THE DISCOVERY OF SLOWNESS By Sten Nadolny Translated from the German By Ralph Freedman Elisabeth Sifton/Viking 325 pp. $19.95

DURING the great era of exploratory firsts, which lasted from 1492 until the conquest of Mount Everest in 1953, some leaders doomed their followers through ineptitude. Scott of Antarctica is the classic example. Others took their expeditions too far too soon, outpacing available technology and accumulated knowledge. The Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) was among the latter.

As portrayed in Sten Nadolny's vivid and constantly surprising novel of his life, Franklin was not a reckless duffer a' la Scott. On the contrary, throughout his life Franklin exercised an almost preternatural gift for taking pains, for transmuting his innate pokiness (hence the book's title) into a grasp of process and detail that brought him commands, patrons and knighthood. By means of Nadolny's acute reading of history and his storytelling prowess, the reader accepts the improbability of a woolgathering misfit's development into the man on whose shoulders others discovered the Northwest Passage, the seagoing route between Europe and the Pacific.

Franklin first appears as a bumbling schoolboy, a Lincolnshire nerd: "he looked at himself with displeasure. The way he came on, for example: his legs wide apart, his round eyes, his head askew like a dog's. His movements seemed glued to the air, and he talked like an ax thumping on a chopping block."

Gone for a sailor at 14, he wins kudos in spite of his chronic deliberateness. "He had never forgotten a thing," Nadolny writes; "his head was like a well-stocked barn." During the Battle of Trafalgar, it seems characteristic of him to kill a Danish opponent not by firing a musket or thrusting with a bayonet but by strangling the fellow. He performs equally well at the Battle of New Orleans, becomes a captain at age 29. At first he sets his sights on the North Pole because it evokes geographical awe: he yearns to reach a place where "the sun produced no days or hours." Later the goal dims, the journey becomes all-encompassing. For all the comforts of his lady friends and an eventual, happy marriage, he feeds on the adrenalin of discovery.

In command of his first Arctic voyage, he leads a small party on foot across an ice-pack. When they lose their way in fog, Franklin's methodical thinking saves them from futile, perhaps fatal, wandering. The ice is shifting, he decides, and walking in a straight line by the compass is taking them in circles. They stay put, fire a musket periodically, and wait for rescue. In due course, their shipmates collect them.

Back in England he writes a best-seller with one of those vogueish run-on titles: Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea in the Years 1819, 20, 21, and 22. In 1825-27 he makes a second Arctic voyage, mapping hundreds of miles of virgin tundra in what is now the District of Mackenzie in Canada's Northwest Territories. (The Arctic archipelago north of the Canadian mainland is called the District of Franklin.) He endures a long, expeditionless interim in which he performs the thankless task of governing Tasmania, the island south of Australia -- settled, like the mainland, by expatriated British convicts. In 1845, nearly 60, he embarks on his last voyage, skippering the vessels Terror and Erebus.

Nadolny, a West German historian and film writer, excels at conveying the feel of discovery. There are moments of frenzied enterprise, as when Franklin orders his watchmen to beat the ship's rigging with sticks lest it freeze immobile. There are days of murderous frustration, especially on the forced overland march toward a food supply that concluded his first Arctic trip. One starving marcher "screamed that he didn't want to walk behind {another} anymore because the creases in the dumb seat of his trousers moved back and forth so idiotically."

INEVITABLY, the book slackens toward the end. Franklin's last voyage came apart with his ships encased in ice, his crews unequipped to break them loose. After he died on board, some 100 crew members set out across the ice for terra firma. Forty of them made it, only to die of starvation. Franklin's widow poured their savings into searches for her husband, and in 1859 a note discovered under an Arctic cairn gave the news of his death. This expedition pressed on and found the 40 dead men, most of them lying where they came ashore at a bay that was dubbed Starvation Cove.

Sten Nadolny evinces remarkable empathy with his unlikely Odysseus, and Ralph Freedman's translation captures the crystalline freshness of the author's images.

Dennis Drabelle is a Washington editor and writer.