Reality versus morality

Issue 3/1982 | Archives online, Authors

Eila Pennanen

Eila Pennanen. Photo: Anonymous (Suomen Kuvalehti 1965) via Wikimedia Commons

Reviewing Eila Pennanen‘s second collection of essays, which appeared earlier this year under the delightfully ambiguous title of Kirjailijatar ja hänen miehensä (‘The authoress and her… man? … men? … husband?… husbands?’), a critic called attention to the heading she had chosen for her essay on Bernard Malamud: ‘Malamud’s ignoble hero’. His comment on this was that the moral judgment implicit in such a title would be both pointless and valueless if Pennanen had maintained it with logical consistency throughout the essay. If in fact she does no such thing, it is because she knows how to look at a character, however ignoble, with an eye for subtleties and a great deal of psychological insight. This is something one often notices about Eila Pennanen: she is apt to begin by labelling somebody or something ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and even to sound quite defiant about it, but she is never, in the end, content to leave it at that. I once heard her give a lecture on Joel Lehtonen. She startled her audience by the vehemence with which she avowed the feelings of loathing or sympathy aroused in her by characters or events in Lehtonen’s books. Her cheeks blazed as she talked. Then, just as unexpectedly, she chided herself for exaggerating, took back a lot of what she had said, laid bare the reasons for Lehtonen’s contradictoriness, and left her hearers in a condition of fruitful perplexity. Whatever they may have thought or felt about the ‘moral approach’ to criticism, they were left in no doubt as to the wit and intelligence of its leading Finnish exponent.

The sublime and the ridiculous

For forty years Eila Pennanen has been one of the most active and versatile workers in the Finnish literary field. To begin with, she has translated nearly a hundred books into Finnish: work of the highest importance in a small country where the language barrier does, after all, work both ways. She has translated books by Agatha Christie, Graham Greene, Bertrand Russell; linguistically, her versions of some of Nabokov’s novels are brilliant examples of her skill. The range of her translations is remarkable, and characteristic: she has occupied herself equally readily with the lightest of light fiction and with the highest of high art – not only as a translator but also in her reviews and critical essays. From a perceptive study of Virginia Woolf or E .M. Forster she will shift her gaze to the lowest reaches of Finnish popular fiction, and apply herself to the puzzling question: who on earth are the people who read this stuff, and why is it always the bad books that are read the most eagerly? But she is not content to be just a literary sociologist, examining phenomena with cool detachment: the bad taste of the majority of the reading public, contrasting with her own conception of good taste, constitutes for her a moral problem that has to be wrestled with continually.

Inner reality and the outer world

Turning to Pennanen’s own career as an author, we can see the years from 1942 to 1951, during which she produced her first six novels, as a period dominated by her interest in one particular problem, that of the exceptional individual, often a woman or a child, whose inner reality comes into conflict with the pragmatism of the masculine world. These early works, a trifle ‘arty’, perhaps, for many people’s tastes, were followed by a series of historical novels of considerably greater solidity. In these she is concerned with the relationship between religious experience and economic activity. For example, in Valon lapset (‘The children of light’), a chronicle of the rise of the Quaker movement, the work of George Fox and William Penn is seen through the eyes of a materially-minded man of business. Pennanen has never hesitated to try her hand at something new, and in Mongolit (‘The mongols’, 1966) she turns to contemporary social satire. Her biggest popular success, however, has been the trilogy of Tampere novels (1971-1973), which are set in the Finland of the earliest years of this century, when the country’s development into a modern industrialized society was just beginning. Here it is no longer the Quakers who engage her interest but the Socialists, seen equally as hard-headed tacticians in the class war and as wild-eyed visionaries proclaiming a new Utopia. The trilogy clearly has its roots in her own social conscience, but in the end she is interested most of all in the well-to-do shopkeeper class from which she herself springs – people who, not being deeply involved in the class struggle, were able to cultivate a style of living marked by some degree of taste and refinement.

Satire and sensitivity

The best of Pennanen can be found in the five collections of short stories (1952–1980), which contain examples of the genre that must rank among the finest that Finland has produced. In her earliest stories one can recognize the influence of Anglo-Saxon models such as D.H. Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield, whose sensualism and virtuosity had clearly fascinated her. But by the end of the 1960s she was moving away from the conventions of the traditional short story and developing a looser, and very original, type of structure in which the patterns of light fiction are used as the vehicle for her mocking satire. The collection entitled Kaksin (‘Two together’, 1961), from which ‘Arska’ is taken, undoubtedly makes the strongest impact of the five. In these stories spiritual conflicts, skilfully built up by the author, tend to be resolved, at breaking-point, by something like a religious revelation. Mostly the narration is objective and confined to the point of view of the characters themselves, but ‘Arska’ constitutes an exception in that the voice of a moral commentator also makes itself heard. Beyond the details of a squalid tragedy one hears, in Section II of the story, a questioning voice: it could be that of ‘a refined person, one who understands art and has been trained to think’, but whose reason and moral values have been put on one side while ‘ignoble’ characters play out their drama before the reader, and catharsis is achieved. The wisdom of the ‘adequate person’, contrasted with the unexpectedness of life itself this is the ‘rift in reality’ which, in Pennanen’s view, constitutes the core of a good short story.

Translated by David Barrett


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