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Nordahl Grieg (1902-1943)


Norwegian poet, novelist, dramatist, and journalist. 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 was a school principal and a teacher of music at a university. Grieg's mother came from politically active family. 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 a freighter bound for Australia. In 1922 he traveled through Europe.

As a writer Grieg made his debut with Round the Cape of Good Hope, a collection of poems. 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. After graduating from the University of Olso, Grieg continued his travels. 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.

In 1927 Grieg traveled in China as a newspaper correspondent to report about the civil war between the Kuomingtang and the Communists. His first play, A Young Man's Love, was produced in Bergen. It was followed by Barabbas (1927), an expressionistic avant-garde piece, which 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.

The English writer Malcolm Lowry (1909-1957), who also went young to sea, travelled to Norway in 1930 to meet Grieg. In England Grieg become a kind of myth. Graham Greene compared in his book of 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."

In 1936 Grieg established the magazine Veien Frem, which became an important forum for antifascist debate. 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 and film. The title of Our Honor and 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.

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 inspired Bertolt Brecht's The Days of the Commune. 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.

Because of ideological reasons Grief accepted the Moscow trials and defended them especially in his 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, but his adventures could have been invented by Jaroslav Hasek. Grieg was recruited in the army without uniform or weapon as a private soldier. In the mountains he met a patrol that carried in sacks gold from the Bank of Norway. In Narvik the gold was moved into an English destroyer and Grieg followed its journey  it was to be delivered to the Bank of England. At a station much later the clerk from the bank did not show up, and Grieg became bored, left a plainclothes detective with the gold 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)

Grieg served in Norway's government-in-exile and made patriotic radio programs in England. In 1940 he married Gerd Egede-Nissen, 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. 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 war poems were collected in a volume entitled Friheten (1943). His most famous patriotic poems include '17. Mai 1940,' Godt år for Norge,' and 'På Tingvellir.'

For further reading: 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); Introd. to Grieg by H.S. Naess 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)
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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 
  • Dikt i utvalg, 1944
  • All that is Mine Demand: War Poems of Nordahl Grieg, 1944 (translated by G. M. Gathorne-Hardy)
  • 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)

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