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by Bamber Gascoigne

Nordahl Grieg (1902-1943)


Norwegian poet, novelist, dramatist, and journalist, a committed man of action. In the 1930s, Grieg was in his country among the foremost young dramatists. His theatrical techniques and stage effects showed the influence of Russian experimental theatre and film. During World War II Grieg's poetry gained a wide audience in the occupied Norway. Gried died in 1943 when his plane was shot down over Berlin. His distant relative was the famous composer Edvard Grieg.

"And far, far away from here justice has been incarcerated; its prison is called heaven, and thousands of black-frocked prison guards see to it that justice does not escape. Yes, God himself is in jail." (from The Defeat, 1937)

Nordahl Grieg was born in Bergen into a cultured family. His father, Peter Lexau Grieg, was a school principal and a teacher of music at a university. Grieg's mother, Helga Vollan, came from politically active family. Already at  Bergen Cathedral School, Grieg showed talent in writing. In a poetry competition in 1918, arranged by the student body council, he came in second, the winner was Helge Ingstad (1899-2001). Grieg was a sophomore, Ingstad a senior; he gained later fame as an explorer. When Grieg met him years later, he said to Ingstad, "It was you every thought was the great poet."

Following his father's footsteps, Grieg entered the University of Olso in 1920 to prepare himself for a career in education. Next year he intermitted his studies and went to sea. He worked as a sailor on the freighter Henrik Ibsen bound for Australia. In the summer of 1922 he walked through Europe, from Hamburg to Rome.

As a writer Grieg made his debut with Round the Cape of Good Hope, a collection of poems. With Nils Lie he published a detective novel, Bergenstoget plyndret i natt (1923, The Robbery on the Bergen Train), under the joint pseudonym Jonatan Jev. The book was filmed in 1928.  Between the years 1922 and 1925 he studied philology and wrote for Tidens Tegn and Oslo Aftenavis. In 1923-24 he studied at Wadham College, Oxford, where he joined the rowers on the Cherwell and produced an essay, 'Rudyard Kipling and the British Empire.' After graduating from the University of Oslo, Grieg continued his travels. He also worked as a journalist under the pseudonym Fortinbras. With the help of the Conrad Mohr travelling fellowship, he visited the Alps, Greece, and France. Grieg's "Greek Letters" were published in Oslo Aftenavis in 1926.

The Ship Sails On (1924) gained wide attention with its revealing picture of the lot of Norwegian sailors. Later the international Red Cross launched a campaign against the veneral disease problem in port cities. The English writer Malcolm Lowry (1909-1957), who also went young to sea, travelled to Norway in 1930 to meet Grieg. It has been noted that there are textual similarities between The Ship Sails On, which Lowry had discovered at the age of nineteen, and Lowry's debut novel Ultramarine from 1933 (Hallvard Dahlie, in 'Lowry's Debt to Nordahl Grieg,' Canadian Literature 64, Spring 1975, pp. 41-51). Moreover, Lowry may have given some of Grieg's personal traits to Hugh Firmin in the novel Under the Volcano

A Young Man's Love (1927), a melodrama which premiered in Bergen, was still conventional, but in the following plays Grieg began the modernization of Norwegian drama. In 1927, Grieg traveled in China as a newspaper correspondent to report about the civil war between the Kuomingtang and the Communists. "China has been violated, China continues to be abused, China has been right all along," he stated in Kinesiske dage (1927, Chinese Days). Grieg's second play, Barabbas (1927), an expressionistic avant-garde piece, reflected his experiences in the Orient. Grieg compared the pacifism of Jesus with violence of the rebellious reprobate. In the battle between passive resistance and revolution a young man is overpowered by the attraction of brutality.

Grieg became a kind of myth in England. Graham Greene compared in his memoir, Ways of Escape (1980), the author's arrival in 1931 down a muddy Gloucestershire lane to the appearance of three crowns on a gate. Greene had rented a cottage with his wife Vivien and Grieg came "to look him up," as he told. "The dreamlike atmosphere of his friendship remained: it was a matter of messages, warm and friendly and encouraging and critical, mostly in other people's letters. The only time I visited Norway he was away living in Leningrad, but the messages were there awaiting me. Nordahl Grieg, like a monarch, never lacked messengers." While staying in Oxford, he completed De unge döde (1932, The Young Dead), which portrayed six English poets, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Rupert Brooke, Charles Hamilton Sorley, and Wilfred Owen.

