Ethics and the individual

Issue 1/1984 | Archives online, Authors, Interviews

Walentin Chorell

Walentin Chorell. Photo: SLS

Over one hundred stage and radio plays, twenty six novels, poetry – the extent of Walentin Chorell’s work, from the early 1940s to his death last November was huge. The Finland-Swedish writer was by profession a teacher of psychology; his writing sprang from a real need to analyze the psychological drama of human life, to study other people – and at the same time himself – through the medium of literature.

His last television play, Hyena, is to be shown in Finland this summer, and his last radio play, Utopia, is to be broadcast in the spring. Many of his radio plays have been translated into the other Nordic languages, and his works have been performed and published in more than twenty countries.

The 71-year old writer was interviewed by Glyn Jones in Helsinki two months before his death.

‘I would say that writing for radio is what gives me most satisfaction, for there no limits are placed on your imagination. There are no limits in either time or space. On the radio you can have one scene portraying your main character as a child, and in the next as an adult; you can quickly follow that main character from childhood to adulthood, and your listeners will believe in it. As for space, you can set one scene in Paris – and indicate this by making a hotel porter call out the number of a room in French – and the following one can be set in Stockholm or Helsinki, and you can do it so convincingly that your listeners will believe in it.’

It is not only in radio that Walentin Chorell has made use of the rapid transition. A stage play written in 1959, Gräset (‘Grass’) shows, in brief scenes, the first meeting between the two principal characters, Judith and Simeon, their second meeting outside a butcher’s shop, a train journey in which time and distance are indicated by a series of sharply focussed events, and a meeting with Simeon’s mother. A secondary series of time changes is indicated in conversations which gradually throw light on the fateful events of the past, as it is gradually revealed that the two lovers are in fact brother and sister; the audience has been aware of this from a fairly early stage, and the dramatic irony is heightened by the continuing ignorance of the couple and by the mother’s realization of the truth.

Gräset has been called an anti-war play, a drama highlighting the continuing tragic effects of war; this is a possible interpretation, though it is not the most immediately obvious one. It is rather a play inspired by the age-old theme of unsuspecting love between siblings, who are unaware of their relationship, and it may well even be traced back to the Kullervo episode in the Kalevala. Behind the action there is an intense awareness of the tragic futility of war, but in general Chorell’s line is the one he pursues in many of his works, both dramas and novels; this is an individual tragedy, and the problems of the individual are seen in an ethical context. This is also the case with Det finska terummet (‘The Finnish Tearoom’),one of his last plays first performed, in Finnish, last September. There the action concerns a young idealist obsessed with the thought of starving children in under­developed countries. He tries to convince a group of cleaners in an office block that they should share his view, but each of these women has her own, mainly domestic problems. This play can be seen, and indeed has been seen, as a plea for those starving millions. But at the same time the problems of these women are equally pressing, their own immediate problems, and thus Chorell, rather than embarking on a crusade, creates an intensely dramatic situation by arranging a confrontation between two irreconcilable sets of problems; both are real, and the irony is that while the women can understand the greater moral problem, the young idealist cannot see the reality of their worries.

This kind of confrontation occurs elsewhere in Chorell’s work, sometimes with a background of general ethical questions, sometimes founded rather on personal ethics: in a trilogy written between 1978 and 1981 portraying an obsessive young writer and his inevitably difficult relationship with his devoted but uncomprehending wife, he produces an intense and dramatic story in which the portrayal of an idiosyncratic personality is weighed against the ethical implications of his actions.

As one of the fundamentals in his work, Chorell refers to a religious awareness: ‘My life has been marked by a longing for real faith. I inherited this from my mother’s side of the family, where everyone was deeply committed to religion. My grandmother and uncle were pentecostalists, and my mother was deeply religious in her later years,’ says Chorell; one of the fundamentals of his work is a religious awareness, though he insists that only two of his early works can be called directly religious. Does a preoccupation with ethics replace a direct awareness of religion in Chorell’s work? His own comment on this is slightly reticent: ‘If this has happened, it has never been conscious on my part, but is rather conditioned by the personality types I have tried to portray.’

Ethical questions lead easily to social questions, an ethical awareness to a social awareness. Yet there is no social message in his books, no attempt to portray one level of society as being superior to the other, no attempt to reform. Social differences often take the form of a cultural gap. Is the social problem reduced to a problem of personality? Chorell comments as follows on this suggestion:

‘My reply would be that I come from a very modest background; neither my mother nor my father had been to school, but I was sent to a “posh” school, with rich children of well-known parents. And, without realizing it, I must have felt the social pressures there. My language was different, and I could not talk of events at home in the same way as my school friends. So it is probably this that has produced these different categories.’

Chorell’s tolerant understanding of different social classes and his ability to portray events through the eyes of representatives of more than one of them is evident in his writing. The ability, indeed even the need, to see the action through the eyes of more than one of the characters becomes of central importance to the novel’s structure; the reader experiences relationships first through one and then through the other of the main characters, and the understanding both is made deeper by this process. In Kvarteret Barmhärtigheten (‘The district called mercy’, 1982), the technique is extended to show the way in which a six-year old boy experiences a chain of events, and how he then interprets them as a grown man – though it is never made entirely clear whether his conclusions are the correct ones. Chorell made use of a similar method at a much earlier stage, in a short novel entitled Intim journal (‘Intimate diary’, 1951), dealing with the relationship between Martin and his sister, Marta, who is eighteen years his senior. The principal narrator is Martin, now 25 years old and obviously mentally unstable, who spends much of his time explaining his hatred of Marta and planning death. Subsequently, she takes up the narrative, describing to Martin’s former girlfriend (who has broken with him on discovering a perverted relationship between the siblings), how he has tried to murder her and committed suicide. It sounds like sober and reliable account, a contrast to the brother’s version, until, at very end, Marta adds a few sentence which seem to indicate that she is as unbalanced as the brother, thus leaving the reader wondering where the truth lies.

Has Chorell been aware of any antecedents in his characteristic writing techniques? ‘I can honestly say that I have never consciously allowed myself to be influenced by others, and I am sure that nothing I have written can be traced back to anyone before me. But obviously, I have read a great deal, and I know that one can be influenced unconsciously. If I think prose works, the authors whom I have experienced particularly intensely were first and foremost Dostojevsky – especially Crime and Punishment and then Steinbeck’s short novels such as Of Mice and Men, together with a little book I shall never forget, the story of Mouchette by Georges Bernanos. As for my plays, it is clear that I have read everything Strindberg wrote, and it is possible one might find influences – I don’t know. Another dramatist for whom I have long had a high regard is Tennessee Williams, not least because many of his plays portray characters who are sick, weak, somehow or other at the mercy of one dominant trait in their characters – in just the same way as I myself have drawn many who are marked either by some negative quality which makes communication with the surrounding world very difficult, or else something positive which has been the source of inspiration to that individual, or given him the strength to overcome his difficulties.’

This is probably a question of affinity rather than of influence. What does emerge from this list is what emerges from Chorell’s work as a whole – a preoccupation with the predicament of the individual faced with individual problems in an ethical context.

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