Conversation pieces

Issue 1/2005 | Archives online, Authors

Maria Jotuni (1880–1943) was a master of dialogue, in prose and drama. Pekka Tarkka takes a look at her talents and introduces a short story from the 1920s

The Norwegian Nobel prize-winning writer Knut Hamsun admired the stories by the young Maria Jotuni and wrote to her: ‘Extraordinary, what a sure sense of form you have – but above all, your book is full of profound poetry…. My God, how beautifully and warmly you write about things which another might treat coarsely unpleasantly. I admire you.’

Both Jotuni and Hamsun belong to the same literary atmosphere as the fin de siècle Viennese masters of the erotic, Arthur Schnitzler et consortes. Joutuni’s masterly use of dialogue was at its most brilliant in those stories in which we do not hear the other party in the conversation at all. Jotuni used her dramatic skill in a number of plays, such as Tohvelisankarin rouva (‘The wife of the henpecked hero’, 1924), whose burlesque satire even today stirs the most conservative audiences to rage.

Jotuni was married to the eminent literary scholar Viljo Tarkiainen and they had two sons. Her brilliance in the short story format was matched posthumously by her novel describing a family hell, Huojuva talo (‘The swaying house’, 1963), a sort of feminist anti-Strindberg.

Jotuni raised her children wisely, in the best humanist spirit. In the following dialogue ‘”Finland’s” and “Russia’s” war’ (Jussi ja Lassi, ‘Jussi and Lassi’, 1921), the conversations of the six- and seven-year-old boys and their mother reveal Jotuni’s belief in the human principle of inextricably embedded within human nature, a humanity which may nevertheless burst abruptly into wild world games. The First World War had shaken the mother’s view of humankind, but she still thought her faith in the future, typical of the 1920s, would be validated by the new generation that was growing up.

A new disillusionment was to come, when the Soviet Union attacked Finland in 1939. The posthumous Evakuoidut (‘The evacuated’, 1966) continues with conversations of a family that found itself in a war and reveals the mother’s disappointment. Her sons leave for the front. ‘These boys, what were they living now. They saw humanity bared. They were able to evaluate it anew, differently than they had assessed it from within the close misery of home. That idealistic belief in humankind that had warmed her and the boys was perhaps already extinguished. Or was it extinguished? In any case they were learning a reality that could not even be imagined from within the walls of home.’

Translated by Jill G. Timbers

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