Love and war

Issue 4/1993 | Archives online, Authors

Helvi Hämäläinen’s memoirs reveal the true extent to which her classic novel Säädyllinen murhenäytelmä (‘A respectable tragedy’), which shocked polite Helsinki society when it appeared in 1941, is a roman à clef.

Perhaps the deepest love flows from the spring of forgiveness that is hidden within us, which does not open unless we are wounded; if a person who loves another is too noble to inflict that wound, he will never receive the deepest love. For it is the imperfection of the loved one that makes it possible to fix on him the best powers of the soul. Naimi’s love was noble because she had chosen as imperfect a beloved as Artur; Artur had no love because he had never been wounded in love in order that it might flow.

(Säädyllinen murhenäytelmä)

Hunger and love are basic passions of life, but greater still is the artist’s passion to create, claims the 86-year-old writer and poet Helvi Hämäläinen in her memoirs, Ketunkivellä (‘On the fox-stone’, with Ritva Haavikko). She herself paid a heavy price for her artistic passion in the 1940s: her best-known novel – which later became one of Finnish literatures best-sellers, with a total of almost 40,000 copies sold – caused widespread offence. It was understood immediately for what it was: a roman à clef.

Säädyllinen murhenäytelmä (‘A respectable tragedy’), written in the summer of 1939, was published, after the Winter War, in 1941. So short, and so overwhelmingly rural, is the history of the Finnish novel that it was among the first to tell of the lives of Finnish urban intellectuals: it described the way of life of the well-educated and prosperous upper middle class of Helsinki. Its central theme is love: respectable, improper, young, old, erotic, Oedipal. The characters are members of old, cultured families, some stiff and conventional, some degenerate, some elegantly aesthetic. Their world is built upon an understanding of propriety, and a respect for aesthetic, spiritual values.

The central characters are a doctor in his sixties and his wife Elisabet; the doctor’s sister Naimi, ten years his junior; the love of her youth, Artur, and Artur’s old mother, who live in their old dacha on the Karelian isthmus. The doctor falls unsuitably in love: a goddess of youth and beauty appears to him in the form of the neighbours’ maid. A baby is born, threatening scandal, whom Elisabet ‘wraps in cotton wool’: the child is adopted into the doctor’s family, and Elisabet gives her forgiveness in order not to break with propriety. Naimi and Artur have been separated for 20 years: Artur has been unfaithful and cruel, but Naimi returns to him at his request. His jealous old mother disapproves of her daughter-in-law’s return, bul Artur longs for care and tenderness, and Naimi realises she can receive love only through giving them: ‘Her husband had once more opened a new portal of love, which allowed tender care to flow from her soul, good, cherishing work, skilful, patient nursing.’

But this is, as its contemporaries recognised, a roman à clef, and the characters have their models. The doctor, for example, is Professor Oiva Tuulio, and his wife Elisabet the writer Tyyni Tuulio (1892–1991), who was a friend of Helvi Hämäläinen; Artur is Olavi Paavolainen, the multi-faceted cultural figure and writer, and Hämäläinen’s lover between 1938 and 1941; his old mother is, in external appearance, Olavis mother, Alice Paavolainen. Naimi’s external appearance is borrowed from the literary critic Anna-Maria Tallgren – but her soul is Hämäläinen’s own.

Despite the fact that there are many correspondences between the novels characters and reality, the book is, of course, a work of fiction, a work of art with its own goals and questions – but this its contemporary readers were not prepared to believe and, tragically, Oiva Tuulio was still protesting on his death-bed that he had not had any illegitimate children. Hämäläinen lost friends: she was considered a treacherous voyeur who cheapened herself by betraying, for money, respected members of the highest social class

She herself had guessed this would happen: a couple of weeks before the book’s publication, she wrote to her lover Olavi Paavolainen: ‘As an artist I rejoice in it; as a human being I grieve for the loneliness into which it will cast me. Who will want to be the friend of someone for whom the whole world is nothing but art, who uses her friends, and even her lover, only as a tool for her art … Lovelessness will surround me after this book.’

But in her memoirs Hämäläinen comments that she could not have acted otherwise: her passion for writing demanded that she capture that way of life, and Säädyllinen murhenäytelmä, 400 large pages, was born during the course of a single summer: it demanded to be written. The reader can sense this: her prose is painterly, rich in visual detail, full of adjectives, overflowing with colour and concentratedly psychological, whole in both its form and its often incantatory, repetitious style. Contemporary critic drew parallels with John Galsworthy, Virginia Woolf and Rebecca West in trying to evaluate a novel so different in both form and content from the Finnish norm. ‘I cannot really say how and whence came the novel’s richly abundant, ornately graphic style. I think primarily that I had drunk it in with my eyes from the surroundings I described, and then converted my impressions into words. It was as if I was driven by an artist’s passion to preserve impression after impression, one human expression after another, as I saw them… The irony of the narrative is a garment in which I clothed my too great, naïve adoration.’

