I have just published a collection of love letters from a Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize winner to the writer Brenda Ueland. The Norwegian edition was launched in Oslo last October, and the US edition on January 1st, 2012 in the US.
Perhaps you already know about Brenda. She was a Minneapolis-born freelance writer who lived in Greenwich Village for much of her life, traveling with such free thinkers and literary lights as Mabel Dodge, Emma Goldman, Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather and Eugene O'Neill. Brenda authored several books, including the best-selling If You Want to Write, which Carl Sandburg called "the best book on writing ever written." Published in 1939 by G. Putnam & Sons, and reprinted by Graywolf in 1987, the book has sold over 300k copies to date.
By her count Brenda had "three husbands (one of them was my grandfather) and a hundred lovers," but she never had a love affair with a married man "unless he brought a note from his wife." She got one once. Though she died in 1985 at the age of 93, Brenda is still to this day the patron saint of many aspiring essayists and memoir writers.
Fridtjof Nansen was Norway's greatest athlete, polar explorer, scientist, artist, statesman, and humanitarian. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for saving an estimated 22 million Russians from starvation. Called by some, "the greatest Norwegian who ever lived," he is without question Norway's favorite son, regarded with the kind of national pride that Italians reserve for Leonardo da Vinci, or South Africans for Nelson Mandela.
The sesquicentennial of Nansen's birth was October 10, 2011. The publication of the Norwegian edition, with a Foreword by Nansen biographer Per Egil Hegge, set off a firestorm of press. During my week-long publicity tour in Norway, I was interviewed by many of country's major newspapers and its most popular radio and TV news programs. The question that dominated nearly every conversation was why I chose to illustrate the text with three nude self-portrait photos that Nansen had sent to Brenda.
As I report in the book, I thought long and hard for over five years about whether to publish these letters and photos. When I asked Norwegian diplomats, historians and several Nansen biographers for their counsel, they all urged me to publish both the letters and the pictures. I wanted to show readers that Nansen bared himself to Brenda, body and soul, but I wasn't so sure about showing all his parts.
Just before going to press my Norwegian publishing partner, Ole Rikard Høisæther, convinced me to let him run the complete nude photos. (In the U.S. edition the photos are discreetly cropped.) He argued that Norwegians insist on the "whole truth and nothing but the truth," and "to not show the photos fully, is to not trust our readers." So we published three un-cropped photos in the Norwegian edition--and set off a firestorm.
There have been literally tens of thousands of tweets, blog posts, and letters to the editor flying through cyberspace debating the decision. Some argue that the photos are private, "sent by an old man to his young mistress," and should not be published. Others find important historical evidence between the lines, that Nansen was a, "modern man who breaks with the prevailing gender norms," and, "a man with a positive view of his own body, who is also not afraid to adopt new technology." One reviewer wrote, "He ventured to the Arctic and faced huge dangers. I think though, that this exploration of the soul was his greatest achievement."
The ruckus has even inspired an addition to the Norwegian vernacular: If someone wants you to Tweet a revealing picture of yourself, they urge you to "Do a Nansen!"
* * *
Nansen and Ueland met in New York City in 1929. He was 67 and she was 37. They had a brief love affair and then a year-long correspondence until his death. Brenda, My Darling presents Nansen's letters to Ueland. I think they are some of the most passionate, eloquent and moving love letters ever written. Hers to him are lost, so I've complemented Nansen's letters with a sampling of Brenda's published work and previously unpublished diaries.
The following passages from the book include a sampling of Nansen's letters, Brenda's diaries from the time and some of her later writing:
* * *
According to Norway's former Prime Minister Gro Harland Bruntlund, Nansen was known to be "a tortured, restless dreamer," who, in his own words," preferred to be, "out on the world's loneliest and saddest rims" where he could find, "solitude and contemplation...[away] from the rushing, noisy centers of civilization...far, far, far away from this restless, empty, worrying, tiresome, disgusting life, which I really loathe, and still have to go through and try to make the best of, and it gives no peace, always more than one can overcome."
However, Nansen told Brenda that their correspondence brought him, as he put it,
"New life, new vigor, new vitality...What happiness!... You cannot possibly understand what your letters mean to me... there is not a corner of my heart or soul which I do not wish you to look into... I have the feeling that I could talk to you about everything, and you would always understand..."
