Cover of book: A World with No Shore

Hélène Gaudy (translated by Stephanie Smee)
A World with No Shore

The annals of Arctic exploration had never seen anything like it: three Swedish gentlemen explorers in bespoke oilskins, checked or striped, with pocket handkerchiefs but no warming furs, who set out in spring of 1897 to pilot a balloon as far as the North Pole.

After launching from Svalbard in Norway, the trio – Salomon Andrée, Knut Fraenkel and Nils Strindberg – vanished without trace. Their fate, which exercised and haunted the imaginations of generations of Swedes, was only determined 33 years later, when a young man on a walrus-hunting expedition to White Island, one of the last pieces of land before the polar ice, stumbled across the explorers’ final camp. The remains of three men were soon recovered, as was a bag containing rolls of film: images that, once developed, bore mute witness to the final months of their lives.   

Hélène Gaudy’s novel begins here, in 1930, with that frail jumble of waterlogged negatives being painstakingly rescued from their decades beneath the snow. The French writer’s process might be said to mirror that of the darkroom technician who developed the images.

Gaudy also adjusts light, shade, colour and contrast to re-create a semblance of the past. And just as the later photographer used tiny granules of tinted potato starch to fill degraded blanks in the negatives, so does the author complete the partial records of the expedition using historically informed yet boldly fictional methods. The result is a curious amalgam: a work of history that is shaped as much by imagination as fact, in which the French author’s stylistic approach replicates the necessary hesitations and uncertainties of the undertaking.

Take the following passage, typical of the work, in which Gaudy describes the long and hopeless march the men endure after their balloon fails, leaving them marooned on an endless island of pack ice:

“They are each hauling over 100 kilos, there are too many things they are still unable to rid themselves of, a whole host of useless items which they continue, day after day, to drag behind them, joining forces, tensing their muscles, and returning again to drag the next one – they have, however, relieved themselves of one portion of their load, have left behind some supplies after gorging themselves on the things they were unable to bring with them, have then fallen asleep, bellies swollen with corned beef, pigs’ trotters, tinned sardines and preserved fruits in syrup, washed down with champagne.”

These paragraphs consist of clauses that pile upon each other and then drift apart, adding concrete fact or retreating into vague generalities. A bibliography and reference section at the book’s conclusion lists the sources from which the author has worked. But where verifiable data ends and novelist’s hazarded guess begins is left intentionally open.

The book’s thesis emerges from the gap between these two modes of description. Gaudy wants us to understand, and even admire, the men’s efforts – not because they are brave combatants in one of those battles over the polar extremes that marked the last decades of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th, but because their absolute amateurism and quixotically doomed project makes them closer to martyrs to a dream.

That dream, of course, is of technological mastery of the world – of annexation to Empire or nation of the last blank spaces on the map. That the Swedes so signally failed in their effort allows a small halt in the inexorable march of Western “progress”. That pause lets us glimpse the men as human beings rather than mere agents of exploitation and colonial appropriation.

Knut Fraenkel, for example – only 24 years of age but also the hardiest and most audacious of the party. Gaudy gives us two accounts of his brief life and likely motivations, the first of which is standard-issue hagiography, the second critical and cynically knowing, before admitting that there is something of the man “that lies perhaps between these two portraits”.

Or Salomon Andrée, the older scientist of the group, whose passion for objective understanding and broad fascination with the frozen north cannot extend far enough to glimpse the future – to those changes wrought by the modern world on the polar spaces that transform him and his colleagues from men into corpses. The ice he trudges upon is the same frozen ground that climate disruption will buckle and melt, from Antarctica to the Siberian Arctic, thawing deep time into the living present.

And finally, Nils Strindberg, relative of the playwright and leader of the group, whose letters to his fiancée, Anna Charlier, written in the utmost extremity of the men’s last weeks, provide the most plaintive and emotionally charged documentary evidence of their journey.

It is this last connection that might recall Australian readers to comparable accounts of local exploration. The Ludwig Leichhardt character of Patrick White’s Voss, for example, who is mysteriously able to communicate with a woman he has met only a few times but loves, across the vastness of the antipodean continent.

Hélène Gaudy has sought to do something similar here. Her authorial perspective binds together past and present, human and natural worlds, solitary explorers and the civilisation they leave behind, all with knowing intelligence and plangent intensity of feeling. It feels only correct, then, that the elegant translation from the French should be undertaken by an Australian, Stephanie Smee, who has grown up in a land where explorers have made a habit of disappearing into myth.

Black Inc, 272pp, $29.99
Black Inc is a Schwartz company

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 19, 2022 as "A World with No Shore, Hélène Gaudy (translated by Stephanie Smee)".

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Geordie Williamson is a writer and critic.

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