Dark gods: on the prose and poetry of Mirjam Tuominen

Issue 4/1991 | Archives online, Authors

‘With her collection of short stories, Mirjam Tuominen, hitherto an unknown name, has won a place among the very elite of our literature; it is a long time since we have witnessed such an important debut. What is so strange is that the author who is now making her appearance is a truly original talent. She is an artist in soul and spirit, and not merely a more or less gifted writer… There is no doubt that she touches the nerve of our time very intimately, and that her short stories are not products of literature, but really do contain within their form the living word.’

With this enthusiastic review, in 1938, the leading Finland-Swedish critic Hagar Olsson, who had also been the friend and active supporter of Edith Södergran, introduced the young Mirjam Tuominen’s first collection of short stories, Tidig tvekan (‘Early hesitation’).

As Hagar Olsson points out, there is an element of choice built into each story: ‘Each one of these short stories illuminates in its own way a certain psychological situation, in which the protagonist, under the pressure of dangerous or contradictory elements in his or her life, has to make a choice.’

Death or life, guilt or accusation, love or freedom – these are all choices that the 25-year-old Mirjam Tuominen (1913–1967) had herself confronted. She was to find herself in such situations of choice many times subsequently. Tidig tvekan contained elements of Mirjam Tuominen’s life; it also included certain themes that were to be fundamental to the greater part of her work.

The most difficult and important choice in Tidig tvekan is that faced by Irina in the very first short story. The girl Irina, one of Tuominen’s many alter egos, is a shy, contemplative, sickly child who has lost her father in early years. Irina has been taken to hospital, and hovers between life and death. She sees her struggle as a matter of choice – between life and death, between darkness and light. Paradoxically, it is death that is light, while life is darkness and anguish.

Irina is the first, and fundamental, dissident in Tuominen’s writings. She is different, because she experiences anguish in the face of life even in its most prosaic, everyday manifestations. Life is night and fear, but it is also her daily inability to be like everyone else. In hospital, her Lebensangst takes concrete form in her self-ironic, nightmarish memories of gym lessons at school, and of her inability to ‘keep in step with the others’. Irina chooses life, and the anguish of life. She chooses the awareness that her dead father was perhaps the only one she ever kept in step with. She comes to the conclusions that ‘one should always look ahead, only ahead’.

Mirjam Tuominen’s next collection of short stories, Murar (‘Walls’), was published the following year, in 1939. The first story, ‘Anna Sten’, is both wondrous and wonderful, and thematically enigmatic.

‘Anna Sten’ does not display the thematic elements which, though skillfully concealed, can be traced in many of Tuominen’s short stories, including ‘Irina’. The heroines of these stories are slender, beautiful, intelligent young girls or women struggling with their need for intellectual independence on the one hand, and for a physical, ‘normal’ life on the other.

Anna Sten has none of the beauty and creativity of these protagonists. She is totally ugly, totally isolated, totally passive, totally unhappy. But before Anna Sten becomes the incarnation of absolute misery, she is given a certain number of chances in life. She is gravely handicapped from birth, but she can use her hands, and takes delight in her work as a seamstress. Then her hands are destroyed by rheumatism. She might possibly have taken pleasure in reading; infirmity makes her half-blind. Anna Sten, who is so repulsively ugly that human beings cannot stand the sight of her, gains the affection of a kitten. The cat disappears. Gradually, but inexorably, she is stripped of everything, becoming the sum total of sufferings:

She looked as though she had done nothing but suffer and she looked like one who has never reconciled herself with her suffering, who is completely helpless before it. That is why her appearance frequently had the effect of a violent insult brutally thrown in the face. It was as though she deliberately wanted to force upon people the assertion, for the suffering consciousness, at least, an atrocious and wounding one, that suffering is completely without purpose or meaning.

To the young Sven Kolmar, who is mortally ill, Anna Sten is as the pawnbroker to Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment: something that ought to be eliminated. The reason for this is that Anna Sten, unlike Sven Kolmar, still paradoxically, senselessly, hopes for something. But when he comes to Anna Sten in order to kill her, she discloses to him life’s inner secret:

And then Sven Kolmar understood that he had forgotten or overlooked the most important thing, he had forgotten love, human love, and the one that exists outside human beings; more patient, stronger, more merciless, more compassionate than any human love, because it will not give up until it has forced to the surface the thing within man that will help him to help himself life’s love for all creation, which for its part will not give up until man has blessed it.

