Three years before its original publication in German, Sten Nadolny’s novel The Discovery of Slowness captured a major literary award given by the Austrian city of Klagenfurt, the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for Literature. When the novel appeared on the market in 1983, the initial reviews seemed to bear out the confidence of the award jury that had reached its decision solely on the basis of a public reading of the fifth chapter. The novel’s author, born into a family of writers, lives in Berlin and in addition to writing fiction has taught history and worked in film production. Both of these occupations have left a visible imprint on his literary work.
The creative exploitation of history in The Discovery of Slowness recalls the techniques of writers of the 1960’s such as Peter Weiss and Rolf Hoch-huth, who turned to documentary sources as a factual base to support their critical view of the recent German past. The reasons behind the turn to historical fact, however, change with the times. In his fictional re-creation of the life of the nineteenth century British naval officer and explorer John Franklin (1786-1847), Nadolny no longer uses history to produce sociopolitical commentary. “History is intercourse with greatness and duration,” one of the minor characters remarks to Franklin. Nadolny’s novel serves as the vehicle of this interchange and, as a quasi-historical document, “allows us to rise above time.” The author has, moreover, written a work that bears closer resemblance to the German Bildungsroman than to an adventure novel, to which his sources lend such a wealth of material. The documentary evidence of Franklin’s various expeditions and journeys to Australia and into the frigid land- and seascapes above the Arctic Circle provide the mere structure for the central focus of the novel, the depiction of an inner development of character. In an author’s note appended to the work, Nadolny lists the substantial historical sources to which he is indebted for many details of characterization, yet admits that the historical Franklin must have differed in many ways from his fictional creation.
The story of John Franklin that Nadolny tells begins in the small village in rural England where he spends his childhood years, long before becoming the celebrated explorer and chronicler of two land expeditions in search of the Northwest Passage. As a boy, Franklin’s sluggish temperament puts him at a natural disadvantage in the fast-moving games of his companions. To participate at all he seeks out roles in which he can remain stationary, often amazing the others by his ability to stand motionless for long periods of time. The boys he admires most, however, taunt and torment him because of his inability to move, respond, and speak at a normal speed. Much of the time he spends concocting ingenious methods to accelerate his phlegmatic disposition, fantasizing about new friendships with the quickest boys or, at the depths of his depression, giving in to the soothingly regressive desire “to slow down until he died.”
An instinct for survival, however, draws him one day the few miles across the fields from his village to the sea, which seems to hold out the promise of an existence free of the pressures of time that make his life so miserable on land. Although Franklin ultimately gains the highest honors that a seafaring nation can bestow on a remarkable career, he achieves them not because conditions at sea are tolerant of his slowness, but because he successfully adapts his natural disposition to these conditions. It is the process of maturation and adjustment through which he learns to compensate for his slowness and to make the best use of it that lies at the center of Nadolny’s novel. As a man, Franklin no longer rejects time as he had in his boyhood, but finds his proper relationship to its inevitable flow. In this fictionalized account, the inner voyage and the discovery of his unique tempo for living take precedence over Franklin’s voyages and discoveries around the globe.
For a man of Franklin’s temperament, sudden change brings confusion, whether on the small scale of a naval battle’s duration or on the larger ones measuring the periods of his absences from London. While he is away in corners of the world untouched by the rhythms of the West, changes in...