Voyage to Desolation Island.

This Frenchman seems a bit obsessed with boredom, as shown on his travel book to the Kerguélen Islands. The week-long voyage provides “the indispensable prelude to getting to know any unknown country: waiting and boredom.” “Isn’t having nothing to do the supreme test, more even than suffering? Whoever can fill the emptiness of his being, where there is nothing more to occupy it, will survive. He will overcome the cruelest torture: time without limit and without end. Pain keeps one occupied; the man who suffers sees himself in his torment.

This is a beautifully elegiac book, alternating pieces of the relatively short history of the islands, with his personal experience of them, melding book lore with his own reflections. Although his goal was to see Christmas Harbour and its famous Arch, we learn on almost the last page that he never made it, and in fact the Arch had been destroyed.

p. 5: Boredom knows neither variety nor satiety.

p. 8: I’ve discovered the ship’s library. The pages have traces of mildew and smell musty. These books probably haven’t been opened since the 1950s: Louis Bromfield, Rosamond Lehmann, and Pierre Benoit. The rather worn cloth bindings bear the names of ships that no longer exist today; like the Pasture, a passenger ship of the Messageries Maritime Steamship Company that is well known to former old hands of the Indo-China line…. The ship’s engine makes the paneling and shelves vibrate, sometimes lifting the books and making them collapse like dominoes.

p. 9: This eternal return of the same thing [the sea] creates a feeling of indolence, but with brief bursts of energy. The boredom of shipboard life is like no other. It is a slightly heady kind of lassitude where opposite sensations coexist within the same monotony. Despondency and enthusiasm, the old and the new, before and after become confused, blotting out anything that could differentiate one thing from another.

p. 29: With my mountaineer’s cap and anorak, plus a pack including Gracie Delépine’s Toponymy, Rallier du Baty’s Adventures in the Kerguélens, and Edgar Aubert de la Rűe’s Two Years in the Desolation Islands, I’m setting off to explore the central plateau and to get to know the land that should lead me to the Arch of Kerguélen .”

p35: “It is much the same with places as with books. I feel a little sad when I look at my library. What is the use of so many books? I know that at the end of my life, only ten or so books will have been really important. And the others? Glimpses of landscapes very quickly forgotten, passing pleasures. Taking up one thing after another, the fervor, the thrill of the moment, the right to hold opposing opinions, wanderlust: illusions of the 1970s. I can see now why I am drawn to the Kerguélens. They are the opposite of that fragmentation.

p. 41-2: Propped up between two rocks, I’m reading Adventures in the Kerguélens by the navigator Raymond Rallier du Baty. The author tells us that he brought with him the works of Horace. He feels the same sense of unreality reading his favourite Latin poet in the landscapes of the Desolation Islands as I do reading his work. I’ve never read such a strange adventure story. Rallier du Baty also fell in love with the Kerguélens at some stage.… In the same way as his master Horace, he acknowledges he has discovered the simple country life.

p. 55-6: I come across a book someone left behind in the corner of the cabin. It is Pierre Mac Orlan’s The Sheet Anchor. I read it when I was a kid in the same gleaming “Red and Gold” Collection, which for me had the saffron glow of the Society Islands. This forgotten book made me think of the family bake house where I used to read sitting on a half-full sack of flour….

After having read it through during the night by flashlight, I feel so puzzled I cannot go to sleep. In the first place, someone has written annotations in the book. But the underlinings make no sense to me. The passages that have been picked out are not the most striking, nor are they the most effective descriptions. They are dialogues, on the face of it quite uninteresting ones. The story takes place in Brest during the decade 1770 to 1780, exactly the period when Kerguélen lived there himself…. Now Mac Orlan’s novel takes place precisely in this part of Brest where the hero’s father had a shop at the sign of the Sheet Anchor. This is the strongest anchor on the ship. Every time Penfield [the river in Brest] is mentioned, my mysterious reader has underlined it. Why?

I believe in fate, not coincidence. It is quite natural for a man spending a year in the Kerguélen Islands to be interested in the man who discovered them. But did he really read this book because of Kerguélen? Perhaps he was a Breton, maybe from Brest? Someone might have told him about The Sheet Anchor set in his hometown. He might have brought the book to Kerguélen, without doubt the best place in the world to catch up on one’s reading.

p. 76: Unlike the original Robinson [Crusoe], who had tools and provisions, John Nunn had only a musket and a copy of Young’s Night Thoughts. I try to imagine myself declaiming Pope’s verses for two years. In a situation like that, one must become attached to any kind of book.

p. 141, in Port aux Français, a French base on the archipelago: The library smells of old paper, and that musty iodine smell of seaside villas shut up in winter. The books are not often disturbed on their shelves. Many of the paperbacks go back to the 1950s. I am quite touched to find covers with naïve drawings and authors I didn’t expect to find here: Rosamond Lehmann (again), Elizabeth Goudge, Daphne du Maurier. But more than anything else, it is the wheat-loft smell and the murmuring of the wind through the windows that bring back those lost impressions. Does one have to come to Kerguélen to recover the past? Opening these dried-out books with their obsolete covers is like taking the stopper out of an old perfume bottle. I unseal them and with my fingers pry apart the pages stuck together from the damp. The heady odour of a box of coloured pencils rises up from the paper, the smell of my pencil case and y eras when I was a schoolboy. It is from the glue that exudes from the worn spines of old volumes.

p. 149, while waiting for a helicopter to take him to Christmas Harbour (and its famous Arch): I spend my time in the library while I wait for the helicopter. I make a few interesting discoveries there, including a strange book by Valéry Larbaud called The Governor of Kerguélen, published by the Nouvelle Revue Française in 1933. It is actually about Christmas Harbour (the author of Barnabooth calls it Port-Noël). The idea for the book comes from the well-known literary game: “If you had to spend the rest of your life on a desert island, which 20 books would you take with you.” Etc. p. 150.