Winter in London sucks—there’s no other way to put it. It’s grey, unpleasant, cold and muggy. Coming here from New England winters took some adjustment. Paul Fussell opened his book Abroad, on expatriate English writers after the First World War, with a discussion of how much everyone hated the weather, and the pressing need most felt to get someplace, anyplace, else, preferably with sun and heat. As long as it was away. London can look very attractive covered with snow—the parks, mainly, and some of older parts of town. But it’s not like there’s that much snow, and when we do get it, as we did today, it’s usually two inches that turns to slush before the day is out. And it does look like crap in general. We’ve had two real winters here in the 15 years we’ve lived here, in my mind—long periods of snow on the ground, cold and dry weather for a week or two, those glittering sunny days. But that’s about it. It’s winter, but it’s not Winter.
Adam Gopnik, who writes for The New Yorker (for a number of years, from France) would get this. His book, Winter, a collection of ruminations on winter, takes our sense of winter and organizes it, and tells us where much of it comes from. And laments its possible passing. The winter of our imaginations—at least those of whose cultural identity was shaped in the upper parts of the Northern hemisphere—have roots. Gopnik, who grew up in Montreal and revels in his Canadianship, has a great time putting some interesting narratives together. And he tries, mostly successfully, to capture what it is about winter that many of us find essential.
Gopnik writes about five winters, what he calls “windows” on winter. They’re not exhaustive, or even mutually exclusive, but they are meaningful in how he views the season. And he’s persuasive. They’re all legitimate ways to look at the role of winter in our lives. The Romantic Winter—the winter of Pushkin, of Canadians, of Northern Europeans—which morphed from brutal to pleasurable following the invention of central heating, the gift of coal, and which still has as its embodiment sitting in front of a fire, dogs at our feet, warm drink in our hands, in contemplation of the fact that winter is, or can be, a spectacle, a thing of beauty. It’s this winter that gives us Brueghel, Turner in Switzerland, and Caspar David Friedrich, perhaps the fullest embodiment of winter as an object of contemplation. Winter is sublime—beautiful but dangerous.
Then there’s Radical Winter, the winter that embodies the particularly English notion of the virtues and nobility of struggle, embodied in polar exploration; Recuperative Winter, how modern 19th-century Christmas morphed from its pagan roots, and the role of Dickens in this transformation; Recreational Winter, in which we encounter what may be the first application of game theory to ice hockey, among other subjects, and which amplifies Gopnik’s earlier discussion of winter as the season of speed; and Remembering Winter, which isn’t really a category as the others are, but more a mode of thought, and a reflection on what we may lose culturally as winter disappears. These are all interesting and valuable approaches to the mental winter many of us carry around. It’s what separates me from the lifelong resident of, say, Florida.
Gopnik loves connections, and he’s good at them. Pervading the book is the sense that, like the year, we need our seasons, and winter is crucial. It’s a recent event—our modern conception of winter is only several hundred years old, it’s a Northern European invention, and much of humanity barely is touched by it. But for many of us, it’s a critical time of the year—it’s when we step back and reassess everything, take a breath, and keep moving. The world is at rest.
Gopnik clearly loves winter, and he loves nattering on about it, but it never feels stretched. We learn a lot—the discovery of snowflakes, Goethe’s views on whether hoarfrost came from God, the fact that Wordsworth was an exceptionally good ice skater, how underground malls can invigorate a city if done right (as they were in Montreal, but not Dallas). Gopnik admits he likes to know things, and share things. It shows, but it shows lightly. I think sitting in front of a winter fire, something warm in hand, feet up, staring at the snowy fields in the fading winter afternoon after an afternoon of skating, having Gopnik as a companion, is an excellent way to pass of cold and frigid day. He’s an engaging and genial guest.