Thursday, 5 April 2018

Book 7, 2018 - Resolution by AN Wilson

Resolution is a kind of reimagining, rather than a straight out piece of fiction - AN Wilson himself admits "I have not invented very much in this novel". The book tells the story of George Forster (1754-94), who accompanied James Cook on his second voyage to the Pacific and whose drawings from that time are still held in the British Museum. I suppose Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower is an analogous kind of work, in its form.

In theory, I don't like such novels - despite my love of Fitzgerald, I admire rather than warm to her effort in the genre, even though it is widely considered her greatest book. However, AN Wilson's entry in the field won me, despite initial misgivings.

I have read a few other novels by the author and enjoyed them, but the tone of this one is far less flippant than his straight-out fictions. He also surprised me in this work with his beautiful descriptions of the natural world. Here are two examples, among many I could have chosen:

"By 24th February they had sailed past over a hundred icebergs, and found themselves, after some squally weather and heavy sleet, surrounded by vast floating islands, green and white, which towered over them, many times taller than the mainmast. The waves dashed and foamed against their icy walls creating glories of light, colour and movement no less stupendous than the Southern Lights in the heavens."

"The sea, from being iron-cold and life-destroying expanses of dark blue black, became a shook silk bedspread of vibrant green."

In addition, I particularly liked these lines about the wanton demolition of the cathedral at Arras, witnessed by Forster:

"Coloured glass cascaded outwards and the walls shook like rumpled blankets"

Much of the book is devoted to Forster's travels with Cook, and indeed the book's full - if very slightly misleading (since a great deal of the text covers Forster's life on dry land, even if it is always seen through the prism of his travels with Cook) - title is, "Resolution: a novel of Captain Cook's adventures of discovery to Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii, through the eyes of George Forster, the botanist on board his ship". Pleasingly, I think, Cook, "with his impeccable navigational instinct and skill" and "honest face",  emerges from the account as a person of great integrity, despite the misjudgment that led him to his death, (I suspect the description of the events of that day given by Wilson in this novel is as good and accurate as anything in any book of non-fiction, and I found it very useful to get the story clear in my mind).

Wilson's portrayal of Cook is actually one of the pleasures of the book, and I was persuaded by Wilson's argument that, for his time, his motives were less reprehensible than most of his contemporaries:

"While other naval heroes had sought ships to fight, wars to win, Frenchies or Spaniards to cannonade into dark water, Cook was in pursuit of knowledge, his conquest would be a conquest of the future. Already, for the rest of the human race, the world was larger because of James Cook."

"Robespierre and Marat and their colleagues were intent upon ‘changing the world’ by ideas – by inventing new calendars and imposing upon the intractable nature of things their own version of the world. Cook, in every sense a humbler man, had been patient enough to discover the world as it is, and because of his discoveries he made the world a larger place for everybody. In the case of Cook, everything grew out of practical intelligence and empirical knowledge. He had chosen to explore in small sloops, which could hug coastlines – ideal for the cartographer – rather than the hulking warships recommended by the Royal Navy. He had paid attention to every small detail – for example, naval wisdom strengthened planks with copper plates to prevent woodworm, but copper deters fish, the essential source of food on a long trip. So, Cook did not use copper nails but iron nails with big heads. Within a few weeks of wet weather, rust spread over the lower part of the woodwork of the Resolution and the Adventure, just as effective against woodworm as copper. The man who discovered New Zealand and Australia was not a dreamer. It was the coal-haulier, the practical man who knew how to pack a ship. Every storeroom on the Resolution was crammed with things – he personally supervised the packing: Cook and the stevedores at Sheerness made the voyages possible. Once the voyages had been made, the world became larger – it had more lands in it, a greater variety of men and women, birds and animals and plants than had ever been known."

Cook also provides, in the novel, an ideal father figure for Forster, in contrast with the father he actually has. Wilson's portrayal of the relationship George Forster had with his actual father shows great psychological acuity and might give comfort to readers who suffer in similar kinds of relationships with parents:

"loving his father had been the tragedy of his life, not least because – a fact which dawned on him only when he had left Reinhold in England and, as a young academic, came to take up his post at Kassel University in ’78 – he did not very much like his father, perhaps never had. The fact was too shocking to admit, until he had been free of Reinhold, and to the end of his life George did not like to articulate the fact. If he did not like him, however, this was a minor detail, for from a time which pre-dated conscious memory, he had learnt to love Reinhold. It had skewed love for him. His idea of intimacy was with one he did not like, with one for whom, internally, allowances had perpetually to be made."

The book introduces numerous figures of the 18th century and brings them alive, along with one or two who never existed, most poignantly Nally. By the end, the reader has come a little closer to inhabiting the cold, damp, smelly world of those times and to understanding what the experience of a voyage of exploration may have been like:

"the everlastingness of the limitless sea, the timelessness of days adrift, the unutterable strangeness of being out of sight of land for weeks on end brought a calmness which made him dread the moment when land was descried"

In addition, he or she has been provided with some useful advice,  such as this invaluable insight into the English nature:

"when an Englishman shrugs modestly and asks you not to mention it, he actually wants you not merely to mention it, but to gush, to set it to music" -

and some intriguing food for thought, such as this observation:

"Loneliness was sad but there was a comfort in loneliness" -

Above all, they will have discovered enough about George Forster and Captain Cook to feel some impetus to turn to the books those men themselves wrote, the titles of which AN Wilson helpfully lists at the novel's end.

I don't think I've done Resolution justice. Suffice to say, I think it deserves more acclaim than it has received to date.

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