Felicity Aston: "My life so far has been quite woven up with Antarctica"

Caroline Crampton talks to the polar explorer and climate scientist Felicity Aston, who in 2012 became the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica.

Can you be homesick for a place that is nobody’s home? The polar explorer and climate scientist Felicity Aston is sure that you can. In the same way as you or I might yearn for the house we grew up in or the town where our school was, Aston hankers for the frozen wastes of Antarctica. When she was 23, she got her first “proper job”, as a meteorologist at the Rothera Research Station on Adelaide Island, near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, and spent three years working there. It changed her.
 
More than ten years later, the place still has a powerful hold over her. “You see the good weather, the bad weather; you see it in darkness, in light, in moonlight, in sunshine; you see it on days when you love it and days when you hate it,” she explains. “I know it’s a bit of a cheek to try to call Antarctica your home but it is somewhere that I have just endless fondness for.”
 
In 2012, Aston became the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica – a fact she says she found out only later, when a journalist pointed it out to her. “Firsts are important because they give you the platform . . . But for me, the motivation was not necessarily to stamp a ‘first’ on my forehead. It was all about the journey – my life so far has been quite woven up with Antarctica.”
 
Sasatrugi, formed by wind erosion, on the Antarctic ice. Felicity's tent can be seen in the background. Photograph: Felicity Aston
 
As an experienced explorer – she had previously raced to the South Pole and across Arctic Canada – she knew the physical challenges of the expedition. What took her completely by surprise was her emotional reaction to the perpetual solitude out on the ice. She cried – and not just as she watched the plane that had dropped her off disappear over the horizon. She blubbed, sobbed and wailed her way across crevasses, up glaciers and through mountain passes. As someone who had always enjoyed her own company, she was scared by the way she reacted. “At first, I was physically shaking, my heart was going, I was out of breath – and yet I knew I had to get over it somehow.”
 
Even finding the motivation to leave the tent each morning was an emotionally draining experience. “One minute, I’d just be focusing on making my coffee; the next minute, I’d be bursting into tears and talking to myself, then I’d be angry with myself.”
 
She wept so much on her journey that when it came to writing about it afterwards she was worried that she sounded like “some kind of hysterical, melodramatic woman” (the only other explorers to make solo journeys across Antarctica are two Norwegian men).
 
Explorers often give the impression that they are always looking for something more extreme to conquer – a higher peak to scale or a bigger desert to cross. Yet Aston feels satisfied that she has reached her limit.
 
“I’ve felt a certain amount of freedom since coming back,” she says. “I could keep pushing; I could do something twice as long, or twice as difficult. But for me there would be little point, because I’ve got the answers I wanted.” 
 

Alone in Antarctica by Felicity Aston is out now (Summersdale, £8.99)

 

A sunny evening - Felicity on her solo expedition in 2012. Photo: Felicity Aston

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era