The Writer’s dilemma

Issue 2/1984 | Archives online, Authors, Interviews

Marja-Liisa Vartio and Paavo Haavikko

Poets Marja-Liisa Vartio and Paavo Haavikko. Photo: SKS archives

Philip Binham interviews Paavo Haavikko

I think it’s impossible to be just a writer. That would mean isolating oneself completely from the outside world – so it’s important to have other work.

The appointment is on 5 April 1984 in Paavo Haavikko’s city office. Clearly a newly-inhabited office – he recently left his post as Literary Editor for the Otava Publishing Company to become a literary consultant under the letterhead of Arthouse Ltd. A desk jumbled high with papers and photos on which my tape recorder perches precariously; Haavikko is currently working on a history of a leading Finnish industrial enterprise, Wärtsilä. Typewriters, a phone, a few odd chairs, a secretary. Haavikko himself is business-like: well-cut grey suit, well­-trimmed greying hair and beard, neat dark-blue tie: When I play the recording over, our voices echo oddly in the bare, high-ceilinged rooms.

PB: May I start by asking you something about your reading?

PH: That’s a very difficult question for me because up to now I’ve had two jobs – as a writer and a publisher, so my own reading has been more or less non-existent. Writing has taken up all my leisure time. And I thought, now that I’m not in the publishing business any more I’d have time for such reading – but so far I haven’t had any, so that seems to be something for the future.

PB: How do you write? Do you start as soon as you have a moment’s spare time, or do you have a special system?

PH: So far I’ve spent my weekends writing. My working method – I have several pieces of writing going at the same time, and material, often scattered notes, accumulates – I try to write what comes into my mind on various bits of paper and then put them together, but the time that weekends allow isn’t very much.

PB: I remember Joyce Cary for instance kept several card indexes going at the same time.

PH: Such a systematic approach isn’t for me – that seems to be giving the writing too much importance, and the systematization would kill the ‘matter’.

PB: Is there a difference in the way your various types of work originate – poems, drama, stories, aphorisms?

PH: No. It’s the same – I get some overall outline and then I collect these various thoughts.

PB: Do you feel travel has had a significant influence on your writing?

PH: Yes, it has. I must admit if I’ve been abroad on business or as a tourist – I’ve travelled very much at random and started quite late, I’d hardly travelled at all before I was 35 – I’ve felt that my trips were perhaps specially important because they didn’t happen when I was younger. I’ve generally been to places I’ve written about only afterwards – I wrote about Byzantium before I’d actually visited Istanbul. But often the reality is too much – it’s too obvious – it isn’t necessarily a good thing. It may help afterwards in some other way.

PB: I’ve been very interested – as a translator and otherwise – in your work with opera. What happens when a play becomes an opera libretto?

PH: One has to concentrate the material enormously. And then in opera there shouldn’t be psychological drama. Opera’s deeper, a picture of archetypal man, not psychological drama, its nuances – that won’t stand up to the opera stage. It has to be ‘sparser’.

PB: There are two published versions of The Horseman – did you write the longer one as the original?

PH: Yes. I have the idea that since an opera is primarily a completely musical work, the libretto must give the composer a chance to select. An opera libretto is so short it can’t be written ‘straight’ – you have to write it more extensively and then shorten it, you must first put in more ingredients, and that’s what I’ve done.

PB: So the psychological ingredients have then been left out?

PH: Yes, and also otherwise the whole description of what happens – it’s not necessary to explain it, it’s obvious.

PB: Did the composer Aulis Sallinen have much to say about what was left out?

PH: Yes, he cut it down of course, that’s clear – let’s say in the arias – it’s affected a lot by what is suitable for singing. I can’t and I don’t want to determine that. In my opinion it’s co-operative work – the librettist serves the composer – the libretto’s only a starting-point – the musical composition is the absolute point from which the opera begins – before that there’s the librettist … after that comes the actual performance, but that’s the composer’s work – everything else is subservient to it, the librettist, the conductor, the performers. It’s good to know these roles.

PB: Your new opera, The King Goes Forth to France, was originally a play. Has the process been the same with it?

PH: Yes… I’ve heard the music just lately, and it seems to me very – well, it’s not my business to characterize the music. But it was the same thing – I wrote some extra songs for it, changed the events, and then there was a lot of material to select from.

PB: Then, what about a TV ‘libretto’ – a TV script – The Age of Iron, for example?

PH: Yes, that was very demanding work, because one had to transpose folk poetry – the Kalevala – to film. I tried to come close to man’s basic questions and man’s fate, and nowadays people can’t really stand anything but a more prettified idea of art – it could have been made like the Italian Odysseus, which is very beautiful, people move slowly, speak slowly – they don’t shock the viewers at all, but I don’t regret the way I wrote The Age of Iron – it ‘stands up’… but I understand why many people in Finland didn’t really like it, they wanted something more beautiful.

PB: In your works connected with the Kalevala like Twenty and One and The Age of Iron, have you deliberately found or sought some sort of synthetic language?

PH: Yes, I had to solve the problem that I couldn’t use the same metre as the Kalevala because it’s not possible, and besides it ties one down so much, so I use a form where there’s a certain repetition, a certain balance, these are used in folk poetry. It becomes different, it’s bad if you only take from those old artistic periods – to suck the juice out of them – you must meet them halfway – take from them but try to give something oneself too.

PB: Do you use, for instance, more alliteration deliberately?

PH: No, but it’s so superficial. I use certain patterns, repetition and contrast.

PB: About your winning the Neustadt Prize – what was your reaction when you heard about it?

PH: It was a complete surprise… when I’ve been on prize-awarding juries and know about awards – these are always subjective decisions, the main thing is that honest reasons are given for the choice, they aren’t a question of order of excellence of course, only different kinds of literature and some kind of level… and it’s always an arbitrary selection… Anyway, this prize has given me confidence in myself. And I feel my work is a good point of departure for the work of others.

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