Monday, April 15, 2019

A WOMAN IN THE POLAR NIGHT



Another reading tip: Christiane Ritter's A Woman in the Polar Night.

Here's the Kirkus Review:

The isolation of Arctic Spitsbergen which Mrs. Ritter faced with her husband for a long season brought unique trials and joys. In pensive prose she unfolds the fierce glory of the Arctic as she watched the waning of the light, walked through December no-man's-mist into the eerie splendor of perpetual, brilliant night, waited through storm in the solitary Gray Hook hut for the return of her husband. Pitting human strength against the forces of nature in a simple issue of survival, she acquired the ""polar mentality"" peculiar to the place, an immense calm and acceptance of life-rhythms. With the spring came the pack-ice and the bears, foxes and seals for food and pelt -- having seen a dead world, she rejoiced in the miracle of life. Unusual, thoughtful, this has beauty in the simple expression of immense interior experience.

The season in question occurred in the mid-1930s, on the island of Spitsbergen above Norway. Christiane arrived in July. After massive packing and preparation, the long boat journey from Austria, the trepidation and excitement, the entry into "unpeopled land...montains, glaciers, blue rocks, white ice," and the prospect of getting to see her husband who she hasn't seen in months, Hermann greets her with a "There you are then," and laughs quietly. They then travel by Norwegian steamer for another day and night toward the Gray Hook coast, though "I have not the least idea in what direction we are traveling or where we are."

"My husband then reveals that there is to be another man with us for the winter." In a teeny cabin, in the middle of literally nowhere!

Christiane is neither a whiner nor a self-pitier and a good thing. She learns to cook and eat seal, ptarmigan, and eider ducks whose severed heads are used for bait to catch foxes. Carcasses, skeletons and skins in varying states of decay litter the yard and festoon the roof.  At one point Hermann and Karl, the "other man," take off to hunt leaving her alone for thirteen days while an Arctic storm rages.

Having been advised that a daily walk is essential, she goes out in gale force winds, gets down on all fours and crawls around the cabin twenty times, ten times clockwise, ten times counterclockwise. When the men aren't out hunting (she learns to shoot, too), the three of them sew, mend, launder, knit, bake, and play patience with a deck of soot-blackened cards.

First, it's light all the time, then, slowly, it becomes dark all the time--for months. The beauty, ever-changing, is indescribable. But the Arctic is not for the faint of heart or psyche.

"Today the heavens are shining in the blue light of the vanished day. In the north a red-yellow moon stands out against a bank of fog. Like the reflection of a distant conflagration the northern lights, growing steadily more visible, drift in subdued reddish gleams across the sky. Moonlight and Arctic light are warm and glowing in contrast to the cold blue of the sky...[T]he spur of the mountain stretching in front of it is in shadow. It looks as though the jaws of hell had opened behind the shadowed mountain wall, outlining its massive bulk with a diabolical glare.

These are scenes not made for human eyes. The drama of the polar world sinking slowly into shadow is played out in utter silence and remoteness. The scenes are charged with sorcery."

Then she learns of another danger: becoming moonstruck:

"It is full moon. No European can have any idea of what this means on the smooth frozen surface of the earth. It is as though we were dissolving in moonlight, as though the moonlight were eating us up. It makes no difference when we go back into the hut under the snow after a moonlight trip. The light seems to follow us everywhere. One's entire consciousness is penetrated by the brightness; it is as though we were being drawn into the moon itself...Neither the walls of the hut nor the roof of snow can dispel my fancy that I am moonlight myself, gliding along the glittering spines and ridges of the mountains, through the white valleys...

"Now Chrissie has got rar,"* says Karl, shaking his head.  "Ishavet kaller. ** You must be reasonable."

*Rar--the strangeness which overcomes many who spend the winter in polar regions.
** Ishavet kaller--The Arctic calls. This is what the Spitsbergen hunters say when one of their comrades, for mysterious reasons of his own, throws himself into the sea, an occurrence that is still authentically reported today (the book was published in 1938).

Weird, right?

I have a version of kar at home that consists of occasionally wanting to lie down, leave a note saying, "Wake me when it's over" and swallow a whole huge bunch of sleeping pills.

But no: of all weeks, no. Whatever our own suffering, we must stay awake for an hour with Christ as he undergoes the Agony in the Garden at Gethsemane.

Blessed Holy Week to all.

CHRISTIANE AND HERMANN AT THEIR HUT.
BACK IN AUSTRIA, SHE LIVED TO 103. 

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