The Discovery of Slowness

In June, I bought a book at a library book sale for 10 kc (fifty cents) called The Discovery of Slowness by Sten Nadolny.

Author Sten Nadolny and Jens Sparschuch

It's a fictionalized account of the life of John Franklin, an English sailor in the Royal Navy who was in several sea battles, then sailed into the Arctic, looking for the Northwest Passage. Huh? I may have heard of John Franklin, vaguely, and I never heard of Sten Nadolny, who didn't even write in English--he was German, and the book is translated by Ralph Freedman.

A Narrative of a Second Expedition to the Shores of the Polar Sea in the Years 1825, 1826, and 1827;
John Franklin.
But it's a Penguin book, and they are nearly always a safe bet for quality and style, so I plunked down my 10 kc and took the book home. I started reading it and am finding it's a dense, satisfying book. Nadolny paints a picture of Franklin's slow, one-thing-at-a-time, intensely methodical nature by writing as if he, the author, too, is "afflicted" with slowness.

Franklin stutters; he can only avoid stuttering if he pauses between each sentence ( a LONG pause) to allow all the random chattering ideas and memories in his head surrounding that sentence to play themselves silently in his brain. The writing is the same--sentences seem to stand on their own, singular and ominous, making sense only after several paragraphs or pages have been read and thought through.

I've known people who were slow, and often I came to see that their slowness was not a lack of intelligence, but an overabundance of sensory input that needed to be sorted carefully and meticulously so that it didn't overwhelm the person. I have a bit of the quality myself; in very stressful situations everything slows down around me so that I can process the rapid input and react in an appropriate way.

The writing style mimics Franklin's mind. Here's a sample. Franklin is in China, waiting for his next Navy assignment. He's talking to an artist who's been traveling on his ship, painting the wonders of the world.

"I've been painting the wrong pictures. This won't do anymore! One has to paint differently," Westall said in a low voice, with a furrowed forehead. "All I've done is describe everything in exact detail--forms of the earth, plant growth, human figures, exactly as in nature--to be recognized."

"But that's good, isn't it?" John remarked.

"No, it's deceptive. We don't see the world as a botanist who is at the same time an architect, a physician, a geologist, and a ship's captain. Recognizing isn't at all like seeing; the two often don't even agree, and it's a somewhat less effective way of determining what is. A painter shouldn't know; he should only see."


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