Live fast, die young

31 December 2006 | Authors, Reviews

Henry Parland

Henry Parland

Those whom the gods love die young: during the short lifetime of Henry Parland (1908–1930), Helsinki was culturally diverse city where many languages were spoken and young writers were inspired by new European trends.

Henry Parland represents a sort of opening in Finland-Swedish literature, an incursion of modernity, a breath of fresh air. He accomplished the task which the French Cubist Blaise Cendrars set himself in his poetry: ‘Les fénêtres de ma poésie sont grand’ouvertes sur les boulevards’ (‘The windows of my poetry are wide open on the boulevards’).

Several of the Finland-Swedish modernist writers of the early 20th century – most of whom lived in Helsinki – had a diverse linguistic background. ‘German is my best language,’ the poet Edith Södergran thought in 1920. She wrote her early work not only in Swedish, but also in German, Russian and French. Elmer Diktonius was bilingual, and wrote prose and poetry both in Finnish and in Swedish. Hagar Olsson, a writer and critic, switched at will between Swedish and Finnish.

Henry Parland had grown up in a Russian-German milieu. He was born in Viipuri (Vyborg, on the Karelian isthmus, which belonged to Finland until 1944) and spoke German at home. He attended a Finnish-language school and had difficulty with Swedish at first. The fact that Swedish was not a naturally flowing mother tongue for many of the modernists probably made them more attentive to the material aspect of language, and because they came from a background that was culturally diverse, it is also probable that they were similarly able to see culture from the outside. While promoting a less solemn attitude to the world, this also encouraged new impulses from abroad.

Like his friend and colleague Gunnar Björling (1887–1960), Parland was one of the first truly modern poets in Finland. With moral support from influences that included the Russian futurists and formalists, he broke with established poetic genres and forms. He wrote his poems in the language of the everyday, about everyday phenomena:

Pilsner on the other hand
the hungry and the hung-over.
With a policeman’s indiffer-
it washes
the hooligan sandwiches
and degenerate whiskeys
to the stomach’s jail.

From an aesthetic point of view Henry Parland was concerned to estab-lish a intimate mode of address, a verbal environment in which one could write as one pleased rather than according to the dictates of convention. In Parland’s work, writing that is unsure of its instrumental value be-comes a value in itself. It is not an instrument for something else, but a value in its own right. The ‘chatty’ style of the poems is also testimony to this – it’s a stubbornness, an insistence on one’s own way of doing things.

According to his younger brother Oscar, Henry Parland was strongly influenced by the Greek philosopher Anaximander, who maintained that the earth stands still, and that things expiate their guilt by being consumed, dissolved in nothingness. In ethical terms it was a kind of affirmative nihilism. Or, as Rabbe Enckell says in his foreword to Parland’s collected poems (Hamlet sade det vackrare, ‘Hamlet said it better’, published in 1964 [Söderströms] by his brother Oscar; the Finnish translation, Hamlet sanoi sen kauniimmin, appeared in 1967 [WSOY]): ‘For him it was really an unravelling of ambitions related to moral compulsion, and a liberation from them. He wanted radically to expose himself to the risks of going the whole hog in mechanisation and the life of the instincts.’ The poems also express this in terms of form, following a kind of ‘negative dialectic’, to borrow a phrase of Theodor Adorno, the German philosopher of modern art and opponent of mass culture – i.e. a resolution of thesis and anti-thesis.

Such an attitude to life has its price. Parland’s first collection of poems, Idealrealisation (‘The ideal sale’) was published in 1928, and shortly afterwards, in a desperate attempt to save him from his wild life, his parents sent him away to Lithuania to study philosophy with his uncle. But Parland died of scarlet fever in November 1930, and is buried in Kaunas.

Parland was fascinated by modern phenomena such as films, cars, photography and the like. There is a kind of object animism in the poems: the cinemas ‘sleep / like crocodiles in the sun / on the shores of the streets’ and the railway stations ‘guffaw’ when the train ‘winks at them: / come with me!’ According to Rabbe Enckell, a fellow modernist, he became ‘a victim of his acceptance of the era.’ At the same time it can be argued that Parland was ambivalent about the modern world, and that his poetry registered that ambivalence. The dichotomy found its expression in a characteristic modernist irony, in which the ironic constitutes a kind of defence against the modern. Parland’s poetry takes its place within this dialectic of acceptance and ironic questioning: ‘Youth: / hunger / or a tiredness / that dances?’ And pithily: ‘The dictatorship of jazz – new form of Catholicism.’ Adorno would have been proud of such a concise formulation.

The whole of Parland’s poetic oeuvre amounts to 150 small pages. He also wrote short prose and the draft of a novel, Sönder (‘Broken’), published posthumously in 1932.

The short poem is Parland’s format, the concentrated expression his forte. What’s striking is how much material is captured on these few pages, in spite of everything – a brave new world in momentary images, so full of new possibilities, so full of threatening disintegration. He is the first true modernist in Swedish. The question is whether he may not also be the last.

Translated by David McDuff


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