A drinking life

Issue 2/2001 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

The poet Pentti Saarikoski (1937-1983) was of the old school of Finnish writers: he could not, he said, write – or live without alcohol. Despite the booze, this enfant terrible of the free-living 1960s remained an unparallelled virtuoso of the Finnish language. Introduction by the poet, psychiatrist and politician Claes Andersson

In the autumn of 1968 I was working as a doctor at Helsinki’s Hesperia Hospital, in the intensive care ward, where people who had tried to take their own lives, or had remained lying outside, while drunk, in the very cold autumn and winter were taken. I was told that the writer Pentti Saarikoski had been admitted to a neurological ward in a very bad state. I met him several times in the hospital café. He was thin as a skeleton, but otherwise in good spirits and seemed almost happy. What surprised me was that he quite obviously thrived in the role of psychiatric patient and that he submitted to the hospital’s regulations without a murmur.

We also chatted a lot about his drinking and I remember telling him that he must realise that for him alcohol was a deadly poison and a dependency that would result in a very early death. Try small quantities of marijuana instead, I suggested. He promised to consider my advice, but probably forgot it as soon as he had his first binge after being discharged.

In the 1950s and 60s we in Finland lived in the midst of a decidedly ‘Irish’ alcohol culture. Alcohol was surrounded by ambivalent messages: strong condemnation and the ideal of total abstinence in combination with a glorification of drunkenness and the ‘carefree Bohemian life’ that was supposed to go along with drinking. Part of the artist myth of the time was an acceptance of alcohol as an indispensable element in artistic creation. Writers, visual artists and journalists formed coteries that were portrayed in the public media with delight mixed with horror. Saarikoski and his ‘kamikaze gang’ soon became a legend because of their scandals and Bohemian way of life.

This was before the Finnish alcohol monopoly really got down in earnest to changing our spirit-drinking habits, oriented as they were towards drunkenness, in the direction of a more socially acceptable European wine culture. Nowadays, when I visit writers’ gatherings and readings, or the international writer’s conference at Lahti, I am struck by the fact that Finnish writers no longer distinguish themselves by being drunk, but by taking a free and active part in the discussions. And if anyone does commit a faux pas by getting extremely drunk, the reaction is no longer one of admiration but rather of regret.

Pentti Saarikoski (1937–1983) was one of the three poets who meant the most to me when I was young and beginning to write and translate poetry. (The other two were the Swedish poet Werner Aspenström and the American William Carlos Williams.) I read everything he published, and over the years translated many of his early poems into Swedish. I can say that I knew him very well, that we met now and then, but that I never got very close to him. Most often we met in public, at readings and discussions, or at some pub. There were not many occasions on which I saw him sober, as he must have been when he wrote his brilliant poems.

Saarikoski became dependent on alcohol from an early age, and by the time he wrote the texts of Juomarin päiväkirjat (‘A drunkard’s journals’) and Toipilaan päiväkirjat (‘The convalescent journals’) he was already a habitual drinker with grave symptoms of chronic alcoholism-several attacks of delirium tremens, damage to the nervous system, incipient cirrhosis, etc. He himself commented on his own drinking with perfect frankness and insight. He was basically a shy and socially insecure person who at the same time, because of his unquestionable verbal gift – which he was aware of even as a child – knew his own stature and had a powerful need to be socially accepted, widely-known, world-famous.

As for all alcoholics, for Saarikoski alcohol meant both escape and liberation, at the same time as, over the years, it became a prison and a means of torture and self-destruction. Saarikoski was quite simply unable to functional socially, in public, in company, without alcohol. Spirits made him omnipotent, omniscient; he became a creative Münchhausen, able to perform the most incredible feats and tours de force when he had the right amount of alcohol in his blood. During calmer periods, when he stayed in the countryside, removed from all the temptations of the capital city, he drank less, but still quite a lot – a few bottles of wine and half a bottle of strong spirits a day were the ration that made the work of translation possible. He also complained that he did not enjoy sex if he was not intoxicated.

Saarikoski often describes a sense of always being in the wrong place, of not being at ease even at times when everything seemed to be relatively all right. In this he resembles many alcoholics, who cannot cope with the idea that things work out, that life is ‘okay’. The alcoholic feels that happiness and harmony are not for him. They do not tally with his own experience of his person, and must therefore be destroyed, smashed to pieces. When everything has been torn to shreds again, his human relationships destroyed, his finances drained and his friends dispersed, the alcoholic paradoxically feels he is in his true element, in harmony with the person that deep inside he feels himself to be.

In Toipilaan päiväkirjat he constantly reflects on his own alcohol dependency. Here are a few gleanings from his text: ‘Low self-esteem is not caused by drinking, it is one of the reasons for drinking, and I certainly remember how ashamed of myself and afraid of people I was as a boy… Alcohol increases my self-esteem so much that by the evening I am immortal and a god… I am Jesus, the friend of drunkards and whores, and a communist… I have to be either alone or drunk…. I have never been able to rejoice with other people, to be enthusiastic with others; I either cut myself off from the group or lead it… What I write when I’m sober it immediately seems so pompous and silly. Then I’m like a neatly-combed child prodigy in glasses. My parents’ dream! When I’m sober I’m nothing if I’m not alone… Perhaps I’m the kind of person who doesn’t feel comfortable when everything is all right.’

Whatever the primary causes of alcohol dependency are, conditioned by heredity, social or cultural surroundings, early human relationships, a fear and emptiness-creating self-centredness and extreme narcissism, alcohol itself has a destructive effect not only on physical health but also on the whole personality. What seems to be special about Saarikoski is that to the last, in spite of far-advanced alcoholism and all the signs of physical alcohol damage he wrote such dynamic and exciting literary prose. Not to mention the poems that appear in the diaries. His last three volumes of poetry, which form the so-called Tiarnia series that appeared only a few years before his death, show that in spite of his illness he still had the ability to write poems that are among the best to have been written in the Finnish language.

In 1959 Pentti Saarikoski gave me a copy of his collection Runot ja Hipponaksin runot (‘Poems and poems of Hipponax’) in a Helsinki pub. He was, as usual, well on the way, and wrote a dedication in the book: ‘See you in Hell!’ How true a prophet he was I shall only know when I have followed him to the poets’ happy hunting grounds. I hope for a reunion.

Translated by David McDuff

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