What’s in a Book’s Title?

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I have often wondered, and people have from time to time asked me, where Nansen came up with the title to his diary, Fra Dag til Dag (From Day to Day).  Unfortunately, we may never know the answer.  Even Odd Nansen’s eldest daughter Marit is unsure of its origins.

Perhaps Nansen’s inspiration was quite prosaic: nothing more than an actual description of the diary’s focus.  As the journalist, author and diarist William L. Shirer wrote in the Foreword of his own work, Berlin Diary, “The only justification in my own mind was that chance, and the kind of job I had, appeared to be giving me a somewhat unusual opportunity to set down from day to day a first-hand account of a Europe that was already in agony and that, as the months and years unfolded, slipped inexorably towards the abyss of war and self-destruction.”  Shirer’s diary was an instant hit, selling over 600,000 copies in the first year of publication according to his biographer Ken Cuthbertson.  Since the book was published by Knopf in early 1941, for all we know Nansen was aware of it and had even read Shirer’s own words.

My good friend Don Lineback, on the other hand, is convinced that Nansen took his inspiration from Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act 5, Scene 5:

“She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.  Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.  It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.”

Certainly, Odd Nansen was highly literate, and was undoubtedly familiar with Shakespeare’s plays.  His diary is replete with allusions to literary, classical and Biblical characters and ideas.  And this single soliloquy has provided a veritable cornucopia of phrases to be borrowed by other writers in naming their works.  Kurt Vonnegut (an old favorite of mine) titled a 1953 short story Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.  Robert B. Parker did double duty, naming two different novels (both published in 1994) All Our Yesterdays and Walking Shadow. Signifying Nothing is the title of a short story by David Foster WallaceAlistair Maclean (of The Guns of Navarone fame) used The Way to Dusty Death as the title of his 1973 novel, and Jon Skovron appropriated Struts & Frets for a 2009 novel.  Probably the most famous usage is The Sound and the Fury by Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning author William Faulkner. (In 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Sound and the Fury sixth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.)  Even the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” uses the third and fourth lines of the soliloquy as part of the song “Take a Break.”

Here’s what the soliloquy looks like with all these attributions:

“She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.  Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.  It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.”

Odd Nansen may similarly have gotten his inspiration from this work.  One final, tantalizing, clue derives from yet another explicit borrowing of Shakespeare.  In 1916 the poet Robert Frost published a poem he called “Out, Out—.”  Based on an actual event that occurred in 1910, “Out, Out—” tells of a young boy who bleeds to death when his hand is severed by a buzz-saw.  Frost uses personification to make the saw itself seems alive—it “Leaped out of his hand, or seemed to leap/He must have given the hand.  However it was/Neither refused the meeting.  But the hand!”

As I point out in my annotation for Nansen’s diary entry on May 16, 1942, some of his own writing might well have been informed by Frost’s poem.  Earlier in the poem Frost writes:

“And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.”

In his diary entry Nansen describes Bauleiter [construction manager] Gebecke

“[who] prefers to hang around the circular saw, looking for a chance to demonstrate his accomplishments in that sphere. . . .  On such occasions Gebecke is on the spot; he sets the saw going and cuts the first dozen logs himself. . . .   And he cuts log after log, humming the saw’s tune: krrrtj—krrrtj! bsssssitj bsss-it! according as the logs are thicker or thinner.”

Was Nansen channeling Frost in his description of the saw?  There is no reason not to think that Nansen was fully aware of Robert Frost’s poetry.  And the title of the poem would have instantly transported him to Shakespeare’s writing.

So perhaps Don Lineback is correct in his supposition.  And why not? After all, some of Nansen’s best writing is positively Shakespearean.

Ian McKellen as Macbeth and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth

Ian McKellen as Macbeth and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth

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Book Signings

  • March 4, 2018: Sons of Norway, Boston, MA (3:00 pm)
  • March 9, 2018: Furman University Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (1:00 pm)
  • April 10, 2018: Spartanburg Public Library, Pacolet, SC (6:30 pm)
  • April 12, 2018: NC State University Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (1:15 pm)
  • April 20, 2018: Sons of Norway, Saddle River, NJ (7:30 pm)
  • April 25, 2018: Old Guard of Princeton, Princeton, NJ (10:15 am)
  • April 26, 2018: Summit Public Library, Summit, NJ (7:00 pm)
  • April 30, 2018: Ridgewod Public Library, Ridgewood, NJ
  • June 10, 2018: Sons of Norway Sixth District Convention, Rohnert Park, CA
< 2017 >
December
SMTWHFS
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3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
31      
Legend
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  This day in history