Life as an outsider

Issue 3/1988 | Archives online, Authors

Runar Schildt, short story writer and playwright, has the status of a minor classic in Swedish-language literature. Among Finnish-speaking readers, however, let alone those abroad, he is less widely known. George C. Schoolfield re-evaluates the short career of an author whose life ended tragically in suicide

Now and again, Runar Schildt (1888–1925) is described as ‘a Finland­-Swedish classic,’ and the description is accurate: he is one of those rather few figures from the minority’s literary past whose works can be read with genuine pleasure today, and there are plenty of testimonies to the living quality of his production.

The late author Anders Cleve once remarked that Schildt had been his most essential literary experience (although Cleve never showed, save in his first and best book, Gatstenar [‘Paving stones’ 1959], that he had learned Schildt’s admirable concision); and the cultural essayist Johannes Salminen, the novelist and dramatist Johan Bargum, the political observer Leif Salmén have all paid tribute to Schildt’s suggestive style, social acuity, and emotional penetration.

It may be, as well, that Schildt is a classic in a slightly different sense, an author of such validity that now he deserves extensive translation into a major language. Like, say, Denmark’s Jens Peter Jacobsen and Herman Bang, Holland’s ‘Multatuli’ (Eduard Douwes Dekker) and Louis Couperus, or Portugal’s Eça de Queiroz and Fernando Pessoa, he is one of those representatives of a small nation – and, in his case, of a minority within a small nation, who genuinely merits entrance into a much larger literary consciousness: not because he is vaguely exotic, not because he somehow sums up the nation’s or even the minority’s collective personality, but because of the sheer artistic value of his stories; and, to a much smaller extent, his plays.

Two easy tests can be applied to determine Schildt’s classic quality. His characters stick in the mind, even though no special effort may be made to remember them. And: on each encounter with Schildt’s works, even the moderately attentive reader will come across something, or many things, he or she has not noticed before.

For example, in the present story, The rocket, the reader may suddenly (and belatedly?) become aware of the violence that lurks around Elsa’s lethargy or penetrates it (the stabbing sensations in the back of her head, the children’s cries thrusting into her ears, the ‘bitterness and envy’ cutting through her breast as she hears Anna recount her adventures). An element of repressed or not so repressed sexuality may lie in these images; the sexual nature of the rockets’ flight at the end of the story is plain enough, and at the opening Elsa has watched the flies in their ‘humming dance of love’, their mating dance. Correspondingly, violence can be detected in Elsa’s own reactions on that sleepy Sunday – her abrupt replies to the coyly flirtatious baker and to Sasha Durdin, her sudden decision to leave the group on the path, her hysterical outburst at home, her kick at Sasha’s shin, and her flight.

Like Ellida Wangel in Ibsen’s Lady from the Sea, another victim of boredom and frustration, she watches the steamer, the means of escape, come in, and notices its running lights, yet not the red and the green, but only the ‘ruby-red’ lanterns of the erotic release she wants. Yet, unlike Ellida, with her dependable doctor husband and the somewhat unbelievable shibboleth,’freedom amidst responsibility’, she decides not to stay in her backwater but flees to the city and, she hopes, to the physical attentions of Birger Weydel. For that is what she really wants – the quality of passion-in-refinement missing in the men around her, the baker, the bible-bookstore owner, the scion of the Durdins. She is appalled, it will be noted, by the crude sexual joking about the enormous backside of Mrs Durdin, which Durdin senior and her father and the voluminous lady herself so much enjoy.

