A hard day’s night

Issue 2/2008 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Arne Nevanlinna. Photo: Veikko Somerpuro/WSOY.

Arne Nevanlinna. Photo: Veikko Somerpuro/WSOY.

Marie Myhrborgh was born in Strasbourg on the last day of the 19th century. A hundred years later she is living her last days in a Finnish nursing home. Her mind wanders, searching for a vanished time in the landscapes of her childhood and her later life in Finland, where she was brought by a hasty marriage, formed amid the clamor of the First World War.

In his first novel Marie (WSOY, 2008) Arne Nevanlinna follows his protagonist’s associations and reminiscences, creating comic and ironic, as well as tragic parallels between the eras and the cultures that it describes.

With her marriage, Marie’s life as a Frenchwoman under the authority of the Germans changes to that of an outsider in the narrow social circles of the Finland-Swedish gentry, which her outsider’s eyes see in an ironic light.

The extra ‘aitches’ added to the Swedish fisherman’s name Myrborg to make it more elegant haven’t changed the members of her husband’s family – at least not for the better. The novel satirises the ways in which the Finland-Swedes feel superior to Finns. Marie remains a stranger in both her new home and her homeland, whose culture she never fit into. Her foreignness is increased by her Jewish blood, which later causes her concrete problems as well, as Finland fights alongside Germany in the Second World War.

The book’s skilled and well-wrought descriptions of a multicultural society reveal prejudices and become a statement for tolerance. In spite of how different they are, Finland and Alsace share some similarities. Both were bones of contention among the great powers, and both were cultural crossroads. Marie is an allegory of the 20th-century European, drifting across two world wars and into the present, a time that is in many respects incomprehensible to a woman who grew up in the days of the tsars.

The journey that occurs through space and time in this novel has room for a lot of varieties of culture shock, as Kaiser Wilhelm’s officers are replaced by fur-hatted Finnish revolutionaries and the humble servants of a burgher’s household by the chatty condescension of a nursing home’s staff. Although Marie’s stranger’s eyes see the peculiarities of Finnish culture, she herself is a tragicomic mixture of French patriotism, Finland-Swedish elitism, and the formal customs of the past.

Marie is the first novel by professor and architect Arne Nevanlinna (born 1925), who has previously published autobiographical works. The names of people and places in the family account Isän maa (‘Land of my father’, 1994), and the war memoir Meidän sota (‘Our war’, 1995), as well as Marie, allude to the author’s own generation.

In spite of its human allegories, Marie also reveals the means women have used to get by in a position of subjugation. The 1930s friendship between the two outsiders, Marie and the Russian Tatyana, though not without its own misunderstandings, serves as a lifeline for the two women. The dinner party they plan together becomes farcically tragic precisely because Marie follows her Russian friend’s instructions.

Marie is also a portrait of the complexity of a woman’s eroticism, its objects more often than not forbidden for one reason or another. The narrative following Marie’s thoughts is complemented by the contemporary diary jottings of a mysterious young woman, bringing a tragic, fateful dimension to the novel.

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