After spending two years (1933-35) in the Soviet Union – his addess was one time Room 313 in the Hotel Novo Moscowskaja – Grieg wrote three plays which showed his adoption of techniques learned from the Russian stage, especially from Vsevolod Meyerhold, and the films of Eisenstein. The title of Vår ære og vår mark (Our Power and Our Glory) came from a poem of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and referred ironically to the Norwegian shipping industry, which sent the sailors to their death in World War I. Before the Bergen première, the Theater board of directors declared the production as "the prototype of Russian propaganda theater." Grieg searched for his material from old newspapers and used real-life characters. Curiously, he confessed to the actress Gerd Egede Nissen that he could not have written the work without having first watched the Oscar-winning film Cavalcade (1933), a stylish screen version of Noël Coward's play.

Nederlaget (1937, The Defeat) had as its background the bloody events of the Franco-German war and the crushing of the Paris Commune of 1871. It was Grieg's most successful play and prompted Bertolt Brecht to write Die Tage der Commune (The Days of the Commune), performed in 1956. Grieg drew from observations and experiences as a war correspondent in Spain, where he witnessed the Civil War and the collapse of the Republican government. The revolutionaries lose because they are not brutal enough. Again Grieg uses two opposite personalities to illustrate conflicting ideologies. Varlin is an idealistic humanist, who wants to achieve victory "not through killing or dying, but through the creation of justice." Rigault believes in the necessity of terror. In his character Grieg bowed to the Stalinist policies and system of state terrorism, but his theme was that love and justice shall triumph.  An excerpt from Grieg's poem 'To Youth' is in a plaque on the island of Utøya in honor of party members who were killed in fighting against Franco's totalitarian ideology: "War is contempt for life; peace nurtures it. Use all your might; death will lose." 

The monthly journal Veien frem (The Road Ahead), which Grieg established in 1936, provided an important forum for antifascist debate, but it ceased publication after only two years. The journal contained contributions from such famous writers as Maxim Gorky, Aldous Huxley, André Malraux, Thomas Mann, and others.

Like a number of other writers, Grieg did not raise his voice against the crimes of the Soviet state. Because of ideological reasons, Grieg accepted the Moscow trials and defended them especially in his Stalinist novel May the World Stay Young (1938). In the story Ashley, an English philologist working in the Soviet Union, comes under the influence of Kira, a Communist girl, who firmly believes in party discipline. However, the Moscow trial reveal Ashley as a typical western European humanist, who is not able to act. Grieg himself confessed in a letter to Graham Greene that he was working in the strange bourgeois atmosphere of Moscow summer. "I am sure you will like to live in Moscow, there is such an enormous mass of people – a vast multitude of races, hopes and disappointments. And your hatred to nature can easily be satisfied here, here is no nature for many hundred miles, only something flat and stupid under an idiotical sky."

Following the German invasion of Norway, Grieg volunteered for active duty in 1940 – his subsequent adventures could have been invented by P.G. Wodehouse. Grieg was recruited in the army without uniform or weapon as a private soldier, but he managed to obtain a Krag rifle and some remnants of a uniform. By chance, he became a member of Fredrik Haslund's team, helping him to transport the nation's wealth from the Bank of Norway into the port city of Tromsø, the government's last stand on the national soil. Eventually the cargo, eighteen tons of gold, was loaded into the English cruiser Enterprise and Grieg accompanied the gold to London. Because the clerk from the Bank of England did not show up at the station, the bored Grieg left a plainclothes detective with the 547 cases on the platform, and took a taxi to the Charing Cross Hotel.

"...Grieg is primarily a lyricist and dramatist who eagerly attempted to unite life and poetry. He went out into the world, as a sailor, vagabond, and journalist to find the material for his writing rather than plumbing the human intellect and psyche." (Sven H. Rossel in A History of Scandinavian Literature 1870-1980, 1982)

Upon landing in England, Grieg served there Norway's government-in-exile and read his poems for the BBC/Norway Broadcasts. In 1940 he married Gerd Egede Nissen (1985-1988), an Ibsen actress. While staying in the United States he visited his friend, Professor Sverre Petterssen, in Boston. During this period he worked on a film script about Edvard Grieg.

Grieg was killed in Germany on December 2, 1943. He had joined in the capacity of an observer an Allied bombing mission and did not return from an attack on Berlin. His friend Sverre Petterssen had prepared the weather forecast involved in that mission. Grieg's body was buried by members of the Red Cross, but new bombing raids destroyed his grave. Greater Wars, a film script written in London in 1940-41, was found in 1989 and translated from English by Brikt Jensen. The story told of a meteorologist who worked in the northern outreaches of Norway. Grieg's poems written between 1940-43 were published by Helgafell in Iceland in a volume entitled Friheten (1943). Forbidden in Norway, the book was smuggled in the country in thousands of copies. Its most famous pieces include '17. Mai 1940:' "We fight for the right of breathing / Now, but a day shall be / When Norsemen shall breathe together, / The air of a land set free."