Another detail may, of course, be put aside as heavy-handed farce, almost unworthy of Schildt: when the narrator – and, it must be assumed, Elsa – observe ‘the remarkable development of musculature’ as Sahlberg bends over in the croquet game, the allusion, evidently, is to the baker’s fat derriere – we are told just a little later on that he has ‘fat thighs’. Nonetheless, Schildt’s choice of vocabulary, the suspect ‘musculature,’ might lead our thoughts, and Elsa’s, in another physiological direction. Not that she would ever be tempted consciously to think of the baker as an object of desire; he is repulsive to her. Still, as he seizes the mallet in the middle of the shaft, and aims his ‘sure and powerful’ strokes, their sound, too, pierces Elsa, ‘like pistol shots.’ Finally, what of Elsa’s name, which she shares with the untouched bride of Lohengrin? (Jacob Casimir, in Schildt’s later story, Häxskogen ‘The witch wood’, thinks of his canoe as ‘Lohengrin’s boat’.) Will Birger, the unwilling lover in spe with the look of death about him, indeed satisfy or ever want her? Or will she have to make do with the run-of-the-mill Åke Holm?

Thus, discussing what is one of the simpler Schildt stories, we are lured down paths of commentary or suggestion that seem never to end. Schildt is a complex case, although literary historians have found it simple enough to define his qualities and his place in literature. He has been praised for this ‘terse and sure and elegant narrative art, filled with aperçus’ (Wolfgang Butt); it has been said that he ‘survives primarily because of his language, a clear concise style combined with sharp observation’ (Sven Rossel); he has been taken to task for his ‘sentimentality,’ which is in fact, ‘veiled self-pity, his worst literary flaw’ (Jaakko Ahokas). It has even seemed convenient to define him as a late-come example of the fin-de-siècle (the present writer must confess that he once took this way out).

Certainly, Schildt much admired the idol of the 1890s, Jacobsen, and (rather shame­facedly) the ‘decadent’ Bang; he loved and translated the Arthur Schnitzler of the stories and plays about well-to-do young Viennese gentlemen and their lights-of-­love from a lower social class, ‘die süssen Mädeln,’ as he did the short novels of the nobleman Eduard von Keyserling, about the German society of the Baltic lands, ancient, refined, and doomed to be extinguished.

When Elsa, yearning for Birger, recalls that his face could look like a dead man’s (and still ‘not frighten her’), she reveals in a single phrase the thanatophilia so common in the letters of the late nineteenth century. Schildt’s oeuvre is shot through with reminiscences of the literary fashions of a slightly earlier time.

Birger Weydel, as we learn from another early story, Mot skymningen (‘Toward the twilight’), is forever bound, it must seem, to the decaying estate of his ancient family, and at last accepts the burden of its care, becoming another of the late nineteenth century’s many last sons of the family line – as in the case of Harald Malcorn in Rilke’s story, Die Letzten (1901). The archivist in Sinande källor (‘Failing sources’,1917) would show the young woman who is the object of his shy and anachronistic affection (and whose love he has already renounced) the ‘dead cities’ of Europe – and we think directly of Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-­ la-morte (1892) and D’Annunzio’s La città morta (1898). For the archivist, by the way, Prague is the most alluring of specimens, where ‘death has nothing frightening in its countenance’ – altogether like Birger Weydel’s face. Further, the archivist suffers, as he reminds the ever silent recipient of his letters, from the specific emotional affliction of the European decadence, aboulia: he is ‘a weakling of the will and of the emotions, who does not even possess the charm of youth.’

Nonetheless the definition of Schildt as ‘esthetic decadent’ does not do him justice; it limits him. He was born in 1888, exactly forty years after the author of the ‘breviary of the decadence,’ Joris-Karl Huysmans (to whose Là-bas Schildt seems to allude in his adduction of ‘a spat-out wafer from a black mass in Paris’ in his diablerie, Asmodeus och de tretton själarna, ‘Asmodeus and the thirteen souls’), thirty years after Bang, to whose Les quatre diables he alludes in another story from the same collection, En urtidsvision (‘A primeval vision’), again about a frustrated woman fascinated briefly by the ‘splendid body’ of a circus rider – twenty-five years after Schnitzler, twenty years after Hjalmar Söderberg, the Swedish author whose cynical elegance appealed to Schildt himself (and to Ellen Blom, the literarily inclined girl so readily seduced by the devil Asmodeus in Mrs Josefsson’s shabby Helsinki rooming house). Therefore Schildt’s whole and brief literary career falls into a world that has the fin-de-siècle behind it, gone but not forgotten.

Schildt’s first book of novellas, Den segrande Eros (‘Eros triumphant’) including, inter alia, The rocket, ‘A new life’ and ‘Toward the twilight’, came out in 1912, Asmodeus three years later. Then, with Regnbågen (‘The rainbow,’ 1916) and Rönnbruden and Prövningens dag (‘The ash bride’, and The testing day, 1917), he took that swerve into country-and-peasant life which so surprised his audience, and which reflected, surely, his devotion to the world of the hamlet outside the town of Lovisa on the Eastern Nyland coast from which his mother had come, and where he spent so many of his childhood summers with his maternal grandmother.

Schildt’s parentage was socially mixed: his mother, a milliner, had married Arthur Schildt, a member of a Finland-Swedish noble family of some distinction, who then fell prey to mental disease and died when Runar was a small child. The mother married again, a moderately successful businessman, Arthur Grönberg, this time; the ‘villa’ in The rocket is said closely to resemble the summer home of the stepfather, in which the adolescent Schildt was desperately unhappy during his school holidays. Schildt’s own troubled and ambivalent relationship to the nobility was richly prefigured, again, in the fin-de-siècle: compare Bang’s affectation of the prefix ‘de’ before his name, Rilke’s probably bogus family tree and scutcheon, D’Annunzio’s playing of the nobleman’s role, Wilde’s claim that he was descended from the kings of Ireland. (The Picture of Dorian Gray, by the way, was one of Schildt’s favorite books.)

As a young man, on the strength of his family name and his wit, Schildt was a frequent guest at some of southern Finland’s great properties, but he was keenly aware of not altogether belonging to the group to which he was drawn. In addition, his financial resources were slight; apart from employment in the university library (1908–1916) he became, briefly (1913–1915), the director of the ‘local division’ of Helsinki’s Swedish Theater; subsequently, he entered the newly founded publishing house of his cousin, Holger Schildt, as literary editor. He had married in 1914, and was now the father of a growing family.

With Perdita och andra noveller (‘Perdita and other tales’) Schildt returned to the down-at-heel Helsinki he had begun to investigate in the title story of Asmodeus; at the same time, he had got to know the atmosphere of wartime profiteering that now prevailed in Finland. Den svagare (‘The weaker one’), which many Schildt enthusiasts regard as perhaps his finest narrative, is about the simple Fredrik Blomqvist, a middle-aged clerk in a hardware store, who learns, with excruciating vividness, that his half-­Polish wife is having an affair with a smalltime Swedish wheeler-dealer, even as she has with a handsome student and a Jewish clothing salesman.

The clumsy male who cannot cope with the woman of his desire is a Schildt figure to be found in various presentations: Erik Wallin, the would-be Romeo who is entranced by Mrs Malkovski, a Russian summer visitor at a resort in Det gynsamma ögonblickets gud (‘The God of the favorable moment’) of the 1912 collection; a fourteen-year-old, simply called Erik this time, who loses his date to the more sophisticated Nils Ehrnfelt at a school dance in En sparv I tranedansen (‘A sparrow in the crane-dance’, 1915: the equivalent English idiom might be ‘A poor boy at the frolic’), and waits in the snow outside the girl’s house as the new cavalier takes her home; and now Blomqvist, who tries frantically to get inside the building into which his wife and Djonni Claesson, the Swede, have disappeared. In what amounts to a desperate paraclausithyron, Blomqvist tries to scale the gate at the main entrance, bangs his head on the gateway’s arch, and, dazed and tattered, is told to go home by a policeman – where at last, still alone, he confronts the truth about Manja, and yet longs for her still: ‘what did the adulteries mean, weighed against the fact that his life without her would no longer possess life’s value.’

