A respectable tragedy

Issue 2/1988 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from the novel Säädyllinen murhenäytelmä (‘A respectable tragedy’, 1941). Introduction by Kaija Valkonen. The central theme of the novel is love: young, old, passionate, innocent, proper, improper. The main characters are a middle-aged couple, the doctor and his wife Elisabet, his sister Naimi and the love of her youth, Artur. Hämäläinen’s fine irony, careful and thoughtful psychology and colourful language have made the novel a bestseller. Naimi, an aesthete and an uncompromising character, has left her husband Artur twenty years ago because of his infidelity. But slowly she begins to forgive: this tragic but compassionately told love story, not without tragicomedy and humour, ends in reconciliation

Embalmed passion

In that new Helsinki of the ‘thirties, which had opened like a garden flower, gaily coloured, sunlit, practical and impractical, in love with every novelty of the moment, which it thought astonishing, lived Naimi Saarinen, back from her exile, where she had been driven by wounded passion twenty years before.

The house she lived in sported a doorbell-and-telephone arrangement, fixed to the outside-door jamb, though few of the residents used it to inform themselves, before opening the door, who was seeking admission. This doorbell system was all the rage for these new houses, supposedly a wonderful addition to the peace and security of the inhabitants; at least that is what the developer who had thought it up said, and everyone had latched on to it as eagerly as if it were a new toy. The residents (apart from Naimi Saarinen) had, however, scarcely ever taken advantage of the gadget’s benefits, and it had turned out to be a nuisance, for little boys had taken to running their fingertips over all the buttons, as if they were piano keys – a drawback the developers had not taken into account, in their aspiration to preserve the residents’ valuable peace and quiet.

Entrance A opened onto a glossy cornflower-blue hallway whose surprise feature was two slender silver-painted pillars. At its round end was the lift, which went up and clown a glass and nickel shaft and had bone-yellow sides: the architect had hit upon this colour in experimenting with casein, a type of paint derived from milk. The ceiling of the lift was sky-blue, like the floor; and the bone-yellow and the nickel and the sky-blue flashed and shimmered; but the little boys, who were to be found in every house, even in New Helsinki – although they were not welcomed there – had discovered that a bone-yellow lift panel was a really excellent writing surface, and the lift had lost some of its shine under their scratchings. Ten years later it was to approach ruination.

The children were not popular in these houses. They were children of the same twentieth-century that was somewhat hastily – this was just its beginning, remember: six decades were left, to be formed by different mortals – being called the Century of the Child, the century of child welfare.

‘The era of humanity’s over,’ as the doctor used to say. ‘Up to 1914 we were still living on capital – the scraps of the previous great humane period. Four more years, and our century had revealed its bestiality, leaving us with a protracted hangover, dragging on till 1930. After which, time marched under other ideals. From then on humaneness was reactionary. This is the Century of the Child, all right – but not the way we thought, not in a humane sense: the Child in question is the one the nation needs for permanent war, the child that’s become a man – the boychild the state can use to realise the new world’s ideals and ideology. But the nicely bred, select-few children are just as robust as the ruck, and just as ruinous.’

The lift with its bone-yellow and nickel, and sky-blue floor and ceiling, went up six floors. At the top, behind a smooth oak-varnished door, with no handle, and a letter slot so near the floor the postman almost had to kneel to it – handlelessness and the floor-level postbox had been the pride and joy of a certain Builders’ Conference and the show-pieces of the latest novelty house-fixtures – here, behind the stout smooth oak-varnished door, lived Naimi Saarinen.

This was the flat: a light-blue vestibule, big enough to accommodate two people standing; a nickel coat rack; a narrow doorless archway leading to a pink silence and sunshine, and a lustre and dazzle of windowpanes; a second arch leading to a green, eye-caressingly grey-green room, noticeably smaller and coolly shady. The sun penetrated here, after the house opposite had been built, as a mere reflection from the other house’s windows, a silvery refulgence empty of warmth. Every afternoon at the same time two rectangles appeared on the wall, slowly moved past the bookshelf to the table and extinguished themselves before they reached the grand piano; the piano lay in its blackness, lid-up and gaping like a clam, dominating the greater part of that section of the world formed by these four green walls, a world otherwise noisy, ugly, and intractable but, in this restricted area, quiet, refined, spiritually exalted and full of a meticulous peace.

