The Discovery Of Slowness Paperback – 14 Oct 2004
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"This is both a wonderful historical novel and a spell-binding individual portrait ... This is a marvellous translation of a masterly work." (The Observer)
"Time, action and vision - a magical hat-trick and one that this translation pays faithful tribute to, capturing grand adventures like a detailed painting." (The Scotsman)
"Nadolny brilliantly sets the narrative pace to the rhythms of the frozen landscape, and to the 'slowness which is bred by hunger." (Robert MacFarlane)
"Sten Nadolny shipped us into beautiful, fatal Arctic wastes with his spellbinding novels." (Boyd Tonkin)
"Slow movements of emotion and plot pull the reader expertly in, and the book with its self-consciously ponderous charm, offers all the pleasures of the best historical fiction." (Daily Telegraph)
About the Author
Sten Nadolny (b. 1942) was a historian and film-maker, before writing four novels and two collections of essays. The Discovery of Slowness (1983) is regarded as his masterpiece. It has been translated into all major languages and has sold over one million copies worldwide, and was nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Sten Nadolny lives in Berlin.
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In the case of The Discovery of Slowness by Sten Nadolny my conviction is emphatically reinforced.
Based upon the life of famous 19th century explorer John Franklin, Nadolny portrays over fifty years of history. Credited with finding the Northwest Passage Franklin’s remarkable determination for discovery encompasses naval battles, shipwrecks and starvation in the Arctic.
Opening in the village of Spilsby, Lincolnshire, Nadolny introduces the early years of John Franklin’s life. A painstakingly slow and rather awkward boy, he is given more to a mental reflection of the world rather than an active participant within it.
As John enters his youth the slowness that sets him apart from his peers is ever present. Bullied at school and born into an affectionless family typical of the time, John feels an overwhelming affinity with the motionless sea.
With each progressive chapter Nadolny tells of John’s first sea voyage and his subsequent experiences in the battles of Copenhagen and Trafalgar.
However, crucially Nadolny recognises the material’s potential for being more than just an account of a man’s ascent to the greatness he is destined. Moreover, The Discovery of Slowness is far more a universal experience of an innocent trying to find meaning in a world during one of its most traumatic periods.
Soon John meticulous slowness is proved to be a valuable asset in navigation and exploration. Now matured into a man he embarks on the path destined to be his making and demise, his quest for the North Pole.
Nadolny's ability as a writer is evident in his masterful use of succinct, welcoming prose to focus reader attention upon John Franklin the man as much as the myth. This raises the book from simple genre classification within the confines of historical novel or fictional biography. Instead it is a story rich in its contemplation of childhood, communication, religion, science and human survival.
After two failed but celebrated attempts to conquer the Arctic, John is officially made a captain and given an opportunity to govern Van Diemen’s Land. Later to be renamed Tasmania by Franklin himself; Nadolny uses this episode of his life to highlight the explorer’s lesser known humanitarian aspirations.
Removed from office and entering the twilight of his life John Franklin once more sets out for the Arctic. Nadolny chronicles the final episodes in this great man’s life with a satisfying artistic flourish. One feels the man so often out of rhythm with the rest of the world does in the end discover the place where time ceases to exist.
Although perhaps not my usual choice of novel, I became engrossed in this book immediately and at its end I felt genuinely affected. It could be said Nadolny’s characterisation of John Franklin is not without its faults.
For one he offers very little to the action in terms of direct dialogue, making him seem a little less convincing as a real person. Equally, the arduous lengths taken by the author to establish his main character as a man able to succeed in view of his extraordinary slowness mean in John’s moments of triumph he is in danger of appearing superhuman.
However, the heart of the novel is about the interior of John’s mind. Here Nadolny etches a detailed contemplation of the merits of a slower, more methodical outlook in regard to leadership, understanding and ultimately the human condition.
The Discovery of Slowness was originally published in Nadolny’s native Germany in 1983 and has never been out of print. With this new English translation I urge you to ensure similar prosperity is enjoyed over here.
From the beginning of his life, it became apparent that he was not like the other people. He could not catch a ball, or the ideas of people who spoke quickly. He was teased, and bullied repeatedly in each new situation until his peers began to notice his strengths. It seems that once he had committed something to memory, there it would stay, he could master detail that others could not, and was able to analyse problems and come to clear, usually correct, solutions. How he set about altering his life to cope with this difference, and to overcome obstacles forms the core of the book. I will leave it to you to discover his explanation for this part of his personality, and how he came to terms with it.
I thought that Nadolny spun a series of well-researched facts into an engaging novel. The early parts of Franklin's life were fascinating and compelling. The middle part of the novel, and the end slowed down (no joke intended) for me, and left me wanting to know more. Maybe this part didn't interest the author so much. I found that the writing was a bit two dimensional in places, with not much characterisation of the supporting 'cast', but I suppose that in a factual novel, many people drift in and out of importance during a lifetime, and perhaps there isn't time for more detail. In a pure novel the author can concentrate on a small 'cast', so perhaps this isn't fair. The translation may also have had a part in this clunkiness, and perhaps the book would read differently in the author's native tongue. How the author discovered Franklin's 'slowness' I am not sure, and how much of his descriptions are based in truth, but he paints an intriguing portrait of this trait.
In summary, I found the book a compelling read, looking at a fascinating time in our history from a very different perspective.
The author has used the imagery of John Franklin as a slow and deliberate person from boyhood on, whose life in first the Navy and then as an explorer, then governor of Van Diemen’s Land, then fateful Arctic explorer once more was still a life lived as a deliberate and logical man who moved at his own pace to achieve great things. Interestingly the author has not focused on the last tragic voyage of Franklin to a great degree in the novel; rather, he has built up to that point of departure and fate through the actions of the man. From boyhood on, we follow John as he moves through the landscape first of the country, then the sea, the Arctic, the barren reaches of northern Canada, then to the strange land of Australia, then back to England and the Arctic once more.
The imagery of this story is the thing that really captures the imagination. While we get into the understanding of John as a boy and a man, we also ‘see’ things as he saw them, and it offers a new and unusual perspective from which to view this man whose legacy paints him as a larger than life figure. For the author, John is an ordinary man who lived an extraordinary life in an extraordinary way all his own, and it is this man whose journey we share in this remarkable novel.
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