The other stories in Perdita are about the defeated as well: the old colonel in the title tale did not marry the women he loved, an actress (whose most unforgettable role was as Perdita in A Winter’s Tale), and their son has rejected him; Karl Henrik Erisman in Under stenen (‘Under the stone’) is an impoverished middle-aged man whose sole happiness comes from the game in which he pretends, at a country station, to take a train to the great world outside Finland; and the archivist of Sinande källor himself, who – inadvertently or not – makes himself into a figure of fun in the letters he sends to the eighteen-year-old girl.

Schildt was in Helsinki during the months of Red rule in the Civil War of 1918, and partook in those secret exercises (drills in stocking feet, with broomsticks as guns) with which some White sympathisers prepared for the fall of the left’s regime. (Since Schildt was notoriously inept in matters requiring physical dexterity, it is hard to imagine that he was convincing even as a playlike soldier.) After the city’s capture by a German expeditionary force and the White victory, he served a time as a clerk in the infamous detention camp for Red prisoners on the islands of Sveaborg (Suomenlinna) in the capital’s harbor: it would be interesting to know what his reaction was to the island prison’s horrors. Gunnar Castrén’s book of 1927 – the only biography that exists – is silent on this by no means unimportant point.

Perdita, with its tales from before war, appeared in time for the Christmas trade of 1918; in 1919 Schildt brought Hemkomsten och andra noveller (‘The homecoming and other tales’) that, in three cases of four, have to do with late conflict. The first number in the quartet, Aapo, is the only one of Schildt’s narratives to deal at length with an unimpeachably Finnish figure, a hired hand at an estate in Häme who becomes an object of fun when the estate manager, otherwise a man of great fairness and some perceptivity, orders him to use a donkey – acquired as a pet for the manager’s children – to carry out his chores. When the Civil War comes, Aapo shoots the manager and then becomes a zealous killer in the Red ranks: ‘he was a god, a supernatural power, at the pressure of his finger his mightiest foes lay dead at his feet.’

In the course of the Red defeat, he is captured and executed; ‘mute and calm… he thrust his hands deep into his trouser pockets… until the end his small gray eyes shone with an unspeakable hatred.’ (The story is based on actual events in the district where the Schildts spent their summer vacation in 1919, events Väinö Linna also described, from an altogether different perspective, in his trilogy, Täällä Pohjantähden alla, ‘Here beneath the North Star’.) Schildt’s Aapo has been much argued about: is his a singular case, mentally fragile and driven mad by a sudden access of power – a murderous specimen among Schildt’s many outsiders? Does he, with or without the author’s intention, acquire some sort of grandeur at his close? A grandeur then, almost paralleling the quiet hero with which the estate-manager meets death. Or is he meant to stand for all Reds, simple-minded and misled by agitators into atrocity? Schildt’s Finland-Swedish readership of the time probably chose the last interpretation. At any event, the story has far greater strength, oddly enough, than its complement, Köttkvarnen (‘The meatgrinder’), about an idealistic young man who gathers weapons (the code name for a machine-gun is ‘meatgrinder’) for the Whites in Red Helsinki; Manja from ‘The weaker one’, a nobler Manja now, genuinely devoted to the youth, obtains what her lover needs from Claesson – profiteering here too – and then unwittingly sends him to his death.

The last tale about the war, ‘The home­coming,’ has as its seeming protagonist a man who has cut himself off from the society to which he once belonged. Albin, from a Swedish-speaking village in Eastern Nyland, has again been misled by a Red agent; now that the fighting is over, he has managed thus far to avoid capture and likely execution. Living in the woods, creeping back to his home for food, Albin is helped, surreptitiously, by his mother – both his father and his brother are members of the WhiteDefence Corps. In her turn the mother, Prinsas-Mari, is slowly isolated from her home and her community by what she does, and, as the noose tightens around the couple at the end, she shoots at the White cordon, while Albin walks out to surrender, his arms upraised. The shift from Albin’s predicament to his mother’s gives the story much of its peculiar fascination, as does the question of the reason for Mari’s absorption into and absorption of her son’s hunted existence. Of course, mother-love plays a good part (Albin has always been her favorite), and Georges Braun, who made the illustration for Maurice de Coppet’s French rendering of 1927, seems to have sensed some sort of erotic bond between them.