For further reading: Diktaren i bombeflyet: ein biografi om Nordahl Grieg by Gudmund Skjeldal (2012); Nordahl Grieg i våre hjerter, edited by Inger Hansen, Thorleif Skjævesland, Knud Sørensen (2002); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Til ungdommen. Nordahl Griegs liv by Edvard Hoem (1989); Nordahl Grieg under krigen by Martin Nag (1985); A History of Scandinavian Literature 1870-1980 by Sven H. Rossel (1982); 'The Literature of Resistance' by J. Mawby in Writers and Politics in Modern Scandinavia (1978); 'Lowry's Debt to Nordahl Grieg' by H. Dahlie, in Canadian Literature, 64 (1975); 'Introduction' by Harald S. Naess to Our Power and Our Glory, in Five Modern Scandinavian Plays (1971); Nordahl Grieg by F. Juel-Haslund (1962); Nordahl, min brud by H. Grieg (1956); Nordahl Grieg by J. Mjøberg (1947); Nordahl Grieg og Tidens Drama by H.M. Engberg (1946); Nordahl Grieg by J. Borgen (1945); 'Between Curtains' by K. Barrett, in Theatre Annual, 22 (1938) 

Selected works:

  • Rundt Kap det Gode Haab: vers fra sjøen, 1922
    - Around the Cape of Good Hope: Poems of the Sea (translated by Lars Egede-Nissen, 1979)
  • Bergenstoget plyndret i natt, 1923 (by Jonathan Jerv; a joint pseudonym of Nordahl Grieg and Nils Lie)
    - film 1928, dir. by Uwe Jens Krafft, prod. by Magdalon Mowinckel, starring Aud Egede-Nissen and Paul Richter
  • Skibet gaar videre, 1924
    - The Ship Sails On (translated by A. G. Chater, 1927)
    - Laiva kulkee eteenpäin: romaani (suom. Eino Tikkanen, 1926)
  • Stene i strømmen, 1925
  • Kinesiske dage, 1927 (essays; Days in China)
  • En ung mands kjælighet, 1927 (play; A Young Man's Love)
  • Barabbas, 1927 (play)
    - TV drama 1967, dir. Kalle Holmberg, starring Veikko Uusimäki, Eila Rinne, Turo Unho, Aila Arajuuri, Pekka Autiovuori, Matti Ruohola, Jotaarkka Pennanen, Pekka Laiho, Lars Svedberg
  • Norge i våre hjerter, 1929
  • Nordahl Grieg, Herman Wildenvey, Tore Örjasaeter, Arnulf Överland: Dikter, 1930
  • Atlanterhavet, 1932 (play; The Atlantic)
  • De unge døde, 1932 (essays; The Young Dead)
  • Vår ære og vår mark, 1935 (play)
    - Our Power and Our Glory (in Five Modern Scandinavian Plays, 1971)
  • Men imorgen, 1936 (play; But Tomorrow)
  • Spansk sommer, 1938
  • Ung må verden ennu være, 1938 (May the World Stay Young)
  • Nederlaget, 1937 (play)
    - The Defeat: A Play about the Paris Commune (in Scandinavian Plays of the Twentieth Century: Second Series, Nordahl Grieg, Helge Krog, Kaj Munk, Kjeld Abell, 1944; in Masterpieces of the Modern Scandinavian Theatre, ed. Robert W. Corrigan, 1967)
    - TV film 1966, dir. Per Bronken, starring Monna Tandberg, Roy Bjørnstad, Bab Christensen Egil Hjorth-Jenssen, Jon Eikemo
  • Friheten, 1943
    - All that is Mine Demand: War Poems of Nordahl Grieg (translated by G. M. Gathorne-Hardy, 1944)
  • Dikt i utvalg, 1944
  • Flagget, 1945
  • Håbet, 1946
  • Samlede verker, 1947 (7 vols.)
  • Samlede dikt, 1948
  • Langveisfra, 1964
  • Morgen over Finnmarksvidden, 1967
  • Five Modern Scandinavian Plays: Carl Erik Soya, Walentin Chorell, Davið Stefánsson, Nordahl Grieg, Pär Lagerkvist, 1971
  • Norge, og andre dikt , 1976
  • Et varig vennskap: 46 brev fra Nordahl Grieg til Nils Lie, 1928-43, 1981 (edited by Brinkt Jensen)
  • Reise gjennom vår egen tid, 1982 (edited by Martin Nag og Finn Pettersen)
  • Større kriger; Edvard Grieg: utkast til to filmmanuskripter skrevet i London 1940-41 og gjenfunnet i Oslo 1989, 1990 (translated by Brikt Jensen)
  • Samlede dikt, 2011

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