Monday, September 27, 2010

On the Proper Use of Stars

To the long annals of flights of fancy inspired in whole or part by the last, fatal expedition of Sir John Franklin -- a list whose authors include Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, Joseph Conrad, Rudy Wiebe, Mordecai Richler, and Sten Nadolny -- must now be added another name, that of Dominique Fortier. It might be questioned whether, given the continued recourse to the pen over a century and a half by these and numerous other writers, another tale is called for, or even possible -- but after reading On The Proper Use of Stars, I can only say this: no matter how crowded the firmament, there shines here a new and startlingly brilliant light, yet one which takes its place in a familar constellation as though it had always been there.

Ms. Fortier's novel -- originally published as De Bon Usage des Etoiles in 2008 -- succeeds by refracting the light of its sources into a series of stellar vignettes, each of which captures a glimpse of one of the many figures who were caught up in the launch of, and search for, the Franklin expedition of 1845. Some glimmer darkly -- Crozier is almost a black hole of stellar suspiration -- while others, such as Lady Jane Franklin, take on the full refulgence of an Arctic sky. Sir John himself is cast deep in the shadows of his own expedition, reduced to a few doubtful-seeming journal entries, but we hardly miss him. His crew, on the other hand, is crammed with a variety of colorful characters, some based on its actual officers, some entirely fictional, such as the delightful "Adam Tuesday," who claims to have read every book in the ships' well-stocked libraries. In-between these leaves are folded, specimen-like, the fragments and documents of daily life: a dinner menu, a page from a manual of magnetism, a snippet of Eleanor Porden's poetry, a scribbled note attached to a button, a recipe.

The central portion of the narrative alternates between Crozier, whose dark matter grows in gravity and depth as the expedition progresses, and the lives of Lady Jane and her niece, Sophia Cracroft. Crozier's ineffectual courtship of Miss Cracroft is the connecting thread; in Fortier's version, their relationship seems far less futile than either of them feared, although (alas) neither will ever be the wiser. Crozier eventually must leave his reveries, and his ships behind, while Sophia comes to the realization -- with the help of Lady Franklin -- that perhaps, after all, the companionship of a conventional-minded man is far inferior to the company of a smart and free-spirited woman.

The social history of tea forms another delicate and finely nuanced strand, figuring both in Crozier's rivalry with Fitzjames and Lady Franklin's carefully choreographed social ensembles. And in the end, it's Lady Franklin who shines the brightest; never, in any of the other novels drawn from these histories, has she been so particularly, vividly alive as she is in Fortier's capable hands. She is here, she is there, she is everywhere -- equipped with little dogs named Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, her color-coded maps, her calling cards, and her formidable recipe for Christmas pudding (given at novel's end should anyone wish to embark upon a two-month's journey from first stir to fiery arrival) -- she proves herself again and again a far more intrepid and tireless explorer than her seeming-heroic husband. One must see her, in this light, as the very first to make a fiction out of Franklin, and although here we witness only the first few opening brush-strokes, the reader can little doubt that, in the end, it is her portrait at which after-comers must ever ponder and pry, however various and disparate their ultimate visions.

Of these there have been many. In years past, we have had to content ourselves with a Franklin expedition fractured along stylistic lines -- one had to choose the postmodern crazy-house of Vollmann's The Rifles, the lyrical languidness of Wiebe's A Discovery of Strangers, or the faithful historical facsimiles of John Wilson's North with Franklin. Now at last, in Fortier's novel, we can partake of the playful, the lyrical, and the faithful all at once, and are led to realize, deep down in our collective Arctic souls, that what has always drawn us to this story is that single, steadfast star at which all those qualities converge.

NOW ONLINE: An interview with the author, Dominique Fortier!


  1. I cannot wait to read this. Thanks for your review. Do you know when this will be available in the States?

  2. I'm not sure about the timing of a US release; it's likely to be influenced by the film (the rights have been bought by Jean-Marc Vallée, director of Young Victoria) -- in the meantime, I believe you can get it from

  3. Why all of a sudden a book on Sir John Franklin that has just been published this year, will now be made all of a sudden, into a movie? There has been numerous books on Sir John Franklin's expedition publicized over the years - fiction as well as non-fiction - that have been published over the years and no mention of a movie based on them (except for the possibility of a film based on The Terror by Dan Simmons).

  4. Thanks! I've always been scared of customs but I'm ready to break down and order it. Your review was just too persuasive and as someone who has a dearth of good literature in their life, this should be just what I need. Now I just need to read all the other Arctic books in my university library before I graduate. Thanks again.

  5. Jenny, thanks for your comments here.

    And Tamara, yes, it's remarkable that this book is already planned for a movie -- but not a total surprise, as the market for film rights is always unpredictable. The authors of several earlier Franklin novels have indeed sold options to the film rights of their books, but these options were never exercised; I'd guess that only a tiny percentage are. I've heard about several Franklin films over the years, and none have yet gotten the green light and the funding -- it's just the nature of the business.

    In this case, though, it sounds like an excellent pairing of author and director; Young Victoria was quite a good film, and I'd have high expectations for this adaptation.