Captain Robert Scott’s second doomed expedition to the South Pole is the stuff of legend. He and his comrades were beaten to the pole by Roald Amundsen and then died in extraordinary blizzard conditions. The saga is the subject of what’s generally reckoned to be a literary masterpiece – The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard – and its enactment of pain and heroism is central to Patricia Cornelius’s play Do Not Go Gentle, in which the struggle becomes a metaphor for the emotional life of a group of people in an aged-care home.
Scott’s expedition is also the subject of Douglas Stewart’s verse play The Fire on the Snow, which retains the power to create sonority and surprise from one of the great modern myths. Now it is the occasion for a powerfully sustained recapitulation of the story of climate change.
Dennis Glover’s Thaw – his third novel after The Last Man in Europe and Factory 19 – is the story of George Simpson, the meteorologist who advised Scott that the odds were massively in favour of avoiding catastrophe, and partly the story of an imagined great-granddaughter, renowned glacial archaeologist Missy Simpson. She heads off with the scientist she loves, Cambridge professor Jim Hunter, to find the explorers’ camp and discover the true cause of their deaths.
George Simpson is haunted to the end that he gave the wrong advice, even as he’s giving a prestigious lecture at Oxford that is accorded to him as the greatest weatherman of his day.
When the dashing and whimsical Cherry-Garrard comes to George’s notable lecture, he’s scarcely recognisable as the marvellous boy who could capture the comedy and drama of Scott’s expedition: he is now 50, and looks harrowed and haunted. Part of the burden of Thaw is the way it attends to the tragedy of the survivors. The story has a distinctly masculinist tinge in how it trudges and circles, freezes and burns, with a sense of the colossal pain these explorers went through.
The George Simpson section is written with a great attention to technical and historical accuracy. In the contemporary sections, Glover lets rip with rapid and vibrant dabs of colour. The writing fills with a sort of populist zest that moves at the briskest possible pace and involves bright shortcuts and the odd factual slip. It doesn’t matter much – the reader is grateful for the way the modern action bounces along, even when it seems a bit wild and improbable in its detail.
It’s thrilling when a weird arrow-like object seems to be a swastika-adorned airborne gift from Hermann Göring, who makes a bid for the Nazification of Antarctica. We also feel the heat between Missy and Hunter, who desires her as much as he wants to prove that climate science and the coincidence of different weather conditions around the globe are the clue to what happened to Scott and his companions.
All this rapid-fire yarn-spinning is in counterpoint to the assiduity of Glover’s historical reconstruction, as he outlines how Simpson got his weather forecasting so wrong by failing to understand climate interconnection. The contemporary razzle-dazzle is deliberately sped up, just as the history is written with a poised, meticulous care that will fascinate anyone with a developed taste for the fictional representation of evidence of an already famous story.
It’s a bit much that Missy’s bête noire – a climate denialist – should be a spendthrift barman but there’s no denying Glover is good at bringing his overtly fictionalised characters to life even when he’s slapping colour around. Glover’s imaginings will stand the steely gaze of Scott’s expedition tragics, even if they too enjoy letting their hair down as a kind of release from how the massive evidential aspect of the book achieves an impressive documentary quality.
Why is Scott’s expedition so attractive to modern mythologising? It’s partly the Gallipoli “Go, tell the Spartans” aspect of the story: nothing has greater dramatic poetry than the song of tragic defeat. It’s also a story of goodness and bravery, just before the slaughter of the Western Front gave the first intimation of the 20th century as a time of killing fields and mass annihilation. It’s a story from the edge of the Edwardian age, when things looked just for a second as if they could be sunnier, truer and more decent. This touch of optimism and sanity makes the story of Scott, Titus Oates and the rest of them one of true comradeship and heroism in the face of loss. There is a paradoxical consolation from the light that shines from the snow.
Glover’s combination of dourness and a sparkling pace will look like a winner to many readers. The climate change argument creates its own optimism, its own vindication of a rational faith in science.
There are of course many other ways of approaching this topic – perhaps some readers will be led to read Scott’s journals and to taste the humour and the charm in the face of calamity in Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World. But even those who lap up everything on this subject may find Thaw a thrilling new instalment in a never-ending story.
Black Inc, 320pp, $32.99
Black Inc is a Schwartz company
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 12, 2023 as "Peter Craven".
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