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Monday, November 3, 2014

Biographer Duyker describes exploring an explorer

Edward Duyker, multi-award-winning Australian biographer, was kind enough to allow me to interview him about his latest work, the story of a great French explorer, Dumont d’Urville: Explorer and Polymathwhich has just been published by Otago University Press in New Zealand.

Your new biography is eminently readable—all 671 pages of it! How long did it take to write, and why so long?     

The biography took more than seven years to research, write and then edit.  I knew it would be substantial book, given d’Urville’s many voyages and his involvement in important historical events, but I did not imagine it would ultimately be such a major undertaking.  I am a great admirer of the New Zealand historian J. C. Beaglehole and his work on James Cook.  I felt that Dumont d’Urville deserved the same kind of forensic scholarship. 

During your research and writing, there must have been moments of great elation and of great despair. Do any of these stick out your mind?

In d’Urville’s birthplace, Condé-sur-Noireau, it was very exciting to discover a fragment from his journal aboard the Chevrette in the Black Sea in 1820, a substantial part of his journal on the Coquille circumnavigation in 1823-24, and several months of his journal during the last year of his life.  No other scholar has used them before.

My other exciting discovery in Normandy was a thick dossier of documents relating to the arrest and imprisonment of d’Urville’s mother during The Terror.

As for despair, I certainly experienced it in the search for the notarial inventory of d’Urville’s Toulon residence after his death.  Although a public document, it was in the hands of a private notarial office, heir to the practice that had compiled the record back in 1842.  The owners ignored my requests, firstly by mail from Paris, and then in person at their front desk in Toulon – on each and every day I was in the Mediterranean port city.  It was an excruciating game of persistence.  It was only after official intervention that they finally handed over a photocopy on my second last day in Toulon, but not before demanding 50€ cash.  I never did get to see the original. 

If Dumont d’Urville were alive today, what do you think he would consider his greatest achievement?  And his greatest disappointment?

I suspect that he would have been most proud of his two Antarctic descents.  As for disappointments, I feel certain that it would have been the death of his young children and the emotional toll on his beloved wife Adélie, compounded by the long separations during his expeditions. 

There is that intriguing word in your title, “polymath”—why did you use it, and why is it meaningful?

I see d’Urville as a ‘much learned man’, an individual with multi-disciplinary expertise.  He was a navigator, linguist, botanist, entomologist, ethnographer, social observer and travel writer.  In the renaissance sense of the word, he was also a man of dual intellectual and physical accomplishment: resilient at sea and as a botanist who undertook arduous field excursions during his landfalls.

You have also published critically acclaimed biographies of Daniel SolanderMarc-Joseph Marion DufresneJacques Labillardière, and François Péron. You must have come to know all these men very well indeed—so, with which one would you prefer to be castaway on an uninhabited tropical island, and why? 

Definitely Daniel Solander.  He was so easy-going and everyone who knew him loved his company. Labillardière and Péron were both difficult individuals; Marion Dufresne would want to be in command!

AND BREAKING NEWS!  Dumont d’Urville: Explorer and Polymath is to be published by the University Press of Hawaii, so soon will be available in the United States.

Edward Duyker and his wife and helpmate, Sue, came to the south of New Zealand for the launch of the book, and took the opportunity to explore places that were part of the story he told. He was kind enough to share these images with me.

Duyker with his editor, Jane Connor, the memorial to Dumont D'Urville at French Pass, and Duyker at French Pass with d'Urville Island in the background.

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