Exposed in Norway

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As a creative writing student reading Minneapolis feminist Brenda Ueland’s bestselling 1938 book If You Want to Write several years ago, I was smitten. She was funny and fierce and wise and had an utterly engaging voice; there was nothing precious or false or pompous like so many writing guidebooks. It propelled me to read her autobiography, Me: A Memoir (1939), which turned out to be equally dreamy–full of heartbreak and energy and adventure. I was thrilled, then, to learn recently that Utne Reader founder Eric Utne is Ueland’s step-grandson–and that he was editing a book of love letters between Ueland and the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, with whom she had a passionate, albeit largely epistolary, affair. Ueland and Nansen met in person only in one flaming-hot weekend in 1929, when she was 37 and he 67, and thereafter wrote letters overseas for a year until his death.

Titled Brenda, My Darling, the book is being published simultaneously in Norway by Orfeus Publishing as Nansens siste kjærlighet (Nansen’s Last Love) and launched this week. Here in the states, Fridtjof Nansen’s name may be known only to the most ardent Arctic explorer enthusiasts among us, but he’s a hero in Norway–a Nobel Prize winner whose humanitarian work famously saved the lives of millions of refugees and prisoners of war. The letters to Brenda reveal an entirely new side of the austere hero as a sensual and vulnerable lover: “O Brenda,” he wrote, “there is not a corner of my heart or soul which I do not wish you to look into.”

The Norwegian edition of the book also reveals the full frontal: nude photos of Nansen that he mailed to his extramarital lover. These photos have erupted in controversy in Norway, where Eric Utne is currently launching the book (Views and News from Norway, Oct 19, 2011). The newspaper Aftenposten (the Oslo equivalent of the New York Times) reproduced the nude photos in an article–an act that has the public focused more on the sex sex sex than on the romance and humanity of the letters. According to Views and News from Norway:

Utne regrets how the naked photos were used in the media … 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. [Orfeus Publishing director] 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.

It’s reassuring to know the urge to bare body and soul for a heart-thumping romance isn’t limited to the internet-scandal-ridden present but transcends time and place to include stately heroes and old-school feminists. The pictures, by the way, seem quite dignified by today’s standards, with Nansen assuming a series of statuesque poses. And Utne Reader will proudly be publishing an excerpt from Brenda, My Darling in our January-February 2012 issue–although we will primly be abstaining from the nudie pics; for that treat, you’ll have to special-order a copy of the Norwegian edition.

Source: Views and News from Norway

Image from the Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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