The Magazine

Frozen in Time

The ice-bound lands of mythology and history.

Apr 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 31 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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The Ice Museum is densely festooned with passages of pictorial prose, some of it quite good, like this view from the boat taking her along the northern Norwegian coast:

After Thule, as Nansen defined it, the stark crags of the Lofoten Islands emerged ahead--an archipelago of barren crinkled rocks, emerging violently from the sea. . . . Before the sun set, the boat made a detour into Trollfjord--the gathering shadows playing across the blackened crags, snow glinting like mist in patches on the rocks.

But it gets to be a habit, and there are unnecessarily lush descriptions of the Four Seasons Hotel in Munich, where the Thule Society met in the 1920s, and the Estonian countryside, and enough of the Greenland coast, ice walls looming above barren rock and rubble, to convince us thoroughly that it all looks about the same.

Of course, a certain amount of woolgathering and running to catch the next tangent to nowhere suits Kavenna's subject matter, reverie and myth and futility. She might have spent some time speculating about the lure of the pure and the absolute and the utmost, all those white whales of history that take possession of people in religion and politics as well as geography. But the most serious objection to the book might be that it's too serious. You don't want Hunter S. Thompson, but a little P.J. O'Rourke would help: You keep expecting something more vividly picaresque to emerge out of her antipodal encounters with cranks and drunks.

It's a subdued, melancholy book. But maybe that goes with the territory, and especially with what's been happening to the northern lands. They've become the cluttered attic of civilization, poisoned by faraway industries, littered with oil spills and nuclear waste. The glaciers and ice sheets are melting. The polar bears may be in trouble. What's left of the traditions of the Inuit and the Laps may be doomed. Thule, empty, mysterious, unapproachable, had been a seductive fiction. It's getting a little too real.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.