Encounters with the real

Issue 3/1987 | Archives online, Authors

Kirsti Simonsuuri. Photo: Pertti Nisonen / Tammi

Kirsti Simonsuuri. Photo: Pertti Nisonen / Tammi

When one mentions Kirsti Simonsuuri to literary people in Finland, one is likely to get the response, ‘Ah, yes, very interesting, of course, but you know she’s not really a Finnish writer. Her themes are more international, more intellectual, more European.’

Looking at her career, one can see why she has acquired such a reputation. While she took her MA degree in English and Classical Studies from the University of Helsinki in 1971, since then she has spent most of her productive literary years outside Finland, studying for the PhD which she received from the University of Cambridge, England in 1977 and doing additional research in Paris, London, Strasbourg, and Bonn. More recently, in addition to teaching at the Universities of Oulu and Turku in Finland, she has held positions as Visiting Scholar at Harvard University, at the University of California, Los Angeles, and at Columbia University in New York, where she has taught a course on Finnish literature in the European context.

Simonsuuri’s reputation as a scholar and an intellectual is enhanced by the impressive number of essays she has published on literary, philosophical, and cultural themes, and she herself would surely not reject the appellation ‘European writer’. As the title of one of her recent newspaper essays puts it: ‘I am a citizen of Europe.’

Her most recent novel, Paholaispoika (‘The devil boy’, 1986), seems at first glance to fit this view of Simonsuuri as an intellectual author, more European than specifically Finnish. In its pages there are no loving, realistic descriptions of the Finnish landscape, no dramatisations of episodes from Finland’s history, no characters who could have sprung only from a particular district or social class. Rather, the setting is Paris of the late 1930s and early 40s, but the mind of the narrator easily moves backward and forward in time, and the Paris he describes is more a landscape existing in his own consciousness than a real city.

The central character is Charles Bell, an Oxford student who has a somewhat mysterious friend named John and whose life has been irrevocably changed by a few brief meetings with Simone Weil (1909–1943), the French essayist and philosopher. Weil’s role in the novel is significant and believable, for she indeed inspired many, not only by her writings but also by demonstrating her love for the downtrodden through hard physical labour in factory and field. Yet this is a work of fiction, and Simonsuuri’s focus is less on Weil herself than on what Charles thinks and feels about her. In a climactic scene, Weil appears to Charles, smiles, converses with him, and ultimately rejects his attempt to draw closer to her. When he tries to get her to acknowledge a deep rapport between them, she replies: ‘I still think differently about everything.’ By this time, the reader may not remember that the whole scene may well be taking place in Charles’s imagination, that he has ‘conjured up’ Weil’s image before him.

This brief episode reveals much about Simonsuuri’s method and focus. While myth, art, historical events and actual personages may serve as starting points for her, and her characters often indulge in philosophical speculation, the author’s emphasis, it seems to me, is on emotion. By shifting focus from the outward events themselves to the narrator’s consciousness of the events, and by rendering these at times in a surreal, dreamlike manner, Simonsuuri has managed to bring us back to a central truth about the role of art, ideas, and even of historical events, in our lives. All these, as well as the people we meet, constantly invite interpretation and evoke an emotional response, a response which very much depends upon our own subjective view.

Thus in this novel it is not Simone Weil the historical figure who appears before us; it is the Simone who is grasped by Charles’s imagination and who becomes an object of his feelings. Likewise, Charles sees his friend John at one time as an infuriating schemer who insists on cutting him out of his life and who is apparently insensitive, unaware that he has driven Charles into a hallucinatory attack; yet later Charles realises that John’s secretiveness was not directed against him but was necessitated by his role in the French resistance movement. Throughout the novel, we come across this theme of the difficulty of knowing another person, of trying to grasp his or her reality.

The book’s emphasis on emotion can also be found in its style, with an effective variety of prose rhythms in a succession of brief, episodic passages that resemble prose poems. Some passages are composed of short, declarative sentences which, taken together, have an almost incantatory effect, while others suddenly burst into florid, surreal images, the phrases tumbling one after the other as emotion breaks through the intellectual control and threatens to overwhelm the character.

While all this may not seem specifically Finnish, I think certain parallels are worth remembering. Two Finnish authors, different from Simonsuuri in many respects, do come to mind when one is reading Paholaispoika. Marja­-Liisa Vartio, whose dreamlike yet very concrete short story, Vatikaani (‘The Vatican’), also has an imagination which breaks the bonds of conventional realism to convey its own disturbing vision of reality, and several of her prose poems impart a similar vision. Juha Mannerkorpi, in his novel Sudenkorento (‘The dragonfly’), presents a surreal narrative which is given coherence by the subjective vision of the narrator, whose mind takes flight and transforms the ordinary objects of daily life into a swirl of now humorous, now terrifying images.

In Paholaispoika, Simonsuuri has not put forth an abstract statement but has taken us on a night journey inside the heart and spirit of her characters. As one of the characters in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo expressed it, ‘all this is life, must be life, since it is so much like a dream.’

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