The cold and the snow are on everybody’s mind and doorstep this week in Europe. In Switzerland we have had a week of extreme cold. Wednesday was the worst, minus fourteen in the morning. When I walked the dog at the edge of the Gottéron Valley I thought the cold wind racing down from the Alps would crack my cheekbones.
I just finished reading Helen Dunmore’s The Siege, set in Leningrad in the desperate years of 1941/2 where the cold plays a fateful part. My brush with wind chill inspired me to look for some great descriptions of cold and snow in literature, beginning with The Siege. In this scene, the main character is on her way to the bakery to queue for bread. She is suffering from malnutrition because of food shortages.
“It’s cold, so cold. Anna adjusts the scarf she has wound around her face. She’ll rest for a couple of minutes. No longer than that, because in her weakened state the cold could easily finish her off. The scorching frost goes down into her lungs like a knife. She coughs, gasps, shifts her weight from foot to foot, and bats her hands together. Her gloved hands make a muffled, ghostly sound. She thinks of the bulbs under their coverlets of snow, and shivers.”
This is such a beautiful novel, describing searing hardship in a wonderfully sympathetic way with characters who emerge as more important than the crushing heel of history.
The other examples I found happen to come from short stories. I love this scene from George Saunders’ Tenth of December featuring Don Eber, an old man on a suicide bid who has stripped off in a remote area in sub-zero temperature and is talking to himself.
“Nausea had not been mentioned in The Humbling Steppe.
A blissful feeling overtook me as I drifted off to sleep at the base of the crevasse. No fear, no discomfort, only a vague sadness at the thought of all that remained undone. This is death? I thought. It is but nothing.
Author, whose name I cannot remember, I would like a word with you.
The shivering was insane. Like a tremor. His head was shaking on his neck. He paused to puke a bit in the snow, white-yellow against the white-blue.
This was scary. This was scary now.
Every step was a victory. He had to remember that. With every step he was fleeing father and father. Farther from father. Stepfarther. What a victory he was wresting. From the jaws of the feet.
He felt a need at the back of his throat to say it right.
From the jaws of defeat. From the jaws of defeat.”
There’s a very chilly and chilling scene in Them Old Cowboy Songs from Annie Proulx’s collection Fine Just the Way It Is. Archie is the unlucky young cowboy who has been sent out to round up stray cows in Wyoming in January.
“Back in the swamp it was just coming light, like grey polish on the cold world, the air so still Archie could see the tiny breath cloud of a finch on a willow twig. Beneath the hardened crust the snow was wallowy. His fresh horse was Poco, who did not know swamps. Poco blundered along, stumbled into an invisible sinkhole and took Archie deep with him. The snow shot down his neck, up his sleeves, into his boots, filled eyes, ears, nose, matted his hair. Poco, in getting up, rammed his hat deep into the bog. The snow in contact with his body heat melted, and as he climbed back into the saddle the wind that accompanied the pale sunlight froze his clothes. Somehow he managed to push eight Wing-Cross strays out of the swamp and back toward the high ground, but his matches would not light and while he struggled to make a fire the cows scattered. He could barely move and when he got back to the bunkhouse he was frozen into the saddle and had to be pried off the horse by two men. He heard cloth rip.”
And finally, the most well-known and the most exquisite, the ending of James Joyce’s The Dead, when Gabriel Conroy looks out the window at the snow after his wife has told him about a boy she loved who died many years before.
“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
Stay warm, folks!
Ps. I’m attending the Geneva Writers Conference this weekend, weather permitting, and really looking forward to immersing myself in writing talk and ideas.
Pps. The photo is a view of Lake Brienz taken from Axalp in the Bernese Oberland.