Asked to name their favourite season, I suspect most Britons would opt for spring or summer, but Adam Gopnick unhesitatingly picks winter. He grew up in Canada, where the snow comes early, lies thick on the ground and stays around until spring, shaping every facet of life. In the heart of a Montreal winter, Gopnick recalls “feeling a kind of peace, an attachment to the world, an understanding of the world, that I had never had before.”
He explored his Jewish heritage in his 2006 essay, A Purim Story. Here, in five essays, he explores the modern attitude to the hardest season. By “modern”, he means the past three centuries, taking as his starting point Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (1725). His thesis, roughly summarised, is that, since then, mankind has approached winter in two radically different ways.
Because of technological advances, winter could be viewed in comfort from inside: “Once you were truly warm, winter was… for watching.” Gopnick links this to Romantic figures such as Caspar David Friedrich, the German artist whose fascination with winter landscapes derived from the death of his young brother when he fell through the ice while skating.
Or so Gopnick claims. He has a good eye for a story and one of those agile and inquisitive imaginations that can find links to and from almost anything.
The alternative modern approach to winter, he claims, is the desire to head out into the worst that winter can offer — “suffering taken on for suffering’s sake”. The outstanding example of this is polar exploration, which occupied a long series of adventurers throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, culminating in the race between Scott and Amundsen to the South Pole.
Gopnick’s nimble mind rapidly links Scott to J M Barrie, to whom he wrote his last letter from his snowbound hut, and thence to Peter Pan. Barrie wrote the introduction to the first collection of Scott’s diaries, presenting Scott as “a missing troop of Peter Pan’s tribe”. The conclusion? “Scott became the last of the Lost Boys.” Bingo!
Gopnick is a great one for ferreting out arcane information and his labours reveal that British engineers pioneered central heating; Dickens’s protégé and successor as a Christmas storyteller was an English Jewish novelist, Benjamin Farjeon, who called his seasonal fictional family the Silvers, with daughters Ruth and Rachel; and that Wordsworth was a legendary Lake District skater — and there are many depictions of important 18th-century figures who shared his passion.
I was sorry, however, that in this thought-provoking book Gopnick did not include James Thurber’s cartoon of one of his typically fierce women, on skates, addressing a marooned man on a sledge whose dog is refusing to pull it: “I said the hounds of Spring are on Winter’s traces — but let it pass, let it pass!”