Interview with Kerttu-Kaarina Suosalmi
In these days of seminars, conferences, discussions and panels, Kerttu-Kaarina Suosalmi is in constant demand as a fluent and lively speaker on a variety of subjects. Whether the occasion is a gathering of young theologians, a pacifist rally on Independence Day, or a seminar for young Marxists, what she has to say is always both shrewd and stimulating. Her manner of speaking suggests not so much a radio announcer as a force of nature. Not that Kerttu-Kaarina Suosalmi is ‘a writer with a message’ in the accepted sense. She does not indulge in polemics; her novels are neither documentary nor autobiographical, but pure works of the imagination. Critics speak of her recent books as artistic triumphs. Nevertheless, the relevance of her work to present-day conditions and problems is strongly felt by the reading public. It is rare for such an abundance and variety of material to be combined with such qualities as spontaneity of form and excellence of expression. Suosalmi’s first book appeared as long ago as 1948, a collection of poems entitled Melanmitta (‘A stroke of the paddle’). Her early works in prose, Synti (‘The sin’, 1957), a collection of short stories, and the novel Neitsyt (‘The virgin’, 1964) were tightly constructed, ‘well-made’ works in the accepted Finnish tradition. A more personal style of writing made its appearance with Hyvin toimeentulevat ihmiset (‘These affluent people’, 1969). In this novel, constructionally speaking, Suosalmi breaks new ground: there is no consecutive plot, the book being built up of sections written from the points of view of the various ‘affluent people’ of the title, the thematic unity becoming evident only in the context of the entire novel.
At a time when popular taste in fiction is reverting to the historical novel or the novel with a remote regional setting, Suosalmi has stuck to her own chosen milieu, the Finnish provincial town. She describes the disintegrating world of the middle class, the world in which what matters is possessions. The reality she describes is close-up, non-picturesque: the cheerless residential estates, the summer-villa slums. But all this is merely the background for the presentation of her real subject, the inner development of her characters. Their crises arise out of today’s realities: the search for status in terms of living-standards, the impotence and apathy of society, the manipulation by the media of man’s image of himself, the increasing pull of irrational solutions. In the background, too, there is always a damaged childhood, a warping of vital human relationships, often also an incomplete acceptance of human limitations, a failure to look mortality squarely in the face.
In Jeesuksen pieni soturi (‘Jesus’ little soldier’, 1976), Suosalmi’s finest book to date, her prose enters a new phase, taking on a grotesque and visionary character. Although the actual narrative is still set down entirely objectively, the wild monologues of the characters, their dreams and fantastic anecdotes, introduce a surrealistic element which colours the whole novel: meanwhile, on another level, the setting invades the reader’s consciousness, speaking a subtle language of its own. Suosalmi’s latest work, Rakas rouva K (‘Dear Mrs K.’, 1979), consists of two longish stories. The central character in the first of these, ‘1939’, is a newspaper editor, a keen student of the history of warfare, who watches the world sliding towards catastrophe as his own personal life takes a similar course. The extract translated here is taken from the opening pages of this story, the first paragraph being a condensation of a longer passage.
Kerttu-Kaarina Suosalmi in conversation with Auli Viikari
AV You once denied being in any sense a historical novelist. “The whole of time,” you said, “is contained in the individual himself.” And yet your novels do deal, in an analytical way, with time outside the individual, the temporal setting. Looking back, one can see that These Affluent People, for example, is a very accurate analysis of how the educated classes in Finland were thinking and feeling in the 1960s.
KKS I have always gone in for reading history. But when I am writing I need to fasten on to actual experience, and that’s why I prefer to see myself as a realist. Dear Mrs K. brings in events that happened in 1939, but it’s not about those events, it’s about experience. Yes, I would certainly call myself a realist. It’s difficult to define. Let me give you a crude example. Take the local setting: in my books it’s the town of Lahti. I know it inside out. When you really know a town – the whole layout, the whole map of the place – it gives you something to hold on to. For instance, in These Affluent People, Veijo teaches in a school which in actual fact is on the outskirts of the town. But this Vietnam demonstration turns out to be a very important factor in its effect on Veijo’s thinking, and in this scene – I can’t explain this, but the school overlooks the main square. When Veijo looks out, the square and his pupils are out there. And another thing, it’s spring, there is floating ice out there on the lake – one aspect of Veijo’s life is bound up with the spring and the element of water. I mean, from the point of view of his inner life there is this triad that’s important: the square, the school and the lake.
AV You mean that since you know the Lahti background so well you’re not afraid to take liberties with it?
KKS One can mould it to one’s own purpose, and yet without doing violence to it. Everything is in its proper place, in spite of these shifts. That’s what I mean by my kind of realism: the material is there, it’s been experienced, so one can work with it.
AV What about Jesus’ Little Soldier? There’s nothing unrealistic about the material, and yet the pattern, the total design reminds one somehow of a surrealistic painting. I think you do actually make a reference to Magritte at one point in the book.
