Top positive review
2 people found this helpful
Amundsen ...... an enigma illuminated
on 13 May 2013
This biography of Roald Amundsen, arguably the greatest of explorers of the heroic age of polar exploration, is well-written, revealing and comprehensive.
What I found most appealing was that whilst it is clear that Stephen Bown has undertaken prodigious research, this is no dry academic treatise. Instead, Bown tells a story which increasingly peels back the layers, revealing the inner man who was the complex character that Amundsen undoubtedly was.
By any account, the Norwegian Amundsen achieved so much in his life of 55 years. None of his expeditions were state sponsored, though he did receive state grants and sponsorship. Essentially he was a private individual who badgered, persuaded and inspired others to support him. He was a master mariner. He was the first to traverse the North-West passage and the first to reach the South Pole. He traversed the North-East passage. He was the first to fly (almost) to the North Pole (and arguably the first man there) and the first to traverse the Arctic in a dirigible. And he trekked many thousands of miles through desolate frozen territory surviving on the skills which he had acquired by close study of the ways of indigenous Arctic peoples. Essentially he was a modern man, informed by the past, but always open to new ways to explore, as technology developed.
What I particularly liked about this biography, in addition to its style of writing, was that whilst Bown was clearly a great admirer of Amundsen, he managed to remain even-handed. So, for instance, though he felt Amundsen's approach and method was much more likely to succeed in getting to the South Pole than were Scott's, he refrained from denigrating Scott, as others have done. In addition, he does not shrink from identifying some of Amundsen's perceived shortcomings, especially during the latter part of his life. Particularly revealing was his relationship with Nobile, the Italian whom he joined forces with to cross the Arctic in a dirigible. Amundsen's own account of this venture (included in his 'My Life as an Explorer') is vitriolic and one-sided, whereas Bown reveals much more of the two-sided nature of the clash between the 2 protagonists.
Amundsen's life ended as he evidently would have wished, not as an ageing but accomplished has-been, but on yet another mission. (A forlorn attempt to rescue Nobile from another venture). A sad end? Perhaps. But what a man! And Stephen Bown has captured the essence of that man beautifully.