Just as Nansen struggled with dark moods, so too did Brenda. Her blackest moods were often filled with harsh self-criticism. In her diaries at the time she wrote:
"...Want to smoke. Not more than an hour's sleep last night. Confusion. Gratitude. Yes, the assumption that I am a conscienceless liar, self-seeker, is quite right... Is this wish to smoke the result of my confusion, or is it because I no longer wish to be introspective and philosophical? Or is it because I have decided, in order to be more with people, more sociable rather than aloof, that I have to take upon myself some of the things that make sociability easier? Or is it my horrible suggestibility? I don't know. But I am afraid I am going to smoke..."
Through their correspondence each helped the other step out of their private darkness. The Nansen who showed up in his letters to Brenda was the kind of person Brenda described as a "great man" in her essay "The True, Little Known History of Women."
"It seems to me one of the best ways to be a great man would be to be a true friend of women... How? Neither pamper nor exploit them. Love in women their greatness, which is the same as it is in men. Insist on bravery, honor, grandeur, and generosity in women..."
At the time they met in New York City, in 1929, Brenda was a social butterfly and sought-after conversationalist who understood the power of listening. "If you want to be interesting," she used to say, "be interested." She wrote:
"Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force... When we are listened to ...a little creative fountain inside us begins to spring up and cast up new thoughts and unexpected laughter and wisdom... Now this little creative fountain is in us all. It is the spirit, or the intelligence, or the imagination--whatever you want to call it. It is when people really listen to us, with quiet fascinated attention, that this fountain begins to work again, to accelerate in the most surprising way..."
I believe Brenda and Nansen helped each other become their very best selves. Both of them knew how to listen, to their own hearts and to each other.
In one letter Nansen wrote:
"You are a sorceress, you have tied me hand and foot, soul and body... I am lost... What wonderful witchcraft do you possess? I felt your lovely arms around my neck... heavenly fire [went] through my limbs and my brain - and the spring is here, more beautiful in Norway than anywhere on Earth. Here from my window in my tower, I see the maidenly birches in their bridal veils against the dark pine wood -- there is nothing like the birch in the spring. I do not exactly know why, but it is like you, to me you have the same maidenliness - and the sun is laughing, and the fjord out there is glittering, and existence is beauty!..."
On Midsummer, June 23rd, he wrote:
"A lovely morning, the sun is shining, after a wet refreshing night, and glittering in the rain drops on the leaves, the roses are in blossom, soon there will be an undulating sea of red and yellow roses in the garden, and it is midsummer eve, and tonight there will be bonfires in every direction and fireworks, and the youth will rejoice, and I will see it all here from my tower; but you are not here, and my thoughts will travel across the ocean and find you, my darling, and I know they will meet your thoughts on the way.
...It has become evening now, and the bonfires will soon be lighted, but all my thoughts go to you, Brenda, my darling..."
[Signed], Your lonely Viking, Fridtjof
Nansen was a scientist and an agnostic. Brenda was a mystic. She wrote:
"The point is not to live long...we live forever anyway. The point is while you are alive, be alive!"
"You know much brighter souls than I... say that when we die we are not dead. I cannot help but believe it... Death is unbearably tragic and grievous because it is a kind of farewell. But it is not forever. Those who are Yonder, in a queer way, are more present than ever. They are more befriending, more strengthening, more helpful... I believe it."
And she wrote this, after Nansen's death: "I have thought of him every day since then. He thought that we were extinct after death. I childishly think I shall see him again."
In her essay "On Making Choices," Brenda said that Plato believed the purpose of life is the "tendance of the soul...that is to say, we are in school. And like Plato," she wrote, "I believe in the Doctrine of Reminiscence or Reincarnation, and that in this life we are supposed to learn something, to advance, to become better. As in Ibsen's mystical drama, Peer Gynt, I think our soul, or Solveig, is waiting for us at the end of life and hopes that we have...learned something through striving, mistakes, suffering, and the like."
Nansen's letters and Brenda's writings, and the hard-won life wisdom they embody, reveal two questing souls who found each other, as truly resonant souls sometimes do. Each helped the other step out of a private darkness and into the light. Through lives of deep searching, they reached across oceans and generations to draw each other out. We can be glad they did, for their own sake, and for the written evidence of their love they left behind.
The eloquence, passion, and candor of these two extraordinary individuals serves as an inspiration to us all to tend our souls. The only way is through life experience, especially through struggling, in the crucible of life, to learn how to love. In this way we refine our souls, becoming more open, more transparent, more loving and luminous human beings.
May we all find, as Brenda put it, "True love till the end of Time."
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