This is the story of an ill-fated expedition to the North Pole by three intrepid adventurers, told in the form of a diary by Major Crispin, engineer, mathematician and team leader, whose motives (as he says himself) "are not entirely clear". Is it lust for knowledge or glory, the lure of the abstract, or mathematical fiction, or as he suggests, something closer to the desire for a woman? Is Crispin a sorcerer rather than a scientist, perhaps a fool or a swindler? Or someone who's been overwhelmed by love and must travel north to escape - or to indulge in - what he calls "carnal matters"?
He and his comrades undertake their journey in an advanced form of transport, a hydrogen balloon built in France, rather than relying on more conventional means like snowshoes, skis or sledges. But this is far more than the diary of an expedition, it is also a love story, and a mystery novel, with many clues and hints dropped along the way, and with philosophical reflections thrown in.
The first entry is 12th July 1897. The three and a few helpers are still waiting at the northernmost tip of Spitzbergen for a wind that will blow them to their destination. Their physician, who is doing his utmost to deter Major Crispin from his folly even at this late stage, and who by the nature of his job knows his patients rather more intimately than Crispin would wish, asks him to reconsider: "Flesh has its limits, and different flesh has different limits. What you are concealing in this matter is more than an indiscretion, it is a crime. Besides I think you will find that this mischief you have made will defeat your own purposes."
Clearly this warning has no effect, for as soon as Crispin reckons that the wind is strong enough, the ropes that tie the balloon to the ground are unfastened - and the gondola lifts off. Almost from the first moment up in the air it is obvious that the steering mechanism is anything but reliable (even though Crispin did try it out earlier, on a memorable trip to Finland ...) and that this means of transport is not going to make for a trouble-free journey.
The story is told in an old-fashioned manner, with the sort of fascinating detail that will intrigue anyone interested in science and technology, but also in the fashions and mores of the late 19th century. The descriptions reveal the author's curiosity in aeronautics, geomagnetism, aeroelectricity, the laws of physics and in fact anything scientific. These interests are present in Crispin, but also in Waldemer who is an enthusiast for the inventions of the 19th century, be they bicycles, a tea-maker, a sanitary apparatus or tinned beef. And they are very prominent in the highly intelligent and equally emancipated Luisa. With Macdonald Harris you feel you're in the hands of a story-teller who has all the time in the world, and yet the rhythm and the dynamism of the prose drive you along relentlessly, making it very hard to put the book down.
Even more so because Harris is a true master of character description, too, and has a keen eye for female characters. Here, as an example, is what he says about his first encounter with the unconventional, very intelligent and very female, Luisa, the heroine. She looked "somewhat like a llama. Her dog was a pug, naturally, and she carried too many things in her purse. She was one of those marsupial women whose security lies not in a home but in this little portable womb they carry about with them, filled with pocket combs, handkerchiefs, vials of cologne, foreign coins, hair ribbons, smelling salts, unread novels, stubs of pencils, dinner mints, scent, tweezers, ends of theatre tickets, mascara, tiny powder boxes that play Swiss waltzes when opened, even a china egg."
It's a sheer pleasure reading about the glimpses Crispin gets of the life of the rich and famous in the salons of Paris and the way Harris captures the allure of the first flirtatious conversations with Luisa where she expresses an interest in a balloon ascent. "It was difficult for me to explain to her why, given the mores of our time, it was impossible for a well-bred young woman to remain for fifteen or twenty hours suspended in a basket with a man without recourse to the amenities of civilisation. `I am sorry. It is not some sort of a picnic, you know. It's a serious scientific venture, involving hard work, boring details, and so on.'" To which she responds: "I am not afraid of hard work and I am not easily bored. Surely I could be useful. I could take readings of your barometer or something." But the balloon is designed for three, and Crispin is intent on taking Waldemer and a young man from Hamburg named Beispiel, a chemist, who is "as healthy as a performing seal".
Right at the beginning, on the first day, before they take off, Crispin reflects about the futility of his dream: "Who wants the North Pole! What good is it! ... (it) is something difficult or impossible to attain which must nevertheless be sought for, because man is condemned to seek out and know everything whether or not the knowing gives him pleasure. ... Behind us, perhaps forever, lie the Cities of Men with their teacups and their brass bedsteads." And yes, that is what happens in the end: The last ultimate Nothing, the great whiteness.
What a novel! Makes you wonder what else there might be in store from Macdonald Harris!