The Discovery of Slowness – Sten Nadolny

[This is a journal in four sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]

13 July 2015
Part 1 – John Franklin’s Early Years
Sten Nadolny tells it straight. John Franklin is a slow learner, can’t catch a ball or even follow a conversation at the age of ten. But ‘slow learner’ – a phrase Nadolny never uses, and this is a translation anyway – doesn’t tell the whole story about him. He isn’t fast, but he isn’t stupid either. He just needs time to process things… and once he starts, he’ll go on processing until he gets the answer, however difficult the calculations. Of course, none of that counts for anything among the other kids he plays with in Chapter 1. So we get one of those bits of everyday violence you often get in novels that begin with childhood: Tom, the terrifyingly fast neighbourhood kid who literally runs rings round our boy, knocks out one of his teeth before poor John realises he’s in a fight. His father’s default response is to ‘thrash’ him, this time for getting his clothes all bloody. He runs away to sea (the Lincolnshire coast, a few miles away), is caught next day, and… is thrashed all over again. But he’s ill with fever, is close to death for a while. He copes, because he’s learning to live according to a different time-scale from everybody else. Time never passes slowly for him.

Somehow, the same father realises the boy isn’t beyond hope and sends him to school. And slowly, slowly, we see how the boy begins to pick his way through the fast-moving, constantly changing world. Teachers and other boys either do, or don’t, make allowances. Tom from the village is at the same school, but no longer seems to bully him. The novel is written from John’s point of view, so it it’s rarely clear whether there is any pattern in the ways that others treat him. It doesn’t matter anyway, because this is the story, in these early chapters, of the inside of his mind. He develops what our century would call coping strategies – the school chapters take place at the end of the 18th – inventing a kind of imaginary mentor who speaks to him as he goes through the day’s experiences and pieces together what he missed. There are conventional teachers, notably Dr Orme, and a more liberal one. It’s the second of these, ironically, who falls victim to a particular aspect of John’s dogged persistence. When John, misunderstanding a situation, grabs hold of the teacher, he simply can’t stop and the teacher has him punished. But it’s ok: the punishment is a detention, which John can use to unpack a few things in his mind.

Running away to sea turns out not to have been a mere childish fantasy of escape. John is obsessed by the sea, has somehow always known that he will become a sailor. He reads books on seamanship and navigation, loves the huge model of a ship that he sees – and performs feats of calculation relating to time and longitude in his head. Often, he will arrive at the answer when everything around him has moved on. Something else he has developed by now is the set response. He knows he mustn’t simply look bemused or caught off-guard and so, usually, he has a form of words that satisfies the teacher.

Time suddenly moves on. As Chapter 4 opens he is on board ship, on what turns out to be a trial. His father has agreed to this, and John has managed to pick up – from the parts of the conversation that haven’t passed him by – that his father expects him to fail. Something about ‘the first storm….’ In fact, he does experience a storm, and Nadolny describes exactly what seasickness feels like to a fourteen-year-old who is trying to calculate a predicable rhythm from the contradictory movements of the ship – side-to-side, fore-to-aft – even as he throws up into the wide-bottomed bucket by his bunk. He goes out on deck, to see much more quick-witted men than he is finding it almost impossible to move without losing their grip. He feels himself being grabbed and is almost thrown down to safety below deck.

By Chapter 5 his father has changed his mind, and John is a ‘voluntary midshipman’ on a warship. There are more expectations of him now – he is not only supposed to behave ‘like a gentleman’ but he is supposed to look as though he knows what he is doing. He is always refining his strategies, so that he has whole sets of responses to different situations. When officers speak to him he has to gauge the tone, recognising for instance that a rising intonation usually requires ‘Certainly not, sir.’ And he spends every spare moment learning every detail of the ship, from the smallest sail to the biggest and every last item of line and rigging. He’s nothing if not dogged.

There is an engagement. It’s 1801, and the ship is involved in the bombardment of heavily defended coastal emplacements near Copenhagen. Nadolny takes us from the anticipation of the battle, to the preparations on the gun-decks, to the ‘Boom!’ of the opening battery from the Danish guns. The action is visceral. The gun-decks are painted red and the floors are covered in sand to disguise the spattering of blood and to prevent the men slipping on it. After an early hit, John notices there are suddenly far fewer men, and there’s a bigger hole for the gun to fire out of. And suddenly an enemy soldier is through the same hole. What’s a young midshipman to do? He has no idea, but finds his own fingers around the man’s neck. He can feel the warm texture of the skin, feel the breath, hear the harsh sounds from the man’s throat… and he simply can’t let go.

