UPDATED: A new book about Norwegian explorer and statesman Fridtjof Nansen bares just a bit more of the man himself than some biographers and Nansen admirers can bear themselves. Its collection of love letters and naked photos from an ageing but infatuated Nansen has set off debate and even a warning from Facebook.
Timed for publication just as Norway is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Nansen’s birth, the book is decidedly different from new biographies that are out about the man, or those written over the past many decades. It’s based, in both Norwegian and English versions, on passionate love letters that Nansen wrote to the last love of his life, Norwegian-American writer Brenda Ueland.
The letters, all originally written in English, eventually landed in the hands of writer, publisher and editor Eric Utne of Minneapolis, whose grandfather was married to Ueland and whom Utne greatly admired. After encouragement from some professional acquaintances in Norway, Utne decided to publish the letters through his Utne Institute, along with some of the photos the couple exchanged during the last year of Nansen’s life, in 1929.
Included among them are some showing Nansen, who had a long history as a ladies’ man, posing stark naked. He was clearly proud of his physique, even at the age of 67 and 30 years older than Ueland. “There is not a corner of my heart or soul which I do not wish you to look into…” he wrote to her.
The letters themselves are considered compelling and erotic, and have been described by Norwegian editor and journalist Per Egil Hegge in the book’s introduction as “so earnest, so intense and so beautifully written, it is more appropriate to classify them as literature.” Hegge, who spent several decades working for Norway’s largest newspaper Aftenposten and has himself written biographies of Nansen and King Harald, claims they “take us far from the mists and glaciers of Nansen’s Arctic adventures” and offer a glimpse of “his poetic soul.”
Full frontal flap
The fuss erupted when Aftenposten wrote two stories about the book before a ceremonial launch this week. The stories not only incorrectly identified Nansen’s first wife as “Liv” instead of “Eva” but also focused mostly on the photos and published two of them in full-frontal version, which editor Utne claims “shocked” him and also seemed to shock Facebook. Aftenposten’s link to its stories on its Facebook page set off an indignant warning from Facebook that Aftenposten was violating its rules against posting material against nudity or content of a sexual nature. Nansen’s reflections on his passion for Ueland, his affairs with other women and his thoughts on jealousy and Ueland’s lesbian relationship at the time struck a nerve at Facebook, which promptly removed the link to Aftenposten’s stories on Utne’s book.
That in turn set off amazement among press officials in Norway, who believe Facebook has overreacted. Per Edgar Kokkvold, head of the press association Norsk Presseforbund, laughed when contacted by Aftenposten about the Facebook incident while Elin Floberghagen, head of the national journalists’ union, called it “a display of moralism that is very un-Norwegian.” In the American version of the book, the photos are cropped so only Nansen’s bare torso is shown.
Utne, perhaps best-known in the US for founding the popular and highly praised alternative magazine Utne Reader, claimed in an e-mail that he “never intended for Nansen’s full nude photos to be published in the newspapers.” He already was facing opposition from Nansen’s descendants who weren’t pleased about the letters and photos being published, while some other Nansen biographers feel the letters were private or that it wasn’t necessary to reveal their contents. Historian Karin Berg, who earlier wrote a book about Nansen and the women in his life, went on national TV in Norway Monday night (NRK2) to argue that the letters never should have been published nor the photos shown. She also claimed she was “shocked” when she first read the letters a few years ago, and opted not to use them in her own book.
Refugee work ‘a dull feeling of duty’
The fuss has definitely sparked publicity that book publishers might otherwise only dream about. Overshadowed by the flap about the passion, adultery and nudity are Nansen’s written reflections on the politics of the time, his work in Armenia, his love for the wilderness, even plans he had to cross the North Pole in the Graf Zeppelin. He also admitted in one letter to have lost his desire to work with refugees: “Well, I have to continue with it, though without any wish or interest,” he wrote to Ueland, “simply a dull feeling of duty because I cannot be replaced. But it seems all of it so very indifferent, both that, and expedition, and the rest.
“What do I really wish to do? Life seems so meaningless; we are marionettes moved by something else, and still they want to go on forever. Why do I write when I am in such a depressed mood? It cannot be very cheering for you. But I miss you so badly…”
He and Ueland met in 1929 and he died the next year. He was still married at the time, to Sigrun Munthe, who had left her artist husband Gerhard Munthe for Nansen. Nansen’s first wife, Eva Sars, died in 1907.
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund