In 1924 George Mallory was a member of a British expedition to climb Mount Everest. Following two failed attempts to reach the summit, Mallory and Andrew Irvine made a final attempt, intending to use oxygen to help them. The last time they were seen was on 8 June 1924, when climber Noel Odell reported he had seen them “going strong for the top”. For much of the twentieth century the question was, did they make it? And what happened, since their bodies were not found.
New Brunswick author J.A. Wainwright takes an unusual angle on the story. In a novel which seeks to examine the mythologising of Mallory’s attempt at Everest and of his life in general, he suggests that Mallory did not, in fact, die on Everest. In this version, Mallory – horribly scarred - is found by his fellow-climbers, and tells them, “I killed him.” This is the last thing he says. Believing he may indeed be responsible for Irvine’s death, a small group hustles him back to England in secrecy, where they decide to hide him in a Welsh cottage. Decades later, the unnamed Canadian narrator follows the story to Wales, where he finds a 104-year-old climber who says he has Mallory’s journal.
The strength of this book is not in the mystery of Mallory’s death or his possible survival – the back cover tells you that this is the plot. The interest is in its consideration of the nature of what we now call “celebrity”. Mallory and his colleagues were heroes before they left for Everest – the climber who led a successful attempt on the summit could be certain of a knighthood on his return. Well-educated and well-connected, they were the cream of their generation but, significantly, they had were also survivors of the horror of the First World War. Amongst his contemporaries Mallory was known as “Galahad” and they held a chivalric code of bravery in the face of impossible odds. Wainwright suggests that his colleagues convinced themselves that their golden boy could not return as a murderer; he would be better dead. So they hid him away and returned instead to a glorious failure. Mallory and Irvine had “stepped through the veil” – a recurring image in the Grail legends – leaving this symbol of the fading British Empire unsullied.
Mallory’s body was, of course, discovered on Everest in 1999, though the question of whether he made it to the top remains unanswered. None of this affects the book, since it is about an idea, rather than the facts surrounding his death. The Canadian viewpoint is, I think, necessary – some British ideas of Empire are entrenched whether we like it or not. I found it a little difficult to read a book set in Britain but written in Canadian English, and I wish it had been better proofread. However, those were minor irritations in a book I’ve been meaning to read for some years, so I’m grateful that the Canadian Book Challenge provided the incentive to do so.
It somewhat reminds me of Robert Peary's claim to have been the first man to the North Pole. So many people wanted to believe it (or have it believed).ReplyDelete
Yes, very much - and the whole race to the pole thing shows that it's not a uniquely British phenomenon, by any means. But Wainwright does have some interesting suggestions about how Britain was ready to mythologise Mallory - I found myself taking quite a long time to read it because I had to think about it.ReplyDelete
I'm currently reading Francis Spufford's "I May be some time : Ice and the English imagination", which is primarily about the symbolic importance of polar exploration in the Victorian/Edwardian era. He talks about some of the issues you've brought up here - I'd like to read this next and see how these ideas apply to Everest. I'm sure Spufford's characterization of the wilds as offering something "sublime" to that idealistic and empire-minded generation would be relevant to Mallory's story as well.ReplyDelete
Melanie, the Spufford book sounds very interesting and I'd like to think about what it says in relation to the Wainwright book; I shall certainly try to get it from the library. Thanks for telling me about it.ReplyDelete
What a lovely book blog. As a book addict, I am delighted to find you and will visit this and your other blog regularly.ReplyDelete
Thank you, becca, you are very welcome!ReplyDelete