In ‘Anna Sten’ Tuominen expounds the essence of Christianity in its most naked and, for many, its most unacceptable form. She returns to the New Testament and its injunction to love the ugly, the poor, and the suffering.

‘Anna Sten’ is a timeless story. Its image of suffering and existence makes it possible to understand why Grünewald’s paintings of Christ are so repulsively ugly. Tuominen also anticipates Samuel Beckett’s monstrous and humorous descriptions of beings that have nothing except life.

I have concentrated on two of Mirjam Tuominen’s earliest short stories in order to indicate something that is characteristic of all her writings: a constant exploration of life’s essence, a deep penetration into the inner nerve of life. Perhaps this is what Hagar Olsson had in mind in her characterisation of Tuominen’s first short stories not as ‘products of literature’, but as containing within them ‘the living word’.

During the 1940s, the two early books were followed by a steady flow of short stories and essays: Visshet (‘Certainty’, 1942), Mörka gudar (‘Dark gods’, 1944), Kris ( Crisis’, 1946), Besk brygd (‘Bitter brew’, 1947), Bliva ingen (‘Become no one’, 1949), Stadier (‘Stages’, 1949).

Shortly after the outbreak of the Winter War in 1939, Tuominen had entered into an impulsive marriage, typical of those times, with Torsten Korsström, a man she had loved for several years. Before the outbreak of war, Torsten Korsström had obtained a post as an art teacher at the Teachers’ Training College in Nykarleby, Ostrobothnia, and his young wife found herself spending the war years there, isolated in Finland’s smallest town, far away from her family, her friends, and the intellectual circles of Helsingfors. Their daughter Kyra was born in 1941, Tuva in 1946. For most of that time, Tuominen’s husband was fighting at the front line. Contact was kept up through letters and brief, intense visits.

This biographical background permeates the stories of the 1940s. Tuominen depicts love between man and woman with all that it involves of eroticism, tenderness, struggle for power, jealousy. She depicts childbirth and the mysterious closeness between mother and baby. She depicts the small town and the Ostrobothnian plain. She depicts the war and the alarming upsurge of Nazi sympathies in the Finland of her day.

Literary critics have often pointed out that in her short stories Tuominen specialised in describing children, animals, women and sick people. She certainly described and analysed all these beings with great psychological acuity, but at the same time she gave a picture of the whole society of that time. Through the deviant who, precisely because they stand slightly outside, are particularly sensitive, she records the normal. Through the child she sees the adult, through the animal the human being; through the sick person she describes the healthy one, through the woman the man.

In Bliva ingen, the book that can be considered her farewell to the short story, she summarizes and anticipates all her themes within one short tale, called ‘In Absurdum’. ‘In Absurdum’ tells the story of a dancer who strives for absolute skill in her dancing, for total solitude in her life, who falls and badly injures herself, and who sees God as she is dying.

I saw my book this morning: Bitter Brew.

In this daybreak without light, where white was shining: melting snow, dirty white walls. Rain, snow, slush, black trees with torture-twisted trunks. December dawn in this town, which inspires only agony in me. At this boundary I apprehend everything with painful clarity…

The long essay Besk brygd (‘Bitter brew’, 1947) marks a watershed in Tuominen’s writing, and it has been viewed by many critics as her most important book.

The mood of Besk brygd is one of departure and disintegration. Tuominen will soon abandon the short story, and fiction, as literary genres. She is about to leave the small town, and her marriage. Humanity has gone morally bankrupt; the holocaust of Hitler’s Germany has been revealed to its full extent:

Were I to stand in the middle of a square and howl out the horror that fills me, I would be taken care of and whisked off to a mental hospital. I would be taken care of and made insane, but my horror would not be taken care of. Because I experience my horror so intensely that I have to howl in order to obtain a response, I am considered insane, but if I conceal my horror in my heart and talk about the weather, the shortage of food, clothes and tobacco, I will get many-worded and many-voiced responses and be considered sane.

Tuominen does not howl out her horror in the streets. Instead, she uses the tool she has, literature, to bring order to the chaos and decay. She analyses human guilt, and the part played by the tormentor, methodically, step by step. Her starting point is a news item about a German soldier who threw a little Jewish boy into a sewer because the boy cried as the soldier was whipping the child’s mother. This scene remained in Tuominen’s mind forever. She was to return to it again and again. When she was writing Besk brygd she believed that she could analyze it away or, more typically, that she could take the guilt upon herself:

I want to incorporate myself into this German soldier, into his body and his soul. I would like to return with him into his mothers womb, be born with him, grow up with him and then, organically coalesced with him, exist until the day when he took the boy and threw him into the sewer.

That is my most fervent wish and desire. Often.

But I cannot do this, and I am helpless. I know nothing.

In her autobiographical book from the war years, La Douleur (‘Pain’, 1985), the French author Marguerite Duras makes a similar effort to analyse a tormentor. She states: ‘His stupidity is impenetrable. It is completely without holes.’

In Besk brygd, Tuominen describes a more nuanced, but equally impenetrable tormentor.

Yes, if the tormentor could express himself – then nearly everything would be gained. Only he could transfix on the needle this human destructive instinct – only he could see through himself. But the tormentor never speaks, he is the most laconic being ever created. He forces his victim to talk, to whimper, to stutter – he himself is mute – one could imagine that it is stupidity – but it is not stupidity – one might think it was contempt for words, but he has no contempt for words, he is interested in words. It is perhaps quite simply incapacity. He is tied to the action, the victim is tied to the word.

Tuominen constructs a system of guilt and non-guilt, of tormentors and victims. The least guilty beings are infants and animals. This book of meditation on humanity’s greatest crime is about ‘the feelings of gratitude towards a fly, remorse for offence rendered to a cat, and the genuine joy the company of two infants has given me’.

The world of adults is false and hostile to life:

An invisible tormentor, not joy and happiness, seems to be the host at every social event.

Tuominen is looking for better company than that hosted by the invisible tormentor. She finds her new intellectual friends among those who, according to her own interpretation, have ‘identified’ the tormentor; writers and artists who seem to have known all there is to know about the problems of guilt and anguish that ‘fill my days and my nights so that it seems to me that I have sunk into a burning sea of fire’.

Besk brygd ends with an essay on Edith Södergran, Franz Kafka and Hjalmar Bergman. 1949 saw the publication of Mirjam Tuominen’s essay collection Stadier (‘Stages’), which contains studies of, among others, Valery, Proust, Rilke, Strindberg and Cora Sandel.

Mirjam Tuominen was an assiduous reader of literature in the Nordic languages, in German, French, and to some extent Spanish and Italian. She possessed extraordinary literary intuition and, when writing reviews in newspapers, frequently introduced new names. She was one of the first people in Finland to write about Kafka; she was drawn to Hölderlin years before he was rediscovered by literary fashion. But she never treated literature as a source of news stories. The essays in Besk brygd and Stadier indicate that she wrote only about writers she liked and with whom she felt some spiritual affinity. She writes about Kafka:

This latter-day relative of Jesus of Nazareth was born in Prague and grew up in an incurably bourgeois home.

One may wonder if there is anything so immensely liable to have a harmful effect, an effect that is deeply and inwardly incurable to the bottom of the soul, on a growing poetic force that senses the possibilities but as yet has no idea of its own existence, than the helplessly arch-bourgeois mentality.

Franz Kafka becomes for Tuominen an almost ideal object of identification. Both Kafka and Tuominen are victims and outsiders. They feel surrounded by despotic tormentors who want to reshape and adapt them to ‘normal’, bourgeois life. Both have the most severe tormentors within themselves.

In her Kafka essay, consciously or unconsciously, Tuominen defines herself and her own writings. When she describes Kafka’s irony, it is her own sense of humour she portrays, that of the physically passive, non-aggressive victim.

It is worth noting that a large number of Tuominen’s models were men; mostly unusual, ‘unmasculine’ men like Kafka, Proust, Rilke or Flölderlin. What preoccupied her, just as it was to preoccupy the French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva decades later, was not the problem of masculine and feminine, but that of marginality and difference. Women artists who fascinated Tuominen included the Finland-Swedish poet Edith Södergran, the Norwegian novelist Cora Sandel, the French philosopher Simone Weil, and the Finland-Swedish painter Helene Schjerfbeck. These women, like her male favourites, are characterised by the vulnerability of marginal beings. They are all engaged in the same self-consuming search for the absolute. Tuominen writes about Cora Sandel:

This work is in the highest degree feminine, as feminine as Strindberg’s is masculine, it constitutes an index of features that are normally feminine, raised to an intensified and therefore abnormal level of emotion in the same way as Strindberg in his writings becomes an index of the normally masculine at an extremely heightened level of emotion. I have never seen a portrait of Cora Sandel and I have no idea of what she looks like, but something of the same terrfying, at once defenceless and strong, expression that is reflected in Helene Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits emanates from her writing; a white face with dark, wide-open eyes, the expression of a being mercilessly incorporated into the nerve of life’s essence and with the same mercilessness exposed to the conditions of reality; extreme sensitivity and extreme overpowering temperament are here united – the result is extreme shyness, a scream of existential agony.

Tuominen broke with Nykarleby, for short periods at first, then finally 
for good.

‘The decisive thing had now happened,’ she writes in a short prose piece called ‘Skilsmässa’ (‘Divorce’) in the book Tema med variationer (‘Theme and variations’, 1952). ‘They were separated, spiritual and physically irreconcilable – and what divided was stronger than reason and will, stronger than instincts and desires.’ What caused the divorce was not only masculine jealousy of the woman’s ‘fornication with spirits, demons and non-personalised men’ that Mirjam Tuominen describes in Skilsmässa. It was perhaps above all the jealous, all-consuming attention she herself paid to her spirits and demons.

She demanded her solitude and her integrity. At the same time she was torn apart by her own needs. She lived for a while with her mother and sisters in her former home in Helsingfors an old, dark flat, similar to the one where her little heroine Irina has her nightmares. A couple of years later, as a single mother, she was allocated a council flat in Kottby, a suburb of Helsingfors. She moved there with her two daughters and lived there until she died. The prose sketches Tema med variationer reflect this new phase in Tuominen’s life. Stories such as ‘Houses being built’ or ‘Ahti laughs’ derive their origin from the new environment: a row of recently and badly built tenement houses, filled with large working-class families, gypsies, alcoholics, social cases and rootless people from all over post-war Finland. This flat was the first one that Tuominen felt to be entirely her own. It was with a sense of triumph that she sat down to her typewriter in the early morning hours. Outside her window, building workers climbed on scaffolding. All around new houses were going up. There was a pioneering spirit in the air:

Comrade – kaveri – kamrat –: they shouted in pouring autumn rain, m 30 degrees of frost, when you got the feeling that it was not they, these well wrapped up and yet poorly clad fellows, young and old – who were doing the work, but angels, While the men – old and young – had stayed at home to drink hot milk – Comrade – kamrat – toveri: they came in a long row every morning at 7. They laughed. They whistled. And they did the work: Together. In broken Swedish, in broken Finnish, in natural Finnish, natural Swedish, natural Yiddish – homeless from Karelia, homeless from Hangö, homeless from some concentration camp in Central Europe…

With Tema med variationer, Mirjam Tuominen embarked upon a linguistic experiment, on the border between prose and prose poetry. While hitherto she had employed a timelessly classical literary language, now she strove for the mental leaps of the stream of consciousness. She was on her way from prose to poetry.


Down in straight lines the birds
silent O silent
down down
into an earth that opens like a sea
into a sea you plunge.
Up up.

It closes.

With her first collection of poems, Under jorden sjönk (‘Under die earth sank’, 1954), Mirjam Tuominen abandons die attempt to surround her investigations of the inner world with descriptions of the outer. The characters and settings of the short stories give way to expressions of the pure self, the idea, silence, and a now clearly articulated awareness of God:

Make me teach me

Make me pure
teach me silence
make me whole
teach me new words
words that are not words
words that are as silence
whole pure
not self-abandonment
not accusation
not defence
not thesis
not antithesis
but synthesis.

May life and death
hold each other in balance.

At the same time she herself is crossing the border between illness and health, abnormality and normality, that she has described many times in her books. She is no longer a sensitive but objective witness who can deliver reports from both sides. She is gradually moving into a clear-sighted privacy of her own, into an isolation that is sometimes very frightening:

The cry

There is a cry in the forest:
I want to go home
the keys have fallen
the paths have disappeared
I cannot get there
I am badly frightened
I have had a very very bad fright
they have frightened
I have frightened
I want to go home to my dolls at home
home to the stove the fire the hearth.

The verse collection Monokord (‘Monochord’) appeared in the same year as Under jorden sjönk. It was followed by Dikter III (‘Poems III’, 1956), Vid Gaitans (‘By the Gaeta’, 1957), and I tunga hangen mognar bären (The berries ripen in heavy clusters’, 1959). For a short period in the mid 1950s, Tuominen was unable to write, and started to draw instead. Some of her pencil drawings were published in Dikter III. The period without words was provoked by two short periods she spent, against her will, in mental hospital. She attributed her internment to an act of deceit on the part of her relatives, and forbade her mother, sister, ex-husband and most of her friends to have any contact at all with her or her daughters.

