The Nobel pursuit

Issue 2/1988 | Archives online, Authors

The award of the Nobel Prize for literature is always a combination of political expediency and literary judgement. The events leading up to the award of the prize to F.E. Sillanpää (1888–1964) tell us a great deal about successful strategies in the game called ‘How to win your Nobel Prize’.

At the beginning of the Thirties Sillanpää had the approval of Sweden’s literary public behind him, since translations of his early works – a large number of the important short stories he wrote during the 1920s as well as his novel Hurskas kurjuus (1919; English translation Meek Heritage, 1938) – had been very well received in Sweden. Sillanpää had many friends among Finland’s western neighbours and his robust and impressive figure was well known in the literary salons of Stockholm.

At the same time the friendly relations between the Nordic countries made it seem desirable that the award should go to Finland. Norway had received it three times (Björnson 1903, Hamsun 1920, Undset 1928), as had Sweden (Lagerlöf 1909, Heidenstam 1916, Karlfeldt 1931); the Danes Gjellerup and Pontoppidan had shared it in 1919. The grand old man of Finnish literature, Juhani Aha (1861–1921), had once been suggested as a possible candidate.

But in 1931, with the publication of Sillanpää’s novel Nuorena nukkunut (English translation in USA, The Maid Silja, British edition, Fallen Asleep While Young, 1933) Finland now seemed to have a writer worthy of the Nobel Prize.

Nuorena nukkunut is at the same time an extremely ethereal and a very down-to-earth portrayal of the untimely death of a young country girl. One of the reasons for its enormous success was the general climate of opinion at the time of its publication: the world depression had awakened a nostalgia for the good old days and the experimental literature which had been so popular during the economic and technological boom of the 1920s now began to seem unbecomingly modern. There was a demand for art to return to tradition and nature, to regain its primal power.

The Swedish critics were in raptures. Sillanpää was compared with Hardy, Hamsun, Lagerlöf and Undset. Since, with the exception of Hardy, all these writers were Nobel Prize winners, it was only natural that Sillanpää’s name soon began to be mentioned in connection with the award.

The success of Nuorena nukkunut brought Sillanpää a readership outside the Nordic countries. In October 1931, Otava made the astonishing announcement, ‘Europe recognises Sillanpää! English, Norwegian and Danish translation rights requested by telegram!’

The Maid Silja appeared in English in 1933 published by G.P. Putnam; the translation was an excellent one by Alex Matson, a specialist in the novel as a genre, who had spent his youth in England. Putnam’s reader wrote to congratulate him: ‘I have now read the whole of your translation of The Maid Silja and I want to tell you at once how impressed we are both with the book and with your admirable translation. It does not read like a translation at all, and how good it is! It inevitably reminded me of Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles in spirit if not in detail and I feel more confident than ever that Sillanpää is one of the major novelists writing in Europe today.’

The sales of the book were a disappointment. According to the company’s report, the numbers sold in the first year were: Great Britain 405, Continental Europe 109, Colonies 154. In 1936 C. Huntington of Putnam enquired about the likelihood of Sillanpää’s receiving the Nobel prize and offered some advice on writing for the English market: ‘As I said, I advise him very strongly to write a continuous story, tracing the progressive development of some human characters and events. Mr Sillanpää has such an extraordinary appreciation of the Finnish country and psychology of country people, that he could write a very beautiful and moving story of rural life in Finland. But I am afraid that if he continues to write works that are in effect a series of sketches, he will not secure popularity in foreign translations.’

Reviews in the London press were favourable but reserved. The English critics’ extraordinary mixture of narrow insularity and healthy scepticism emerges clearly in the following extract from Harold Nicolson’s review in the Daily Telegraph of Fallen Asleep While Young: ‘I do not think that Mr Sillanpää is a new European genius. But I do think that he writes in a way which is very honourable, and might well be of value to many English writers and readers. We are becoming fussy about our writing and reading. Mr Sillanpää is a very useful antidote to intellectual fuss. It is all very slow and moving and lyrical. Obviously a good book. But not, perhaps, a supremely good book.’

The Blut und Boden movement in German literature in the 1930s ensured a favourable reception for Sillanpää’s work, although he himself did not disguise his distaste for Nazi politics. Nor did the irony of the situation escape him. As he wrote to Otava: ‘At the moment I am especially popular in countries ruled by dictators – how amusing that they have not realised that I am really one of those writers who should be burnt at the stake.’ In December 1938 he made his views public in the Finnish social democratic newspaper Suomen Sosialidemokraatti with his famous ‘Christmas letter to the dictators’ – addressed to Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini. ‘Your power reaches no higher than dust,’ he wrote; ‘when this dim sleepwalkers’ age of your gifted peoples is over, you too will be finished.’ His opinions caused a furore and reports in the German press suggested that Sillanpää’s name would be added to the list of forbidden authors. The German publishing firm Fischer Verlag (Bermann-Fischer), operating in exile from Stockholm, immediately requested German rights for Sillanpää’s works – but war intervened before anything could be done.

During the 1930s Nuorena nukkunut was translated into seventeen languages, Miehen tie and Ihmiset suviyössa into eight and Hurskas kurjuus into six.

Sillanpää received his Nobel Prize in the autumn of 1939, and there has been a great deal of debate ever since about whether the award was made for purely literary, or partly political, reasons. The general consensus is that the choice of Sillanpää was a Swedish attempt to support Finland, whose leading politicians were negotiating in Moscow at a time when the Soviet invasion of Finland was imminent. But in 1986, the Swedish writer Kjell Espmark published a history of the Nobel Prize in which he states that the conflict between Finland and the Soviet Union was not mentioned in the deliberations of the Swedish Academy, at least not explicitly.

According to Espmark, there were three contestants for the 1939 prize, all of them from small and threatened European countries: in addition to Sillanpää, they were the Swiss Hermann Hesse and the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga. At first Hesse had the most support, but the conservative Academicians were strongly opposed to him because they felt that his work was ‘anarchic’. Hesse and Huizinga were level pegging until Sillanpää, the dark horse of the contest, overtook him and won.

Whatever the truth of the matter, politics were certainly in evidence when Sillanpää travelled to Stockholm to receive his prize. The Soviet Union had, by then, already attacked Finland, and when Academician Per Hallström spoke to Sillanpää, he remembered the entire Finnish nation ‘with feelings of admiration and horror’. Sillanpää stayed in Sweden and devoted all his energy and newly won authority to raising funds for the Finns as they struggled against overwhelming odds.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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