Hämäläinen did, indeed, have to learn the life of the upper middle class: she herself grew up in a poor working-class home, and as a single mother, supported both her son and her mother. To the world of the intellectuals she gained entrance, as an observer, only after she herself had become an artist. Her powers of observation are extraordinary: in many cases it was the sheer visual identity between her subjects and reality that offended.

Hämäläinen’s first novel appeared in 1930. Between 1967 and 1987 she published nothing – and then, in 1988, already past her 80th birthday, she won the Finlandia Prize for Fiction with a new collection of poetry entitled Sukupolveni unta (‘Dreams of my generation’). And only now, in her memoirs, has she cast her memory back over her long life and literary career. Her memoirs are, in their extent and accuracy, themselves something of a key to Finnish cultural history.

Unlike Hämäläinen, who often shut herself away in a small village in southern Finland to write, her lover Olavi Paavolainen (1904–1964) was a cosmopolitan. In the 1920s, he was demanding that windows should be thrown ‘open to Europe’; he was an arbiter of taste, a critic, a writer and an opinion-former, scion of an old cultured family from the Karelian isthmus. His travel books about Hitler’s Germany and South America have attracted a great deal of attention; the Second World War broke out just as Paavolainen was returning from a journey unusual for the late 1930s – to the Soviet Union. He never wrote of it. War came, Europe was redivided. During the Continuation War Paavolainen served as an officer in the Intelligence Corps, based in the Finnish army’s headquarters in Mikkeli. During the war he kept an extensive diary, which he published under the title Synkkä yksinpuhelu (‘Sombre monologue’), in which he expressed opinions divergent from those of the country’s leaders about the sense of the war and his apprehensions about the wisdom of Finland’s alliance with Germany. After the book’s publication in 1947, Paavolainen fell silent as a writer. On the eve of the war, this man of the world fell in love with a worker’s daughter, and Helvi Hämäläinen and Olavi Paavolainen lived together for a couple of years.

‘The picture Säädyllinen murhenäytelmä gives of Artur – that is, Olavi – is merciless. The portrait in the novel is true down to the teeth and hairs, as true as the brilliant, beautiful portrait I have carried within me for more than half a century,’ Hämäläinen writes.

At the age of forty Artur had begun to notice that his great love, his own body, was showing signs of decay. His shimmering golden skin remained as before, but the lovely legs it covered ached unbearably and after walking the calves were apt to swell and show veins like curly blue worms.And despite the fact that he had his scalp massaged and his hair washedand took special treatments for it, and rubbed it with oil from time to time, it had begun to go, and now formed only a reddish abrasion on his bald pate… His face, which had once shown only youthful vanity, was now that of a heartless and sickly old rake…

In the novel, Naimi is humbled and Artur humiliates; one loves, the other wants to be loved. ‘Naimi’s feelings are mine, and her foolishly supplicant and faithful love is my love for Olavi Paavolainen. – Naimi and Artur’s story begins from a situation similar to that between Olavi and myself at that time. Like Naimi, I had left the man I loved, wounded, and like her I was to return to be humiliated again, a prisoner of my love,’ writes Hämäläinen in her memoirs. Despite the reactions of certain other circles, it is noticeable that Paavolainen stood by the novel with complete loyalty: he valued it as a work of art, recognising the empathy and accuracy with which Hämäläinen had recorded the atmosphere of the Karelian dacha – which was to be destroyed on the first day of the Winter War. Nothing was saved: Paavolainen’s childhood and youth were erased from the face of the Earth. Hämäläinen recalls:

The constellation of the Plough glimmered over the house at a certain place and a certain moment, and at certain times Venus was reflected in the artificial lake at Vienola. They were like family jewels, the treasures of Alice Paavolainen’s world.

How well I remember a silver napkin ring, old, the only one of its kind.

Olavi slipped it on to my napkin at Vienola, but his mother took it away.Olavi took note of the incident, wondering at his mother’s jealousy, admiring, entranced.

That silver napkin ring, the linen cloths used at table, the entire house: the verandah where we ate, the villa’s squeaking basketwork chairs, and the creaking stairs which Olavi did not dare climb, the bed with its brass knobs in which I slept – all are ashes. There is nothing left.

Once upon a time. Ashes now…

A passionate whisper: “I was conceived in this bed – this is half of my mother and father’s first double bed.” A whisper in a July night, words that were lost, there and everywhere, flower-pollen rising from fields and roadsides.

I do not believe there was anything ordinary in Olavi’s life, any more than in mine – no, we did not awake to reality. We merely lost one another. Olavi hated my lack of compromise – from the very beginning.

We lay together on Hanskasuo fen, which Olavi had made love to as a boy – and then feared the results of coupling with the mire. We lay together on garden paths and on the bridge over the ornamental pond and beside the little stream, among the forget-me-nots of the fields, overlooked by cows; in the ant-filled forest. We made love everywhere.

It was as if we had eaten an enchanted untouched pale herb in the July night, as if drugged with narcotics, we had touched the sky with our hands.

And yet. He was already past his prime, experienced, he already had the taste of ashes in his mouth. It was only pretence on the part of this passé man – although it was childish, an aspect of boyishness, which always moved me – when he climbed along the rotten balconies of Vienola through a first-floor window into the room where I was sleeping.The dry, creaking stairs would have given his nocturnal visit away to his mother – so there was caution in what he did, but on the other hand it is difficult for a big man to creep silently along a balcony into an attic room…

We all lose worlds, of our childhood, of our youth – every day brings loss, yesterday exists only in memory… Olavi could never again find a home, a world, of his own, after that perfect bourgeois home with all its fringed, violet silk lamp-shades, its artificial lake and its swans. But in that charming home there was not a single painting, sculpture, no art at all.Its beauty was in the form of chairs, the architecture of the building, the silk of the furniture, the tableware, the garden. It was a bourgeois culture in which, strangely, art had no place, unlike in the flowering of Dutch bourgeois culture.

The Dutch wanted to capture in their art the objects that they loved and among which they lived. In Olavi’s home, objects lived concrete lives: the family did not want pictures of them. When they visited St Petersburg, they did not bring back art, but furniture and jewels, the utility objects of the upper class. Once Olavi said: ‘It was a good thing that all of it was lost, the letters and the photographs too.’ For him the world he had lost had become a burden. On the one hand he had no wish to possess it, on the other it was a permanent part of the structure of his soul. A Chinese may feel his culture, represented by a marble elephant, to be a burden in the same way: it exists, it should be possessed, but indifferently, almost as a curiosity – nevertheless it still captures the soul, holds tight, demands active possession.

Back then, long ago, I was very happy on my return from my visit to Vienola.

Paavolainen visited the ruins of his home in June 1942, during the Continuation War. He noted his feelings in Synkkä yksinpuhelu:

The car stops in a very strange landscape; to the right of the road the concrete pillars that stand, skewed, in the ground, confirm that this is where Vienola stood… The long, narrow artificial lake fringed by irises is almost empty of water. The sludgy bottom is full of the crowns and branches of felled giant pines. Of the wild garden that surrounded the house, once so dense and so almost sombrely beautiful, there is no trace…

The garden area is full of countless Russian dugouts that have churned the land up so much as to make it unrecognisable. The total destruction is crowned by the new power line that has been drawn from Rouhiala to Leningrad, which cuts both the old garden and the forest behind it in half; along the line, all the trees have been levelled to the ground.

I stand among the ruins of my home and laugh. The change is too great!

It is no longer tragic – yes, truly, it simply makes me laugh. There is not even any feeling of the ‘rape of a landscape’, because it is simply impossible to find any point of contact with my earlier memories.

Paavolainen and Hämäläinen’s relationship had already ended by the time the Continuation War began in the autumn of 1941. ‘Because Olavi archived all his papers, he had brought home all the letters he had received through the field post and arranged them in piles on his writing-desk. On the desk were 32 piles – letters from 32 women – he showed me some love-letters, and read them out to me. When I left the flat, I took my own letters with me.’ Hämäläinen wrote her last field-post letter to Paavolainen in Aunus, telling him that she did not think the relationship was worth continuing. She wanted marriage, which she believed was the culmination of love between a woman and a man, and Paavolainen did not.

They never spoke to each other again. In her memoirs, half a century later, Hämäläinen writes: ‘We called Vienola the House of the Moon Lilies. My heart is rent by this memory – my memories are few, but the memory of this flower is so complete. The world that has vanished is there. I wonder if any perennial plants, even run wild,still grow in Vienola’s ruins…’

The memoirs’ motto is a phrase from Hämäläinen’s novel Ketunkivi (‘Fox-stone’, 1948): ‘No one can dream another’s dream.’ The novel is a humorous story about a country village whose dreamlike landscape recalls the naïvely colourful paintings of Chagall. The message of the book is that the border between dream and reality is drawn in water, and that no one can dream another’s dream. Everyone has their own dreams, fancies, illusions, pipe-dreams, which they try to realise and which no one else really understand – thus people live alone, shut up in their own worlds, even if they sleep next to another.’

But, at their best, do the great artistic memoirs – Simone de Beauvoir, Ingmar Bergman, Nina Berberova – not come close to those ‘dreams of others’, and does their value not lie precisely here? In them, lost worlds and times are communicated to readers in perceptive glimpses in which the mystery of personality perhaps reveals some of its own characteristics and in which they recognise fragments of their own dreams.

Ritva Haavikko & Helvi Hämäläinen
Ketunkivellä. Helvi Hämäläisen elämä 1907–1954
[On the fox-stone. The life of Helvi Hämäläinen 1907–1954]
Helsinki: WSOY, 1993. 681 pp., ill.ISBN 951-0-18612-0
Helvi Hämäläinen
Säädyllinen murhenäytelmä
[‘A respectable tragedy’]
Helsinki: WSOY, 1941. Edition 1993, 409 pp.
ISBN 951010676-3

Tags: ,

No comments for this entry yet

Leave a comment