Nansen debate shocks publisher

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American editor and publisher Eric Utne seems clearly taken aback by the debate that’s erupted over his new books based on love letters written by Norwegian explorer and statesman Fridtjof Nansen. The letters to the last of Nansen’s many mistresses also contained a few naked photos that Nansen took of himself, and they seem to be overshadowing the story Utne wanted to tell.

Eric Utne (left), Ole Rikard Høisæther and Per Egil Hegge have been busy defending publication of Fridtjof Nansen's love letters and photos this week. PHOTO: Views and News

“I’m shocked,” Utne said after arriving in Oslo this week for the formal launch of the Norwegian version of his book, entitled Nansens siste kjærlighet (Nansen’s last love). Utne was referring to Norwegian media’s decision to run the naked photos in large format, and to the controversy that publication of both the letters and the photos has set off.

Utne, best known in the US for founding the highly acclaimed alternative magazine Utne Reader, has a long history as a writer, editor, educator and entrepreneur in addition to having Norwegian roots himself. He wanted to tell the story of a romantic, poetic, modern Fridtjof Nansen that he believes the letters reveal. Despite all his experience in the publishing business, Utne says he’s surprised over how the material he’s finally made public is being received in Norway.

Other Nansen biographers and historians had ignored it for years, or didn’t know the letters and photos existed. Among them was Per Egil Hegge, a veteran journalist in Norway who’s written a biography of Nansen and who wrote the foreword for Utne’s books. Hegge said he only heard about the letters, long stored in a library at the Minnesota Historical Society, when he was wrapping up his own research on Nansen and opted against going through them all, mostly because of time demands.

Hegge admits that was a mistake. He staunchly defends their publication by Utne now, calling the letters “remarkable” for showing how Nansen opened himself up to the woman to whom he was writing, the Norwegian-American writer Brenda Ueland, who was 30 years younger than he was. The 30 letters, all written in English and some of them more than 20 pages long, also contain far more than what Hegge calls Nansen’s “erotic obsession” with Ueland. They show Nansen’s need for love, Hegge said, plus a literary talent for writing in a language that wasn’t Nansen’s own. “This is quite beautiful, poetic English,” Hegge said. “It’s a Nansen we’ve never met.”

Editor and publisher Eric Utne of Minneapolis with the Norwegian and American versions of his book that's causing so much fuss. PHOTO: Views and News

Utne has repeatedly claimed and written himself that he wrestled for five years with the idea of publishing the letters, all written during the year before Nansen died. He says he was urged to do so by a variety of Norwegian professional acquaintances, from Nobel Institute director Geir Lundestad to writers and historians Karin Berg and Carl Emil Vogt.

Both Berg and Vogt, however, have been among those now questioning and even criticizing their publication, indicating they changed their minds. Utne could produce copies of e-mails written by both Berg and Vogt earlier this year showing their enthusiasm for his project, but Vogt since has called the publication of private letters “problematic” and Berg disagrees with Hegge and Utne that the letters cast new light over Nansen. Both she and Vogt have indicated they wanted to “protect” Nansen and show respect for Nansen’s family by keeping the letters private. Berg also worries publication of the photos will tarnish Nansen’s international reputation.

This amazes Utne, who thought he had their support and the support of Nansen’s family, but both he and his Norwegian publisher, Ole Rikard Høisæther of Orfeus Publishing, say they’re proud of the books. Utne regrets how the naked photos were used in the media, though, explaining that he opted to crop them in the American version of his book “because I was uncomfortable” with running the full frontal photos as they’re displayed in the Norwegian version. Høisæther argued that “there’s a different view on nudity in Scandinavia” and he ran them unaltered, but complains the media blew them up and took material in the letters out of context. Ironically, Nansen’s letters had to be translated into Norwegian for use in the Norwegian edition.

What started out as an attempt to shed new light on one of Norway’s greatest national heroes has at the very least generated lots of publicity for the books. Utne and Høisæther reject fears the books will damage Nansen’s standing in Norway or elsewhere. Despite the confirmation of Nansen’s infidelity, erotic passion and occasional depression, Høisæter claims the books reveal Nansen as “a modern man,” while Utne says he just wanted to share the letters “with the world.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund