White by Marie Darrieussecq


Translated from the original French by Ian Monk

Published: 2003 (English translation by Faber and Faber, 2005)
My copy: Bought secondhand in paperback

Memorable quote: “The absent horizon, lifted away from the ground. The ground and sky now uncertain. But they do not dwell on such matters, avoid awkward subjects, nothing about the anxiety and cravings, about the distance and the madness, about turmoil, nothingness, desire to kill and the fear of dying…”

Nothing. This is a book about nothing, That is to say, it’s about the state of nothingness: “the molecules of nothingness, the whorls of nothingness woven by dust.” It’s about isolation, avoidance, and thoughts left unspoken. There is no direct dialogue. And as you might expect from a work exploring these themes, nothing really happens in terms of plot development. White is like nothing I’ve ever read before, and it’s very hard to write about!

Marie Darrieussecq is a French writer with a unique, poetic voice. English translations of her work have attracted much praise from critics and I can see why. She is a daring word-smith, her imagery abstract, intellectual, onomatopoeic and frequently beautiful. I found myself reading certain sentences over and over, mouthing the words and savouring the language. At the same time it’s clear also why she is far from being a household name here in the UK. Despite being only 150 pages, White is a slow read, abstract to the point of confusion and in places feels straight-up pretentious rather than just artistic. That said, it is an interesting addition to the canon of Antarctic fiction, a novel that is just that, novel in the way it tries to capture the isolation, repetition and ennui of daily routine in one of our planet’s least hospitable climates.

The action – such as it is – is set in the very near future: hologram phones are a reality and the first manned mission to Mars has just been launched, but otherwise the setting feels very contemporary. Darrieussecq’s protagonists, Edmée and Peter, a radio expert and a heating engineer, are both rootless individuals: she born in France, raised in Canada and now living in Texas; he a naturalised Icelander, originally a refugee from an unnamed country. Rootless, but also restless and on the run from personal tragedies that are only gradually revealed. Both are drawn to the ultimate escape of the Mars mission but end up instead in the next most isolated outpost, The White Project, a newly established European base not far from the South Pole. Darrieussecq alternates between passages focusing on these two individuals as they converge on the base, gradually bringing them together in a way that would be clichéd if it weren’t for the way these experiences are delivered. Like an incorporeal Greek chorus, White is narrated by an army of ghosts, the floating, fleeting presences of all those who have died in Antarctica, or dwelt there and left part of them behind. In a landscape where the cold arrests normal processes of decay it’s a powerful image. The ghosts are an undifferentiated mix of modern, historic and animal Antarctic echoes and are free to pass through walls man-made or icy, tent canvas, even through human bodies. They can, it seems, pluck memories from Edmée’s mind, but they cannot always interpret them, hence this novel offers a unique perspective, omnipresent but far from omniscient. “We ghosts know that nothingness is visible only when it is hazy.”

White is less concerned with the practical details of either Antarctic history or modern polar survival than it is with its emotional and intellectual themes. I enjoyed the depiction of both Edmeé and Peter, the idea that they are not fully conscious of the factors that propel them towards the ice and towards each other. I also enjoyed the subtle account of social and sexual tension amongst the White Project inhabitants (where Edmeé is the only woman) and the touching scenes in her radio booth where each individual except the intriguingly aloof Peter makes grainy hologram contact with loved ones back home. Yet Darrieussecq’s bold experimentalism and the evocative power of these scenes do not fully compensate for a few historical howlers (confusing the action of Scott’s Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions seems pretty unforgivable given that the narrating ghosts were allegedly present at the time). Likewise I am no expert on life in modern Antarctic bases, but even given the vaguely futuristic setting here, some of the practical details just didn’t feel right at all. Certainly not one for the polar train-spotters, then! And the ending also left me with the lingering “oh, is that it” feeling of disappointment – although in a work about Nothing, it was probably wrong to expect otherwise. Yet for all these considerable flaws I can still imagine myself returning to White, dipping in time and again to savour the beauty of its language and boldness of its expression.

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