New from the archive

11 June 2015 | This 'n' that

Helvi Hämäläinen

Helvi Hämäläinen. Photo: Literary Archives of the Finnish Literature Society.

This week, an excerpt from Helvi Hämäläinen’s gorgeously sensuous novel Säädyllinen murhenäytelmä (‘A respectable tragedy’,1941)

Right at the top of the list of untranslated Finnish masterpieces, for me, is Helvi Hämäläinen’s monumental Säädyllinen murhenäytelmä.

Written in the fateful summer of 1939, as the world waited for war, this story of love among the Helsinki intelligentsia is at the same time both a roman a clef – it caused a sensation on publication as the real people behind the fictional characters were recognised – and a vivid picture of its age. The falling cadences of its luxuriantly proliferating phrases offer a voluptuously aesthetic poetry of the senses as they slowly tell the story of love lost and then, gradually, regained. And the book answers the question, what was it like to be alive then?, with incomparable vividness. In this extract, the novelty of apartment living in the 1930s, the colours and smells, the new social habits, are all brought to life with extraordinary intensity.

We also republish a selection of poems published much later in Hämäläinen’s life, many of them impassioned elegies for the lives lost in the Second World War, giving voice to the sheer weight of sorrow, of grief for those who were lost.

If you’d like to read more, Soila Lehtonen’s evocative essay on Säädyllinen murhenäytelmä accompanies another excerpt; while a glimpse of its sequel, Kadotettu puutarha, (‘The lost garden’, 1995), follows the story onward to an elegiac description of the parts of Karelia that were ceded to the Soviet Union in the Second World War.


The Books from Finland digitisation project continues, with a total of 396 articles and book excerpts made available on our website so far. Each week, we bring a newly digitised text to your attention.

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