The Discovery of Slowness

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 309

Although his name is not widely known today, especially in the United States, John Franklin was perhaps the most famous British explorer of the early nineteenth century. The extensive northernmost area of Canada is named for him, because he mapped most of the region. The purpose of his voyages was to find the much sought-after northwest passage from Europe to the Orient. On his last voyage, he proved that the passage existed, but that it was useless because it was blocked with ice all year.

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Sten Nadolny’s novel follows Franklin from his childhood in England through his death in this final expedition, ice-locked in the northwest passage. While in the navy, Franklin took part in battles at Copenhagen, Trafalgar, and New Orleans. Having impressed his commanders, he was put in charge of two Arctic explorations, the second of which nearly killed him and all of his men. His popular narrative of this trip led to his being knighted. Sir John Franklin then served as governor of Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony now called Tasmania. During his final Arctic expedition in 1845, his two ships disappeared. More than ten years later, a rescue mission sent by his wife, Lady Jane, found a few documents and other evidence revealing his death and the tragic starvation of his crew.

Within this framework of what is known of Franklin’s life, German novelist Nadolny concentrates on his protagonist’s character. Franklin is slow to take in sensory data. Though he is very intelligent, he appears retarded. Nadolny interprets Franklin’s life as a struggle to take advantage of the insights his slowness provides while compensating for the weaknesses. Franklin emerges as wise in a way necessary to a period when industrialism and empire were speeding the pace of European life. Nadolny’s novel emphasizes the importance of contemplation to successful action.

The Discovery of Slowness

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1777

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 England take place at the rapidly increasing rate of the industrial revolution. At every return, new sights and sounds overwhelm his senses, new pressures seem to be at work behind the compulsive haste of his countrymen. Following his first land expedition into the northern territories of Canada, he remarks that “reaching for one’s watch chain had become a more frequent move than reaching for one’s hat.” Franklin’s slow rhythm becomes increasingly out of synchronization with the accelerating tempo of his western contemporaries, yet he takes a passionate interest in various gadgets and inventions, holding discussions with men at work on ideas that foreshadow modern calculating machines and motion pictures.

Both in his associations with other contemporary thinkers and in his own work, Franklin champions progressive ideas in education as well as in political and social reform. As governor of the British penal colony Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), he attempts to improve the lot of the prisoners sent to the island as well as that of the aborigines who had been driven off their land to make room for white settlers. Under difficult circumstances, he liberalizes and democratizes a previously autocratic legislative council. He loses any hint of the reactionary or anachronistic and becomes exemplary in his slowness, the very quality that sets him apart from the hurried life rhythms of his countrymen. For Nadolny, whose first novel Netzkarte (1981) argues the benefits that slowness might bring to his own society, the merits of Franklin’s pace should be as self-evident to his readers as they prove to be within the fictional setting of nineteenth century England.

Impatient and suspicious of him in the beginning, each new crew learns to respect Franklin for his thoroughness and tenacity in finding solutions to problems and for his prodigious memory. To the questions of subordinates and superiors alike, he may reply hours after they are originally posed, but his answers are invariably accurate and often save lives. Realizing that for the common good he must impose his own speed on those under his command, he gradually gains the courage to request from impatient crew members that statements be repeated which are not immediately intelligible to him. Even as an adolescent on board a warship shortly before the Battle of Trafalgar, his naturally deliberate rate of comprehension seems to be the basis of a higher wisdom, since it resists the enthusiasm for battle and the willingness for self-sacrifice that infect his comrades.

Much later in life, his patient, unhurried observation of the behavior of the aborigines in Australia and the Eskimos in North America helps bridge the mutual incomprehensibility of cross-cultural encounters. His slowness enhances his capacity for empathy with the native populations and insulates him against the ethnocentrism that grips his European countrymen. The Indians of Northern Canada remark on his “wealth of time,” a sign of great distinction and even immortality to a people unacquainted with the quicker rhythms of an industrial society. When a prominent citizen of this society congratulates him after his first overland expedition and graciously informs him that his slowness must surely be an illusion, Franklin rejects at least silently the intended compliment. As he matures, he learns to value above all else what in the eyes of others is a handicap. Late in his career, he begins to make plans for passing on his insights. He places the discovery about himself at the core of an educational philosophy which, however, he is never able to realize in practice: “The pupils must learn how to discover things. Above all, their own way of seeing and their speed, each for himself.”

At certain points in the novel—particularly conspicuous at the beginnings of chapters 8 and 10—Nadolny’s narration breaks with the historical chronology, injects the reader at a forward point on the time line, and only belatedly fills in the intervening actions and events necessary to understand the sequence. This acceleration of time leaves a gap to be filled in by the reader, who initially finds himself in a state of perplexity parallel to the confusion of the main figure when events outrun his comprehension. Nadolny turns the reader into a participant observer; the reading process itself duplicates Franklin’s relationship to the flow of time. At other points the author limits the details of a fast-moving scene to those which Franklin himself might perceive and passes over those which he would likely miss, involving the reader directly in his mode of perception. Nadolny employs this technique particularly effectively in a scene on board ship during the Battle of Copenhagen, when Franklin becomes involved in a life-and-death struggle with an enemy sailor without knowing how he finally defeats his foe. An omniscient perspective would have given a richer external narrative of the struggle, but the limited view tells the reader more about Franklin’s own experience of the episode.

In May, 1845, at the age of sixty, the historical Franklin set out on his final exploratory voyage of the Arctic region in command of two ships and a crew of 138 officers and men. The expedition was last sighted north of Baffin Island by a whaling ship in July of the same year. When two years later no further word had been received in England about the fate of the expedition, a search was begun that was to remain largely unsuccessful until 1857. A mission financed by Franklin’s second wife in that year found enough physical evidence among the Eskimos of the region and a written account of the expedition through spring, 1848, to be able to reconstruct the tragic events that finally took the lives of the entire crew. Franklin himself had died on June 11, 1847. Despite its potential for fictional amplification, Nadolny abridges this entire episode in the two brief last chapters of his novel. By his restraint and the foreshortening of the twelve-year period, the author allows his fictional figure to recede abruptly from the view of the reader, as did his model in real life from the view of his contemporaries. In both life and fiction, a paucity of information about these years creates an impenetrable sense of mystery about a man who may have lagged behind the accelerating tempo of his age, yet paradoxically serves as an exemplary figure for an electronic age that shows even less patience for slowness.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 40

Booklist. LXXXIV, October 15, 1987, p. 362.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, September 15, 1987, p. 1345.

Library Journal. CXII, September 15, 1987, p. 96.

Los Angeles Times. October 14, 1987, V, p. 6.

The New Republic. CXCVII, December 7, 1987, p. 39.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, December 20, 1987, p. 15.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXII, August 21, 1987, p. 56.

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