Arms and the man

Issue 2/1999 | Archives online, Authors, Interviews

The work of Veijo Meri (born 1948) has a secure place in the canon of Finnish prose of the second half of the 40th century. One could say Meri is a man’s writer – especially favoured by men who have been at war. The male characters of his short stories, novels and plays find themselves in absurd and surprising situations in a world governed by chance. They are not, however, heroes, but everyday anti-heroes who are depicted by their author with laconic humour. Since the 1980s, Meri has turned to historical essays.

Meri is an unbelievably prolific speaking machine; hardly have I set foot inside his house when he is already, in his speech, strolling along the shore of the Pacific Ocean with Matti Kurjensaari, his late writer friend. The academic and writer Veijo Meri turned 70 on New Year’s Eve in 1998. The event was celebrated in the theatre, and a book was published about the writer and his work. And, of course, his birthday itself was celebrated: he no longer wishes to escape his age. ‘Can’t feel a thing,’ Meri says on the massive leather sofa in his living-room. Mrs Eeva Meri starts making coffee. ‘I’m just trying to understand that I’ve turned 70: when was it that I got to be so old?’ On his 50th birthday, he felt something: ‘It’s a threshold.’ That had, in fact, been preceded by some improvement in life; after the age of 45, apparently, one no longer suffers from hangovers and all the most sensitive nerves have stopped working.’ The world has become extremely familiar. There’s nothing mysterious hidden behind the hedge, on the other side of the horizon. You tend to avoid thinking about death, because it begins to seem a pity that you will have to leave the world, now that you finally feel at home here.’

A sergeant’s son, Meri lived in many places as a child. Even in his fifties, he still felt himself to be a wanderer and he had the feeling that he should be on the move constantly. Not anymore. He says he easily makes himself at home. The good thing about that is that when he goes abroad, he adapts quickly. Meri says that always, before a trip, he is anxious in case it bruises him spiritually. Travel has not done so, but on the other hand he has not let out shouts of joy when abroad. Unlike his friend Matti Kurjensaari who, a little tired and confused, leant on Meri’s arm: ‘Tell me, Veijo, that I’m on the shore of the Pacific Ocean!’ ‘I’m on the shore of the Pacific Ocean.’ ‘Not you, me!’ Kurjensaari demanded. ‘OK, you’re on the shore of the Pacific Ocean!’

Meri’s first work, a collection of short stories entitled Ettei maa viheriöisi (‘Lest the ground grow green’), appeared in 1954. He has written novels – Manillaköysi (‘The Manila Rope’), Irralliset (‘The alienated’), Peiliin piirretty nainen (‘The woman drawn in the mirror’) – poetry, stage and radio plays, essays, biographies. Most recently, he has given birth, in short order, to four books on Finnish history: Suurta olla pieni kansa (‘Great to be a small nation’), appeared in 1996. Diversity has been his salvation and his stimulant. When he stopped writing novels – Jääkiekkoilijan kesä (‘The summer of the ice-hockey player’, 1980) is, to date, his last prose work – he began to write an etymological dictionary and history. His book on Marshal Mannerheim, the Finnish war hero (1988), is the highest seller of all his books, with almost 50,000 copies.

The general public remembers Meri’s prose the best particularly business directors who read, who, in official interviews on their 50th birthdays, cite Meri and the Ostrobothnian writer Antti Tuuri as their favourite writers. Meri says he has tried to write sequels to his novels. ‘But when something ends, it ends. You just can’t do anything with it. You can’t make it into anything solid just the same old mush. You can’t force it; you have to try something else. Paavo Haavikko, who’s written poems, novels and plays, still says that he never intended to be a writer. He does not wish to be the prisoner of this job, and all the same he writes and publishes more than anyone else from the generation of the 1950s. Haavikko has always also been a businessman. He is not just at the mercy of writing, and that has protected his psyche,’ Meri says. ‘It’s a terrible imprisonment, and there are bad crises.’ One of these, for Meri, happened at the beginning of his career, in the 1950s. ‘I got married, and began to be scared of the responsibility. The crisis took place right after the wedding. That was when I was writing Irralliset, and it´s a novel full of angst,’ Meri remembers, shaking his head. He cannot really read his own texts, but sometimes glances at them. ‘It´s angst I see in them, my own angst.’

Meri has a passion for reading, always has had; he says he gets ill if he does not read at least one book a day. More difficult books, such as Tristam Shandy, take him a week, he says, whereas he can digest a couple of short biographies in a day. ‘If a text dances, you can read it quickly. Some books are like wind-tunnels; you can get through them quickly.’ Meri says he goes regularly to the library, greeting the same old books in the same old places and checking out what´s new. And books are not enough. Meri is greedy for everything; daily newspapers, evening newspapers, free papers, women´s magazines, particularly the gossip columns, the pages with small pictures where what´s essential is in a couple of sentences.

‘My thirst for knowledge and my curiosity are so enormous,’ he laughs. ‘Women´s magazines give me information about familiar people. They make confessions, talk about diseases, accidents, handicapped children, mental illnesses.’ Meri has himself given an enormous number of interviews, but generally in the aristocratic style of the 1950s generation. ‘We had a rule that we don´t participate, we don´t emphasise our private selves. Many of us don´t let interviews in through the door. I haven´t talked about my sons, or said everything I know about my wife, either. It was the next generation that began to talk about what they had done: whether they were drinkers, how much they´d screwed around, how much money they´d wasted.’ It is said that one particular critic, an academically educated gentleman, had bought himself some Chippendale chairs. ‘For ten years he was laughed at.’ Eeva Meri, too, longed for some Chippendale chairs at one point, but according to Veijo Meri they were too delicate. ‘The 1950s generation has this principle that what you buy must last; anything ornamental is left in the shop.’

Veijo Meri is also an important dramatist, and his plays are constantly being performed in new productions. In honour of his 70th birthday, Helsinki City Theatre produced a show called Yhden yön tarinat (‘Tales of one night’) using his various texts, and a new version of his successful play Sotamies Jokisen vihkiloma (‘Private Jokinen’s honeymoon’) will soon be filmed for television. Meri edited the manuscript, and left the war scenes out completely. He says he is fed up of war, having written about it so much. ‘And the reception held is pretty well mined for this kind of thing, because it’s the legendary side of the Second World War that is now emphasised. There’s all that heroism and jingoism. I don’t know what to think about descriptions of war any more. Today one should create one’s own reality of the last war, and not use an old one.’

Meri’s history series ends in 1940. Will there be a fifth volume? ‘I had a sort of inner feeling that there would be four parts, although I promised three. Writers have one besetting sin of their old age, and that’s the habit of writing too much. The fin de siecle poetess, L. Onerva, wrote a hundred poems in a night when she was almost 90.’ That sounds like a completely new kind of problem, incontinence in writing. ‘I’ve made the decision that history is what happened before I was born. The time after that is too close and too familiar. But the publisher hopes for and expects another volume, and I haven’t entirely ruled out the idea.’

We drink coffee. I ask Eeva Meri if she has ever managed to interrupt her husband’s flow of talk. Oh yes, she says, and makes it clear that there are some stories that she has heard many times, perhaps dozens. Veijo Meri says he has noticed that people have become tired of the power of entertainment. That there’s a new emphasis on high culture. ‘You can see it in the newspapers  – that they now pay attention to small-circulation literature.’ Meri announces that he does not bear the burden of Finnish literature. And anyway, he says, the standard is high: ‘In the early 1960s a lot of good prose was written, but now, at the end of the 1990s, the general level of writing is high again. It’s the same thing in the other media: even the standard of writing in the free sheets is high. ‘When Veijo Meri praises young writers, just three names come up more than once: Jari Tervo, Kari Hotakainen, Hannu Raittila.

Meri always carries pencil-stumps in his pocket – ‘although prose-writers hardly ever need to write like they need to go to the toilet.’

Translated by Herbert Lomas

This is an edited version of an interview that appeared in Helsingin Sanomat newspaper

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