“The Ghost Experience”: The Humbert Arctic Expedition

In search of the Franklin Expedition, in the Canadian Far North, in 1851. Engraving from “Voyages aux merspolares”, by Joseph-René Bellot (1880).

“The Ghost Experience”, by Fabrice Humbert, Gallimard, 272 p., €20.50, digital €15.

Little is known in France about the history of the great expeditions of the 19e century, carried out in particular by the British to discover the world and map its contours. It is thanks to a German graphic novel in three volumes, Im Eislandby Kristina Gehrmann (“dans la glace”, 2015-2016, untranslated), received as a Christmas present, that Fabrice Humbert, writer, professor of letters in preparatory classes and distinguished German-speaking, became interested in the Franklin expedition , at the center of his ninth novel, The Ghost Experience.

To summarize: in 1845, the Royal Navy officer John Franklin, 59, and 133 men embarked to discover the mythical Northwest Passage, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, while exploring these arctic regions, and never came back. The expedition went down in history because of the search campaigns launched to find the explorers and their two ships, Erebus And Terror – “Margaret Atwood describes it as one of the great Canadian myths”emphasizes Fabrice Humbert. Charles Dickens, who makes a colorful appearance in The Ghost Experiencewrote a lot in the press about this case, which inspired Jules Verne The Adventures of Captain Hatteras (1866).

What fascinates Fabrice Humbert when he reads Im Eisland is as much the disappearance ofErebus and of terror – they ended up being found in 2014 and 2016 – only a small map of King William Island. Island that, after abandoning the two ships immobilized by the ice, the surviving men of the Franklin expedition attempted to cross on their way south. The map shows the location of the few material traces of their passage.

“Powerful ferments of the novel”

Fabrice Humbert is one of those authors who take adventure and disappearance for two “powerful ferments of the novel”. The idea of ​​writing one on the Franklin expedition then began to work on him, even if this seemed to him to take him far, in time, space and literary genre, from his previous texts. However, this story contains elements that run through them all, from questions about heroism to the way in which a story gives a certain form to events, passing through the different perceptions of reality.

After finishing The world does not exist (Gallimard, 2020), the writer thus begins to collect documentation, reading (in English, on the Internet) the diary that Franklin devoted to the expedition of the Coppermine River, an exploration of the north coast of Canada between 1819 and 1822, like that of Francis Leopold McClintock, who left in 1857 in search of Franklin. He also has access to a biography of Franklin written in the 19th century.e century.

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