Fruits of reading

30 December 1998 | Authors, Interviews

Bo Carpelan

Photo: Promedia

This is an edited version of an interview published in Leva skrivande. Finlandssvenska författare samtalar (‘Living by writing. Finland-Swedish writers in conversation’), edited by Monika Fagerholm (Söderströms, 1998)

Bo Carpelan is one of the most translated of Finnish writers; his novel Axel (1986) attracted international attention when it was published in English translation. Here, in our occasional series of interviews with writers, he is in conversation with fellow poet Mårten Westö

Mårten Westö: The American writer Paul Auster has said: ‘A young person who wants to be an artist or a writer is above all influenced by art. But a young writer has nothing to say. One has a love of literature, but one can only imitate other writers to begin with. It takes a long time before one finds one’s own way.’ What do you think of that statement?

Bo Carpelan: Of course there’s a lot in what he says. At the same time I am convinced that one must have at least the shadow of one’s own voice from the very outset, otherwise what one writes turns out to be merely plagiarism. But to start with one does probably tend to work in close association with tradition. That was also true of me, but in my own view I didn’t continue – as has often been asserted – in the wake of Finland-Swedish modernism. It is of course quite possible that later on I returned to it, but the basis of my activity was probably the American New Criticism: the large anthologies on criticism and poetry that I read in the 1950s. Those influences have left their clearest traces in the very comprehensive bibliography of my academic work on the Finland-Swedish poet Gunnar Björling. In the last chapter of the dissertation I also tried to draw my own guidelines as to what I mean by poetry: that it is concrete and synthetic.

What relation did those theories have to the poetry you yourself were writing?

When I wrote my poetry I never had the sense that I was theorising, although it’s quite obvious what an influence Wallace Stevens had on me, for example, both in my collections Objekt för ord (‘Objects for words’, 1954) and in Landskapets förvandlingar (‘Transformations of a landscape’, 1957). But when I wrote I tried to ignore those books. I also felt a strong impulse to make my poetry sound musical. They contain a lot of material that in my view is still valid.

At around this time painting also entered my writing. I remember how struck I was by the impressionists during my visit to Paris in the early 1950s. In the Louvre it was above all the Dutch painters – and among them Vermeer – who had the strongest appeal for me. In Objekt för ord there is a short sequence – ‘On contemplating some old Flemish masters’ – that is based on those impressions. Starting with that book, painting also became the great source of inspiration for my writing.

Going back to the 1950s: have you any memories of how you worked at that time? How long did it take you to write a collection of poetry, for example?

It didn’t take long: I was quick. I wrote down fragments of poems on small pieces of paper, rarely corrected them but let them lie and then used a lot of the material I’d written down. Sometimes I was able to make ruthless alterations in order to get hold of the form I was after. Poetry didn’t cause any major problems. I got ‘electric shocks’ from much of what I read, I wrote it down spontaneously and tried to preserve it in as spontaneous a state as possible. It was no more complicated than that, really.

What you say makes me think of a passage in the Swedish writer Lars Gustafsson’s memoirs Ett minnespalats (‘A palace in memory’), where he writes: ‘My poetry has always been like a zone apart, an activity with more degrees of freedom than the others. I have always written it for myself and never for anyone else. I have never had a sense of planning it, hardly even of writing it.’ Is there, in general any way of explaining how poems arise?

No, there is usually nothing left over. One can never properly explain why or how one has written or shaped a poem. It’s a matter of an internal labour that one finds it hard to explain even to oneself. What is more, I’m not always sure that it is so useful to show the seams of the poetic labour. One can possibly also analyse the finished result oneself, but the process as such is rather hard to grasp. In my case it’s very much a question of working on an unconscious level, of spontaneous ‘images’ that pop up – it’s a little as though I were a photographer. I’ve always liked concrete things in poems, so that the things and people in a poem contribute to making it all less abstract. But it’s hard to find the right balance.

Much of what I read in the 1950s seemed to me a kind of ‘routine modernism’, by which I mean that it was really prose cut up into lines of verse. There was none of the element of music or rhythm I find so important. There needs to be a kind of inner rhythm in a poem which one immediately notices and which shows that the poet is not only working with words but also with something else. It’s hard to explain. But I understand extremely well what Gustafsson means. For me, too, poetry has represented my own ‘important’ and innermost region. When I write prose it’s not my ‘own’ in the same way at all; then I’m working on something quite different, something wider that is much less ‘personal’ than poetry in a way.

Have you any explanation as to why it can sometimes take years to complete a single poem, while other texts seem to write themselves, and it’s impossible to alter anything afterwards?

No, that is a very strange thing. At the end of my collection Dagen vänder (‘The day turns’, 1983) there is a poem called ‘On the August veranda’. It was written on the veranda of a house on our summer island in Masku on the west coast of Finland – and in precisely that spontaneous manner that is so hard to put one’s finger on. Actually, a great many of my poems have been written that way and have then ended up going into books without the slightest alteration. That isn’t true of the short poems in the collection 73 dikter (’73 poems’, 1966). They weren’t, as one might suppose, originally long poems that were subsequently filed down to their present form; rather, the poems’ final expression took shape inside my head. Incidentally, I would very much like to return to this short and extremely concentrated format some day. It’s something one can find in the ancient Japanese and Chinese poets, or Ungaretti, for example. To achieve that pared-down expression without it seeming like an impression of nature – that in itself is a challenge.

The length of the life of an unpublished poem can also be very unpredictable.

That’s true. Sometimes a poem lies around too long. There’s a strange limit; you may write good poems, but if you leave them lying around too long, they may indeed still seem good, but they’re no longer your own poems; you have gone on, and meanwhile left the texts behind you. When I find myself in such a situation I usually mercilessly get rid of the material.

But there are also examples of the opposite. The second part of the collection I det sedda (‘In the seen’, 1995) contains poem-portraits of various people. I have a feeling that they’ve survived better than many other texts. If you write a poem about old stallholder women at the indoors market with ‘hands like potato peel’, it becomes a kind of photograph; it’s not something about you, it’s something you’ve observed. A poem like that can retain its freshness even when it’s three years old.

If we look back at the generative process behind one of your prose works: the novel Axel (1986) was a project that stretched over a great many years, wasn’t it?

It can be said that the work began in 1967 when Professor Erik Tawastjerna published the second part of his Sibelius biography, in which Axel Carpelan also appears. Even before this, I had already been thinking about the fate of my paternal grandfather’s brother, and what a remarkable person he really was, for no one in my branch of the family had ever been particularly interested in art, and then suddenly Axel popped up! He possessed real musical talent, but his nervous illness brought to nothing the plans he had in that direction. But in his distress he did this: he did not take his life, but he wrote a letter to Sibelius. And so began a relationship which was to endure for the last nineteen years of his life. When he realised that he could not live himself, he chose to live through someone else.

So that was the theme that was in your mind from the very beginning?

Yes. The hard thing was to construct a childhood and boyhood for Axel. After all, he was over forty when he wrote his first letter to Sibelius. The problem is that I am a truly wretched researcher of sources: I don’t have the strength to go through the state archives or the collected letters. In this case I complemented the material I had with a few contemporary descriptions of Helsinki, Tampere and Turku from 1860 to 1890. And then I made use of photographs. In a way I made soup out of nails – but they were nails that yielded a nice bouillon.

The experience taught me that it is much harder to write a good work of prose than to write a good collection of poetry. And if one writes a work of prose one must in most cases have some kind of map and compass to hand before one gets going.

Did you ever dream of breaking out and becoming a full-time writer?

No. Never! I realised that I wouldn’t be able to live that way; I suppose I was rather ‘bourgeois’ and needed a regular income. For me it was quite simply a matter of managing one’s budget, and I realised right from the outset that it wasn’t possible to live by being a writer. When I began to write we were living in a dark two-room flat on Uudenmaankatu street. It was therefore natural to me that I had to do my bit and earn money so we could get by.

The first poem in Gården (‘The courtyard’, 1969) is about that need to save one’s skin. In those days there was no grant system either. Possible blessings consisted of small prizes and grants which one could get if one was lucky. The Swedish royalties were also of great importance.