That night he doesn’t sleep. And his mentor is no longer there to help him. John Franklin might have found his vocation, but it isn’t going to be easy.

23 August
Part 2 – John Franklin Masters His Craft
What did I write after Part 1? ‘He isn’t fast, but he isn’t stupid either. He just needs time to process things… and once he starts, he’ll go on processing until he gets the answer, however difficult the calculations.’ (I checked.) A few chapters into this section his slowness suddenly becomes measurable. Orme, his old teacher in Lincolnshire, has a mechanical version of the spinning illusion that relies on persistence of vision. Some people aren’t deceived by it until it reaches 800 rpm. With John it’s 300. So now he knows. And so do we.

But Sten Nadolny makes it interesting: stuff happens, all the time, both inside John’s mind, as he methodically processes whatever new things come into view, and outside it. In the first chapter he’s on a voyage of discovery to ‘Terra Australis’ under Matthew, the local lad he’d idolised in his childhood. There is a crucial moment on the voyage – not the only one in Part 2 – in which John performs a decisive action. He hears an order, that later turns out to be imaginary, to hoist a white rag. It saves the day, because the French ship is another scientific vessel, not a hostile enemy. Later, in Australia, he finds himself able to understand exactly why the white men behave as they do in front of the natives, and vice versa. Now, as so often, he disapproves of his shipmates’ behaviour, but keeps quiet about it.

And this is how it goes. Nalodny presents us with key periods in John’s life, and singles out key episodes. So, during this voyage, there’s his first encounter with a very patient and understanding prostitute, the near-disaster with the French ship, and the crew’s first meeting with the ‘Australians’. As in Part 1, the people around him make him the butt of their jokes at first, then slowly begin to realise that he knows more about almost everything on board than anybody else. On this ship, and on the three or four others he sails on after it, this slow realisation always leads to a kind of respect. On each new ship, there is always at least one particular thorn in John’s side, the man who deliberately makes him seem clumsy or who speaks far too fast just to see his confused response. When one of these, a quick-witted and agile boy, is no more than a dying heap of broken bones on the deck following a sixty-foot fall, the moment seems symbolic. It wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been rushing.

Meanwhile, there’s John’s interior life. At the beginning of Part 2 he’s still traumatised by the experience of having strangled a man to death, and we share his nightmares. But these fade, and he has other richly-textured dreams and insights into the workings of things that seem like gradually emerging epiphanies. He remembers people from that first long voyage, especially one who decided to settle in Australia after the ship becomes unseaworthy and the crew is dispersed. And when he is a sub-lieutenant on a fighting vessel at the Battle of Trafalgar, we follow the painstaking way in which he reaches (fairly irrefutable) conclusions about the futility of war. ‘Honour’ he can believe in, sort of, but he decides that ‘glory’, a word constantly in the mouths of the senior officers, has no meaning at all. He is entirely unmoved by high-sounding speeches that seem to galvanise every other man into mindless and apparently selfless action – to the extent that he thinks it will be impossible for him to fight. It’s a decision he can’t help as his body begins to shake in a way he remembers from Copenhagen, and he doesn’t know what will happen when battle commences….

The crisis he reaches after the first volleys is another set piece. He has taken the body of a dying friend to the makeshift sick-bay, and – and what? He can’t possibly go back up on deck: ‘his body rebelled. His legs became lame; his tongue stuck; chin and hands trembled even more than before.’ But… ‘John followed the mind’s command, to see how far he got…’ and he forces himself into the step-by-step procedure of loading three rifles. He stops, knowing that it will be a waste of ammunition to fire whilst so incapacitated by trembling. Then, even more than before, we are inside his mind as he calculates vectors, recalculates following a shot by the sniper he wants to shoot, ignoring the cry behind him to ‘Shoot, will you!’ ‘Once more he assembled it all in his mind…’ and so on, until he does fire, three times, and sees the sniper falling head-first through the French rigging.

