Jonathan Franzen voyages to the end of the world


When novelist Jonathan Franzen received an unexpected inheritance from his late uncle, he decided to honor his memory with a vacation — not to a cosmopolitan capital such as Paris or Tokyo, but to the coldest place in the world.

In a new essay in the New Yorker, the author of “The Corrections” and “Purity” recounts his three-week voyage to South Georgia Island, the Falklands and the ice-covered continent of Antarctica.

“I’d never before had the experience of beholding scenic beauty so dazzling that I couldn’t process it, couldn’t get it to register as something real.,” Franzen writes in “The End of the End of the World.”


“I felt as if we were alone in the world and being pulled forward toward the end of it, like the Dawn Treader in Narnia, by some irresistible invisible current.”

Franzen planned the trip with his girlfriend, whom he refers to as “the Californian,” but she dropped out after her elderly mother became ill. The novelist recruited his brother Tom to replace her, and the two set sail on the Lindblad National Geographic voyage to the Southern Hemisphere.

The highlight of the trip for Franzen, an avid birder, was seeing an emperor penguin on the Antarctic peninsula. The largest of all penguins, emperors are listed as “near threatened” by scientists due to the threat of global warming.

The sighting delighted Franzen. “Demonstrating its masterly balance and flexibility, and yet without seeming to show off, it scratched behind its ear with one foot while standing fully erect on the other,” he wrote. “And then, as if to underline how comfortable it felt with us, it fell asleep.”

Franzen’s essay is interspersed with memories of his family, particularly his Uncle Walt, who left him the money used for the expedition. “Even when his hearing worsened and his mind began to cloud, I could sustain a conversation with him,” Franzen wrote. “We continued to have moments of intensity, like the time he told me how important it was to him that I someday tell his story, and I promised that I would.”

Franzen also reflected on the threat climate change poses not just to the penguins of Antarctica, but to animal life in general.


“It may even be true that penguins, in their resemblance to children, offer the most promising bridge to a better way of thinking about species endangered by the human logic: They, too, are our children.

They, too, deserve our care,” he wrote.

Franzen might get a chance to show off his knowledge of birds and the environment Monday on the quiz show “Jeopardy!” He’ll be competing on a special “Power Players” episode against political journalists Chuck Todd and S.E. Cupp.