You don’t experience anything in the Arctic you didn’t bring there yourself, writes the Austrian artist Christiane Ritter who spent a year on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen with her husband and a fellow hunter in the 1930s. That’s not entirely true. There’s plenty there they had no hand in. The plump grey seals, the blizzard-patterned ptarmigan, the ermine-like Arctic foxes and the endless, endless layers of snow that pile up around their small wooden hut and cause it to look like an elaborately folded napkin.
But what she means is that there’s something in the vast open emptiness, with its sparsity of living beings, that causes you to be confronted by yourself. ‘Perhaps in centuries to come men will go to the Arctic as in biblical times they withdrew to the desert, to find the truth again.’ And while the book starts off in Blyton-style adventure, with everything splendid and shining, when the sun sinks below the horizon for the last time that year (not to rise again for another four months), and a permanent twilight descends on the land, the prose sinks down into a darker psychological realm.
Ritter, like the polar fishermen before her, imagines there’s a malevolent force in the next inlet – ‘making its way toward me, bent, noiseless and ineluctable’. Later she is moonstruck. ‘It is as though we were dissolving in moonlight, as though the moonlight was eating us up.’ And: ‘Neither the walls of the hut nor the roof of snow can dispel my fancy that I am myself moonlight, gliding along the glittering spines and ridges of the mountains, through the white valleys.’
Amid all this uncanny wonder, and the savage pitiless beauty of the landscape, the trio are cheerful-blooded and pragmatic. Along the way are hunting trips, shared Christmases, improbably-baked cakes made of eider duck eggs and, on parting, a pledge to write to each other for the rest of their lives.
If I only read one book each winter it would be this small slim volume. It’s an extraordinary true fable that sings the songs of the old Arctic and leaves your heart ringing with cold, wild delight.