It’s the combination of broadly-presented descriptions of the preparations for battle, or whatever other activities are going on all around him, with this fastidious detailing of his thought-processes that makes this novel so engaging. The constant changes in John’s situation – he’s in a brothel in Portsmouth, he’s in Australia, he’s being carried by a blind man dressed in white from an ignominious land-battle outside New Orleans – and his endless search for meaning in a world that never stops seeming chaotic stop it ever becoming plodding. In the early chapters, John had simply wanted to pick his way through the difficulties of everyday life where everything seemed to move too fast for him. Now he is far more ambitious, He knows his own value, knows that he will gain people’s respect if he simply carries on doing what he does – but he would love to know far more.

(That scene with the blind man is another set piece. ‘In the mud… someone woke up.’ There’s a bleeding hole in his forehead, and another in the back of his head, and he can’t get up on to his feet. The blind man in white carries him to safety, after (it later transpires) he had been left for dead. For pages, he remains ‘someone’ or simply ‘he’, and later he only remembers his own name after someone says it. This is the final chapter of Part 2, and he’s different again after this episode. He no longer feels the need to imitate the behaviour or speech-patterns of others. The blind man in white, of whom no trace is ever found, becomes another symbol of the interior workings of John’s mind. He’s been saved, again, by a figment of his own imagination. And nobody is ever quite the same after death.)

By the end of Part 2, he is returning to his first love, the idea of exploration. He would love to discover the North Pole – which, he decides, must be in open water in midsummer, when the sun shines on it for months at a time. He has met a woman at a scientific lecture who seems to have an interest in him, and… and what? He tells her frankly that he doesn’t have enough money to marry her, and receives the response, presumably for the first time in his life, that he is being ‘too fast’ for her. What’s an unemployed ex-sailor to do? He returns home to a village where he knows few people any more – and where his almost blind father asks him exactly that. Well?

1 September
The first half of Part 3 – Franklin’s Domain
…that is, four of nine chapters. The first is mostly set in Lincolnshire during the year-and-a-half of John’s unemployment. But he isn’t idle. The chapter’s subtitle is ‘His Own Mind and the Ideas of Others’ and, in this final long section, we’re coming to see that the title of the novel refers at least as much to his self-discovery as any other kind. He has spent something like fifteen years closely studying the ways of other men, and how he can make his own way amongst them. Now he wants to find out more about the workings of his own mind. He goes to see Dr Orme – but he has died, leaving two manuscripts addressed to him. One is concerned with the design of a kind of mechanical flick-book, the ‘picture-rotor’, possibly even to be incorporated into a magic-lantern projector. John worries away for a time at ways in which thousands images might possibly be drawn, with minute changes each time, even contemplating a mechanical process for achieving this. He’s always loved the certainties of mechanisms, as we know…

…but it’s the other manuscript left by Dr Orme that really strikes home. Not that he reads it: it’s a study of a particular individual, clearly himself (though only identified as ‘F’), and it’s called The Origin of the Individual through Speed. After reading a little, he decides he needs to leave the rest until he’s ready. That will be when he’s reached a workable system of his own, when he’s really worked out how to live. Fine. But he’s long since begun to fear he’ll never be thought worthy of the command he craves. What would be the point of a system if he’s never going to be able to see whether it works?

And then, at the end of this chapter, a command seems to come to him out of the blue. Three ships are to sail in a voyage to find once and for all the North-west Passage that has eluded explorers for two centuries or more. He will be in charge of one of them…. And, by adding new insights he gains along the way to what he already knows, he develops the ‘Franklin System’ into a self-imposed code of practice. It is unexpectedly reliable, and stands him in good stead. He appoints a second-in-command to do the quick thinking while he considers the important decisions. (I’m paraphrasing.) He relies on not saying anything at key moments as when, for instance, he meets the chief of a Native American tribe. He decides that he will believe someone to be honest until definitely proved otherwise. And so on. In every aspect, his system either allows him thinking time, or depends on him not committing himself to any immediate action at all.

Nadolny, more than ever, matches the conclusions John reaches to whatever is going on around him. Now that he is in command, he can really put his ideas to the test. When both his ship and another in the convoy are caught in a storm that buffets them against walls of ice, he is able to see what the others are too busy to notice. While they complain, he orders his own ship to be steered into what seems like a dangerously narrow inlet. And when this has saved all their lives he can send out boats to help guide the other, in a manoeuvre that takes hours of exhausting work for all the men, into another inlet that nobody else had seen.

