Fifteen Months in the Antarctic [Voyage of the Belgica].

This is a judicious, fair-minded, and good book depicting a relatively placid expedition with a tolerant and forgiving crew. Between the lines I detect far more tensions than Gerlache wishes to admit or reveal, at least in this translation.

p. 41: Christmas, 1897 at Tierra del Fuego: Then we got out the presents for the stateroom: silver pencil-cases, seals (also silver) engraved with the motto full of promise: Audaces fortuna juvat; foulards, books in embroidered covers with each man’s initials worked in and with titles chosen to suit each man’s taste. Here for instance was Pecheur d’Islande, where Amundsen could perhaps see himself in the figure of Ian; Balzac for the dreamer Arctowski; for Danco the marvelous Trois Contes of Flaubert; Flaubert again for Lecointe; for Cook the Tales of Mystery and Imagination by his compatriot Edgar Allan Poe; for Racovitza, Zola, and finally for myself the splendid Uilenspiegel of Charles de Coster, reminding me of home far away, ancient Flanders, heroic and indomitable.

p. 135: We were young and full of expectations, sickness had not yet laid its hand upon us, and we looked to pass the time as happily as possible. During the long hours cooped up inside, serious matters could keep us busy only for a part of the day.

So having run short on other kinds of entertainment, we organized a beauty contest at the end of May.

A beauty contest in the midst of the pack-ice, I hear you say?

Yes, indeed. A real beauty contest, with two hundred competitors: actresses, dancers—all brought together in a photographic album given us by one of our friends in Antwerp. This little joke kept us occupied and amused for a whole week. There were several prizes to be won, with one special prize for the winner—and well, in any case, we needed time to make up our minds and choose among all the contestants.

A week of campaigning and electoral manoeuvring!

Need I add that the deliberations of the jury on the last evening were extremely animated, and they were only finally concluded at a very late hour.

p. 146-7, during the polar night: We were especially keen on books which might divert our thoughts from our melancholy situation. For my part I found a very particular diversion in reading Africaines, a fascinating book in which my friend Charles Lemaire so successfully evokes a sense of Africa. Such images took on a powerful seductiveness through their contrast with our present situation.

From time to time a roar of laughter would break the silence: one of us, usually Racvitza, had burst out at an amusing passage in one of Labiche’s comedies. His riotous wit was always able to divert us from the consciousness of our miseries. Our friend Paul Errera who had given us the book was right to add a few words on the flyleaf: ‘A bit of fun never spoiled the most earnest enterprises! In wishing the Belgian Antarctic Expedition bon voyage I would also like them to take these volumes of Labiche with them: they are the quintessence of cheerful humour. – 13 August 1897.’

The crew’s leisure time was hard to fill, and it dragged along desperately slowly. They too played cards and also draughts. They would also read: Dumas was a favourite author, in particular the Three Musketeers, whose heroic emphasis and even the very improbability of the narrative was singularly attractive to these native souls.

p. 156: In spite of all the amusements we did our utmost to think up, our life was one of increasing monotony, which is reflected rather too much for the taste of my readers in this faithful account.

p. 195, on the cusp of the ‘heroic age’ Gerlache had this unheroic conclusion: It is no longer the time now for what one might call ‘record expeditions’. These may be incontestably heroic, but hardly productive in a scientific sense. What is needed now is a series of expeditions to attack at different points around the austral ice in co-operation with one another, coordinating their work and forming a vast circle to lay siege to the Antarctic Sphinx, advancing slowly, drawing the net gradually tighter, until the day dawns when the last element of the enigma has been found: that is, when the Pole itself is reached.