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Heart-aimed Arrows: On Christiane Ritter’s A Woman in the Polar Night
As winter presses on, we offer a literary journey to the northern fjords of Spitsbergen, in hopes that you will feel warmer upon your return. This piece, written by Stacy Carlson, first appeared in Issue 49, The Ecstatic.
I never doubted my vocation as a writer until I set foot in the Far North. I stepped from the Beaver bush plane that had carried me to the northern slopes of Alaska’s Brooks Range and turned in a slow circle with my hand shading my eyes. Right away, I felt my years spent ruminating on nature in the Lower 48—folding its patterns and complexities into my writing, an entire paradigm topped by an MFA in fiction and a half-finished novel, all of that–whirling away into the weird light of a summer night in the Arctic. I beheld this wild and intricate landscape and thought, Oh my God, I’ll never write again.
For two weeks during the summer solstice, I traveled by foot and raft down the Canning River. The journey was a sustained experience of what the filmmaker Werner Herzog calls “ecstatic truth,” a kind of sublime gestalt for which words fall very short. Perpetual daylight upset my diurnal rhythm and cracked apart my normal way of being in the world. Awakened by sunlight, I would crawl from my tent at 2:00 AM to watch Arctic foxes hunting in the tundra. One night I saw a wolf cross the Arctic plain. Sprawling before me was a true wilderness. To describe what I saw and felt using words struck me as pathetic and even disrespectful to the land itself.
For six months after I returned from Alaska, I didn’t write anything. The novel languished, existential worries flared, and my fascination with the Farn North grew. What was the literature of the Arctic? I hunted for the poetics of the pole, hoping to find voices that addressed what I had experienced. At first I couldn’t find anything but exploration literature, and although I’m as perversely fascinated as the next person by the obsessions and generally horrendous luck of nineteenth-century polar explorers (picture them now, trudging south on an ice floe that is moving north), this genre never slaked my thirst. I read indigenous literature, which illuminated the polar cosmos. These legends and transcribed oral histories of eerie spirits inhabiting the northern lights, sun maidens, and scuffles between tricksters and heroes fed my imagination, but it was Christiane Ritter’s A Woman in the Polar Night that finally released me from my writerly angst.
Ritter is an unlikely heroine. An Austrian painter and self-professed housewife with no outdoors experience, her matter-of-fact voice at first seems more suited to explaining how to darn a sock rather than describing a polar winter. During 1933-34, Ritter traveled to the northern fjords of Spitsbergen to spend a winter in a small hut with her scientist husband.
Even today, Spitsbergen is one of the most remote islands on earth, and its northern coast is notoriously wild. But up Ritter goes, defying the conventions of the day. Her voice is frank, her humor wry. Upon first glimpsing the northern ice from the steamship, she is underwhelmed: “Hm. So that’s pack ice. A few timid, dirty-yellow ice floes are lying idly between mist and water. Only the ladies in their elegant fur coats, feeling themselves observed, are in an elevated mood.” Ritter tackles the sublime landscape with grounded language and playful dexterity. Later, as the vicissitudes of the Arctic world get under her skin, her ruminations shift: “Bewildering beyond anything is the wild howling of the wind against the unmoving cleaning face of the frozen earth, and the musically gentle dance of the northern lights. I think the contrasts in perception make the same impact as would the playing of a noisy Berlioz symphony in a theatre where the stage is set in a scene of classic calm. Or as if we saw a serenely smiling man commit murder.”
Gradually, Ritter loses her visitor’s perspective, and the most moving aspect of the book is her steady integration of a new polar psyche. As the winter darkness settles in, she is moonstruck at first—disoriented and preoccupied by the perpetual starlight and dark vistas. But as time takes her deeper into this strange season, she begins to relish her stripped-down existence, and soon her observations reveal not only a visceral love for the place but also a new calibration of her life in relation to society and the mechanisms of nature. She is scheduled to leave Spitsbergen in April, but when the time comes, she can not go. She must witness the full return of the light. Her decision raises eyebrows back home—she has a small daughter in Austria who has been parentless for eight months—but it’s not surprising. She has been entwined with the stark land. She has become a hunter (of seals, ptarmigan, foxes, and bears), and she has made a home. The passages that follow are dizzyingly satisfying: the sun returns, wildflowers bloom, and eider ducks make nests on the rocky shore. Ritter opens like a sponge and absorbs the light so fully she shines.
A Woman in the Polar Night is a small, glimmering gem in polar literature, and by reading it I realized that I had encountered the Arctic at exactly the right moment in my life. Like Ritter, I was ready to leave the realm of the familiar (Although I, too, was unprepared for the consequences). I was ready to stop describing nature rhapsodically and as something separate from myself. I could absorb the profound wildness of the north, and then be patient through my own dark night until a new form emerged.
Stacy Carlson is the author of Among the Wonderful, a novel chronicling the rise and fall of PT Barnum’s first enterprise, the American Museum. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Post Road, Inkwell, and In Pieces: An Anthology of Fragmentary Writing, and she was awarded a 2010 residency at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. She lives in Oakland, California. www.amongthewonderful.com