A writer and his conscience

Issue 1/1993 | Archives online, Authors

In the autumn of 1891 the brilliant young law graduate Arvid Järnefelt, 30, was just embarking on his pupillage in the lower courts of justice when he suddenly changed his mind. He broke off his promising career in the middle of a legal term, explaining that he could not sit in judgment over anyone. Behind his decision was his encounter with the work of Leo Tolstoy. After reading Tolstoy’s What is my faith? and The Spirit of Christianity, Järnefelt was stopped short by a sentence from the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Judge not, that ye may not be judged.’ He wished to obey the command to the letter, and changed the direction of his life, immediately and radically. First he learned the skills of smith and shoe-maker in order to earn himself a living by the work of his own hands; later he bought a small piece of land, and became a farmer.

Järnefelt knew Tolstoy personally. Their correspondence began as early as 1895 and continued until Tolstoy’s death. Järnefelt visited Tolstoy twice, in 1899 and 1910, and wrote about both meetings. As well as questions of life and belief, they discussed the independence and politics of Finland, which was then threatened by pressure from tsarist Russia, and Järnefelt attempted to persuade Tolstoy to take a public position in Finland’s favour. Järnefelt translated many of Tolstoy’s works into Finnish, and also, in 1919, tried to practice Tolstoyan principles by leaving his home and family (although not permanently). His dislike of compromises and preference for abrupt either/or decisions brought him many difficulties both in his private life and in his career as a writer.

Järnefelt (1861–1932) was an aristocrat, both on his Finnish father’s and his Russian mother’s side. In addition to his legal degree, he had completed a degree in the humanities, with philosophy and Russian as main subjects and Finnish and history as subsidiaries. He had also studied psychology in Leipzig and philology in Moscow. He took an active part in the lively student life of Helsinki, and attracted attention as a public speaker. A glittering career seemed to await him; but events were to take a different course.

Already as a student, Järnefelt had written a novel about university life, which he published as his first work under the title Isänmaa (‘Fatherland’) in 1893. The book reflects both his personal idealism and the general enthusiasm for the development of Finnish-language culture – between 1863 and 1883 the Finnish language had attained the status of the country’s second official language. The main character is Heikki Vuorela, a representative of the first generation of educated Finnish-speaking Finns, who gives up the house he inherits in favour of his adopted sister and wishes, in his own words, to ‘make himself useful’ to his people and country.

Isänmaa attracted a great deal of attention when it was published and appeared to indicate a promising literary debut. But, just as with his legal career, Järnefelt confounded expectations. He described his religious crisis and conversion in his next book, Heräämiseni (‘My awakening’, 1894). He went on to publish short stories, novels and plays, of which the best-known are the symbolist Kuolema (‘Death’, 1903), partly because of the stage-music composed for it by Sibelius, of which ‘Valse triste’ forms apart, and Titus (1902-3), which is based on Roman history. The collections of short stories Elämän meri (‘The sea of life’, 1904) and the novels Maaemon lapsia (‘Children of the earth mother’, 1905) and Veneh’ojalaiset (‘The people from Veneh’oja’, 1909) contain a great deal of philosophising, but also address issues of the day.

Järnefelt also wrote more directly ideological and moral texts in which he explained his stand on social questions. Maa kuuluu kaikille (‘The land belongs to all’, 1907) dealt with the then current question of land ownership and tenant farming in the spirit of the American social reformer Henry George and his book, Progress and Poverty. In his many novels and pamphlets, Järnefelt pondered the problems of marriage, sexual morality and chastity in a manner inspired by Tolstoy. As the crisis that led to the Russian revolution and the Finnish civil war (1918) became more acute, Järnefelt felt the need to intervene more directly, and in the spring of 1917, despite clerical opposition, he gave speeches in three Helsinki churches in which he interpreted the Bible in the spirit of universal love and urged social reconciliation.

After a long period of silence, Järnefelt returned to literature with the novel Greeta ja hänen Herransa (‘Greeta and her Lord’, 1925), which describes a family in crisis under the conflicting pressures of the demands of truthfulness and justice and the realities of life.

In his final period, Järnefelt turned to his own family history in Vanhempieni romaani (‘My parents’ story’, I–III, 1928–30). This became his most important work; it occupies the middle ground between memoir and fiction. The first-person narrator of the first volume is Järnefelt’s mother, Elisabet, who then yields to her growing son, Arvid himself. Despite the shifting perspective, the novel gives an unusually vivid impression of the period it describes, and of the unusual Järnefelt family.

Elisabet, née Clodt von Jürgensburg (1839–1929), was a member of the St Petersburg intelligentsia, and of Baltic extraction. Family circles fostered liberal ideas about people’s inborn equality. There were many artists in the family, among them Järnefelt’s uncle, Peter Clodt von Jürgensburg, whose much admired equine sculptures are still to be seen in St Petersburg, and, in replica, in Berlin and Naples.

His father, Alexander Järnefelt (1833–96), had arrived from Finland to study in the ordnance academy in St Petersburg, where he distinguished himself particularly as a mathematician and geodesist. He became a general and later served as governor in three Finnish provinces, and as a member of the senate. The novel contains a brilliant description of how, against his will, the patriotic Alexander falls in love with the young Elisabet and tries with all his strength, resisting Russification, to distance himself from her; in vain. Love overcomes nationalist and political obstacles.

The young St Petersburg society beauty became the wife of a Finnish soldier and government official, and after a few years the family moved permanently to Finland. Elisabet insisted upon learning Finnish, the language of the majority, although the dominant official and cultural language long remained Swedish. She became an important and inspiring figure in Finnish cultural life, particularly in the development of literature. A literary salon formed around her family, including the prosaist Juhani Aho as a young student and, later, during the Järnefelts’ years in Kuopio, the radical dramatist Minna Canth. Alexander Järnefelt, for his part, began to distance himself from these activities, and from his wife.

The core members of the salon were the Järnefelt children. The oldest, Kasper, was the circle’s severe creative adviser, and a prominent translator. Next came the future writer, Arvid, and after him Eerik, or Eero, who became a celebrated painter. The youngest of the boys, Armas, devoted himself to music, and worked as a conductor in Helsinki and Stockholm. The youngest child, Aino, became the wife of the composer Jean Sibelius.

Through its members’ correspondence, the Järnefelts´ salon also became a sort of school for writers. Its educational function was twofold: it practised its correspondents’ literary gifts, and brought them into contact with new literature. The young authors wrote studies on agreed subjects and subjected their texts to severe mutual criticism. Elisabet Järnefelt, for her part, introduced new Russian literature, above all Tolstoy, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. The dominant style of Finnish literature of the 1880s, realism, was in great part derived from the Järnefelt school. Elisabet Järnefelt richly deserves her honorific title of grandmother of Finnish literature.

The core of Elisabet Järnefelt’s aesthetics was ‘the worship of truth in the world of feeling’. Art must not lie; it must be rigorously truthful and fair, it must not bow to any authority on account of its external role. The same applied to ordinary life. Years later, in 1919, Juhani Aho expressed his gratitude to Elisabet Järnefelt and the decisive influence of her circle: At that time I was discovered, and I discovered myself.’

In his novel, Järnefelt follows his parents’ life right up to the end, and at the same time writes about his personal development. Elisabet supported him in everything, according to her family ethics, accepting all that life offered with humility and joy. Järnefelt describes this exceptional woman and her family as a faithful and understanding observer, obeying the Järnefelts’ own demands of truth, modesty and conscience. That ethical imperative often made his life as a writer difficult, but also gave it an unusual depth of almost painfully absolute intensity and truthfulness whose value seems only to grow with the passing years.

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