Now we are alone for a year
I discovered after finishing this book that the author was a visual artist. At which point the particular sensitivity and refinement of her descriptions of the far Arctic landscape, particularly detailed gradations of colour in sky, snow, ice and water made even more sense.
In 1934 Ritter, an Austrian woman, came to Svalbard (Spitsbergen) to join her husband, Hermann, a hunter trapper (the fur trade) who spent long periods of time in the Arctic plying this trade. Hermann had a deep and abiding love for the Arctic landscape and its isolation. Perhaps more modern sensibilities are rather more disturbed by the trade engaged in. I did have to take myself rather out of that distress, reading of the trapping of Arctic foxes for fur. The killing of seals and bears by hunters, for food, did not arouse the same feelings of repugnance in me.
As I am fascinated (and terrified!) by the idea of isolation in a harsh, indifferent landscape, where there is remarkably little possibility for communication with the outside world, this was always going to be an entrancing, absorbing read. The mere fact that getting close enough to these areas to continue on foot, sled, or ski must always depend on vessels being able to come close before the pack ice and freeze prevents the ship being trapped, once dropped, rescue (in earlier times) becomes an impossibility. A very isolated community of trappers and hunters, living around a day’s ski away from each other (if the weather is kindly) puts running out of supplies into a rather dangerous perspective.
Aspects of Christine Ritter’s story were not really touched on, but did leave me wondering – she and Hermann had a child who was left behind in Austria (age not mentioned) whilst she was away for the year.
Very little of a personal nature is revealed in this book, – for example, she discovered when she came, as arranged, to the Arctic, that she would be sharing the small and primitive hut for most of the year not just with her husband, but with a friend of his, another hunter trapper. My curiosity was aroused but not really satisfied, wanting to get some insight into the emotional connections between the 3. But Christiane makes no mention at all, even of the initial shock of finding she would not be on her own with her husband.
The outstanding relationship which develops in this book is that of Christiane with the land itself, her writing often becoming elegiac, transcendent, and devotional
The interesting introduction by Lawrence Millman points out that many books written about polar exploration or life, by male authors, often appear to have some sort of underlying theme about a sense of conflict with the landscape, about somehow mankind dominating, battling with and overcoming and subduing the environment. Christiane in many ways writes the language of a desire to be subsumed by, absorbed by, surrendered to. It is a lover’s language, not a warrior’s. And interestingly she does have anxieties and feelings for the animals being trapped, at one point even consciously befriending a young fox and trying to ensure it does not end up trapped by the hunters.
She even elects to stay behind in the main home hut, rather than travel on hunting with the men – in fact, all three of them are drawn to undertake further isolation for weeks or months.
I myself stand forlornly by the water’s edge. The power of this worldwide peace takes hold of me, although my senses are unable to grasp it. And as though I were unsubstantial, no longer there, the infinite space penetrates through me and swells out, the surging of the sea passes through my being, and what was once a personal will dissolves like a small cloud against the inflexible cliffs.
I am conscious of the immense solitude around me. There is nothing that is like me, no creature in whose aspect I might retain a consciousness of my own self, I feel that the limits of my being are being lost in this all-too-powerful nature, and for the first time I have a sense of the divine gift of companionship
I was steered towards this book by another reviewer on Amazon, who intrigued me by informing me that in some ways this book had clearly acted as a springboard for Michelle Paver, when she came to write her magnificent, chilly book, Dark Matter – there is a point where Ritter first comes to this landscape she later falls so in love with, where she hints at a brooding sense of menace and presence, which Paver works into, and works up, in her novel. She even ever so slightly changes the name of the Ritter Arctic home Grahuken, to make it into her fictitious Gruhuken.
Christiane Ritter was clearly a most remarkable, redoubtable woman. She has a mild obsession with vitamins – well who wouldn’t when you are snowbound without fresh vegetables for a year! – and it clearly served her well, she only died in 2000, at the age of 103!