In this pink and green sun-and-silence-charged box there was no smallest object that had not pampered the owner’s senses. The space between the green-painted walls sufficed for the motions of the resident’s spiritual life and the objects essential to her intellectual existence: the grand piano, whose open lid was even now, in the evening twilight, filling the room like a rigidified black wing, a black-lacquered escritoire and a similar chair, bookshelves lining the walls, and heaps of books and music on the floor.

In the shadow of the grand piano’s rigid wooden black wing stood Naimi Saarinen. She was a slender, elongated being. Her long slim yellow fingers were handling her music, her yellowish, lined face was framed by silver­-grey hair that ten years ago had still swung round her large head like a wild, heavy, black scarf. It was even now thick enough to make her head seem wrapped in a silver bundle – that head always slightly tilted towards the left shoulder, so that the whole black slender body seemed askew.

Her eyes, with their broad yellow lids, were a bright indefinite mixture of grey and brown. Just now these eyes were fixed on two rather good copper engravings, in which an unknown eighteenth-century artist had portrayed some peasant women at their chores, and a roguish demon. Opposite was a small genre painting, showing a heap of fruit with a fan-shaped glass – the type de rigueur for the seventeenth-century Dutch – rising from the pile of fruit, stretching from one side of the canvas to the other.

There was also a typical ‘lemon portrait’ of the period: among the grapes, chestnuts and apples a lemon was cut to make the bright juice ooze through the greenishly transparent flesh. The painter had so luxuriated in painting the lemon peel’s lustre and the tiny pimples on its yellowish-green surface that one’s fingertips were tempted to feel the corrugations. From under her lowered yellow lids, Naimi let her eyes rest on it for a moment.

She had inherited the pictures from her home, the judge’s house. They had rejoiced her heart, as had that little illustration of fresh-red, forest-­redolent wild strawberries with dark-brown translucent ants creeping over them; or that masterly petal-painting of various fine flowers on which a swarm of dry-looking butterflies had settled. Those artists had been her soulmates in their love of beautiful little things and depiction of them with a patience and delight that went to the heart like a cordial. She rejoiced in their art, whose foundation she knew to be patience and deep study – making these works almost sacred. She had hung them on the wall with her own slender yellow hands, and part of her life ever after had been devoted to the evening moments in the shadow of the grand piano’s varnished wing when the light was best on the drops of lemon juice and the yellowish­ green peel and the strawberries with their creeping translucent ants.

In a square of pink-painted wall hung the two Finnish artists who had been dearest to her in her youth. She had four of Järnefelt’s pocket-hand­kerchief-sized scraps of canvas depicting sedgefields and grassy path-­skirted shores. She had paid three or four thousand marks apiece for them, and she adored those silent lands where the grass-tips rose dry, greenish and reddish, and where the path was dry, trodden clay – those familiar lived-in Finnish landscapes.

Her other Finnish passion in youth had been Simberg, two of whose drawings she had. Her eye often dilated as it rested on them, her mouth – her delicately ironical and stringent, intellectual person’s mouth – drawing into a smile at the thought that the artist had succeeded in his student years. She had made a spring journey to Stockholm one May with no obvious end in view; to her friends she had said she was going because Stockholm was so beautiful in May with its huge silvicultural trees and Strömmen River, but in reality she knew within herself that she was only going to look at Simberg’s ‘Strange Flower’ in the National Museum. That painting had succeeded in bringing a fragment of the beyond into more than paint, into actuality. And she was clear in her heart that she had the right to make that journey, regardless of its extravagance, and had stood hours in front of that one picture, which dimmed for her all the Arosenius’s, Josephsons and even Rembrandts.

She seated herself in one of the pink room’s armchairs, one of five collector’s pieces. She had been left them by a woman friend of hers who had gone abroad to live. They consisted of four slim-legged, completely gilt chairs and a small greenish marble-topped table. She sat on one of these chairs, which were like ornaments, hyper-delicate, overdone. And the completely gilded chair and herself formed a harmonious group, for those chairs had not been created for the human body, but for the spirit that revealed itself in her taste. Her slender body, her wide bony shoulders, black dress, grey hair, yellow hands and features, and her large, bright eyes, with tears seeming to shine through, were no longer a living person in their total effect – as her brother sometimes compassionately and ironically said, making him feel guilty – but the ashes of a grand passion.

