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:
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.