KKS If that’s the reader’s reaction, that’s all to the good. To me the important stage, the difficult stage, is when the idea is beginning to take shape, to gel. That’s the stage when I don’t want to put anything on paper, to make notes even. I’m afraid it’ll tie me down. I want to get the structure to clarify itself in my head, just by letting my thoughts flow freely, without any kind of programme. I force things to stay in my memory: then I can vary them, listen to them and ask myself, is this the right place? You see, I have this damnable tendency to do just the opposite: to start constructing the thing systematically, step by step. This constant temptation to link things up too quickly, to start working out causes and effects. But it’s better for causes and effects to stay below the surface, while the events form a free pattern across the top.
AV Fascinating! Here you are, a logician, a compulsive systematizer, a bit of a theologian even, and yet you find your craving for logic and clarity a limitation, a drawback, something that has to be fought.
KKS It has to be fought because it’s fatal, it kills. I don’t deny that there needs to be some kind of logical basis somewhere deep down, underlying the whole thing, but it must never be allowed to get the upper hand. So often, when you’re writing a passage and you start consciously trying to ‘say something’, it doesn’t come off. You try again, a second time, a tenth time, you vary it, you exert yourself to produce a fine piece of writing, and still it doesn’t come off. And then one day you wash your hands of the whole thing, put it out of your mind and say to hell with it – and just let yourself write. And you find that once you’ve given up trying to follow a line that you’ve laid down for yourself, things start to go much better. I dare say that’s why I go in for this alternation between flashbacks and consecutive narrative, there’s a kind of balance between the two, a rhythm that comes from somewhere as deep down as the material itself.
AV You seem to bring in such a mass of material, what with dreams, stories, memories and so on, packing in as much as the text will hold. Don’t you ever feel that this is over-generous, perhaps even a waste of good material you could use elsewhere?
KKS One thing I have noticed is that each work makes its own demands as to what is relevant and what is not. Inevitably material presents itself that could well have been developed for its own sake. I used to regret this, but now I think, well, you never know, one of these tiny episodes, a passing reference even, may one day take fire and start developing, and then it can be used. It will gather the extra material itself, without waiting to be asked.
AV Do you ever find this wealth of material a nuisance?
KKS It’s not a nuisance to me. In the Tuonela scene of Jesus’ Little Soldier I needed a lot of images to illustrate the way people live out their deaths during their lives – the parson’s wife with her doll, the woman whose house-plants grumble aloud, the pious madwoman’s mother who buys herself a coffin – these have all got a certain basis in fact.
AV Yes in that Tuonela scene one can see the different ways in which peoples objectify death. The objectification of reality, that’s what the whole book’s about really, isn’t it?.
KKS Yes, and that’s the kind of consideration that governs the choice of material. Even though it is reason that does the organizing, I also depend very much on the unconscious to bring things up just at the moment when they are needed. When the balance is right between the reasoning faculty and the unconscious, that’s when the writing goes best.
The long monologue
AV Actually you show the same process going on in some of your characters, opening up channels through which they can draw upon some forgotten part of their total experience. In Jesus’ Little Soldier you introduce a new variation of this flashback technique – the long monologue.
KKS It seemed necessary because of the theme. I wanted to map out an area, a world in which people talk a great deal and tell a lot of lies in the process – the world of business, of conversations across saloon-bar tables: what is it that’s really going on? I’ve listened to people talking: what a torrent of hopes, disappointments, dreams and absurdities people are constantly spewing at each other – teachers, lawyers, labourers, master builders, everybody. But this talk is only the top layer: underneath lies all the human despair, the greed, the egoism. You can’t just water all this down by giving a straight narrative, the situation was such and such, they did this, they said that, they had a quarrel. I wanted these long speeches slap up against each other: they are fighting for domination, these people, and it’s by talk that they go about achieving it, hoping to disarm the other fellow, knock him flat, remove his sting. I found the long monologue was the only way to bring out this pattern of domination and submission, in the world I was writing about.
AV Somehow these long, intense speeches, pull the reader right inside the book, force him into the position of a silent listener. He feels they are directed at him too.
KKS Certainly that’s what I would like to happen. In Jesus’ Little Soldier I saw things very much from Elisa’s point of view, experienced her feelings. The sense of constriction, of being caged, it all grows out of those domineering speeches, which she’s powerless to demolish. But there is this latent dynamism in her, as there is in Antti in The Boat Trip – this is the thing that I personally find so important. The way this kind of utterly unobtrusive person can become aware of the life around her – or him – and this awareness can create the need for action, maybe quite a simple action, like the actual boat trip or, in Jesus’ Little Soldier, the act of leaving home. But it’s decisive for the character concerned, it’s a proof of his value as a person: by doing it he becomes conscious of his own identity. Everybody needs to experience this moment of vision. At such a moment, when a person realizes the limitations of his biological existence, he needs, as a counterpoise, to realize the power of the self within him. But what strikes me more and more forcibly these days, is the way human beings, thinking and feeling creatures, spend their time manipulating each other. The field of the spirit is being superficialized, one is no longer given time to acquire real knowledge, to anchor oneself securely in the depths. The result is that the human personality suffers a loss of density, becomes less substantial: and the collective tragedy of mankind is increased.
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About the writer
Auli Viikari (b. 1937) is a literary scholar and Professor Emerita of Finnish Literature at the University of Helsinki. Her speciality is Finnish modernism, particularly poetry. Her PhD thesis was also on that topic.
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