There had been but one single love in her life – for that commercial­ traveller-looking fellow – which her brother said was a mistake. In that love, those delicate roots that had sheltered in her soul and borne the hot­house plants of love of art, and understanding of it, had fastened astonishingly on to the earthy surface outside and flowered with a glowing and alien bloom that destroyed her. She and the man she loved, then a newly-graduated forester, had celebrated matrimony in 1916 – the year before the Russian Revolution and Finnish Independence: in the third year of the First World War. A convulsion, a rending was then going on in the soul of the world, giving birth to something new, but both she and Artur had been people of the day and experienced their own love and their own fate as the main concerns – quite unable to see their own epoch, any more than a person can impartially see his own self. Their age had been clouded, and to the black personage seated in the slender-legged gilt chair it seemed that the age had mirrored her husband, Artur, whose soul was as clouded and confused as the age he lived in.

A belated sunray played on the pink wall and the slender gilt chairlegs, animated the pictures and Naimi’s yellow hands and then slipped out of the window into apparent infinity.

Her brother had been against the marriage, and she’d felt that those friends who were aware of her intellectual nicety had wondered at it.

Artur had been a florid, stiff-necked, good-looking and strapping man – but no one could have said there was anything intellectual about him. Artur had been handsome, physically an almost perfectly handsome human being. The events in the purple bedroom had not turned out to be what the brother had feared. Something had, in earnest, taken place there: framed with black candles and violets, a grand passion had burgeoned.

The harmonious and aesthetically pleasing group formed by the gilt chair and the slender black personage was disrupted as Naimi rose and, pressing her hands to her bosom, began to pace backwards and forwards on the floor’s fluffy long-pile white carpet.

She remembered the spring nights before her wedding. She had lain in a twenty-seven-year-old girl’s bed, a high iron bed lacquered brown, curtained with yellow satin, at home in the judge’s house, spending a month’s engagement before the wedding. And in that high brown-lacquered bed she had seen the spring dawns breaking, greenish, watery blue and gold, into a bright leafless world. France, Germany, England, the whole of Europe and the whole world were in a bloody conflict, utterly destroying the spirit that until 1914 had been part of the same world she, a woman of 1916, was lying in, still only partially awakened, awaiting the full opening of the wonder of love. As, in this ice-bright atmosphere, she awaited her initiation into the mystery of passion, elsewhere in the sweeter, warmer spring of Europe, among blossoming fruit trees, a million women were experiencing what would happen to her three years later. The war that was dragging their menfolk to the slaughter was manufacturing a strumpet-approved, legally-sanctioned need in men previously faithful and clean, rushing them into a hell where the, until then, wife’s province, sacredly clothed in tenderness and passion, was turning men into onanists, homosexuals, frequenters of camp-following prostitutes. Accepted values, fidelity, love, decency were being trampled into the mud, together with everything else – set aside as trivialities beneath consideration.

But she saw day breaking through an ice-bright atmosphere, lying in her bed, a virginal white cold body wrapped in a white nightdress, rather chilly under her thin grey blanket now that the double glazing had been taken down. She watched through the dawns, shivery with cold, and thinking about Artur, full of joy, tenderness and a daring ecstasy. About six the servant came and lit the fire in the round white-glazed stove, and she watched from her bed the rose-coloured flames springing up, the thin bluish leaflike wreathings of the smoke, and everything consuming to ash.

Outside she encountered a landscape with the trees still leafless and budless in the bluish rarefied air – a strangely spiritualised landscape, its peculiar ethereality coming precisely from those leafless trees. Daily on her walks she observed a little hill that rose about twenty metres above the otherwise even terrain. It stood open and naked except for a covering of grey grass, with a large willow tree glowing goldenly on top, covered with bright yellowish flower stems, and a thick birch tree broken off in the middle: fine ice-coloured and black bunches of twigs burst out of its trunk into the greyly shimmering light. She had never been to Italy as yet; but she thought the hillock with its leafless trees was like some Sienese landscape transported to Finland. She had seen something similar in a painting by an old religious master, she couldn’t remember who – just such a holy radiant hillock.

And one light summer evening, with the crescent moon hanging in an attenuated sky and the Plough’s seven stars showing as tiny white points, Artur came. They were engaged the next day, and knowing nothing of that strong current she was plunging her virginal white body into, she accompanied Artur into the purple bedroom in their newly built home.

