In his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Thomas De Quincey describes a winter he spent in Wordsworth’s Grasmere cottage, holed up reading German philosophers: “I put up a petition annually for as much snow, hail, frost, or storm, of one kind or other, as the skies can possibly afford us. Surely everybody is aware of the divine pleasures which attend a winter fireside, candles at four o’clock, warm hearth-rugs, tea, a fair tea-maker, shutters closed, curtains flowing in ample draperies on the floor, whilst the wind and rain are raging audibly without…”
This is the sort of image with which Adam Gopnik’s Winter: Five Windows on the Season begins: the modern capacity to turn winter into theatre. Gopnik does not mention De Quincey’s fashionable Romantic enjoyment of harsh winter weather from a cosy armchair. But this omission is forgivable given the frantic range of his associations. De Quincey would be just another ornament on a very large Christmas tree.
Winter is divided into “five essays”, transcribed from the Canadian Massey Lecture series and co-sponsored by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The author’s preface tells us that they were first meant as a “living room” series given to friends in winter “supported by the cheer of wine and caffeine”. We are already in the realm of Scrooge’s nephew and the Victorian seasonal parlour game.
Gopnik, a long-time writer at The New Yorker, begins his book on the defensive. Given the lecture’s emphasis on speech, Gopnik desired “a tone different from my well-varnished usual stuff, but that would still “work” for a reader as writing”. Gopnik’s consideration of genre and context is not misplaced: lectures are different to purely page-bound essays, as any lecturer will tell you. The reader’s advantage is to be able to appreciate the architecture of sentences and paragraphs; the audience member appreciates tone and clarity. But Gopnik seems to discredit his audience a little too much: the connections which bind the paragraphs and the whole series together are more belaboured than an undergraduate essay conscious of the need for overt and well-heralded structure.
Gopnik’s intention seems to be to cover every possible facet of winter, and he lunges out in all directions, on the trail of nearly every frisky winter critter native to the area. The essays share a canny branding technique: “Winter” prefixed by an adjective beginning with the letter R: Romantic, Radical, Recuperative, Recreational, Remembering.
In “Romantic Winter”, the most “literary” of the essays, Gopnik traces winter as a modern phenomenon, as a “poetic act”. He pursues the transformation of winter from a distasteful burden to an aesthetic pleasure, a development enabled by the advent of indoor heating. We meet familiar figures—Vivaldi, Cowper, Coleridge, Caspar David Friederich, Schubert, Goethe, Pushkin, Tchaikovsky, Debussy—and a few unfamiliar ones (at least to me)—Pushkin’s friend Prince Vyazemsky, the first writer of a Russian snow poem; Mendelssohn’s sister, the composer Fanny Hensel; and the brainy Irish proto-feminist Canadian adventuress, Anna Brownell Jameson. It is a hymn in praise of the wild Northern peoples: winter encapsulating an imagination which opposes the French enlightenment.
Gopnik then turns his attention to the nineteenth century race to the poles, the subject of winter as a specific kind of suffering, a landscape of courage and absurdity: “the model of all exploration for exploration’s sake, exploration undertaken with a minimum of national advantage, a marginal economic purpose, and a maximal amount of adventure taken for adventure’s sake”. Gopnik’s task is merely to sum up the derring-do that is detailed elsewhere. His strength is association: stringing together the polar narratives, which he abridges, with cultural context: from Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucketto the Arctic explorers’ entertainments: birthday feasts (at least at first), pantomimes, and the publication of their own newspapers. Gopnik’s real concern is why we care about Franklin, Scott, and Shackleton, but his answer is a little underwhelming: “they were brave”. They had “courage like vodka, courage as absolute, hundred-proof liquor, pure and clear and cold”, despite the impossibility, even imbecility, of their quest. And we—reading their harrowing diaries and documents from our comfortable interiors—doubt that we’re capable of such bravery.
Thus far, Gopnik’s investigation of winter has not even attempted to bring social privilege—who has or does not have the resources to domesticate winter—into his discussion. This is attempted in part in the third essay, on Christmas and its attendant mythology: the nineteenth-century American reinvention of Santa Claus in the cartoons of Thomas Nast and the phenomenon of department store mania. Christmas for Gopnik is both a “reversal” and a “renewal” festival. That is, it both joggles society in a carnivalesque gesture and reinstates the familiar (and the familial) through its cobbled pagan-Christian history.
