Sten Nadolny’s The Discovery Of Slowness (1983): Understanding John Franklin In His Own Time

In September 2014, divers located the wreck of the HMS Erebus.   Just months ago, in September 2016, divers discovered the wreck of the Erebus‘ sister ship, the HMS Terror, about 60 miles to the north. Almost 170 years ago these two ships had carried an expedition led by Sir John Franklin in search of the Northwest Passage, the holy grail of arctic exploration.  Except for sightings by native peoples, the two vessels were last seen entering Baffin Bay in 1845.  Their recent discovery culminates a search by the Canadian government begun in 2008. It also reinforces Canadian claims to sovereignty over the Northwest Passage and potentially abundant natural resources, of escalating significance in a thawing arctic.

Franklin’s expedition sailed from London in 1845 with 129 men and three years’ supply of food.  When it failed to return, more than 30 search expeditions set out over the next eleven years.  Nothing tantalized the Victorian imagination like a lost explorer, and in this case, intense lobbying by Franklin’s widow, Lady Jane, ensured that the lost expedition stayed before the public eye.  Unlike Dr. Livingstone, the news about Sir John was not good. A piece of paper buried beneath a cairn found in 1859 and signed by one of the surviving officers revealed that Franklin had died in 1847 along with more than twenty other crew members and that the surviving 105 men had abandoned the ice-trapped ships and had set out on foot for the Canadian mainland. Bodies of some of these men have been discovered.  They show signs of scurvy and lead poisoning and, most ominously, evidence that the cannibalism taboo had been broken.

Franklin was a seasoned British naval officer and polar explorer.  He had served capably during the Battles of Copenhagen, Trafalgar, and New Orleans.  He had led two overland polar expeditions with mixed success.  The first expedition resulted in the loss of half the crew, primarily to starvation.  Members of the party were reduced to chewing the leather from their boots, earning Franklin the nickname “the man who ate his boots.” Rumors of cannibalism also dogged this expedition.  Nonetheless, Franklin mapped about 500 miles of the northwest coast of Canada.  His next expedition was prodigiously successful and charted about 1200 miles of Canadian coastline.

Between 1837 and 1843, Franklin served as governor of Tasmania, a mixed settlement and penal colony.  His attempts to humanize treatment of the convicts and to check corruption caused friction with civil servants.  However, Franklin is credited with founding Tasmania’s system of state education.  He was applauded for supporting scientific and cultural activities.

The Discovery of Slowness is a fictionalized account of Franklin’s life, published in Germany in 1983.   It’s sold more than a million copies and has been hailed as one of Germany’s twenty contemporary classics.

Nadolny endows the fictional Franklin with the defining trait of slowness.  Franklin processes slowly but with precision and clarity.  He lacks the quick reflexes to catch a ball, speaks haltingly, but is somehow able to see more deeply–to spot enemy ships at sea, to have the forethought to build a scaffold to shelter remaining provisions after one of the ships on which he serves is wrecked, to maintain the calm concentration needed to mentally calculate distances and angles and accurately shoot an enemy sniper who is killing his ship mates one by one. Franklin develops compensatory tools. He memorizes filler, “entire fleets of words and batteries of responses,” to give him more time to come up with answers. He memorizes the layouts of ships and rigging. He learns the importance of friends in high places who will forgive and forget mistakes. He has “the courage to look stupid for long enough to be smart.”  As a captain he chooses first officers with the facility to react quickly in emergencies while he scopes the deeper view and scrutinizes the details; large overviews overlook too much. While this strategy of complementary skills works on a ship with its entrenched chains of command, it fails miserably in Franklin’s foray as governor of Tasmania where he’s beset by treacherous underlings.

London is consumed by haste, infatuated with speed, a place where residents constantly reach for their watch chains. Franklin rejects the assumption that someone is better simply because he can do the same thing faster. He is drawn to the arctic.  It’s a land of slow-moving ice and inactive winters spent on board ship or in some other shelter.  It’s a land without time pressure, made for endurance, patience, and an ability to cope with boredom.  Franklin has those qualities in abundance.  He insists upon moving at his own rhythm, and he finds that polar rhythms match his own.

Franklin’s life is intrinsically fascinating, and Nadolny populates his novel with equally fascinating secondary historical figures from Charles Babbage to Benjamin Disraeli to fellow seafarers George Back and Matthew Flinders.  Nadolny pounds a little too heavily on the slowness theme, but there’s something to be said about having confidence in one’s own rhythm, working with one’s strengths, and slowing life down to avoid missing anything. Give John Franklin and The Discovery Of Slowness a second chance.




5 thoughts on “Sten Nadolny’s The Discovery Of Slowness (1983): Understanding John Franklin In His Own Time

  1. Franklin sounds like someone with a strong tendency towards strategy, as opposed to tactics. Is his slowness more about being deliberative, than just being slow. He has the good sense to choose first officers who’s strengths are in executung; getting things done.
    We spend a fair amount of time on this topic when building teams in business. Some of us are strategists; slower, deliberative, able to see the big picture. While others are the ones who can get things done. We need both on a team; as long as everyone understands their role, so they can let the others do their job.


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