It also became clear to me very early on that it was impossible to make a living by this kind of activity, especially as I had a family to support. Nor could I rely on obtaining other writing work, as my journalistic talents were not much to shout about. But for me this wasn’t really a conflict situation; I always knew what I wanted to do and in that sense I have been fortunate. Also, I don’t think it’s a bad thing for a writer to go out and work for a living with other people; quite the contrary.

As a writer, does one sometimes orient oneself according to one’s circle of readers?

My view is that as a writer one has a certain amount of responsibility; not to stay silent about things that are true or to prettify reality, but to write so well that – even though the theme may be minor-keyed and gloomy – the reader is left with a sense of liberation. The world of my ideas also includes the possibilities literature has to console people in difficult situations. That doesn’t necessarily mean that one must write a happy, light-hearted comedy that puts people in a good mood; indeed, it has often turned out that people who are ill want to read books that don’t present a superficially cheerful picture of existence – even if on the other hand they don’t want to read something that takes away their hope entirely; just think of the amazing artistic experiences that took place in the concentration camps and contributed to preserving at least a tiny bit of joy in life in the midst of the wretchedness.

Even Samuel Beckett – whom many see as black as night – has always represented something positive for me: when in my day I read Molloy or Malone dies I was very exhilarated. I remember having a public argument with the Finland-Swedish essayist Hans Ruin, who asserted that Beckett was an incurable pessimist, while I pointed out that for me Beckett represents something quite different, and definitely has his merits – this concerns not least his incredibly supple style and his very concrete visions of the people he depicts.

When one reads a good book, no matter how cruel or gloomy, a sort of purification process takes place. In spite of Primo Levi’s tragic fate, his descriptions of his escape from the concentration camp are sublime reading. The life of Cesare Pavese also ended in suicide, and yet his diaries are a first-class work of art. In spite of their respective tragic fates, in their books these two writers succeed in doing something valuable and essential. It is true that some people consider that all talk of consolation in connection with literature is humbug. In their opinion, art must show the bare reality in unembellished form, which on the other hand may easily become an excuse for the pornography of violence. But I have always seen the strength of art partly in its ability to respect the value of human beings, and partly in the possibility of inspiring hope or consolation.

In an interview a few years ago you said you thought that drama was the hardest thing to write. Compared to drama, isn’t poetry concerned with direct moral statement?

No. In poetry one should not present any ‘program’ or ‘explanation’ – a poem is not an ‘explanation’ of anything. It’s just there, like a description or a picture of oneself or one’s outlook or experiences. I have always thought it interesting that the word ‘experiment’ really means something ‘learned’, or ‘witnessed’. I don’t think that truly experimental art is something loose, of the type: ‘I shall think of something no one else has ever done’ – but that it involves a process of experience that leads to an expression which no one has ever experienced before. At the same time, however, it still has its roots in something that has been; it doesn’t float freely in the air. That is perhaps why superficial experiments – like the ‘automatic writing’ of the surrealists – can be fun to read, but don’t give one much more than that. Even when a poet like Lorca is most radical in his poetry, his roots go down into Spanish folk poetry. It is a centuries-old tradition that suddenly takes shape in his highly expressive language.

The German writer Peter Bichsel has talked about contemporary man’s lack of original experiences; since most things today are ‘like on TV’ or ‘like in such-and-such a film’ it is, he thinks, the writer’s human duty to create these original experiences.

I have often said that the writer’s task – if at all possible – is to stimulate all five of the reader’s senses. At any rate the faculty of seeing, which for me has always been the most important of the senses. One of the basic requirements for writing is that one should be immensely inquisitive about existence and at the same time precise about what one sees. I have a good quotation from Boris Pasternak that precedes the collection 73 dikter: ‘If the riddle of beyond the grave can be solved / I do not know. / Life, like the silence of autumn / is exactitude.’ I think that is well said. The word ‘exactitude’ embraces a form of honesty and personal striving – not to try to be more or less than what one is. That’s exactly how it is.

Tags: ,

No comments for this entry yet

Leave a comment