But Mari is also, in her way, a companion to Elsa, for she wishes – without quite knowing it – to break out of her life, the only mode of existence she has known, serving quietly (like Mrs Lundberg and the miser Kuggas’ wretched wife) under her husband’s thumb. Her last words to Albin, after she has pled with him not to let himself be taken prisoner, are tell-tale: ‘We have to run away. We have to protect ourselves.’ Timid and conservative Schildt (of whom his friend Hans Ruin said that he always looked as if he had stepped out of a band­box), was drawn to the rebel who flees the world of order.

Enthusiasm for ‘The homecoming’ should not make us forget, though, the collection’s tale that has nothing to do with the war, Karamsinska hästen (‘The Karamsine horse’) – the sobriquet given, in her youth, to Edla Wilenius, for she resembled the spanking coach-horses maintained by the legendary Aurora Karamsin, thought to be Helsinki’s most beautiful and wealthiest woman, once upon a time. But Edla has just died, and her husband, upholsterer Wilenius, whose whole life has circled about his simple trade and his simple devotion to her, is left alone with her body, isolated by death, age, and language from his Finnish-speaking neighbors in his Helsinki tenement. (A surface reading could take the tale as one more depiction of the disappearance of the capital’s Swedish-speaking working class.) In his desperation, Wilenius roams the wintry streets, then begs for companionship from the prostitutes who rent a room in his building. Of all Schildt’s stories, the tone in ‘The Karamsine horse’ may be the darkest or iciest: Wilenius takes solace in the thought that he and his wife had the sofa from a cafe to repair ‘so that Edla did not need to die on the floor,’ and, giving up his last shreds of pride, he thinks of ‘his own future,’ at the poor­farm, with ‘the sure sense of deep, deep rest.’

Now, Schildt’s brief career as a prose-narrator was almost at an end – there remained only his fragment of a novel, Armas Fager, en silhuett (‘Armas Fager, a silhouette’) and the three tales of Häxskogen both from 1920. The former aroused the annoyance of Schildt’s friends, who thought it unworthy of him; using scatology; the poet Jarl Hemmer, warned him never to publish such stuff again. The tale was evidently planned as a novel, the larger form in which Schildt wished prove himself, yet it stopped after its long opening episode.

A middle-aged failure, Fager, is an extra at Helsinki’s Swedish-language summer theater: he has written a shapeless drama of his own, and likes to imagine himself in the role of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Indeed, everything about Fager – in whom Schildt claimed he had given an oblique self-portrait – is vaguely inauthentic: he depends on his shopkeeper wife, Vendla, yet tries to flirt with the theater’s chorus girls. His mother tongue is Finnish, but he has made himself master of ‘a cultivated Swedish’, perhaps the only success of his life; playing the part of an indignant father, he tries to insert himself into the chambre séparée where his daughters (extras like himself) are entertained by two Russian officers. Sent away with a bottle of champagne, he consumes it, alone, on a park bench. There, thinking of the mass killing to the south, on Europe’s battlefields (it is the early years of the First World War, to which Finland was a relatively peaceful observer), he wishes he could toast all the combatants and tell them: ‘Stop it, life is splendid, after all’ – a curious parallel, from a curious source, to what Rilke would say two years later in the Duineser Elegien, ‘Hiersein ist herrlich!’ Should we despise Fager, as Hemmer did, and as indignant reason tells us we should?

In the play Den stora rollen (‘The great role’), 1922, Schildt told what became of Fager. Dreaming and blustering as ever, he imagines that the Red regime will make him the director of the city’s theaters, and so joins the Red Guard. Becoming an informer, he is shot to death by his friend Hagert, as solid Vendla still tries to mind the store.

