Concrete dreams

Issue 3/1986 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Marja-Liisa Vartio

Marja-Liisa Vartio. Photo: SKS archives

Pirkko Alhoniemi on Marja-Liisa Vartio’s works

Although it is now 20 years since the death of Marja-Liisa Vartio (1924-1966), her writing remains as vivid as ever. Her books are regarded as classics of modern Finnish prose, and they constantly attract new readers, as the demands for reprints testify. Vartio’s style has not lost its freshness, nor her social vision its edge, even in the teeth of the aggressive feminism of the 1980s.

It is a little difficult to gauge the secret of her continued popularity. Although the main character of her novels is always a woman, Vartio cannot really be seen as a champion of the feminine point of view. Most essential and at the same time paradoxical in her work is perhaps the fact that, from a purely Finnish starting point, she is able to give valuable insights into the general change in world view that followed the Second World War.

Part of Marja-Liisa Vartio’s childhood and education coincided with the war years. As a child from a broken home, she lived in turn with her mother and her father. The two country districts in which the young Marja-Liisa grew up have, coincidentally, significance in Finnish literary history: one is Aleksis Kivi’s Nurmijärvi, the other Joel Lehtonen’s Sääminki. As an adult she often felt herself to be as homeless and rootless as Lehtonen and Kivi, and the search for refuge is, indeed, one of the central themes of her work. Often she ponders what it means for a woman when she binds her life to a man. Marja-Liisa Vartio went up to Helsinki University; she was an able student, and gained her degree quickly. Nevertheless, she did not embark on a formal career, but during her first marriage, became a freelance writer. (She kept her first husband’s name, Vartio, as her nom-de-plume even after the marriage was dissolved.) The subjects studied at university were to prove important to her writing: art history, aesthetics, contemporary world literature and above all, folk poetry.

Marja-Liisa Vartio’s career as a writer spanned fifteen years in all: her first volume of poetry, Häät (The wedding), appeared in 1952, and her last novel, Hänen olivat linnut (‘Hers were birds’), was published posthumously in 1967, completed by the poet Paavo Haavikko, whom she had married in 1955.

Häät was followed by another volume of poetry, Seppele (‘The garland’), in 1953. The transition from poetry to prose was marked by Maan ja veden välillä (‘Between land and water’), which appeared in 1955.

It is possible to regard the miniature short stories of this first prose work as prose poems. From the very beginning her career, Vartio showed a strong awareness of tradition, which is apparent in strong presence in her work of Finnish folk poetry. At a time when poetry was going in the modernist direction represented abroad by T.S. Eliot other Anglo-Saxon writers, Vartio took her own road. Her feeling for folk poetry, however, did not make itself apparent in subject matter, but in form.

One of the central problems to which Vartio addresses herself again and again throughout her entire literary career is how renewal is possible without rejecting tradition. Perhaps the most angst-ridden of the characters of her poetic period is bride who, under the critical eyes of wedding guests, attempts to infuse into the wedding dance the ancient, obligatory, crystallised steps of the folk tradition. Vartio also examines the difficult union of sensuality and motherhood through the stories of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene as they appear in the Bible and in folk poetry.

The frontiers of Vartio’s mythical world are rolled back in the dreams of the Maan ja veden välillä collection, whose strong and colourful visual quality reflects their author’s training in art history. The longest and most important dream story in the book is ‘The Vatican’, which crystallises the writer’s central thoughts into images of which the later novels are variations and developments. How is it possible to leave behind the everyday tasks of the countrywoman, the laundry and the baking, and became a refined admirer of art treasures? How can a journey to Rome and the Vatican make sense to a woman whose roots are in the farmyard? This theme emerges most strongly in the novel Kaikki naiset näkevat unta (‘All women dream’), in which Vartio has her main character, middle­ aged and middle-class Mrs Pyy, on the one hand remembering her country childhood and on the other yearning for friendship with artists. In ‘The Vatican’ Vartio severely restricts the capacity of women to realise their true selves – the running crowd of women drags the individual helplessly along. Standing in front of the Pope’s throne, the story’s narrator, dressed in red, is the only one not to receive the Holy Father’s blessing or touch his hand. Nevertheless, she does not return home without receiving help. A cardinal who becomes her guide opens a book before her and points out the way home. The road is lined with flowers and heads of grain, which are familiar to the woman from her home village in Finland. She who rejects her own tradition and cultural background cannot receive the blessing of a strange Father: this is the interpretation Vartio’s symbolism demands.

The most lasting of Vartio’s novels appeared ten years apart: Se on sitten kevät (‘It’s spring, then’) was published in 1957 and the posthumous Hänen olivat linnut (‘Hers were the birds’) in 1967. It is a rural novel which, with its use of modern, partly French-influenced narrative techniques, breaks some of the traditional rules of description of Finnish people. Anna, who works as a paid servant in a farmhouse and has, all her life, wanted merely to have something of her very own, dies for the lack of love, when the man she loves becomes terrified for some reason and imagines non-existent things.

Vartio’s narrative style, rich in motifs is already highly concrete and symbolic in her first collection of short stories, but it is only in Hänen olivat linnut that the technique attains its full breadth and brilliance. Here Vartio places beneath the same roof two very different characters: a rather coarse country woman, Anna, and a retired postmistress, Adele. She was married for a short time to a somewhat eccentric clergyman, and when she was left a widow, she received as the most important item of her husband’s will a collection of stuffed birds. Vartio characterises people by drawing parallels between the central characters and the birds, and by making owls, grouse and swans stand for hopes, ideals and principles. Concrete objects, especially those left in the will, are fought over by Adele and her late husband’s sisters and represent the material world, whereas the birds are abstracted into religious and cultural symbols. Vartio’s characteristic debate about the significance of tradition is strongly apparent in this last novel, reminiscent in some ways of ‘The Vatican’. Alma, lacking a cultural tradition of her own, cannot look after the bird collection by herself, and when Adele dies, the clergyman’s legacy holds no interest for Antti, his only son and heir. Despite all its narrative splendour, this last novel is Vartio’s most pessimistic book; in its socio-historical analyses are prophetic signs of ruin.

Throughout Marja-Liisa Vartio’s work a fantasy that constantly invents new images and draws riches from the world of myth unites with a capacity to create broad structures. Her central perception is that the road of flowers and heads of grain of ‘The Vatican’ leads somewhere: only by being true to one’s own traditions can one attain universal significance. It is tragic that Vartio’s career was cut short in its magnificent prime.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins