Adam Gopnik’s dazzlingly knowledgeable and beautifully told essays on winter began life as the Massey Lecture Series on Canadian National Radio, the Canadian Reith lectures. But dismiss from your mind any of the rather stodged up seriousness that always seems to hang around Important Radio Talks on the BBC. Gopnik is serious, and believes and cares passionately about things, but he understands exactly what an essay is, or should be: an attempt to get at something, a stroll into the not-yet-known or only-just-thought-about.
He says in a foreword that his chapters are in fact edited transcripts of trial runs for those talks, given to a few friends, at home, in front of the fire, with the winter outside. He must have prepped hard, but these are spoken not written words, a man putting on a show, explaining to people he loves and likes what he feels and thinks and believes.
The result is wonderfully open-ended, loose but decorated with ways of seeing things you might not have imagined, not proscriptive but suggestive, clever but always with an eye on the audience. He often reminds you of what you half know you have already been told, but that is because ‘Spoken sentences have a natural three-part rhythm: a statement, its expansion, and then its summary in simple form.’ It is a supremely generous way of writing and you end up loving Gopnik, as the people around his fireplace must have, for his slight melancholy, his generous way with arcane information and jokes, his erudition, his epigrammatic gifts, his insistence on what matters to him, the amazing range of his mind.
Winter is a five-sided prism through which he views the emergence of the modern world. Over the last 300 years, our relationship to winter has turned from one in which winter called the shots to one in which we do. The season once exerted a brutal grip on the populations of the northern hemisphere. The only correct attitude, Gopnik says, was to hold it at bay, to survive it.
But in the last three centuries, with increasing riches, comfort and technology, that has changed. Gopnik’s winter is a world in transition from its potency to our potency, from it being in charge to us being in charge, with many finely graded phases between those two poles. It is not quite true that no one loved the winter and its beauties in the distant past. There are ravishing descriptions in the Iliad of snow falling ‘on the grey sea and the beaches, and the surf that breaks against them’, and a love of heroic winter glamour in Anglo-Saxon poetry and of its cosmic mystery in Gawain. But for Gopnik, the Romantics essentially invented winter, largely because they were living inside and looking at it from the comfort of their drawing rooms. ‘It is one of the oddities of our cultural history,’ he says, ‘that we tend to overlook the authors of our comforts, even though we are almost always perfectly knowledgeable about the poets of our distress. Every one has heard of Caspar David Friedrich but who knows the names of the men who invented central heating?’
From their well-insulated houses, the Romantics could appreciate winter’s ‘sharp instinct and keen memory’ and revel in its heroic gloom. Ranging across poetry, philosophy, painting and music, Gopnik makes an entirely convincing case for winter as the realm in which the Romantic imagination felt most at home, evolving across the 19th century into an exquisite, erotic, sub-Japanese Impressionist fineness, one in which ‘winter becomes another kind of spring, a spring for aesthetes who find April’s green too common, but providing the same emotional lift of hope, the same pleasure of serene, unfolding slowness’.
Alongside that Sisley-ised, Monet-ised, aesthetic winter are others: the winter of extremes, the polar winter in which 19th- century Europeans — never patronised or abused here — displayed the purest and most distilled form of courage Gopnik can imagine, ‘courage like vodka’. Or the winter hinged to Christmas, for which he entertains the idea that it is two different and contradictory festivals bolted on to each other. One, a kind of topsy-turvy charivari, in which the children are meant to hold sway; another, a kind of harvest festival in which the rich and permanent order of things is put on show.
Christmas despair is explained by the head-on meeting of these two contradictory ideas: ‘a suspension of normal rules followed by a dramatisation of normal events’. He addresses winter sports, largely focused on ice-hockey, which may be the one chapter that travels across the Atlantic least easily. And finally, with deep regret, the banishment of winter by the insulating comforts of modern life. We have left behind the magical transition zone in which the culture lived from 1750 until 1950. ‘As safety grows, the sense of season flees from us. A sense of security is excellent for civic capital, bad for sensibilities.’ Winter is now over. All we have is shopping and television. ‘We have all gone inside, and may be some time.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 December 2012