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David Roberts
Writer David Roberts

Albanov the Blunt

Among Albanov's virtues as a writer is that even though these poor guys he sailed with are dead he lets them have it for their faults. He's airing dirty laundry way before it's fashionable to do so—he's just so blunt.

These horrible moments when guys are too weak to stand and their comrades taunt them and so on—it's so typical to censor that, to mollify and romanticize it and say everyone shed a tear for poor Arhireyev. Instead, no one shed a tear for him.

    David Roberts

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*Excerpt: "Out of Thin Air" by David Roberts
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*Modern Library: Exploration
Rediscover masterpieces of adventure writing with series editor Jon Krakauer.

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  Behind the Scenes
  Saving White Death
The Inside Story of How a Lost Classic Came to Light

In August 1912 the Russian ship Saint Anna set off to hunt the Arctic's Northeast Passage. It was soon entrapped in ice, beginning the titanic, two-year struggle recounted by survivor Valerian Albanov in In the Land of White Death.

In the November/December issue, we offer an exclusive excerpt from this lost classic, which was just published in English for the first time. Below, in a behind-the-scenes tale of publishing-industry serendipity, ADVENTURE contributing editor David Roberts reveals how he helped take White Death from history's dustbin to "overnight" sensation.


In 1997 I was in Chamonix, France, for a book-signing party because publisher Michel Guérin had just put out a book of mine. At one point he said, "Oh, you're interested in polar stuff too? Do you know about this great Albanov?"

Michel mentioned that he was about to reprint In the Land of White Death. His childhood friend Christian Demarliev, probably the leading French expert on the Arctic (he leads trips there and knows the literature backward and forward), had told him about it.

I had never heard of Albanov, and I thought I knew all the expeditions—all the famous ones, all the tragic ones. So I just sort of filed it in a back corner of my mind. I sort of arrogantly thought, Well, if I haven't heard of it, it can't be any great deal.

When I got back home to Cambridge, Massachusetts, I thought, Well, what the hell, I'll go see if they have a copy at the Widener Library at Harvard. And there it was: this faded, dusty, brown-paged, French edition from 1928 that had never been checked out.

I checked the book out, read it, and thought, My God, this is a masterpiece. How could this not be known? How could it never have been published in English? I didn't think right away of getting a U.S. edition out because, like Michel, I'm kind of esoteric in my tastes. What thrills me, I figured, wouldn't thrill most readers—and who cares about the Russian Arctic anyway? So I just let it go.


Just last fall Lee Boudrow, of Random House's Modern Library imprint, asked if I had any ideas for books to add to the Exploration series of out-of-print adventure classics.

I named a few obvious ones and she said, "Yeah, that's all right." Then I said, "This is really a long shot—it's really obscure," and I told her the story of Albanov. She said, "I love the idea—let's do it." Without even reading the story (she doesn't read French), she decided to publish it and asked me to write the introduction.

White Death was only going to be another in this paperback series. Lee went ahead and commissioned a translation from the French because she couldn't find a Russian copy. This translation was gawky and not ready to go into print; the translator didn't understand the Arctic, ice, or sailing terminology very well, so there were lots of glitches.

In the same week Lee asked her boss at Random House to read the translation. He was flying back to the U.S. from Finland, completely jet-lagged, thinking, Oh, my God, I've got to read another of these adventure books? His response, once he picked it up, was classic—he couldn't put it down.

Virtually the same day [Into Thin Air author] Jon Krakauer, who edits the Exploration series, was reading the translation and just flipped. In fact, he tried to sleep that night and couldn't. At 3:30 a.m. he got up and e-mailed Lee.


Jon told Lee to forget about running White Death in the paperback series—he wanted her to publish it in hardback like a best-seller. So it was Jon who recognized this as the coup that it could be. He said to Lee, "If the guy were alive you'd be offering him a $300,000 advance, but you don't even have to give an advance. What better deal could a publisher have?"

The idea went all the way up the ladder to the head of Random House, who said, Yeah, let's do it. So it's the big book of the fall 2000 list for them.

This was all happening in March for an October publication—a pretty short turnaround. (Random House was worried that the minute word got out, other publishers would rush and print an edition and try to sell it cheaper than ours.) To make things even more hectic, we still had to fix the translation.

As it happens, Marliev, the French polar expert, had led me to an obscure, 25-year-old article on Albanov in Musk Ox, a University of Saskatchewan Arctic-studies journal that looked like it had been typed on an old Olympia typewriter. When I read the article I realized that the author, a retired professor from Calgary named William Barr, had translated straight from the Russian. To my horror, he cited incidents that weren't in the French translation.

I got ahold of Barr, and he was—fortunately, wonderfully—glad to help out. He was an amazing find; he reads Russian and knows all about the Russian Arctic. Barr sent us the typescript he'd done all those years ago, and Jon and I ended up melding the translation we had with his.

This whole experience with White Death is pleasing. I've never had a find like this before. It's not as if I'm going to get rich from it, but at least someone will thank me for it.

—As told to Katie McDowell

November/December 2000:  Story Previews | Gear Guide | Photo Gallery | Behind the Scenes | Ask the Expert | Q&A | Forum | Trips 2001
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