This is how it goes for almost the whole journey as John makes decisions that seem counter-intuitive and that often mystify the men. After at least one winter spent waiting, he is finally able to set off overland with a part of twenty. The internal operations of John’s mind – that is, Nalodny’s scrupulous presentation to the reader of his point of view – are always firmly fixed within the context of what we know to have been a real journey of exploration. More than at any other time in the novel so far – even including that extraordinary head wound that John survived – Nalodny relies on factual events for some extraordinary set pieces. The confrontation with the ‘Eskimos’, when they seem to be saved by the fears of the medicine man; the appalling treachery of the men who had agreed to keep them supplied; and, over the twenty pages that make up the chapter subtitled ‘Hunger and Dying’, the fact that more than half of them managed to survive against what seem to be impossible odds after their inevitable failure to reach their rendezvous.

Nalodny’s style is perfect for this kind of fictionalised biography. The men’s experience of the most atrocious conditions, which we know to be true, are made vivid by his continually referring to what John is thinking, how it makes him add little tweaks to his ‘system’, how close he knows they all are to death. In the end they are saved by the man that John has sent on in order to prevent him from mutiny. (This is not at all the first time that John’s apparently unfailing ability to come to the right decision saves the day: early in Part 2, stranded on an island with many other men, he sends a party out in a boat to search for the rescue that only he believes to be possible. He prevented a mutiny that time, too.)

And other things are going on alongside. We get to know several other men very well during this journey, and we see how John comes to decisions about how he should use them. The potential mutineer, Back, is the one he chooses to be his second-in-command, a decision whose wisdom he comes to question as the journey often becomes bogged down and Back becomes almost intolerably restless. To complicate things further, Back ‘loves men’. He especially loves John, not that this influences him one way or another: John always knows what is and isn’t important. And, in fact, he turns out all right in the end. There’s another man, the guide who ends up threatening their lives with a rifle he’s clearly taken from a man he’s either killed or left for dead. John allows him to order them about until the decisive moment when he can lull him into a false sense of security and put a bullet in his head.

Does Nadolny idealise John? The novel might be based on truth but, being about someone who kept on surviving against the odds, it could have been written as the story of a very, very lucky man. Instead, Nadolny has John making his own luck, perfecting a system which, he can confidently assert, will enable him to make his next journey without losing a single man. In these chapters in which we have to assume that the historical truth of the events is undeniable, we don’t have to believe that the real John Franklin was anything like this. Ok. But he’s an endlessly engaging character in this particular fiction. As he muses on human nature in all its forms, or on the woman he met in London, the one who writes him scientific or philosophical letters that occasionally reach him in the wastes of Canada, we see him coming to his careful, measured conclusions. Good luck to him – not that he seems to need my good wishes. I see that the next chapter is subtitled ‘Fame and Honour’.

2 September
Second half of Part 3 – to the end
That chapter-title, ‘Fame and Honour’, is a tease. Following the retreat from the ice that feels like a failure, John’s sponsors seem indifferent to anything he might have discovered. Even his friends seem polite at best, and he despairs of any further voyages. He’s kicking around in London, spending time reading the free newspapers and going into coffee-houses. Paper and writing materials are made available there, and one day John makes a decision. He will start to write an account of his journey. He forces his body to do it… now. Nalodny details the difficulties John has in composing the first twelve words… but two lines further on, he is half-way to his target of 100,000. Nalodny spends a page or so giving us an impression of how John is as methodical about this new task as he is about everything else, paying particular attention to his abhorrence of unnecessary repetition….

When the book is published it’s a sensation and suddenly John is a celebrity. Everybody wants to hear about the hardships, and whenever anyone who has read it meets him they have a favourite detail to remind him of. But his fame as ‘the man who ate his boots’ is enough for him to be offered another voyage. And this time he gets it right. Nalodny seems to be making his own comment about the public’s lack of appetite for a story in which everything goes well. It was, the narrator tells us, ‘as easy and happy as a child’s dream during school holidays,’ and it is summed up in a diary entry of John’s own: ‘Actually, we couldn’t be happier.’ Instead of the two long chapters, over nearly 50 pages, spent on the first expedition, the second one gets only two pages. It is no surprise at all that the book John writes about the it causes hardly a ripple.