The undisputed text of Christmas, Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Gopnik suggests, is ambivalent in its message: Scrooge is changed by epiphany, but he demonstrates his change by reinforcing the feudal order by giving a turkey to the Cratchitts out of his beneficence. Contemporary political philosophers disagreed in their reception of the book. Carlyle, a feudalist, loved the idea of epiphany at the heart of reform; Mill, who considered Dickens ‘politically unstable’, was slightly less enthusiastic. The author concludes that Christmas is, in all its sentimental materialism, anxious at its core.
Gopnik’s geekiness emerges in his fourth essay with the revelation of his obsession with winter sports, specifically ice hockey. (Ice hockey seems to garner this sort of fan-dom: Oxford’s own unexpected ice hockey underbelly is just as infectious and as geeky.) Gopnik warms up to it by recounting the sport’s cultural ancestry, beginning with the import of the Dutch pastime of skating in 1689, the year of the Great Frost, and the Romantic penchant for skating as a philosophical pursuit (Wordsworth and Goethe were both enthusiasts). Later, skating became an accepted arena for sexual display. Ice hockey, skating’s over-excited teenage brother, was apparently formalized in 1873 as a means of extending rugby into winter. While it is “the most creative of sports that a single original mind can dominate, it is also the most clannish, most given to brutal tribal rules of insult and retribution.” Gopnik, like Marianne Moore on baseball, Updike on basketball, or Hemingway on bull-fighting, waxes lyrical on a sport that “is not in my blood, but… is in my sense of the beautiful”. Gopnik’s makes a good case for the further pusuit of ice-hockey in literature, a chance to prove, as he boasts, that there’s “almost a morality play, a history, behind every great goal in the game”.
His last essay, “Remembering Winter”, contains at its core the problem which dogs the book as a whole. Gopnik attempts to describe memory in winter and winter in memory by looking at our divorce from winter in time and space: the subterranean cities in Montreal, the potential obliteration of winter in global warming, and winter as a time for nostalgia and loss. This chapter condenses the problems which hamper a truly great work on winter: space. Gopnik seems so keen to maximize his spread, to convince the reader that he has considered almost every avenue on the subject (and it is convincing in scope), that there is insufficient space for depth of thought or comment. He is left with only the space to axiomise—”the hardest weather makes the nicest wine” or without winter “half of the keyboard of life would be missing”. Gopnik’s aptitude for association and neat juxtaposition is more often than not submerged in the titanic scope of his material.
A part of the problem is his combination of historical accounts with philosophic or poetic musing. For instance, he admits that he won’t recount the arguments or predictions surrounding global warming, as other writers—including his brother-in-law, Edward Struzik—have already done. So his mention of them is mere gloss, a proof that he has considered it without really offering any opinion of his own, except from the obvious conviction that he would miss winter if it was gone, and that our culture would probably be aesthetically impoverished in its absence.
Gopnik demonstrates how well-suited winter is to aesthetic contemplation, but he never fully realises this promise in his own prose. Only occasionally does he escape from a Round-the-World-in-80-Days pace to consider his subject in his own terms. This is a kitchen tour of winter, and it shows. In his afterword (though perhaps you aren’t supposed to read those things unless you’re the one being credited), Gopnik thanks a research consultant and an assistant, prefacing a bibliography running to nearly twenty pages. This seems like a waste of insight, essays writing themselves out of someone else’s research rather than one’s own blind Arctic expedition.
Near the beginning of Paris to the Moon, an earlier book about his family’s years in the French capital, Gopnik writes that the “essayist dreams of being a prism, through which other light passes, and fears ending up merely as a mirror, showing the same old face. He has only his Self to show and only himself to blame if it doesn’t show up well”.
Winteroverlooks this prismatic potential of the essayist, and as a result, loses some of the charm which it depends upon. Gopnik’s hesitance either to submerge himself in winter—aesthetically or personally—or to rein in his musings to chisel out and follow through an argument, leaves this book awkwardly in the thaw. His humanist conclusion is that winter is significant because of its potential as a canvas for our meaning-making. Imitating Adam, we name, claiming impartial nature for our own experience. This conclusion is not rich in itself. It is, in fact, too easy, redeemable only by performing the act of naming: that is, through art. Unfortunately, surrounded by a cornucopia of pre-existing rich material, Gopnik cannot take the time to forge his own trail, and his acts of naming are lost in the snowdrifts.
Christy Edwall is reading for a BA in English at Harris Manchester College, Oxford.