Häxskogen goes, then, to a world after the Civil War. In Spår i sanden (‘Tracks in the sand’), some friends – two married couples and a spare man, the architect Robert Wiesel – go on a motorboat excursion to the skerries, where they have a rendezvous with the Mayflower, a sail boat captained by a young poet. Mary de Wahl, one of the wives, is about to begin an affair with the golden youth, as Wiesel – who has long loved her – perceives. That is all that happens: the story, in its very expectability, disappoints us: Wiesel (who, beneath his ‘inauspicious exterior, conceals, not altogether unintentionally, a trained intellect and an emotional heart’) consoles himself with the thought, imparted to Mary in a valedictory, that what happens is like ‘our footsteps in the sand… tomorrow nothing will be left save the sun and the sea, the wind and the sand.’ Nonetheless, the story offers two more of those confident male types who, contrastive to his losers, populate Schildt’s world, ranging in age from the boy Erik’s adroit rival, Nils Ehrnfelt, to the self-satisfied and ancient Kuggas of Provningens dag. Here, they are the two husbands, de Wahl, a ‘gentleman rider, handsome, wealthy, almost disturbingly well-dressed’ (and about to be cuckolded), and the factory owner, ‘energetic, hard and smart, three years in America’. Here, too, a move toward the dramatic form can be detected: Schildt describes his players in what he terms, literally, his dramatis personae.

Had Schildt lived, he might well have tried again to enter, in narrative or drama, a prosperous world that would remind Americans of Scott Fitzgerald’s – but he did not, of course. The depression that came more and more to cripple him got in the way; he expressed it in Zoja, the penultimate story in the volume and the last Schildt ever wrote.

It turns to another segment of life in postwar Finland, to the Russians who have fled the Revolution. Some of them, their resources dwindling, live at what is Lovisa, and nurture pathetic hopes that Petrograd will fall to Judenitch’s White army. It does not, and Zoja, the daughter of the dreamer Schekarasin, abandons herself to her own dreams: she will join the White army disguised as a man, ‘thrust, strike, kill,’ and then fall, ‘pierced by arrows of nickelplate, torn to pieces by hot fragments of steel.’ But there is no place in the world (or the little town) for in her and her rhetoric of dreams, and she takes an overdose of the morphine she has stolen from her brother, a lost soul like herself. The tale’s ending has, it may be, a touch of the melodrama which Schildt has sometimes been accused of a fashioning. Zoja kisses her image in the mirror: ‘in that kiss there burned away all the tenderness and longing which had grown within her in order that she, in the fully ness of time, might have squandered it with generous hands on her husband, her lovers, her children, and her dogs’. Melodrama, perhaps, as in a movie with Theda Bara (and Zoja has been a movie fan), but utterly irresistible.

Like Zoja, Jacob Casimir in Häxskogen loves himself – for the sake of a creative gift that has set him apart from ‘normal’ humanity. He is an author with writer’s block, attempting to finish the eighth chapter of a novel; Häxskogen was Schildt’s eighth book. Yet he also despises himself because of his creator’s arrogance, and the detachment with which he must observe the world. He must admit to himself the rightness of the charges his vigorous cousin, Fabian, ‘with his strong, yellow-white teeth’, brings against him: of vanity, of hypersensitivity, of self-in-dulcenge. Waiting for his inspiration to return, Jacob Casimir likes to take lazy canoe rides, since he believes they stimulate his fantasy – he thinks he sees the witches from Macbeth dancing in the mist. One evening, though, a hole is shot in the canoe’s hull by Fabian, who has seen in Jacob Casimir something of a rival for Veronica, the Austrian woman married unhappily to the owner of an estate near Fabian’s. Fished out of the water by Fabian, Jacob Casimir tells the man of action that he will not report the matter to the police; but, as Jacob Casimir sits in Fabian’s practical flat-bottomed boat, his trousers soaked (Fabian says: ‘You haven’t had your pants wet for the last thirty years’), Fabian laughs at him: he had meant only to frighten him a little, not to kill him. ‘No matter how I strain my mind, I can’t see why it would be necessary for me to send you to an undiscovered bourne.’ In short, Fabian – who, as Jacob Casimir enviously notes, himself possesses a strangely literary turn of expression – has not taken him quite seriously as a rival. (Veronica resists Jacob Casimir’s self-pitying but handsomely turned letter of love, as she does Fabian’s more manly blandishments, and leaves to meet a lover she has not seen for five years – as invisible a lover as the young poet in Spår i sanden.)

