The search for pole position

November 27, 1998

With his biography of the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930), Roland Huntford concludes a trilogy of works on polar explorers that has also examined the lives of Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton. Huntford's skill in marshalling a formidable range of sources into a coherent, entertaining narrative is to be commended, and Nansen: The Explorer as Hero will appeal to scholars and general readers. Yet for all its strengths, it demonstrates the limitations of biographical history.

Huntford divides Nansen's story into five phases: first, his early life and career as curator of zoology at the University of Bergen; second and third, his two great polar journeys; fourth, his involvement in the campaign for Norwegian independence from Sweden and subsequent posting as Norwegian ambassador to London; and, finally, his activities as a civil servant attached to the League of Nations, campaigning for humanitarian relief for those displaced by the Great War and the Russian revolution, for which he received the Nobel peace prize in 1922.

The range of Nansen's interests is impressive. His early research on marine biology challenged the current orthodoxy and marked him as one of the founders of the modern view of the nervous system. He later wrote widely on geology, oceanography and climatology. The discoveries and inventions that bore his name include Nansen fibres, the Nansen cooker, the Nansen sledge, the Nansen-Petterson water bottle and the Nansen passport.

Polar exploration propelled Nansen into the public eye. In 1888 he led an expedition on the first recorded crossing of Greenland. Nansen defied that conventional wisdom, which dictated explorers proceed from the known to the unknown to maintain a line of retreat, by sailing first to the largely uncharted eastern coast of Greenland and then heading west to the Danish port of Godthab.

On his second polar expedition, between 1893 and 1896, the successful drift of Nansen's ship, the Fram, with its smooth sides and rounded hull specially built to his design to withstand the pressure exerted by the pack-ice, finally proved that the North Pole was located on neither an open sea nor a stable ice-cap, but on a shifting changeable pack. When he realised the Fram would not drift across the pole itself, Nansen set out from the ship, which had by then been frozen in the ice for nearly 18 months, and reached a new record "furthest north" of latitude 86O 10+ N, 230 miles from the pole. With his companion Hjalmar Johansen, Nansen spent more than a year living on the ice before reaching safety at the camp of explorer Frederick Jackson in Franz Josef Land. Nansen was feted for his achievements throughout Europe and America, receiving numerous distinguished awards.

Yet, despite this success, Nansen was dissatisfied. Huntford deploys Goethe's Faust as a recurring figure to embody the restless spirit that pervaded Nansen's career and personal life. He relentlessly sought new challenges. Yet his later success as a diplomat and statesman was tarnished by bitterness, as first Peary and then his pupil Amundsen succeeded in conquering the Poles, achievements that Nansen had once dreamed would be his. Neither his two marriages, nor the five children born with his first wife, Eva, who died in 1907, brought Nansen contentment, and Huntford traces the numerous romantic liaisons in which the charismatic Norwegian became entangled.

More than half the book is devoted to Nansen's two polar expeditions and here Huntford excels. Few writers on polar exploration combine their specialised knowledge with such literary skill, and Huntford integrates detailed explanations of Nansen's innovative contributions to the technique of polar travel into a compelling narrative.

The final two parts of the biography, however, are less successful. Without the harness of a polar expedition Huntford, like Nansen, loses direction. Some periods are passed over with scant comment. The reader learns little of Nansen's response to the cataclysm of the first world war: the years 1914-18 are covered in only six pages. Huntford is more assured navigating the Arctic ice-fields than the corridors of the League of Nations, and the later chapters become bogged down in the complexities of international politics.

A more significant criticism concerns Huntford's approach to his sub-title, "The Explorer as Hero". Huntford contrasts the Norwegian concern for efficient polar travel with the British veneration of heroic deeds. The Nordic skier is described as the "quintessential anti-hero", in contrast to the British with their "national ethos of heroic endeavour". Nansen is praised for "demythologisingI the polar environment". Captain Scott is the implied target here, condemned by Huntford as the exemplar of the British tendency to romanticise exploration and glorify sacrifice.

While Nansen and Amundsen were the most successful polar travellers of their age, Huntford's attempts to explain this Norwegian success by reference to some transcendent national character are unconvincing. In Huntford's story, Norwegians are generally "slow to anger and accustomed to isolation", the "Russian" is "imbued I with respect for the strong man", while "the French" were "more acutely aware of the creeping decadence of the age" than the British. Such national stereotypes are an inadequate substitute for detailed historical analysis.

The polar explorers of the late-19th and early-20th centuries articulated a common vision of exploration as a contest with an anthropomorphised nature. Nansen described the crew of the Fram when frozen in the ice as "like tiny dwarfs in a struggle with Titans" - hardly the "demythologising" of the polar environment that Huntford claims. The network of geographical societies that emerged through the 19th century sustained this heroic language of exploration across national boundaries. Both Nansen and Scott were hailed as heroes throughout Europe and America. National differences coloured these representations, but the similarities were greater than Huntford allows.

Huntford's biography is unlikely to be surpassed as an account of Nansen's life, but an examination of the role of "the explorer as hero" requires a broader canvas than the lives of great men.

Max Jones is research fellow in British history, Peterhouse, Cambridge.

Nansen: The Explorer as Hero

Author - Roland Huntford
ISBN - 0 7156 40 6 and 2843 7
Publisher - Duckworth
Price - £25.00 and £14.95
Pages - 610

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