Fridtjof Nansen was a legend in Norway -- courageous polar explorer, humanitarian who earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 1922, champion of Norway's independence. He was also dashingly handsome.
Brenda Ueland was less legendary -- an early feminist, a disciple of exercise and a charismatic bohemian. That Nansen was enraptured by her is, for many, a revelation.
Revelation is the operative word in "Brenda, My Darling: The Love Letters of Fridtjof Nansen to Brenda Ueland," edited by Eric Utne. The letters to Ueland, who was Utne's step-grandmother, cover Nansen's final year, up until his death in May 1930.
Utne describes the letters as "some of the most passionate, candid and eloquent in the English language," which is quite a claim.
Certainly, they underscore a Norwegian saying that "when the old house catches fire, it burns with great heat," as noted in the foreword by Nansen biographer Per Egil Hegge. Nansen was 67 and Ueland 37 when they met once for a weekend in 1929, when an interview she'd sought took a lusty turn.
His letters counter the image of a repressed Scandinavian: "There is not a corner of my heart or soul which I do not wish you to look into. ... I have a feeling that I could talk to you about everything, as I never had before, and you would always understand."
But Nansen is not all talk. Many passages are "hot," to use his word, with talk of thighs and tremulous flesh and being "simply mad and wild with longing." He wishes for a few photos of her "quite naked," having sent his own nude photos.
In U.S. editions of "Brenda, My Darling," the photos are chastely cropped at Utne's direction. Not in Norway, where the publisher included them in their entirety. Norwegian newspapers published them as well, causing something of a kerfuffle from the shock of seeing a revered statesman posing in the nude. Yet it's Nansen's words that linger, words that at times make this most heroic of men sound besotted.
Far from shocking or erotic, the result is simply poignant.
Nansen, who had achieved so much, was tired. He wrote that he hated the politics that consumed his life. A planned polar expedition was foundering. He was unhappy in his marriage, yet protective of his family, asking that Ueland "not use envelopes with your name and address outside."
His letters, then, may be read in the spirit of rooting for an old guy given one last fling. The poignancy comes when Utne seeks to include Ueland's voice, gapingly absent, since her letters to Nansen were destroyed by his family.
Her diary barely mentions him, her thoughts more absorbed by her love affair with a woman she calls Tomola. Ueland's only surviving letter to Nansen, written 10 months after their weekend, notes "inevitably our vigorous interest in each other must wane a little." Editing her diary in 1969, Ueland saw an entry referencing "my cruelties," and realized "from this distance in time," that she had fallen in love with Nansen to "escape from emotional slavery to Tomola."
Still, she is stunned by Nansen's death, writing, "We have no idea what depths of emotion there are in us."
The last quarter includes excerpts from Ueland's work, and an address by Nansen at St. Andrews University in Scotland. Their inclusion is a good call, providing insight into these two distinctively courageous people whose love affair we've just witnessed, and cushioning some of the melancholy that Nansen's letters ultimately foster.
Kim Ode is a Star Tribune features writer.