I know, I know. I’m two days late. I’ve been what the kids call “hella” sick. Please forgive me.
This week’s read is This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich.
I’m realizing that maybe I should do a one or two sentence summary of the book, rather than dash on by, assuming that you’ll be checking the Amazon link if you’re curious.
Sentence One: Ehrlich spends a lot of time traveling around Greenland with Eskimos and the Danish (and various others).
Sentence Two: Ehrlich somewhat interweaves the story of Knud Rasmussen and his adventures scouting around Greenland for years on end.
Bonus Sentence: It’s hella cold in Greenland.
Okay, summary complete. Moving on.
What I liked: Ehrlich is incredibly well-informed/well-read about Greenland and expeditions that take place to or within Greenland. She relates a good deal of Inuit history, explains the different cultures, and tells their various folklore. She lapses into poetics beautifully (which you will see below) and truly loves being in Greenland. The people she introduces us to are fascinating and likable, and you get to see how her relationship with each one of them evolves. She describes the arctic scenery and traveling through it beautifully.
What I didn’t like: the thing that stood out to me the most was that she would use the same quote or story twice in two different sections (and thus times) in the book. I know that, as a writer working with a dense manuscript, you’re going to miss these. I don’t blame her. I’m just wondering what the heck the editor was doing to let that slide so many times. I mean, it wasn’t just two or three times. It was a lot. And it was not intentional, at least in any way that I could see.
Also of note was that the book started out with an interweaving narrative of her journeys overlaid with Rasmussen’s journeys and then… it stopped about two-thirds of the way into the book. This structure that I had become so familiar with ended. It didn’t seem right.
Other people have said that she uses the same descriptions for scenery over and over, but I can’t really add my voice to that complaint–this book is just over 350 pages long and she’s in the arctic. There’s snow. There’s ice. There’s the sky. Sometimes there’s water. The. End. You can only describe that stuff in so many ways over that many pages.
That being said, with the duplicate quotes/stories and the many replications of scenery descriptors, this book probably could have been edited down at least fifty pages and still retained its core and necessary secondary bits while maintaining an equal pace between her journey and Rasmussen’s so they ended at the same time in a wrap-up chapter that braided them together. But that’s just me and my theory.
She’s still a beautiful writer.
Some quotes for your reading pleasure:
“One spring at the ice edge I saw a narwhal. Their smooth backs rose out of the water and were swallowed again, and their twisted unicorn’s tusks needled the air like rapiers. The tusks looked as if they had been unwound from some integral element at the center of the earth. All their swordwork above the water’s surface, the corkscrew lances clattering and crossing, seemed a gesture of beings who were lost in battle and who were, like me, trying to cut through to what was real. For seven years I used the island as a looking glass: part window, part mirror.”
“The land was an ocean that broke against bodies of water, shattering into islands big and small. Tides arm-wrestled pack ice until it accordioned up against itself, finally falling onto the mainland’s shore. Glacier’s calved great slabs of ice as big as convention centers and as fanciful as the Taj Mahal, and these sailed down the fjords all summer, their arches, towers, and shoulders collapsing in sudden heat as if from a fit of laughter.”
“When all the blanc was gone there was only noir, obscurum per obscuris, a path leading nowhere, or maybe to the town dump. The Inuit never made much of beginnings or endings and now I knew why. No matter what you did in winter, how deep you dove, there was still no daylight and no comprehension that came with light. Endings were everywhere, visible within the invisible, and the timeless days and nights ticked by.”
“Tomorrow the sun will peep over the ridge, then disappear. Now I don’t want it to come. I’ve grown accustomed to the privacy and waywardness of the night. In daylight all recognitions turn out to be misconceptions. During one of my naps I dream that I can hear the sun beating behind the rocky peninsula like an expectant heart.”
“Darkness reconciles all time and disparity. It is a kind of rapture in which life is no longer lived brokenly. In it we are seers with no eyes. The polar night is one-flavored, without past or future. It is the smooth medium of present time, of time beyond time, a river that flows between dreaming and waking. Behind the dogs, in their streaming wake, we move over white ground fast. The ground is alive like a torrent, a wild cataract. Which one is moving?”
“Red willow leaves, coolness that comes before winter’s cold, glacial rivers that have swept away coastal ice, an ocean full of seals, reindeer tracks, small lakes and ground covered with alpine fescue, stony moraines, wet clothes, days without food, meadows of willow and heather, three hares shot and consumed, gray days, worn-out kamiks, fog…”
“Kent’s palette was made of blended mist and ice, aquamarine and gray. It was milk with the cream skimmed off and all that was left was the watery, blue-veined whiteness of a world without night. Mountains and rocks looked like sea monsters, and hard shadows paved the ice with oblique black sails. There was never any breathing in these paintings, no winds, no storms, as if the brushstroke itself were velocity enough. All the rhythms of village life were contained–the furtive lovemaking in a communal bed, the glide of sled runners over imperfect ice, the incessant dogtrot and huffing. if the still point is movement, then what does movement refer to? Every time Kent made a swipe with his brush, Greenland’s bowl of ice was smoothed crevasse-free.”
“We go; beauty stays. That’s what Joseph Brodsky wrote about his beloved city Venice. Arctic beauty resides in its gestures of transience. Up here, planes of light and darkness are swords that cut away illusions of permanence, they are the feuilles mortes on which we pen our desperate message-in-a-bottle: words of rapture and longing for what we know will disappear.”
“Earlier in the month, shadows owned the sun. They moved it around the sky like a lost chess piece. Now, sun shoveled shadows out from under things in a cubist, angled reality, an oblique suggestion that changed into actual dogs, sleds, humans, mountains, and pressure ice. At the top of it all was the North Pole, which wasn’t land at all, but a moving buttonhole, a floating world whose only constancy is its fleshless shine.”
“The past is fiction, the future dream. I stopped trying to establish a firm floor under myself where there was none. We might die or we might live. Both were good. But I felt lost, like an eye that had flown out of a head, falling through the world, wondering what it would see. Was this constant gliding and falling a beginning or an end?”
“My eyes were drenched–not with snow or tears but with the refulgence, the blue glint, the shiver, the dove-gray snow flashing iridescence. Perhaps the place we go to at the end of life is not the primordial ooze but ice–layers and layers of rod-and-cone-shaking beauty. To see or not to see–that was the only worthwhile question.”
“One moment I longed for night and trees and passionate embraces–the realm of human entanglement–and in the next moment I wanted only dogsleds and ice–clarity and celebration. The landscape of the northern district, in all its iciness, stood for the panoramic view, for time without end or beginning, for the blindness of birth and brightness of death, and the solipsism of the sun’s relentless shining. My chest heaved; the air felt light.”
“We traveled for eight hours without talk, chastely intimate in a bond of blood, snow, and fur. Yet I knew that what I was seeing was transient: glaciers, human love, sea ice, dogs, humans, and my own perishable body and his–Aliberti’s. Too often we confuse what is happening in the moment with notions of permanence. The intimacy would not last.”