Today marks the 118th anniversary of Odd Nansen’s birth, on December 6, 1901.
Recently I gave a lecture on Odd Nansen’s father, Fridtjof Nansen (whom I’ve written about here). Afterward, a gentleman in the audience recommended reading a book called In the Land of White Death by Valerian Albanov. Albanov, a Russian, joined the Saint Anna expedition in 1912 which aimed to sail 7,000 miles, from Murmansk to Vladivostok, via the treacherous arctic waters north of Siberia—the so-called Northeast Passage. Like many such expeditions, it ended in utter disaster, with only Albanov and one other crew member (out of an original complement of 24) surviving. In 1917, Valerian published an account of his experience based on a diary he kept along the way. It was translated into French in 1928, but thereafter languished for some seventy years, until it was “re-discovered” in 1998 and republished in a new French version. In this way it came to the attention of American adventure writer David Roberts, who brought out an English translation in 2000. It is an incredible adventure story.*
What particularly struck me was the Preface written by noted adventure author Jon Krakauer. Tell me whether Krakauer’s description reminds you of any other book:
“[W]hy is Valerian Ivanovich Albanov all but unknown to the world?
. . .
Albanov . . . turned out to be a gifted writer and an uncommonly honest diarist. He wrote a spare, astounding, utterly compelling book that — thanks to bad luck and the vagaries of history—vanished into the recesses of twentieth century letters.
But it remains in the shadows no longer. . . . More than eighty years after Albanov wrote this tour de force, there is reason to hope that he might finally receive the recognition he deserves.”
Let us hope this is indeed the fate of Valerian Albanov, as well as that other “uncommonly honest” diarist of an “utterly compelling book,” Odd Nansen, whose birthday we commemorate today.
*There are multiple threads connecting Albanov with the great Fridtjof Nansen. Albanov considered Nansen’s account of his 1893—1896 polar expedition, Farthest North, to be “a precious treasure” which he had read so many times he could “cite entire passages from memory.” Moreover, when the Saint Anna went missing, several search and rescue missions were launched, including one by Otto Sverdrup. Sverdrup accompanied Fridtjof Nansen on his Greenland crossing in 1888, and captained Nansen’s ship Fram during Nansen’s expedition to the North Pole. No trace of the missing Saint Anna, or the remaining 22 crew members, was ever found until 2010, when explorers discovered a skeleton and other artifacts on Franz Josef Land (the arctic archipelago where Fridtjof Nansen overwintered, and where he later met up with his rescuer, Frederick Jackson).