Meanwhile – by which I mean between the two expeditions – John has got married to Eleanor. She is the vibrant, enthusiastic one he’s often spoken to, and she is pregnant when they both visit Lincolnshire. She hates it, and couldn’t possibly settle there. But she’s the image of the understanding wife when he has a chance to go on the second voyage shortly after their daughter is born, despite a terrible ‘cough’ she’s had for some time now. She dies two days after he sets sail, although he doesn’t find out until much later. He so completely takes it in his stride it makes any reader – this reader, anyway – begin to wonder about his ability to make real relationships. Remember his happy adventures in the Arctic and that diary entry….

Next. What to do, when public enthusiasm for the discovery of the North-west passage is waning so quickly? How about… receiving a knighthood, and being offered the governorship of Van Diemen’s Land? Ok, says John, despite his misgivings about politics of any kind. He tries to convince himself that it will be just like commanding a ship, but somehow knows that things won’t be quite the same. They aren’t, and he can never find a second-in-command he can trust. He struggles to overturn the legacy of the previous governor who ran the island as a penal colony with additional settlers, and who made money by (legally) granting land deals to people with whom he was (not legally) in partnership. From the start, John is disgusted by the veneer of bourgeois politeness overlaying a punitive system of exploitation and sadistic punishments. With his second wife, Jane – he’d always found her attractive, even before he married Eleanor – he fights against Montagu, his deputy. But he loses in the end. Montagu has been writing reports back to London that appear over John’s signature, but which entirely oppose what John is trying to do. And despite having been found telling outright lies, Montagu is able to return to London and present John’s governorship of five years as a complete failure. John is replaced.

(Shortly before he discovers that he is about to go, we get the reappearance of the young friend John made on his first long voyage, the one who stayed in Terra Australis all those years ago. He’s a near-catatonic ex-con with half his face missing – he has to hold his hand to his face to prevent food from falling from his mouth as he chews – and he furnishes Nalodny with a way to get John to muse on life, death, and true repose. He decides his friend, who doesn’t remember him, has finally found it. Nalodny can make it as philosophical as he wants. I’m not sure when John began to morph into a kind of Everyman – there’s one character who insists he is no different from anybody else – but he’s reaching some important conclusions about how we should live.

After this, the last three chapters are short. We guess that John is coming to the end of his life despite not being 60 yet – he’s 61 when he dies – and it feels as though Nalodny is tying up some loose ends. Back in London, he meets a surprising number of famous people. There’s the irascible Babbage, as single-minded as John himself in his pursuit of a calculating machine that will eventually be able to perform functions we recognise as the modern computer. John can’t imagine that a machine based on what is an essentially yes/no algorithm will ever be capable of such tasks – he recognised in the Arctic that responses to such questions can never be nuanced enough to be satisfactory. Brown, the scientist friend of his who is taken with the idea of the ‘picture-rotor’, laments that the new daguerreotypes cannot be taken quickly enough for them to be useful: actors have to stay still for each new image. (I’m not sure why Nalodny keeps nodding to these inventions that would not become common until the 20th Century. Perhaps he wants John to seem ahead of his time.) Eventually, after several friends have spoken up for him, he gets to meet Peel, the Prime Minister. After careful study of his manner, John decides Peel is a fellow slow-mover. But he doesn’t accept Peel’s offer of a job as a kind of educational consultant, following his reforms on the island that he renamed Tasmania before he left.

Unexpectedly, he gets his chance to be a commander again. And, finally, he discovers that the North-west Passage, which does exist, will always be too blocked by ice to be navigable. So it goes. He suffers a stroke, which Nalodny describes in the detailed, plausible way that we now take for granted. He doesn’t die for some months, and is still clearly compos mentis…. But the expedition’s ships are trapped in the ice, never to float again, and John suffers a second, fatal stroke. Back in London, knowing nothing of this, Jane orchestrates a series of rescue attempts long after these would normally be abandoned. Eventually the story is pieced together: the men have died not of hunger, but of scurvy. It seems that in spite of planning everything to what he considered that last detail, John didn’t get this right. I’m not sure what Nalodny wants us to make of that.

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