3. desember

"It has long been my belief that everyone's library contains an Odd Shelf. On this shelf rests a small, mysterious corpus of volumes whose subject matter is completely unrelated to the rest of the library, yet which, upon closer inspection, reveals a good deal about its owner. George Orwell's Odd Shelf held a collection of bound sets of ladies' magazines from the 1860s, which he liked to read in the bathtub. Philip Larkin had an especially capacious Odd Shelf crammed with pornography, with an emphasis on spanking. Vice Admiral James Stockdale, having heard that Frederick the Great had never embarked on a campaign without his copy of The Encheiridion, brought to Vietnam the complete copy of Epictetus whose Stoic philosophy was to sustain him through eight years as a prisoner of war.

My own odd shelf holds sixty-four books about polar exploration: expedition narratives, journals, collections of photographs, works of natural history, and naval manuals ("Do not touch cold metal with moist bare hands. If you should inadvertently stick a hand to cold metal, urinate on the metal to warm it and save some inches of skin. If you stick both hands, you'd better have a friend along"). These books are so charged with sentiment that they might as well be smudged with seal blubber and soaked with spray from the Weddell Sea. My interest is a lonely one. I cannot trot it out at cocktail parties. I feel sometimes as if I have spent a large part of my life learning a dead language that no one I know can speak. Reading in bed, I will say to George, "Did you know that on Scott's first Antarctic expedition, Edward Wilson got up at one and five every morning to premasticate seal meat and stuff it down the throat of the pet emperor penguin chick he had captured on the Great Ice Barrier?" George will grunt. He is a rainforest man himself. He likes to dream of sitting under a giant tropical tree, his shoulders festooned with decaying lianas and sprouting bromeliads, with five hundred species of multicolored slugs dropping on his head. I consider his ideal landscape messy and hyperbolic -too much. He considers my ideal landscape, a white-on-white monochrome of seracs and crevasses with a single polar bear in the distance, chilly and parsimonious -not enough. I have tried to explain to him that the polar ethos has the same appeal as the body of Katharine Hepburn (something I know he holds in high esteem), which Spencer Tracy, in Pat and Mike, characterized thus: "Not much meat on'er, but what there is is cherce".

My ardor for the choice minimalism of extreme latitudes began so early that it would take years on an analyst's couch to exhume its roots. I cannot remember a time when I did not prefer winter to summer, The Snow Queen to Cinderella, Norse myths to Greek. When I was thirteen or fourteen, I read C. S. Lewis's recollection of the central epiphany of his childhood, the moment he stumbled across a Norse-influenced poem by Longfellow that began with the lines:

I heard a voice, that cried,

"Balder the Beautiful

Is dead, is dead!"

"I knew nothing about Balder", wrote Lewis, "but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, and I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale and remote)." When I read that passage, I shivered with a combination of sympathetic hypothermia and passionate recognition.

As I grew up, my yearning for what Lewis called Northernness (the Arctic) begat an antipodal yearning for Southernness (the Antarctic). Neither ultima Thule was easily accessible, so for a time I worked as a mountaineering instructor, on the theory that high altitudes where a reasonable substitute for high latitudes. A few years later, I managed to persuade a softhearted editor to send me twice to the Arctic, once to write about polar bears and once about musk oxen. Each time I feared that my protracted pre-imaginings would poison the reality; each time the reality went one better. And each time, as soon as I returned home, I ran to my Odd Shelf, which instantly uplifted me back into Lewis's huge regions of northern sky. It was in this way that, over time, my crush on Balder the Beautiful was converted into a crush on Ross, Franklin, Nares, Shackleton, Oates, and Scott.

I should mention that all of the above explorers were unqualified failures. Not coincidentally, they were also all British. Americans admire success. Englishmen admire heroic failure. Given a choice - at least in my reading - I'm un-American enough to take quixotry over efficiency any day. I have always found the twilight-of-an-empire aspect of the Victorian age inexpressibly poignant, and no one could be more Victorian than the brave, earnest, optimistic, self-sacrificing, patriotic, honorable, high-minded, and utterly inept men who left their names all over the maps of the Arctic and the Antarctic, yet failed to navigate the North-west passage and lost the race to both Poles. Who but an Englishman, Lieutenant William Edward Parry, would have decided, on reaching western Greenland, to wave a flag painted with an olive branch in order to ensure a peaceful first encounter with the polar Eskimos, who not only had never seen an olive branch but had never seen a tree? Who but an Englishman, the legendary Sir John Franklin, could have managed to die of starvation and scurvy along with all 129 of his men in a region of the Canadian Arctic whose game had supported an Eskimo colony for centuries? When the corpses of some of Franklin's officers and crew were later discovered, miles from their ships, the men were found to have left behind their guns but to have lugged such essentials as monogrammed silver cutlery, a backgammon board, a cigar case, a clothes brush, a tin of button polish, and a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield. These men may have been incompetent bunglers, but, by God, they were gentlemen.

The successful explorers - Roald Amundsen, for example, the ultrapragmatic Norwegian who sledged 830 miles to the South Pole, killed and ate his sled dogs on a strict schedule, and sledged miles back again without the slightest touch of frostbite, scurvy, or snow blindness, though one of his four companions did get a toothache - don't hold much interest for me. "Of course they don't", said George. "You're a romantic. What's romantic about a guy wanting to go somewhere and getting there?""

-- Fra Anne Fadiman: "My Odd Shelf", i "Ex Libris - Confessions of a Common Reader" (1998)

2 kommentarer


03.12.2010 kl.10:59

Dette, derimot, var hyst fornyelig. Til begynne med forstod jeg 'odd shelf' som hylle med ditt og datt. Og det har jeg selvsagt. Men jeg har nok ingen hylle dedikert til min personlige dille, med mindre man kan telle med en liten samling glansede kokebker for idioter. Men det synes jeg egentlig ikke. Jeg vet sant si ikke om jeg har noen personlig dille. Jeg fler jeg burde skaffe meg en. Som i: A gentlewoman should have an odd shelf. It lends her character.

Inger Merete

04.12.2010 kl.13:22

Enig med siste taler. Jeg tror forresten du ville likt Fadimans bok godt, Tone, den er lrd og underfundig og selvironisk. Men du kan da umulig ha problemer med komponere en snurrighetshylle, med alle underkategoriene av fantasy du har oversikt over?

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35, Oslo

Inger Merete Hobbelstad (f. 1980) er kulturjournalist, teateranmelder og filmanmelder i Dagbladet og burde egentlig vre lut lei av skrive etter endt arbeidsdag. Men den gang ei. Jo, og s har jeg mastergrad i Litteraturvitenskap med en oppgave som handlet om Homers "Iliaden". Hvilket jeg altfor sjelden fr sprsml om. Og s ns jeg p imh@dagbladet.no.