Friday, 3 July 2015

Book Review: The Discovery of Slowness by Sten Nadolny
July has just begun and as always at this time of the year the readings for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, i.e. the 39th Days of German-Language Literature, are well under way in Klagenfurt, Austria, despite last year’s rumours that the province of Carinthia considered withdrawing from the event as sponsor of the main prize which would inevitably have meant its end. Strained public budgets aren’t a recent phenomenon, though, as shows – among many other works of literature – the much acclaimed novelised biography The Discovery of Slowness by Sten Nadolny, the winner of the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize 1980. The story traces the life of nineteenth-century explorer Sir John Franklin whose dream it was to discover and chart the legendary Northwest Passage and who died during the third expedition to the Canadian Arctic under his command at the age of 61. 

Sten Nadolny was born in Zehdenick an der Havel, Province of Brandenburg, Germany, in July 1942, but grew up in Upper Bavaria. After studying history and political science at different German universities, he worked as a history teacher and a production manager in the film industry. In 1980 Sten Nadolny was awarded the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for an extract from his most famous (then still unfinished) novel The Discovery of Slowness (Die Entdeckung der Langsamkeit) which was published only three years later. Already in 1981, the author adapted a film script and brought it out as his debut novel titled Netzkarte (Area Season Ticket). Several other novels followed, but apparently only one of them, namely God of Impertinence (Ein Gott der Frechheit: 1994), has been translated into English to this date. Sten Nadolny lives in Berlin, Germany.

In 1796 ten-year-old John Franklin lives in Spilsby, Lincolnshire, U.K., and he stands at the beginning of The Discovery of Slowness which will take him a whole life. He is an exceptionally slow child. Not only his movements also his perception of the world lags behind and makes playing a simple ball game virtually impossible. Despite all, the other children include him in their games because for certain tasks like holding the rope still for long periods of time he is more apt than any of them. Boarding school – King Edward VI Grammar School in Louth – is an ordeal for him at first, but soon the intelligent boy finds out that he can compensate his slowness learning routines (including quick answers) by heart, concentrating on only one detail at a time and thinking ahead. In addition, one of his teachers recognises the boy’s potential, gives him every possible support and becomes his fatherly friend. Already then it’s John Franklin’s dream to follow the sea like Captain Matthew Flinders, the fiancé of his aunt, whom he joins five years later as a midshipman on his second voyage to the terra australis. After his return to Europe at the age of eighteen John Franklin serves on different ships and takes part in important battles like at Trafalgar in 1805 and in New Orleans in 1814/15 which not only add to his experience as a sailor, but also help him to see the advantages of slowness. However, what follows is a period of peace and forced inactivity during which the 29-year-old sets his mind on discovering the legendary Northwest Passage. In 1818 he is made captain of the second ship of the Spitsbergen expedition into the Arctic which fails. Already the next summer he leaves again for the Arctic, this time as commander of an overland expedition to Hudson Bay which turns out to be a disaster, though, earning him the sobriquet “the man who ate his boots”. Another period of forced inactivity follows which he uses to write a book about the tragic expedition and to get married. After a second overland expedition through Arctic Canada between 1825 and 1827 John Franklin is appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (today: Tasmania), but politics isn’t his cup of tea. He never loses his big goal out of sight and in 1845 he can set sail for the third Arctic expedition under his command at last…

Under the unusual title The Discovery of Slowness a detached and omniscient third-person narrator mixes the true and well-researched life story of the Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin with a highly imaginative study of the man’s character as it could have been, but certainly wasn’t. In fact, it seems that historical sources don’t contain anything at all indicating that the famous navy man was ever perceived as particularly slow by his contemporaries. Consequently the book needs to be read as an historical adventure novel, thus as pure fiction rather than as a downright biography or at least a biographical novel. Despite Franklin’s many voyages and expeditions making up the main plot, the central theme of the novel clearly is individual speed or rather slowness which our modern and increasingly fast-paced society generally (as well as thoughtlessly) considers as a big handicap. Through the eyes of the slow explorer it becomes evident, though, that slowness can be a virtue allowing to look on often decisive details that otherwise would slip attention. The author adapted his style and language to his nineteenth-century protagonist displaying his world and the workings of his mind in extraordinary detail without ever exaggerating it to the point of making the reader feel impatient or bored. The original German text flows quietly and steadily through the heights and depths of the fascinating story from a time long past. Some of the nautical terms have been a bit of a challenge for me as a born landlubber, but it wasn’t enough to spoil my pleasure.

To cut a long story short, I thoroughly enjoyed (re)reading The Discovery of Slowness by Sten Nadolny and found many of my own ideas about the advantages of slowness confirmed. Considering that ever more people break down voluntarily following or being forced to follow the still increasing pace of modern life, the book is a good reminder that speed isn’t always necessary, sometimes even detrimental to reach a goal and already for this reason alone it is well worth reading.

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