The Discovery of Slowness
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.
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
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...
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