That rosewood table had stood at their bedside. There had been a mirror on it; she had watched her reflection in its surface in the mornings as, bare-armed, she braided her thick black locks. In it she had seen her face, its passion sweetly spent, a young white face, every muscle thrilling with tenderness, her large eyes radiant with tender love and joy. And Arthur had watched her from the bed, his adorable body naked; and every morning before her husband rose she sank on to the bed by his feet and caressed them with her hands and her luxuriant hair.

Once they lay together side by side in the bed, a faint fragrance of perfume from her skin lingering in the air; the rosewood table was full of flowers, the light from the black candles showing through; Artur would pick up a basket of fruit, a bottle of champagne and two thin glasses engraved with fern – rare pieces, the last two of a dozen owned by his grandfather. And she would hold the glass so as to admire the clarifying of the fern’s outline, rising into view, as it were, as the glass filled. And Artur’s hazel eyes would run over her, like hands: over her shoulders, her throat and her revealed body, which Artur had made wondrous and sacred. And she would think what a pity it was that a person’s body, the chalice of love, the cup that gave love its visible form, should go down into the grave. She had felt commiseration for both their bodies.

In her passion she would let her soft luxuriant hair spread freely on the pillow, wanton, unruly, and hot as the down inside the pillow, which they felt themselves melting into through the starched slip. And past her closed eyes there glided a vision of the moon’s golden wheel, cartwheel-sized. It rolled over a grove and suddenly released a large golden drop that rustled through the silver-shimmering leaves like an arrow or golden jet and then spurted high. Her eyelids trembled, her throat, with Artur’s lips pressed to it, throbbed, as Artur burrowed beneath her chin. They lay spent. The languor after their passion would always fill her with these visions, circulating something transparent inside her head. She squeezed her beloved’s head with her hands, and she had a vision of a tiny gold-winged bee carrying a rose in its mouth; it bounced against the bedroom ceiling. She laughed with joy, showing her sharp, bright, slightly bluish teeth. The sweating breast crushed to her own was hot and she could feel its beating heart, a sweetly intimate person’s, her husband’s, her dear one’s: a heart shaken a moment ago by a storm of passion like her own, shaken like a small leaf on a tree.

She paced backwards and forwards now in the dimming room, backwards and forwards past the table, whose greenish marble top was going grey in the dusk, past the four gilt slender-legged rare pieces, her large white head inclined as if by refraction. In the wounding thickets of memory where her thoughts were wandering each twig and leaf had the power to gather up yearning and chatter it to every breeze. Recollections of love were filling the air with a cooing and clovelike complaining. Pale-faced and exhausted, hands crossed and glued to her breast, she was pacing those departed ways, those orbits, that would not let her go. Thin, yellow, mute – agony shaking her like a flame: a martyr to passion, the thorns of tragic yarning and error piercing her temples. She was living over again her appalling, mute, bygone torment, fossilised by passion and grief. No tears washed her cheeks; they were incised instead by a fire that had left its traces of ash.

The being she worshipped, the man who had shared the mystery of love with her, who had ignited passion in her intelligent, exquisite soul, had hurt her crudely and appallingly, so that she had never recovered. She had never ever been able to forgive. Her husband had soon had enough of the pleasure he had sought from a compliant waitress, but she herself, in a ruinous Old Testament mood of destruction, had pronounced judgement over their life together. She had gone abroad and had never again seen her husband since the day he told her she was unreasonable in her demand for fidelity.

The spring twilight was filling the room. The same dusk that was touching the translucency of the newly sprouting resinous birch-tree leaves and the poplar’s sticky buds was touching her face, her hands, her whole person, with its burden of old remembered pain; the failing light fell bluish into these rooms that enclosed, like a flower crock, the roots of her being – love of art and work – and now for a moment allowed a still fragrant flower to sway in the air: an embalmed passion whose fragrance and colour had been preserved unaltered for twenty years.

The slim, slender, black being sat by the window and looked at a sea of Helsinki houses, edged with a pale green stripe under an overarching blue­ grey sky.

