Minority report

20 February 2014 | Reviews

tuva.k.Tuva Korsström
Från Lexå till Glitterscenen. Finlandssvenska tidsbilder, läsningar, författarporträtt 1960–2013
[From Lexå to the Glitter Scene. Finland-Swedish period pieces, readings, portraits of authors 1960-2013]
Helsinki: Schildts & Söderströms, 2013. 529 pp., ill.
ISBN 978-951-52-3224-3
€37.90, hardback

The only thing unequivocally separating the Swedish minority in Finland from the Finnish majority is language. Therefore the word – be it written, spoken, sung – has always occupied a privileged position amongst Finland-Swedes. This has resulted in a richness of literature and mass media, which is surprising for a minority that today numbers fewer than 300,000 people, or just over five per cent of the population. For Swedish language literature in Finland – the topic of Tuva Korsström’s book Från Lexå till Glitterscenen. Finlandssvenska tidsbilder, läsningar, författarporträtt 1960–2013 – the period following the Second World War has been a success history.

The strength and force of this literature has manifested itself in many ways: through an increasing professionalisation of the writing community, through a steady stream of new writing talent, and through increased diversification, both in terms of regions and genres. In competition for major national and Nordic prizes, such as the Finlandia Prize for Fiction, the Runeberg Prize, and the Nordic Council Literature Prize, Finland-Swedish books have been strong contenders, and authors [see the list] such as Tove Jansson, Märta Tikkanen, Bo Carpelan, Kjell Westö, and Monika Fagerholm have gained large audiences, both nationally and internationally.

Despite this, Swedish literature in Finland has been limited by external linguistic and social factors, requiring authors to be resourceful. In Finland during the 20th century, Swedish increasingly became a language for domestic use, with relatively few workplaces and parts of society where it plays a major role. When out and about in the community, Swedish is seen and heard increasingly rarely – instead Finnish, the dominant language, is interspersed more and more with English or new immigrant languages, such as Russian, Estonian and Arabic. Adverts are in Finnish, and the language used by Swedish youth is heavily mixed with Finnish. Moreover, Swedish is spoken only in specific areas of southern and western Finland, whilst the inland area is monolingually Finnish.

This means that those who write in Swedish in Finland often lack obvious language for essential areas of life. This language must be created, invented, and enticed, and the history of Finland-Swedish literature draws heavily on finding ways to circumvent this problem.For a long time this meant that realistic storytelling in novel form was of low priority, whilst poetry and short prose flourished. This was one of the differences between Finnish and Finland-Swedish literature; the biggest strength of the former was often realistic novels with rural backgrounds, whereas the latter was urban and laconic. The growing professionalisation of writing in Finland, helped significantly by a well-functioning grants system, has also given Finland-Swedish authors the time and chance to work on the problems of the novel.

When looking at this minority literature over the last three decades, it is clear to see that the novel genre is blooming anew. This is what the title of Tuva Korsström’s book refers to; Lexå is the town in which Christer Kihlman’s novel Se upp Salige! (‘Watch out Salige!’) is set; released in 1960, it was a pioneer within its genre, an early realistic, polemical, and debate focused novel, typical of the sixties. Whilst the Glitter Scene is the playground of the young women in Monika Fagerholm’s comprehensive novels from the first decade of the new millennium, which won readers across the world.

In this book Korsström does not focus primarily on these sociolinguistic background factors; she takes the development of Finland-Swedish literature as a given, and instead concentrates on the fruits it has borne. Från Lexå till Glitterscenen comprises extensive and highly informative chapters devoted to individual authors, whilst the genre lies between literary history, essay, and commentary, interspersed with interviews with authors. The book is an unrivalled source of knowledge about the authors it covers, and it is precisely because she has insisted that everything be included, both excellent works and less good, well-known and unknown, that Korsström has often managed to provide a new and stimulating picture of the works she writes about. Her approach is most often thematic, and the primary focus of attention is not the formal aspects of the pieces. What is also clear is that it is the realistic novel that lies closest to Korsström’s heart.

Korsström devotes a significant amount of attention to feminism; it is in this area that Finland-Swedish authors have, thanks to their Scandinavian contacts, the played role of introducer in Finland. She also dedicates a large amount of space to literature written outside the capital. Whilst Finland-Swedish literature was for a long time an urban, middle class literature, Korsström shows towards the end of the 20th century, diversification did take place. Authors from rural areas, above all from Österbotten, made a clear and unmissable entry. Their class backgrounds were varied, and working class portrayals became a new important element of the literature.

Korsström’s selection of authors is comprehensive, but towards the end certain exclusions are made, with discussion of the most recent poetry, for example, lacking in depth. In that way, the book is a part of that change that has occurred within Finland-Swedish literature over the first decade of this millennium: the old leading genre, poetry, attracts much less talent, whilst the novel flourishes. Korsström, long serving culture editor at Helsinki newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet, writes with the flow and brilliance of an experienced journalist. This makes the book, despite its impressively wide scope, an appealing reading experience.

Translated by Claire Dickenson

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