Yet in his way Jacob Casimir triumphs: the eighth chapter comes to him, the creative experience that means more than anything else in the world, even love: ‘He felt neither shame nor repentance now, on the contrary, a quiet and intensive jubilation pursued him… The more the work progressed, the stronger he felt the special quality of his being emerge in proud exercise of its power…’ Exhausted, he lies down, and – in a finale always quoted in studies of Schildt – he listens to the target practice of the home guard, while, ‘in their quarters, the hate-filled Reds crept to their secret exercises’. But, ‘for us’ – and here it would not be untoward to think of Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger, in another story of the outsider-artist to which Schildt was much devoted – ‘there is no place in the White and Red Guards of life, no thrilling battlecry, no number in the ranks, no lasting abode’.

Schildt went out to Lovisa in January, 1922, with the intent of killing himself, but instead, within a month, wrote two plays, Galgmannen (‘The gallows man’), a one-act drama about an old colonel who wants (and finds) a young woman to die with him, and, then, Den stora rollen. A year later, his last play, Lyckoriddaren (‘The soldier of fortune’), had its premiere, the soldier of fortune is Stefan Irben, a diplomat about whom a proper-minded colleague threatens to reveal a secret of his past. Once again made into an outsider, Irben kills himself.

Those slight signs of failing artistic power to be noted amidst the splendors and subtleties of the last collections of tales (i.e. the stiff dialogues of Spår i sanden, the perhaps excessively Tchaikovskian quality of Zoja’s prose, the unconvincing love-intrigue of Häxskogen) are wholly apparent now. If one of Schildt’s great virtues as a writer was ‘his ability to let his characters speak their own language’, as Hans Ruin observed in his diary, then he lost that gift in his last play, with its stilted conversations before a non-specific background – another strength of Schildt had always been his ability to conjure up a specific milieu, not just its appearance but its smells and its sounds. An essay could be written on the auditory qualities of Schildt’s works: the blaring of Fabian’s giant gramophone and his ‘Hawaiian music’, the hum of the insects, the thump of the threshing machine, all force themselves into Jacob Casimir’s consciousness – as sounds had thrust into Elsa.

Schildt shot himself on September 25, 1925, in the courtyard of the old university clinic up the street from the university library where he had once been employed; he died two days later. The possible reasons for his suicide are many. Unquestionably, what he regarded as the dwindling or death of his creative power was a major factor. Also the knowledge of his father’s mental decline had gnawed at him ever since he had learned of it as a youth, and he had long had a strong urge to self-destruction, as the several suicides in his work indicate. Rumor has it that he drank excessively; his marriage had gone sour – his wife is said to have possessed a snobbishness of which Schildt (see the extraordinarily wide social range of his characters) was ultimately incapable.

For a long time his death was regarded as ‘symbolic’ of the position and the fragility of the Swedish-speaking intelligentsia in Finland, during the language struggles that marred the early decades of the Republic; his contemporaries in literature likewise took their own lives, Erik Grotenfelt in 1919, Jarl Hemmer in 1944. Perhaps we are tempted to overvalue his work because of the way it was broken off. But can, however, his work be overvalued – or valued enough? Do we make exaggerated claims for Kleist simply because he took the life of his willing companion, Henriette Vogel, and then his own beside the Wannsee in November, 1811? Do we not, instead, persist in our fascination with Kleist’s work, the element that counts, as in Schildt’s case?

Tags: