I was awakened this morning by multiple messages on Facebook, Twitter, Hotmail, Gmail, LinkedIn, and carrier pigeon, each asking: “Have you seen today’s Google doodle?” So, I beat a hasty path to the font of all knowledge, and saw with my own eyes an intricate scene of a Viking ship sailing up a fjord, a snow-bound hut, an unmistakable profile, and a facsimile of a Nansen passport, all crowned by a cross-country skier heading straight toward me. A tribute to Fridtjof Nansen on his birthday (1861).
In the course of my research on Odd Nansen, his son, I learned quite a bit about Fridtjof as well, and a remarkable man he was. No single biography yet does justice to all the facets of his life. Athlete, scientist, explorer, statesman, writer, humanitarian, artist: he was all of these and more. As one biographer, Roland Huntford, sums up, he “was a hero of his times.” Fridtjof was a prolific writer, with over a dozen books to his credit. His tale of striking out for the North Pole in 1893 (age 31), Farthest North, is one of the most fascinating adventure stories ever written. Not surprisingly, it is based on, and in large part transcribes, his diary entries written during his forty-month journey. Like father, like son.
But what most clearly stands out for me is Fridtjof Nansen’s character, which is the element that allowed him to excel in so many endeavors. In 1926, in an address to the students of St. Andrews University in Scotland, Nansen observed: “I had the advantage of living a great deal alone [think Arctic!] and had thus acquired the habit of making up my mind without asking the opinion of others. Ibsen said that that man is strongest who stands most alone.”
One man who stood very much alone in the face of injustice was his son, Odd Nansen, arrested by the Nazis on January 13, 1942 as a hostage, and confined to various concentration camps for almost three and a half years, until the closing weeks of World War II. No doubt Fridtjof’s example helped his son weather the storm. As I write in my Introduction to From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps, Odd Nansen and his father were both very much alike in many ways, none more so than their strength of character. And Odd Nansen’s concentration camp diary never fails to mention his father’s birthday, as one October 10th follows another in captivity. Here’s a particularly poignant one:
“Sunday, October 10, 1943. Father’s birthday. He would have been eighty-two today, if he had lived. If he had lived! The memory of him and his lifework seems completely alien and unintelligible, as though it all belonged to another world. But there are still ties binding us to that world, and we won’t allow them to be severed if we can help it. We hold fast to them convulsively, refuse to slide down the precipice that threatens on every side, with its black, hopeless maw.
Oh, if one could only wake up from this nightmare, wake up and find that there exists another reality which is of the light! And this heartfelt wish evolves into an intense yearning, which increasingly takes conscious form in one’s mind. The light returns, at first by glimpses like a beacon lamp in the night, then like a fixed light a long way off, steadily approaching, changing to brilliant sunlight. And in the sunlight, suddenly there they are, she [his wife Kari] and the children, smiling to one in trust and confidence! At last! All one has in life, all one goes on living for, is contained in that vision.”
For all of his incredible physical prowess and vitality, Fridtjof Nansen did not enjoy a particularly long life, dying on May 13, 1930, at age 68. Years ago, I came across a biography of another Renaissance man, the Victorian William Morris, written by Fiona MacCarthy (William Morris: A Life for Our Time). Describing Morris’s approaching death (at age 62), MacCarthy writes: “When Morris was dying, one of his physicians diagnosed his disease as ‘simply being William Morris and having done more work than most ten men.’”
Arguably, no better description of Fridtjof Nansen’s life exists either. So, I thank all the many, many wonderful friends who wrote me today to ensure that I saw “the Google doodle,” and along with Google, salute the birthday and life of Fridtjof Nansen.