First Published: as Wegener’s Jigsaw 2003 (Penguin edition 2005)
My copy: Bought secondhand in paperback
Memorable quote: “I imagine the ground beneath my feet shifting slowly. What is the point in fighting for territory if that territory moves? The thought makes me smile.”
This has to take the prize for one of the best book titles ever. Although, interestingly enough, the novel was originally published as Wegener’s Jigsaw, I much prefer the alternative title since it really encapsulates not only Dudman’s subject matter – the life of the scientist who first hypothesised continental drift – but also the way in which she writes, a unique and beguiling linguistic mix of scientific jargon, metaphor and pure poetry, suffused with melancholia. One Day The Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead tells the story of a real person – the German scientist Alfred Wegener – and comes appended with an impressively thorough bibliography, but this is a novel, an imaginative recreation, not a straight biography. Although plenty of conventional biographies do soar to some poetic heights – particularly those with a polar connection, the beauty of the frozen landscape can often inspire some particularly evocative prose – Dudman’s more creative approach to her subject’s history allows this novel to luxuriate in a sense of creative freedom that makes One Day The Ice… a powerful and memorable read. I was particularly impressed with the way that the author balanced the high stakes physical drama of Arctic exploration with the more emotionally draining trials of Wegener’s intellectual quest for academic acceptance for what was at the time a highly controversial theory.
The story is told in the first person by Wegener himself. Yet although the action begins with our protagonist’s childhood and concludes with his death, it reads more as a series of interlinked vignettes than a linear narrative. This a deliberate choice, made explicit on the opening page:
I can’t remember what happens next. Some memories are like that. Single photographs. Disconnected. Bright beads on a string with long dull patches between. Other memories are not just single beads, but sequences, arranged in patterns, sometime vague; just the way the string is twisted upon itself in the box.
The bead metaphor is maintained throughout Wegener’s story with different beads representing his various experiences as a brother, student, scientist, explorer, soldier and husband. It’s a satisfying and convincing way to depict the uneven nature of memory, the gemlike moments of elation, despair and surprise live on in the mind while the gaps between them fade to stringy invisibility. Wegener’s life was a panoramic one: from the exhilaration of his early balloon flights over Germany, via multiple pioneering expeditions through the unmapped interior of Greenland, to the trauma of his experiences in the German trenches of World War One. Yet despite these passages of intense physical danger the greatest battle in Wegener’s life was intellectual, as he struggled to secure a permanent academic position and, more than this, to win acceptance for his theory of continental drift.
This is not the place to come for a beginner’s guide to Wegner’s work. Dudman is relatively vague on the specific details of his hypothesis, but she does evokes brilliantly the processes through which he arrives there: the mix of study and serendipity that first germinated the seed of discovery, and the methods he employed to test it. I loved the image of his paper jigsaw of continental shapes moved and pieced together on the surface of a globe. The Greenland sections are certainly the novel’s set-pieces, the ice-encrusted beads shine most clearly in their frozen beauty, but there is a different and no less beguiling tension to the scenes in Wegener’s study and in the lecture theatres of Europe where he struggles to further his ideas and face down his detractors. The clash between pure discovery and the tempering forces of politics and academic tribalism is vividly depicted here. The old adage that its not what you know but who you know is one that I know many modern academics would relate to, and politics and intellectual rivalries are shown to be barriers just as difficult as the crevasses Wegener traverses in Greenland.
This is a slow read: so densely packed is Dudman’s imagery that I often found myself having to return to paragraphs several times in order to fully unpick them. Wegener also spends much of his time waiting: confined in huts and tents overwintering in Greenland. But in this context, slowness is a feature, not a failing. While his body is static, his mind is not. And just as Wegener comes to realise that the ground beneath him is shifting imperceptibly, so a feeling of motion and progress informs even the most theoretical of “bead memories” described in this unusual book. My main criticisms of the novel relate to the concluding section. While the previous Arctic expeditions were clearly delineated, even as their narratives were intersected by other beads surfacing in the narrator’s mind, the final Greenland expedition feels confused. Though the landscapes and Wegener’s own doubts, fears and hopes are evocatively written, I could not visualise the journeys made by the explorers themselves and as a result did not experience this section as immersively as the rest. The inclusion of some Greenland maps showing the routes of Wegener’s men – either factual or fictionalised – would have been a most welcome addition.
In many ways this is a sad novel. Wegener was the father of modern plate tectonics, yet his is far from being a household name. Although modern readers understand how widely accepted continental drift theory would later become, the real validation of his ideas occurred posthumously. Indeed, several times while reading this, I was reminded of another very different scientific pioneer, the meteorologist William Fitzroy, a tragic figure (brought so memorably to life in Harry Thompson’s brilliant historical novel This Thing of Darkness) who also devoted his life to defending a theory that he never lived to see gain the acceptance it deserved. Dudman’s remarkable novel deserves full credit for so boldly mixing science and poetry, and above all for lifting the lid on the life of a fascinating man whose name should be much better known than it is today.