This ‘n’ that
30 June 2013 | This 'n' that
Helsinki is relatively young city, Finnish literature even younger.
Flushed with a huge wave of migration at the beginning of the 20th century, the capital and its people went through the dramatic times of gaining independence and the Civil War (1917–18). The capital – since 1812 – and the life experiences of its inhabitants have been plentifully featured in Finnish fiction.
In his doctoral dissertation, Lieven Ameel has concentrated on a period of Finnish literary history. His Moved by the City: Experiences of Helsinki in Finnish Prose Fiction 1889–1941 (2013, Department of Finnish, Finno-Ugrian and Scandinavian Studies, University of Helsinki) examines more than sixty novels, collections of short stories and individual short stories portraying the city: how do the characters experience this urban public space? (Popular – crime fiction, for example – and children’s literature are excluded.) More…
20 June 2013 | This 'n' that
The 26th Lahti International Writers’ Reunion took place at Messilä Manor (some 120 km from Helsinki, on Lake Vesijärvi) from 15 to 18 June.
Chaired by Virpi Hämeen-Anttila and Joni Pyysalo, writers from more than 20 countries held discussions in Finnish, English and French.
This summer the theme was ‘Breaking walls’. ‘Problems demand answers, answers demand questions. If attitudes harden, arms talk, and everyone erects a wall around himself, where is literature in the equation? Is the highest wall right there inside the writer? Or is literature itself a protecting wall? What happens when walls break down?’
The first Writers’ Reunion took place in Lahti – first at Mukkula Manor – fifty years ago; more than a thousand writers, translators, critics and other professionals both Finnish and foreign have come to Lahti to discuss writing. The Reunion has always been open to the public as well.
The biannual Reunion began life in 1963, during the Cold War. Writers from both sides of the Iron Curtain met under the oaks of Mukkula. In the Reunion’s blog some participants and organisers share their experiences of the past; here, the meeting’s one-time international secretary Marianne Bargum recalls the late 1970s and early 1980s:
‘…following in the footsteps of the legendary publisher Erkki Reenpää who knew everybody and all languages, I did my best to persuade big stars to come to Mukkula. Some writers had difficulties when they realised that they were not as well known in Finland as in their own countries. The French poet Michel Deguy left after one day, very offended when nobody knew how big a name he was. (I met him in Paris some years later and he apologised.)
A scandal with huge political consequences came close when the French philosopher Bernard-Henry Lévy said some derogatory things about the Soviet head of state Brezhnev. The Russian delegate, Michael Baryshev, threatened to leave the conference, and Valentina Morozova, interpreter and politruk, had to phone the Soviet Embassy in Helsinki and explain that this was not very serious. The famous British critic and writer Al Alvarez did his best to calm down the antagonists in a panel.’
My own first personal experiences of this international fête (which could mean either wading in the mud on the way to the huge tent sheltering the discussions or basking in hot sunshine followed by the most gentle nightless nights), from the sunny summer of 1983: interviewing Salman Rushdie and Jayne Anne Phillips, among others, for the Finnish Broadcasting Company. Another time the bag containing some hundred copies of the latest issue of Books from Finland, fresh from the printing press, sat on a bus heading for Lahti while I sat on the one behind – which then broke down in the middle of the road, and this was before mobile phones. The driver did have a radio phone though, and the participants got their copies in time.
Among the traditions is a midnight football match between Finns and foreigners: the summer night is light and long. This time the result of the Finland against the rest of the world was convincing 6-3 to Finland.
6 June 2013 | This 'n' that
Ilmari is back!
Last October we brought you the story of a winged traveller who left his home in southern Finland for Africa. Ilmari is a nine-year old osprey who spent his winter in Cameroon; as he and his family are fish-eaters, they have to foresake their frozen homeland for about five months of the year.
It’s a long way to Cameroon, around 6,500 kilometres, and the return trip is a dangerous one. But Ilmari made it: his satellite transmitter reported that he returned to his native landscape on 21 April, after flying 7,351 kilometres, which took him 23 days – an average of 320 kilometres per day. He took a couple of days off on Crete and in Serbia.
Now satellite transmitters and live cameras reveal all the intimate secrets of birds of prey (and bears, hibernating in their lairs). On this British site osprey Lizzie babysits as her chicks flap their tiny wings in early June.
Now it’s time for Ilmari to concentrate on fishing, hopefully in order to feed his offspring – until October, when he will take to the skies again.
16 May 2013 | This 'n' that
A culture freak (and you don’t have to be a vulture) will live longer than a couch potato.
