‘We had seen God in his splendours, heard the text that nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.’ Ernest Shackleton’s lines unscroll through both these complementary books. David Grann’s The White Darkness is all-man, the gripping story of mighty but quite straightforward struggles. The Library of Ice, brimming with men, women, ships, science, complexity, brevity and beauty, has a precision and quiet brilliance which suggest the feminine. In fact, these qualities belong simply to the author, Nancy Campbell. Readers will finish her quasi-travel book, a search for an ‘understanding’ of ice, wary of any idleness of expression, any generality in thought. Campbell seems incapable of either. There is not one inelegant or flabby line in 300 pages of the best writing that I have relished this year (along with Jan Morris’s Battleship Yamoto). W.G. Sebald would have loved, envied and recognised a fellow spirit.
Both books portray and examine souls. The White Darkness follows Henry Worsley, SAS soldier, Antarctic adventurer — and a distant relative of one of Ernest Shackleton’s team — as he retraces two of Shackleton’s astounding polar journeys.
Campbell travels in Greenland, Denmark, the Alps, the States, Amsterdam, Iceland and the oceans, following more subtle lines, uncovering connections between cartography, chronography, crystalline structures, alien moons and the future. The soul she studies is planetary. I read Grann first, thinking his book would be hard to beat (it made me cry); but I melted like a snowflake in The Library of Ice.
Comparing books on the crudest scale is irresistible fun, though judgments may speak more of judge than subject. But the polar worlds have always inspired competition, non-malevolent combat between racing explorers, between humans and death in freezing storms of darkness, between men and their souls.