I have waited long for the opportunity to read Christiane Ritter’s memoir from the year she spent living in a remote hunting cabin on Svalbard. I saw a copy of it ten years ago and it sounded perfect for me, but it was unfortunately only available in German. I am thus very happy that Pushkin press has decided to reprint the English translation so that I finally got to read it!
The memoir follows Christiane Ritter in the year 1934/1935 as she joins her husband and a Norwegian friend of his in a small lonely cabin in the north of Svalbard. Her husband, Hermann Ritter, is evidently already an experienced Svalbard hunter by the time she joins them but Christiane is a well-off Austrian with no Arctic experience. It seems courageous, if not outright foolish, of Hermann to ask her to join him for a full year. His Norwegian friend Karl is even convinced that “the lady from central Europe” will go off her head during the winter. However Christiane adapts to and eventually comes to love Svalbard.
It is perhaps not the most adventurous Arctic tale there is, Christiane does join on a few trips but mostly stays in the relative safety around the cabin. Even so life in the Arctic provides plenty of challenges and drama and in addition Christiane writes about the effects of darkness and isolation, of the harshness and beauty of the landscape and on how she changes in response to it. It is thus more introspective than most Arctic memoirs, which together with the fact that Christiane Ritter is a really good writer, only adds to its appeal. In some ways the it reminded me of Helge Ingstad’s East of the Great Glacier memoir, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. Although Helge Ingstad did get around a lot more, he too seemed more interested in the Arctic itself than in promoting his own accomplishments.
I have a soft spot for stories about early aviation (fact or fiction) and another one for the memoirs from Slightly Foxed, so when they recently published Going Solo, Roald Dahl’s memoir about his time working for Shell in East Africa in the 1930s and flying for RAF during WWII, I was a very early customer.
As a memoir it is a bit of a failure as it is hard to know which parts that are true and which that are not. Roald Dahl clearly doesn’t let pesky things such as accuracy get in the way of a good story and I am thus not sure how much I really learned about his life. However, I’ don’t really mind because even if he tells tall stories, they are great tall stories told by a fabulous story teller and that is an art form I admire.
I had promised myself to savour it for a bit and not finish it in one evening, as I did with his childhood memoir Boy, but it is a page-turner. I liked it even better than Boy.
I recently treated myself by ordering three of Slightly Foxed’s paperback memoirs as my first book order for the year. Two of them, Frances Wood’s Hand-grenade Practice in Peking and Dodie Smith’s Look Back with Love are still in my TBR-pile, but I just finished the third one, Priscilla Napier’s A Late Beginner.
In A Late Beginner Priscilla Napier looks back on her childhood in Egypt during the early 20th century. We follow her from a very young age and until she leaves Egypt in 1921, aged twelve, to go to school in the UK. The first world war and the early steps toward Egypt independence occur in the fringes of her consciousness, mingled with all the normal interests of a young child. Although largely written from a child’s perspective, Napier still manages to give a lively image of the Egypt she knew.
I really like memoirs that place you in the middle of important historical events. Of course the format is a limitation in that you only get one, usually not very objective, perspective on events, but what you gain is the impressions and feelings of someone who was actually there. It is the closest thing I know to time-travel. This one was a really good example.
I must say that the reading year starts well, I am only four books in and have already discovered a new favourite. My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell’s memoir of his childhood on Corfu, is full of fun anecdotes, beautiful descriptions, and lots and lots of animals.
According to the memoir Gerald “Gerry” Durrell, youngest of four siblings, grew up in Corfu as the youngest son in a loving but chaotic family. Gerald himself appears to have greatly contributed to the general chaos by his interest in everything living and a somewhat inconvenient habit of bringing various animals home. I have great sympathy for young naturalists, and Durrell writes about his observations with an infectious enthusiasm, but there were a few times when I sided with his family. The chaos he created provides many great anecdotes though, so I am grateful.
I am normally not a fan of too humorous books but this one won me over completely. There were plenty of comic scenes but the comedy never felt forced. Highly recommended to anyone who loves amusing anecdotes and/or animals!
I’m counting this novel as my 20th century classic for the Back to the classics reading challenge.