The personal is real

Issue 1/1994 | Archives online, Authors

It is never easy to be a writer, but it can be particularly difficult if you are forever thrusting weapons into your critics’ hands. A writer who mixes and interleaves her literary texts with her own life is very vulnerable to both literary and other criticism.

Anja Kauranen (born 1954) is precisely this kind of writer. The characters and events of ali her seven prose works have clear connections with Kauranen’s own life, her Helsinki childhood, her Karelian family background, her sporting youth, her personal losses. She is not ashamed to allow herself to be interviewed by women’s magazines on subjects including, for example, boxing. She writes magazine columns on feminism and television programmes and took part enthusiastically in the debates over this winter’s presidential elections.

She is a talkative, lively and good-looking woman. This merely increases the burden she has to bear: if Kauranen writes about sex, it must be based on her own experiences. That is what was thought when her first novel, Sonja O. kävi täällä (‘Sonja O. was here’) was published in 1981. The newspaper reviews of the time consistently confused the novel’s writer with its narrator, a literature student who collected experiences and men. It was a young women’s odyssey and Entwicklungsroman which also attempted to analyse the arrival of feminism in Finland, in the midst of the extreme left-wing student movement of the 1970s.

Wildest in Kauranen’s first novel was, in addition to its sensuality, its linguistic suppleness and the fluency of its narrative. During the 1980s she developed this characteristic still further: in Kultasuu (‘Goldmouth’, 1985), the main role is played by Helsinki slang itself. Built on playful use of ordinary speech and lightning-quick associations, the novel is the story of wild girls growing into women, of the longing for freedom and the pain of adaptation.

The combination of the personal and the general is not rare in Finnish women’s writing. Novelistic memoirs, confessions and diaries have, in the 1990s, become an increasingly popular form of expression. In a way this is a question of courage and a new kind of documentarism, although in many key novels one senses a conscious rewriting of history, even its embellishment.

Kauranen, too, has stepped into this trap. She seems to think, too, that her own experiences are universal, a good deal larger than life. She is able to describe her pregnancy, her motherhood, her traumatic relationships with her late alcoholic father and her dying mother, with such pathos that one can almost hear the laments and melancholy accordion chords of her Karelian family in the background. Generally, however, she is really genuine. She ponders the meaning of fiction, the morality of the writer, in a way that is, for a contemporary author, unusually serious. The basic form of the novel is the confession,’ she wrote in a diary-like work, Kiinalainen kesä (‘The Chinese summer’, 1989). ‘I’d translate that as the suffering of the soul. If you don’t have that, why write at all?’

In the diary, as in her novel Ihon aika (The time of the skin’), the novel and the intimate document are completely mixed, and Kauranen has confessed that this is the aim and method of her writing. Like millions of diarists and secret writers, she writes to understand the world – but, happily with a level of ambition that only a professional writer can have.

The critical and popular success of Ihon aika is, partly, of the same nature as that of a couple of other contemporary Finnish women’s books. Like Merete Mazzarella’s Hem från festen (‘Home from the feast’), Ihon aika tells of a woman matured by her mother’s death. Like Yrsa Stenius’s Makten och kvinnligheten (‘Power and womanliness’), Ihon aika tears apart the wall a woman has carefully built between her adult psyche and the traumas of her childhood.

It is in other words, a question of a woman’s basic experiences. One such is the discovery that her mother has been more than her father’s wife and carer for her children. She has a past, secrets – in a word, her own, entire, humanity. A second discovery is that a person becomes an adult only when she has worked through her relationship with her mother. A third is the discovery of the physicality of the cycle of life: the strong unity of birth, death and sexuality.

Fortunately, such profound thought has not frozen the most important of Anja Kauranen’s gifts as a writer: fresh, felt language, the capacity to touch the reader, the joy of story-telling.

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