This sounds pretty obvious, doesn’t it? Watching TV is a passive pursuit, attending choir rehearsals or line dancing class isn’t – and human beings are designed to be active.
But it is also a scientific fact. Neurologist and writer MD Markku T. Hyyppä has been researching the effects of cultural pursuits on health for decades. In his new book Kulttuuri pidentää ikää (‘Culture prolongs your life’) he sets out to prove the power of culture using scientific evidence from many countries.
Cultural capital is a concept that defines the ‘usefulness of culture’. Hyyppä disagrees with the famous sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who defines cultural capital as a means for the upper classes to increase their personal status and power. According to Hyyppä, cultural capital is immaterial, originates from cultural pursuits and the consumption of culture, and brings benefits to all who take part.
Learning the basics of culture in one’s education is vital: Finland has done well in the international PISA exams, but it’s not just because the children are bright. Learning how to educate is important: unlike in many other countries, the arts play a significant role in teacher training in Finland. And arts subjects are important in education: art has a positive effect on emotions and cognition, on emotional life as well as reason. Study arts subjects, and it will be easier to learn maths!
It’s a fact is that those who are socially active in clubs, associations and cultural pursuits in general, live longer than those who are not. Economic status is not a decisive factor here. The efficacy of cultural pursuits and cultural capital on prolonging an individual’s life appears to be based on networking. i.e. social capital. Social capital increases the chances of staying alive – almost as much as non-smoking and much more than the estimated extra time of exercise or losing weight. An individual’s cultural pursuits allow him at least a couple of years more in old age.
Hyyppä also examines and comments on the cultural policies of Finnish political parties. After the Perussuomalaiset – True Finns – party presented its manifesto in 2011, stating that contemporary art should not receive any public funding, as only art that ‘strengthens the national identity’ should be funded, other political parties began hastily to revise and update their dusty arts programmes. As it has been proved in international and Finnish medical research that culture definitely has a positive impact on developing society as a whole, political parties cannot afford to ignore dealing with the subject.
In conclusion, Hyyppä states that Finland would certainly benefit from the cultural added value that manifests itself in well-being, health and a longer life spans. When people live longer healthy, the national economy gains massively.
It’s not just opera, ballet and favouring the paintings of the Düsseldorf school that bring you cultural capital and prolong your existence; rock concerts or pottery classes are fine, too. But, notes Hyyppä, being active in politics in your free time, going to church and participating in spectator sports don’t seem to have a similar positive effect, so might it be better not to concentrate on those alone?
Markku T. Hyyppä
Kulttuuri pidentää ikää
(‘Culture prolongs your life’)
Helsinki: Duodecim, 2013. 132 p.
26 April 2013 | This 'n' that
Hey, design hipsters, wherever you are – after the super-serious focus brought about by Helsinki’s year as World Design Capital 2012, here’s a way to blow off steam.
Written by the comic-strip artist, illustrator and designer Kasper Strömman (born 1974), The Kasper Stromman Illustrated Design Encyclopedia (HuudaHuuda, 2013) consists of a series of post-ironic sound-bites on Finnish material culture.
Strömman was voted Graphic Designer of 2013 in Finland by Grafia (Association of Visual Communication Designers), by a jury that considered him to be a ‘catalyst, challenger and the standup comedian of graphic design’.
His book really is encyclopaedic, with entries ranging from the usual suspects (Artek, Arabia, Iittala) through the iconoclastic (in purist design terms, anyway: Angry Birds, the heteka sofa bed, Nokia gumboots and mobile phones) and the everyday (hapankorppu crispbread, vihreä kuula sweets, the Anttila mail-order catalogue and store) to the just plain wacky (the Aqua Tube disposable toilet roll, the Konrad ReijoWaara bridge, the Superlon mattress).
There are also fun sections on how to make your own design classics – for example, a pair of original orange Fiskars scissors (just use some paint) or Harri Koskinen’s glass block lamp – and outings to less-than-fashionable destinations (in eastern Helsinki) such as the Puhos shopping centre or the Itä-Pasila housing estate.
And so on. You can get a taste of what to expect at Kasper Strömman’s design blog in English (sadly discontinued, although it remains online. He’s started a new blog, although only in Finnish, entitled Kasper Diem…).
So far, so good; we like the idea, and it’s hard to think of another source that succeeds so well in bringing together every material thing we think of as Finnish. The problem is that it’s all delivered in faintly annoying one-liners – Kalevala Koru makes ‘jewellery based on bronze age findings, usually bought for you by your parents’; the Jugend style of architecture ‘should not be confused with “Hitler Jugend”’; Lapponia, Lapland in Latin, ‘useful to know if you were planning a ski trip in the Middle Ages’ – quite funny at first, but in the end they begin to get on your nerves. It’s like a diet of street food that never quite adds up to a meal.
The book’s foreword claims it to be ‘unique in the sense that it was put together with a minimum amount of research’ – no designers’ names or information-based facts. There’s an advantage here – it means that Strömman has felt free to include, among his opinions, plenty of oral and hearsay information, essential in dealing with everyday objects and their meanings.
But it also means that, too often, the author has let himself off the hook with a gag or a quip when staying with the subject would have been really rewarding. It’s a bit too much like material culture with attention deficit disorder. (It’s also hard to see who the book is really directed at – many of the jokes are so ‘in’ that it’s only those who are already in the know who will appreciate them.)
So hey, guys (Strömman refers to himself in the plural, so we will too), how about a challenge? Why not take yourselves seriously, and write the full-out version?
12 April 2013 | This 'n' that
Nuntii Latini, conspectus rerum internationalium hebdomadalis, est programma Radiophoniae Finnicae Generalis in terrarum orbe unicum.
Nuntii Latini is a five-minute radio programme broadcast every Friday by the Finnish Broadcasting Company, YLE. It is the only regular news programme in Latin in the world, and has been on the air since 1989. (Not even Vatican Radio broadcasts news.)
Professor Tuomo Pekkanen from Jyväskylä University and Reijo Pitkäranta are the founding fathers of the programme, and they are helped by some other friends of Latin.
In a report on 8 April The New York Times wrote that even Elvis Presley has inspired the friends of the dead language: Jukka Ammondt, a Finnish university lecturer in English and German, began singing Elvis songs in Latin a couple of decades ago, and occasionally still does. Love Me Tender: Tenere Me Ama.
John Tagliabue describes in his article how Leah Whittington, an English professor at Harvard, ‘catches the news bulletins on her iPod while strolling to classes.’ Whittington says: ‘I’m often struck when I’m listening how well structured they are, how idiomatic, how precise the vocabulary is.’
The editors don’t invent new words, they look for new expressions using existing Latin vocabulary. A golf course, for example, is campus pilamallei.
11 April 2013 | This 'n' that
‘Just before the meeting Ludwig chickened out. In the ad he had bragged that he was a “sporty male with a sense of humour”. Would Patsy accept his illiteracy, brutal table manners and cruelty towards the peasants?’
One picture, few words: Mikko Metsähonkala’s artwork creates a moment in a universe – recognisable or completely strange – providing it with a laconic textual subtext. We feature some of his stories published in Toisaalta / (P)å andra sidan / In Other Wor(l)ds.
14 March 2013 | This 'n' that
Zacharias Topelius wrote every day for almost 70 years. His published works contain almost 16,000 pages.
As he was also the editor of the Swedish-language newspaper Helsingfors Tidningar which he published twice a week for 20 years, his output, counted in pages, is enormous.
Author, journalist, historian, critic and pedagogue Topelius (1818–1898) wrote poetry, hymns, travelogues, serials, articles, short stories, fairy tales, textbooks and plays.
As for Finnish translations, his historical serial Fältskärns berättelser (‘The barber-surgeon’s tales’, 1853–1867) and Läsning för barn (‘Reading for children’) are probably his most popular works.
In a bilingual (Swedish and Finnish), text-critical, annotated (and illustrated) project, entitled ‘Zacharias Topelius Skrifter’ (‘Z. T. writings’), Svenska Litteratursällskapet i Finland (the Society of Swedish Literature in Finland) will publish a large number of Topelius’s works in digital facsimile form. The selection grows continually.
13 March 2013 | This 'n' that
Jo kirkkahana aaltoo avaruus,
jo päivyt paistavi, jo hohtaa hanki,
vaan kaikkialla viel’ on hiljaisuus
ja taivas valju on ja maa on vanki.
Now bright swells in the heavens abound,
the days are sunny, snowdrifts gleam,
and yet silence still dwells all around,
the sky is pallid, a prisoner yet the soil.
We were so impressed by this astonishing ice sculpture, created by the artist Winter, that we wanted to share it with you – before, as the spring equinox has just been reached, it disappears for ever.
These hooded characters were created by the storm that sent waves up the trees growing on the waterfront of an islet, just before the lake Saimaa froze up late last year. They have been standing there for months, observed – and photographed – by hundreds of surprised skaters who pass them by on the 22-kilometre skating route.
Earlier these almost Biblical-looking figures seemed to be heading for south (the big photo), but as the changing temperatures and the March sun has now made their own adaptations in the marble-looking ice, the group now seems to be waving goodbye – until next winter, then?
The stanza is from the poem Maaliskuulla (‘In March‘, from the collection Maaliskuun lauluja, ‘Songs of March’, 1896) by Eino Leino (translation by yours truly).
28 February 2013 | This 'n' that
Translations of Finnish literature into English are booming, according to a new website set up by the Finnish-English Literature Translation Co-operative, or FELT.
Or at least there is a tiny boom, as translator Lola Rogers puts it in her contribution to ‘Reflections’ on the FELT website.
Whereas less than 20 translations were published between 1992 and 2002, the number of translations published in the decade from 2002 was more than 34.The reason, according to FELT, is the new availability of qualified literary translators, whom the new website has been created to represent; each of them (David Hackston, Emily Jeremiah, Kristian London, Lola Rogers, Owen Witesman) now have two or more published Finnish works of fiction under their belts.
A significant factor has been the training events organised by FILI, Finnish Literature Exchange, publisher of this magazine – and, we might dare to say, Books from Finland itself, which offers translators a forum (as well as payment) for translations of extracts from interesting or significant new work.
The FELT website is worth a visit by anyone with an interest in Finnish literature – or translation. As well as details of published and forthcoming work, there is a collection of essays on the art of translating particular works, from Kristina Carlson (also ex-Editor-in-Chief of Books from Finland) to the novelist Asko Sahlberg and the modernist poet Eeva-Liisa Manner.
15 February 2013 | This 'n' that
One day in the antediluvian times of dawning Beatlemania, a schoolboy in a Finnish small town found himself smitten head over heels by the new pop songs by (probably) the most famous band in the world ever (so far). Like some two billion other teenagers, he learnt by heart every single song the Beatles recorded. Yeah!
The schoolboy grew up and became the illustrator and writer Mauri Kunnas (born 1950), whose storybooks, mostly for children, have now been translated into 30 languages.
But his interest in the Fab Four never left him, and last year he published his illustrated history of John, Paul, George and Ringo, from the day they were born to the day when Please, Please Me / Ask Me Why became number one in the British Top 20 in 1962. As the book is partly written in his native local dialect, its title is Piitles. Tarina erään rockbändin alkutaipaleesta (‘Beatles. The story of the first stage of a rock band’, Otava, 2012).
In this 77-page graphic story the Beatles grow from babies into celebrities. The large number of hilarious visual details keeps the reader vigilant: for example, in their early days on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn John, Paul, George and Pete (Best) stay in lodgings behind a cinema that are less than hygienic, so on closer examination the lads turn out to be wearing underpants with yellow spots.
Julia Lennon, Klaus Voormann, Astrid Kirchherr, Stuart Sutcliffe, Cynthia, Brian Epstein, George Martin: the faces in the gallery of characters are instantly recognisable. Piitles illustrates how Beatlemania was born, and it is truly the work of a faithful fan.
10 January 2013 | This 'n' that
In our odd quiet moments we occasionally amuse ourselves by checking out what’s happening in the bear village of Kuusamo, in the north-east of Finland, by watching ‘bear TV’ (the bears speak Finnish only with the staff, but the link offers plenty of expressive action without words).
The brown bear (Ursus arctos) – feared, respected and even mythical animal of the ancient Finns – can weigh more than 400kg. It can run fast (60km/h) and scare the pants off people in the woods, although it always avoids humans if possible. There are approximately 900–1300 wild bears in Finland. This large, intelligent beast hibernates from October to April. Omnivorous, it eats meat as well as plants and berries – carrots, too, if it can lay its paws on them.
Kuusamon suurpetokeskus (The Predator Centre) in Kuusamo has given home to several bears who have lost their mother when cubs or injured in accidents. The bears regard Sulo Karjalainen, their carer – beartaker? – their dear pal, or even mum.
It is really heart-warming to watch him and Pasi Jäntti socialising with their furry friends, who politely – or occasionally slightly rudely – devour the healthy treats that they are given in exchange for posing in several little home movies on their ‘bear TV’ website. In them, the endearing giants – Juuso, Niisku, Vyöti and others – lick Sulo’s cheek, have a bath, and Juuso tests a specially made bear weighing machine and, getting sleepy, a man-made lair with Sulo, his dear pal.
Dangerous? Texts on the videos point out that only the staff can enter the bears’ home.
