I May Be Some Time: Ice and The English Imagination

Jonathon Keats reviews 'I May Be Some Time' by Francis Spufford

By Jonathon Keats

Published December 12, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

If you read "I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination," it will probably be because one of three topics interests you: (a) ice, (b) the English imagination or (c) Jon Krakauer. And whichever of these is your motivation, as you traverse the first chapter you will be convinced you've stumbled across Antarctica itself: an utterly unexpected vista of numbing clarity and biting wit. But, like Robert Falcon Scott's catastrophic trek to the South Pole, what begins as an extravagant journey across risky territory all too swiftly whites out beneath a blizzard of detail, leaving you lost and praying merely for a silent burial by snow. Fortunately, unlike Capt. Scott's companions, you, gentle reader, can ditch the book at any time you like. May I suggest Page 78?

I do not mean to sound flippant here. If any of the three subjects above intrigues you at all, you simply must read the first few chapters of Spufford's book. I did so because I simply don't get Jon Krakauer. (As engaging as "Into Thin Air" may be, for me it never answers the most obvious question of all: Why go out in the cold unless you've been handed an eviction notice?) Given that outdoor adventure has swollen from genre to industry -- with Outside and Men's Journal as house organs -- this is not the sort of question easily set aside for a snowy day. By exploring the British obsession with polar expeditions via "Jane Eyre," Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edmund Burke, the 19th century predecessor to the icebox and schoolbook images of Eskimos waving from their igloos, Spufford manages not only to convey why explorers like Scott had such a thing for frostbite, but also why those of us who enjoy our indoor heating so thrill in their tomfoolery.

Take the case of "Jane Eyre." What interests Spufford is the scene in which young Jane reads of Greenland in Bewick's "History of British Birds." What motivates her, Spufford claims, is that Bewick's frigid landscapes offer a refuge from the psychological chill of her family surroundings -- and does so precisely by out-freezing them. In other words, as one of the earliest readers of outdoor adventure stories, Jane "makes imagination outbid actuality." Which in turn explains something of the explorer's motivation: to move "through landscapes conventionally used to signify psychological extremes." Jane Eyre outbids her Victorian drawing room, but the explorer outbids Jane Eyre.

I should note that all this happens by Page 15. Which is precisely the problem with "I May Be Some Time." When Spufford spends 23 pages explaining Burke's theory of the sublime, gradually transforming an arcane tangent into one of the essential ties between the British intellectual mind-set and the commoner's mania for polar adventure, he gains the reader's trust. When he spends 37 pages describing Scott's progress from the South 50s to fatal hypothermia, entertaining the reader with exquisite descriptions of the "cracked white tabletop stretching poleward all the way to the foot of the Beardmore Glacier," but leaving the explorer for dead without providing any insight, he abuses the trust he's built. And when Spufford spends 10 pages lamely sketching the curriculum vitae of Mrs. Scott's artistic career, he abuses the very paper on which his tome is printed.

"It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more," Scott pencils in his diary as the cold overtakes him on his final day. Alas, no such relief from Spufford.

Jonathon Keats

Jonathon Keats is an artist and writer. His collection of fables, "The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six," was published this year.

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