Tuominen’s attitude to society during the later period of her life could be described with the words she had once used in an essay about Strindberg’s paranoia: it implied a division of mankind into two halves, one consisting of enemies and the other of future enemies. She gradually isolated herself from the rest of the world. Her life became the ‘work illness poverty’ that she had anticipated in Under jorden sjönk.

She allowed herself only the company of those spiritual companions she loved and trusted. angels, saints, her dead father, and a varying number of dead writers, artists and philosophers. But she could not ban the demons, the devils and the torturers from her inner world. She chose solitude, silence and light, but she was also visited by a chorus of inner voices from hell. She could never free herself from her inner visions of the war and the concentration camps, precisely those visions that may have caused her illness. She developed a frightening and self-destructive ability to react directly and actively to political news from outside. The atomic bomb, the Korean war, the execution of the Rosenbergs, disturbed her particularly. But even the visions of horror were turned into poetry.


… but the child followed the ball’s fate
was carried on women’s backs in gypsy bundles mass migrations
was gassed beaten to death kicked
hurled into sewers
thrown from burning buildings
by desperate homeless mothers
German Polish Jewish Russian
now without distinction
doomed for racial impurity
never found any revenge
other than the underground cloaca
there mothers were glad
if sometimes a washroom was opened for them
dirty as in the bistros of southern seaports
with a lavatory hole in the floor
and a device with a grating
for the washing of the inner sexual parts
here they themselves could relieve their bowels or bear the child
which an unknown father of unknown nationality had given them
while they slept unconscious of anything
hut dreams of hope and gentle stars
and tranquillity’s narrow sickle moon in deep blue late autumn nights …

In Under jorden sjönk, Mirjam Tuominen makes Spinoza deduce God’s existence:


From the simple
into the multiple
composed of the simple
through the simple
deduced from the simple
leading to the multiple simple
again leading onward
to new multiples
simple deductions
all the way to the most simple of all
the simplest simple
the whole.

When, in the mid 1950s, Mirjam Tuominen began to take an interest in the Roman Catholic church, she entered a more varied spiritual context than the Lutheran church had been able to offer her. The Virgin Mary added motherliness and femininity to the image of the divine. There was ample choice of spiritual company to be found among the saints. Tuominen chose Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Therese of Lisieux. She became converted to Roman Catholicism in 1963, and religion dominated the rest of her life entirely. Her poetry took the form of prophecies and revelations. Her prose turned into a dynamic, often questioning dialogue with the Bible and the writings of the saints.

The book of meditation Gud är närvarande (‘God is present’, 1961) is the last book she published. Her publisher rejected two subsequent huge manuscripts of religious poetry: Jesus-Kristus lyra (‘The lyre of Jesus Christ’) and Ave Maria.

Her own sketches for covers for her last published books were also rejected. Her chalk paintings, including the covers, have been recognised as outstanding and exceptional works of art more than 20 years after her death. Tuominen interpreted these rejections as the last, unpardonable violation from the outside world. She considered herself condemned to a silence which she had not herself chosen and which was not, like that of Hölderlin, dictated by God.

Her last, silent, years, until she died, from a cerebral haemorrhage, in the summer of 1967, were possibly the most unhappy period of her life. Writing had been her life, the life she had chosen. Writing had given her human dignity and the strength to ‘look ahead, always ahead’, like Irina in the very first short story.

I lived my life observing. What I met with I observed. I was a zero and pure observation.

In the days after I died, however, I made myself very articulate. People wondered why. With good reason. For it was not I, but my observations, that made themselves articulate in a strangely profound, though swiftly transient manner. They flew away and came back. They fly away and come back again. They named them with my name, honoured them unpretentiously, and it was the unknown in themselves they so honoured.

(‘Epitaph for a zero‘; Gud är närvarande.)

Prose extracts translated by Tuva Korsström and David McDuff; poems translated by David McDuff
Bloodaxe Books, of Newcastle upon Tyne, published a Selected Poems of Mirjam Tuominen (translated by David McDuff) in 1993
Tuva Korsström is the daughter of Mirjam Tuominen


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