Posted by Sari
Gah! I just deleted this really long post by accident. I hate when that happens...
The post was about Sir Ranulph Fiennes' biography of Captain Scott which I just finished. Reading it was doubly weird because in addition to the normal fascination/anxiety dicothomy I have when reading about things I know will end up badly was added another layer by the fact that the French-Finnish polar adventurer Dominick Arduin is missing and believed to be dead on her way to the north pole. I noticed myself trying very hard to keep detached from the narrative and not to invest any feeling in the reading experience to be able to finish it. (I never finished Cherry-Garrard's bio because it was too awful to think of him finding out that Scott, Wilson and Bowers were dying in their tent eleven miles south of One Ton Depot where he was waiting for them.)
Fiennes bio is a necessary but not wholly successful corrective to Roland Huntford's "Amundsen and Scott". It has become evident that Huntford's debunking of Scott did use its sources selectively and draw from them conclusions which are iffy at best. Fiennes answers Huntford's accusations in this biography, and because of that I think that it is necessary to be somewhat familiar with earlier debate to be able to enjoy the book fully. Fiennes goes on some detours debunking Huntford which may be quite bemusing if the arguments are not familiar.
That said, Fiennes does admirable job in rehabilitating Scott from a bumbling imperialistic amateur to one of the great explorers of the last heroic age. His narrative is engaging and his first hand experiences give him an invaluable insight to the psychological and physiological changes humans undergo in extreme circumstances. His experiences of manhauling in the Antarctic also concretely disprove some of Huntford's accusations of incompetence. He also convincingly shows Scott to have been more flexible more ready to try new and different methods than has previously been supposed. I do, however, still think that even though the decision to use ponies was quite rational and based on previous experiences, the dismissal of dogs after the Discovery expedition's experiences was more to do with the fact that Scott did not _then_ have anyone along who knew how to handle and feed them than for their unsuitability for the job.
Unfortunately there are also problems. Firstly, because neither Huntford or Fiennes are historians, both argue from sources without really applying rigorous source critique to all of them. Both tend to be more critical to those sources that disagree with their interpretation. Fiennes is undoubtably right that in a closed community where survival is dependent on getting on with each other letters and diaries become places where negative feelings where given free reign, and thus are not really representative of how individuals really felt about each other. But if lows are unbearably low in the antarctic, then supposedly highs are also sublimely high, and similar caution should be used while quoting the glowing assessments given in same diaries. Fiennes also criticises Huntford's use of negatively tinted memoirs written long after the expeditions, but fails to note that the caveats he feels Huntford ignores apply also to those more Scott-friendly memoirs he uses. The intervining time, the reputation of Scott and the mentality of the authors should be taken into account in all cases.
Secondly, Fiennes is so incensed of the debunkers who have taken over the popular image of Scott that he feels it necessary to go into personal details, transcribing at one point a conversation where a fellow biographer called Huntford 'cracked'. This is totally unnecessary. The cases can be argued on merit and evidence without going into the personalities of those engaged in debate, and doing so actually weakens Fiennes' case as it makes it seem he has a personal ax to grind.
I also finally finished Tom Arden's fantasy quintett Books of Orokon. I have to admit that the books were a chore from time to time, mainly because I did not connect with the main characters at all. That said, the quintett is incredibly ambitious and linguistically rich quest-story. Arden's eye for charicature and the grotesque is great, and his experiments with style and narrative mostly come off. China Miéville would probably not like much his type of intertextuality which does bring attention to the artificiality of the novel's world, but I found the literary allusions quite interesting and illuminating. The best I can do is say that it is like Mervyn Peake meets Georgette Heyer meets Charles Dickens with rich possibilities for a PoMo or queer readings. Not everybody's cup of tea, and as I said, being a fan of character-driven fiction the books did leave me a bit cold. Even so, defenitely worth reading.
And last - and least I have to say - I Finished The Picador collection of contemporary American Short Stories. What can I say. Blah. Four out of forty-two were marginally interesting, none do I feel a need to ever read again. But I will persevere. I think I will try some fantasy next...