Sulo bears a scar on his cheek, yet he is perfectly fearless. With the largest mammal in Europe, there is a risk involved…
21 December 2012 | This 'n' that
Finland is used to feeling pretty good about itself when it comes to education. In the widely respected PISA tests – the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s exams in science and literacy – Finnish schoolchildren have, since the turn of the century, been outperforming most of their peers.
A shock came in 2009 when the tests revealed that Finnish kids were only third-best at reading, and sixth in maths; but by this time they were competing against the newly participating Asian countries, with their huge concentration on education.
Now, however, a new league table, drawn up by the education publishers Pearson, places Finland right at the top (2006–2010, 40 countries). Second place is held by South Korea; third is Hong Kong. The Pearson analysis uses a broader set of criteria, using not just test results but broader measures such as how many people go to university. In a result that is causing some puzzlement in the United Kingdom, Britain is rated sixth. Entirely, say critics, because British universities are so easy to get into.
The results are indeed flattering to Finland – but Finnish children’s motivation to learn is among the weakest in the survey’s countries. In reading, mathematics and the sciences Finns’ attitudes and application were low. It looks as if Finnish children consider school a place to hang out with their friends, not a place for teaching and learning. Countries where competition is stronger breed different attitudes.
So here’s the Finnish paradox: kids here hate school – yet still end up at the top of the list.
Must be something in the water.
21 December 2012 | This 'n' that
Tove Jansson’s Moomin books are widely cherished by children and adults alike. They are funny and charming yet haunting and profound. Lovable Moomintroll; practical and sensible Moominmama; spiky Little My; the terrifying yet complex monster, Groke – Jansson’s creations linger in the mind.
The first ever Moomin book – The Moomins and the Great Flood (Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen, 1945) – was published in the UK in October by Sort Of Books, but Jansson’s writing for adults is also achieving recognition in the English-speaking world.
A Winter Book, a selection of 20 stories by Jansson (Sort Of Books, 2006) was the trigger for a recent event on London’s South Bank. Along with journalist Suzi Feay and writer Philip Ardagh, I was invited to talk about Jansson’s work in general and about these stories in particular.
As Ali Smith notes in her fine introduction to the collection, the texts are ‘beautifully crafted and deceptively simple-seeming’. They are, as she puts it ‘like pieces of scattered light’. She also refers to the stories’ ‘suppleness’ and ‘childlike wilfulness’.
‘The Dark’, for example, offers an apparently random set of snapshots of childhood. Arresting images abound – swaying lamps over an ice rink, swirls in the pattern of a carpet that turn into terrible snakes – to create a tapestry of childhood. It’s like a dream: of ice and fire, fear and safety, a mixture that recalls the secure yet scary world of Moomin valley.
‘Snow’, too, conjures childhood fear. The house that features in this story is unhomely or uncanny, to refer to Freud, and seems haunted by the ghosts of other families. The story ends with the shared resolution between mother and child to return to a place of safety: ‘So we went home.’
The combination of scariness and safety, of comfort and unease, is one of the things that makes Jansson (1914–2001) such a powerful writer, not only for children – although questions of security and fear might have especial resonance in early life – but also for adults, who continue to be haunted by the unknown, but also tempted by it.
The South Bank event also gave participants and audience the chance to talk about other works by Jansson. The Summer Book (Sommarboken, 1972) notably, is a delicate and deft evocation of a summer spent on an island.
The narrative charts the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter, and at the same time probes such profoundly human questions as love and loss, hope and change and continuity. As always in Jansson, the descriptions are sharp and crisp, and the writing is at once spare and suggestive.
Novels like Fair Play (Rent spel, 1989) and The True Deceiver (Den ärliga bedragaren, 1982) reveal Jansson’s subversive, sly, and subtle sides, which sit alongside her playfulness, warmth, and humour to create a unique aesthetic. Fair Play is a book about the relationship between two women; it’s tender, funny and thoughtful. Never sentimental, it is nonetheless moving. And it’s quietly subversive in its matter-of-fact depiction of a same-sex relationship.
The True Deceiver is set in a snowbound hamlet. A young woman fakes a break-in at the house of an elderly artist, a children’s book illustrator, and a strange dynamic develops between the two women. It’s a book about being outside, about not belonging. The relationship between the women, which is never fully resolved or explained, is especially fascinating.
Jansson excels at showing the human need for both company and privacy, intimacy and autonomy. And her work is profoundly philosophical. In very light, nimble narratives, Jansson explores the meanings of our lives.