She had not dined and was late for her usual restaurant. There had never been any cooking in her flat, even though, behind an ironwork lattice partition, there was a kitchen sink and gas cooker. For the most part she never ate anywhere but in that restaurant or at her brother’s, where she sometimes went for tea. His sister’s eating habits were inclined to make the doctor ribald, but Elisabet squashed him with a scolding look, later pronouncing tête-à-tête: ‘Your sister’s an original.’ In the course of the day, those dry refined lips only opened for conversation or the squalid business of brushing her teeth, apart from eating, at a carefully fixed table, the bare food required for keeping her body alive.

After Naimi’s last visit, Elisabet’s emphatically restrained reprimanding look had been set off by her husband’s remark after Naimi left:

‘Really, Naimi’s become some sort of joke’ – sardonically said.

The telephone, which was in the hall, seldom rang. Now it did, and Naimi hasted to answer. Elisabet was inviting her to dinner. Naimi’s brother wanted to see her about something.

‘I’d love to,’ Naimi replied. ‘I’m too late for dinner at the restaurant.’

That Naimi, who was never late for anything, ‘was late for dinner at the restaurant’ startled Elisabet. Her own life had begun to feel as if there were a threat of subterranean fire – so was not all well with Naimi either?

‘Why are you late?’ she asked in a concerned voice, her concern secreting curiosity and censure. ‘Have you had a visitor?’

She knew that peculiar artist-types sometimes called on Naimi, rather threatening-looking outsiders, who respected her critical ability or, which was more remarkable still, brought their personal sorrows to her and exposed them without shame or restraint.

Naimi, holding the black mouthpiece to her dry reticent mouth and putting her ear, her large, close-set bloodless ear to the earpiece, replied: ‘No, no visitors, I’ve been translating a couple of pages of French and reading Novaro’ – and, glancing at her wrist and seeing it was already nearly eight, she added quickly: ‘I was trying to write a review of the exhibition yesterday: too contrived for me – not to my taste. I’m finding it difficult to say anything. I’ll be right round.’

Elisabet breathed a gentle ‘See you soon, then. Looking forward to it’ – and hastened over to her husband. The doctor wriggled uneasily when Elisabet told him his sister was coming. He would gladly have been without seeing her black appalling-mistake-look at dinner today, even though he needed to confer with her about a poem. The doctor sent a faded globe spinning rapidly on its stand. This was a day he’d rather not have seen anything mauled and lacerated.

But Elisabet was bringing the bread basket to the table in her gentle, pink, fat hands: black bread, barley bread, rye bread and thinly-cut salty wheat bread, which Naimi particularly liked; the art of baking it had been handed down through the generations in Elisabet’s home. She took butter and a greeny-yellow honey out of the silver cupboard and asked the servant if the lingonberry porridge, made with ryemeal, had cooled down; it must not be whisked, she warned. Elisabet’s voice crooned gently and competently over the various items for the meal; and the doctor heard her opening the silver cupboard again and taking out the blue china dinner service and blue-pattern napkins.

‘After dinner I’m going to ask Naimi to play something,’ she told her husband, smoothing her fair curls back from her forehead.

Naimi dragged her large silver-mounted bone comb through her thick hair in front of the same mirror that had been moved from her marriage bedroom, first to the attic in her childhood home and then into this pink room. The same mirror that had reflected her young face in all the sweetness and tenderness of her newly-awakened passion and now reflected an old bitter head, wrapped in tarnished silver, and a lined yellow face ingrained with long passionate grief. On her wide bony shoulders she arranged a Spanish mantilla, its lace black as coal. Then her slender yellow hands, with the smooth silver ring on her ring finger, opened a hidden drawer in a small walnut chest, took out a brooch and fastened it to the mantilla. The brooch was a fingernail-sized amethyst set in silver filigree­work, like a tiny violet-coloured mirror: the same colour as that silk table cover at her brother’s and dating back to the same period. Artur had given it to her on her twenty-eighth birthday after they had been married a year. She had not worn it for twenty years, not after that cold October morning in 1919. Her slender fingers took it from the same place she had left it in then, a little box lined with brown velvet: where the brooch had been, the brown velvet was worn napless in a twenty-year depression like a scar.

And looking now at the mirror of that jewel in the black lace she remembered how Artur had pinned it to the lace frill on her blouse in 1917, onto a bosom curving voluptuously with burgeoning white breasts and housing a heart swelling with passionate love. Her hand moved over her cold bony breast, fell – and she quailed: ash was left, the cold ashes of joy and love and passion. All that remains for certain of human feelings.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

Tags: