Reading the world
Helena Sinervo’s intention was to write a biography of the poet, prose-writer and translator Eeva-Liisa Manner (1921–1995). But even during the early research the task looked daunting: the interviewees spoke about a luminary, the greatest genius of the modernistic Finnish poetry.
Helena Sinervo (born 1961) is a poet and a critic. She herself had recognised grief, suffering and loneliness in Manner’s works. Things went as they do with a writer; the material she had collected fictionalised itself in Sinervo’s mind. The novel-character Eeva-Liisa came to life, and Sinervo began writing about the persona’s life from within. The result was the novel Runoilijan talossa (‘In the house of the poet’, Tammi, 2004).
Sinervo focuses her story on Manner’s second home in Spain. Cleaning up her villa in 1971 after the earthquake, Manner begins a dialogue with the papers she finds among the rubble.
The step in the dark the novel takes leads to the circumstances of Manner’s childhood. After her mother died giving birth, the premature baby was put in an incubator and fed through a tube. The father would hear nothing of his child, and the girl ended up in the care of her religious and severe grandparents.
The nightmare of her early years slowly closes in: the girl was brought up with the whip and terrifying stories about Satan. Feeling attacked by the world, she attempts suicide, unsuccessfully. She grows up shy, fearful and withdrawn. If she’s abused, she blames herself. If one gets hit on the head with a bottle, that too is probably one’s own fault.
” ‘Men treat women violently,’ I thought. ‘If you’d like to live with a man, then you’d have to put up with it.’ ” Eeva-Liisa’s erotic feelings flow towards both men and women, but her physical experiences gradually make men an extremely improbable alternative. The poet undergoes existential loneliness in her world, and, tragically, such is a condition of her work. Nevertheless she has friends, who put up with her ‘regressive’ behaviour. She suffers a trauma of motherlessness: someone she loves has to be a mother-substitute, always ready to satisfy her needs. ‘No adult can endure that behaviour.’
The novel’s great merit is its empathetic discernment, which illuminates Manner’s thought. Time is a theme the poet has returned to again and again, and around time Sinervo develops a brilliantly resonant narrative, taking off from the novel’s time-free structure.
The abandonment of linearity is enabled by the concept of time: time is scattered and forms an environment. Manner’s phrase, ‘All time surrounds us,’ suggests that the human mind is scattered around the world as thought. But this is also subjectivism at its most beautiful – subjectivism as a presence. And finally, and most importantly: creativity is the reading of that environing world, not its imitation.
The soul’s ensnarement in physicality is another Manner’s great theme. The novel finely catches the poet’s own mischievous rhetoric in speaking about the pathetic individual’s incessant yearning for a partner. This is epitomised in a night scene in a Spanish backyard: in beautiful moonlight a hen is sleeping on the back of a silver-sided donkey. Their tender union lasts year after year.
The short story Hippopotamus (1957) by Eeva-Liisa Manner appeared in Books from Finland 1/2004; a selection of Manner’s poems, translated by Herbert Lomas, appeared in Books from Finland 3/1995, and his translation of Eeva-Liisa Manner: Selected Poems (1997) was published in England by Making Waves (1997).
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About the writer
Mervi Kantokorpi is a literary scholar and critic and reviews books for, among other publications, the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat.
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