

The harsh challenges of life in the Arctic are all too clear and ever-present. But we humans are highly capable of adapting to a different kind of life. Ritter gradually comes to terms with her new surroundings:

“It must be about the end of August. In any case, it is getting toward night, for the sun is low in the north. I have just seen Spitsbergen for the first time. I woke up. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was the fresh, clear air, which is like an elixir. Looking out from my bunk through the two open doors I saw, for the first time since I have been here, a blue sea still and glittering in the sun. I crept out on my toes. Such splendour! We are living on an indescribably beautiful piece of land. Before us a magnificent bay curves in broad arcs away to the north, ending in the open sea. The mountain range across the water is steep and rugged, wildly romantic. A deep blue-green, the mountains rear up into a turquoise-coloured sky. From the mountaintops broad glaciers glittering in the sun flow down into the fjord. The black mountains on our coast lie sombrely in the sun. With their remarkable conical shape and the crests and crevices edged with snow, they remind me of the Japanese mountain Fujiyama, the dead volcano whose massive, simple form you see in so many Japanese paintings.

Many Fujiyamas lie in a row along our coast to the south. As the distance increases, their sombre blackness seems to be lit up by a deep red light. They take on every shade from red to lilac, and all the colours have a glowing depth that is never found in the landscape at home, or at most only in some exquisite flowers. In the holy stillness, everything is lit by a supernatural brightness. Two gulls fly low and silent close by the hut toward the fjord. They are lit up by the red rays of the bright sun. Their magnificent broad wings are a deep pink in the turquoise sky. Back in my bunk I cannot fall asleep again. I feel as though I have had a glimpse of another world.”

 

Ritter’s account is full of highs and lows. She writes sparsely yet with great depth. The clarity of her observations capture so well the drama of their Arctic life; the beauty and dangers of the landscape; the crushing demands of solitude and the welcome opportunity to be alone; the ultimate joys of human contact.

And I must give a shout out to the translator, Jane Degras. I totally forgot that this was a translated text as I immersed myself in the narrative. It seemed to me that Degras was able to preserve perfectly Ritter’s tone and writing personality.

I should mention a couple of wince-inducing aspects of the book. There is, perhaps unsurprisingly, some quite graphic writing about killing animals for food. I tended to skim these parts, understanding that it was inevitable that they would have to hunt in order to eat. And it was interesting to note a strong sense of male/female hierarchy, particularly in relation to keeping their hut clean and tidy – you can guess that this task did not fall to the men. Again, this is unsurprising for 1930s writing. Both issues were noticeable but did not impact significantly on the overall story and thus did not spoil its enjoyment.

On the day that I was reading this, we had lost our broadband connection due to massive storms the night before. This modern-day isolation seemed a fitting nod to Ritter’s writing. I was captivated by her text and sorry that she did not write anything else.

Travelling to the Orkney Islands is as far north as I have ventured so far. Hopefully we will at least get to the Shetland Islands at some point. Whether it will ever be possible to go further, I’m not sure. But in the meantime, Fantasy Me can journey north through travel writing, especially when it is a brilliant as Ritter’s.

Featured image: Photo by Alberto Restifo on Unsplash

27 thoughts on “Book Review: A Woman In The Polar Night by Christiane Ritter, translated by Jane Degras #WITMonth #WomenInTranslation

  1. Another excellent and tantalising review, Liz, of both the original and translated writing. So interesting that the beauty and isolation overwrites any automatic sense of the inevitable cold, bleakness and hardship. I enjoyed the writing style of the excepts you have chosen. An interesting And diverting start to my day. X

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  2. What a wonderful book that sounds. I’ve not been to Spitsbergen, but have been to the Lofoten Islands, about 300k north of the Arctic Circle in Norway, and they are the most beautiful and geologically amazing place, with limpid air. When we went it was a 2 hr ferry crossing from the mainland to the archipelago, but they have since built a bridge, which I hope has not spoiled it. It is still so far from anywhere that the road traffic can’t be huge! I hope you get there some time, if not to Svarlbad itself.

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    1. Thanks Liz! The bridge issue is an interesting one. It makes me think of Skye – the bridge has made it so accessible – you can even go on a day trip from Edinburgh. So it has brought increased prosperity to the island, but huge crowds too, which can overwhelm certain of the most popular tourist sites. A delicate balancing act.

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  3. This sounds like an brilliant book, Liz. What an adventure. And by adventure, I do not mean a holiday type of adventure. Real adventures test our courage, resolve and acceptance of circumstances. Living in isolation can bring on a long list of adverse health consequences. This book is a testament to the need to write our stories for, while our situation is very different, it gives us a greater understanding of living in our time of social isolation. Found the book and is on the top of my to read list. It will be a wonderful reflection back to my time in the north. Thank you for a most excellent post – you have the best book reviews.

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  4. Fabulous review, thank you. Now that I’ve started reading Tove Jansson I can feel myself getting all caught up in the arctic, even if it’s just Fantasy Me with Fantasy You!

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    1. Thanks Jane – I’m very happy to share the Fantasy role!! My thoughts are turning to TJ too – she seems like the obvious next read after this one.

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  5. I can’t imagine living anywhere so remote, I think I’d find it so physically and psychologically challenging. I’m very happy to read about those that do though! Her writing is beautiful, I’ll certainly look out for this.

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  6. Thank you for introducing me to this author and her book in your excellent review, Liz. I am sure I could cope mentally with the isolation but I know that I would be physically challenged. And the cold! My goodness, I’m rushing off for a cardigan when the thermometer goes below 20 degrees C!

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    1. So glad it appeals, Clare! I used to be like you about the cold, but am at that time of life when I am permanently hot, so perhaps now would be a good time to visit the arctic before temperatures settle back down again!! 🤣

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      1. What a good idea! I am older than you and thankfully have said goodbye to hot flushes (though I still get them every now and again, just to keep me on my toes!) I missed them last winter and had to dig out all my fleecy night apparel again! 😀

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  7. I too have a hankering for the north. It’s been there for as long as I can remember and seems connected with my preference for winter over summer etc. An experience such as Ritter describes fills me with fear and longing in equal measure! Reading the gorgeous extracts you have offered us, Liz, I was reflecting on how modern the prose sounds and pondering that somewhere as remote as this has probably not changed very much since Christiane was there. I can’t wait to read this one!

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    1. I really hope it has not changed much – probably not population-wise, but who knows on the climate change front. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it 😀💕

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