Facing catastrophe

Issue 4/1995 | Archives online, Authors

Mirjam Tuominen (1914–1967) was 
one of the stronger, yet relatively
 neglected voices of European modern
ism. Had she lived in France or Germany and had belonged to the literary
 traditions of either of those countries 
(traditions which she admired and 
knew well), one imagines that her fame
 might have spread more widely.

As it was, belonging to the Swedish-
speaking minority in Finland, Mirjam
 Tuominen wrote her works, both 
poetry and prose, in Swedish (and, very occasionally, in Finnish). Though they 
show the influence of the Finland-
Swedish literary tradition, in particular
 that of Edith Södergran, they also
 demonstrate that Mirjam Tuominen
 had read very widely outside that
 tradition – the influence of other 
Nordic writers such as Karin Boye and
 Cora Sandel is evident, but so also is
t hat of Friedrich Hölderlin, Marcel
 Proust, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka,
 Simone Weil and Sigmund Freud.

Both Tuominen’s first collection of 
short stories, Tidig tvekan (‘Early doubt’,
 1938), and the collection that followed 
it, Murar (‘Walls’, 1939), are unusual in 
Finland-Swedish literature. The influ
ence of the Swedish writer Karin Boye’s
 short fiction is not hard to detect, but
 Tuominen is much less prone to the
 slightly feuilletonistic style that charac
terises some of Boye’s prose writing.
 Her approach to the problems of her
 heroes and heroines is always direct,
 unconcerned with ideology, and painful, and the reader is not spared from her
 searching, analytical illumination of 
life’s shadowy corners. Irina, in the first
 story of Tidig tvekan, is a child in
 hospital, struggling between life and
 death, and meditating on the image of 
her dead father.

The long novella Anna
 Sten concentrates on the sense of deep
 unhappiness felt by a woman who 
conceives herself to be ugly, totally
 passive and isolated. In the story 
published here, ‘Woman Newspaper-
Seller in the Metro’, the
 author explores elements of personal
 existence that seem bound up with the
 catastrophe that threatened the world in 
1939. In the ominous rumbling of the 
metro there is a foreboding of the
 machinery of war.

The experiences of the Second
 World War years brought a change in
 Tuominen’s writing. Gradually, under
 the influence of outer and inner pressures, she moved away from the
 straightforward prose narrative, and
 began to experiment with the creation 
of prose texts that occupy a position
 somewhere between prose and poetry.
 An important milestone along that
 route was the volume Besk brygd (‘Bitter 
brew’, 1947), which contains a treatment of the theme of the Holocaust that
 is probably the most vivid and deeply
 experienced encounter with the subject
 in Nordic literature. After this book, she 
began to write in verse, and became a
 lyric poet intensely conscious of the 
tragedy of the modern world, who
 expressed her anguish, her anger and 
her struggle for life in a lyrical form that
 derives from Hölderlin, but also has
 many affinities with the style of post-
war German and Austrian poets such as 
Helmut Heissenbuttel and Marie Luise
 Kaschrutz.

Toward the end of her life, Tuominen experienced a religious
 conversion, and became a Roman
 Catholic. The books that emerged from 
this experience were found too icono
clastic for the Finland of the early
1960s, and met with the 
incompiehension of her publishers,
 who rejected them.

Mirjam Tuominen was also a
 graphic artist of considerable power 
and attainment. Some of her work was 
recently exhibited in Helsinki, and it is
 to be hoped that further exhibitions will
 follow. She conceived her work as
 prose-writer, documentarist, critic, poet
 and artist as a whole – and it does 
indeed form that. In spite of obscurities,
 and difficulties connected with the
 intrusion of private and personal
 problems into an essentially transpersonal, universal creative gift, her
 contribution to modern Finnish and 
Finland-Swedish literature is a significant one, and is likely to attain a growing degree of appreciation as a new
 Europe develops, strangely akin in 
some respects to the one in which she
 began her career.

 

David McDuff’s translation of Selected
 Writings by Mirjam Tuominen was published by Bloodaxe Books of
Newcastle upon Tyne (UK) in 1995

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