A feminist and a dreamer

Issue 4/2008 | Archives online, Authors

The Swedish-speaking minority culture of Finland provided an unlikely crucible for the literary modernism that was to reshape western poetry in the early 20th century. Clas Zilliacus introduces the life, work and times of Hagar Olsson (1893–1978), writer and feminist

Finland-Swedish modernism – the most cherished ‘ism’ and period in Finland-Swedish literature – began in 1916, the year in which both Edith Södergran and Hagar Olsson published their first books: a collection of poems and a novel, respectively.

The principal feature of Södergran’s poetry is a tautly compressed treatment of poetic symbolism; her poems could cross the solar system, but were also able to find the key to life in the raspberry patch. The literary style of Hagar Olsson (1893–1978) had many more uses, but none of them were poetic. The two women became close friends in 1919 but, due to the distance between the poet’s home in Karelia and the critic’s in Helsinki as well as to Södergran’s illness and poverty, they mostly communicated by letters. Their correspondence: from 1919 to 1923, was published more than thirty years after Södergrans death from tuberculosis (1923) in the book Ediths brev (‘Edith’s letters’, 1955).

Olsson took part in the new literary movement right from the outset, was its herald and its party whip. When the modernists gained ground the 1920s, it was largely because, by dint of cajolery and hard work, she pragmatically managed to group these individualists into an organised phalanx and plan its advance. As leading literary reviewer on a newspaper, she had a forum for introduction and agitation. She wrote for the journals Ultra (1922) and Quosego (1928–29), to which she played the role of midwife and in which she published irritating manifestos, often about the narrow-mindedness of young republic of Finland. ‘Open window on Europe!’ Ultra exhorted, in imitation of Peter the Great.

Olsson had spent her teens in cosmopolitan Karelian city of Viipuri (Vyborg), where she learned to remain indifferent to the bickering between different linguistic groups. Although there was no lack of contention between Finnish and Swedish speakers in the republic, she had no time for it. For her the guiding beacon was the Zeitgeist, and that was supranational. She monitored it largely with the help of intuition, though intuition did not always provide correct answers.

The Zeitgeist is introduced to Finnish readers in a series of essay collections. The first of them, Ny generation (‘New generation’, 1925), opens with an impassioned plea for what she called illusion. Its opposing counterpart was what she saw as mainstream aristocratic reminiscence-poetry which had lost touch with unattained ideals. ‘Illusion’ is her name for new beginnings and the world of tomorrow. It is the privilege of the utopians, those who dare to leave the Baghdad of deceptive existence for the golden road to Samarkand.

Some of Olsson’s texts have aged and lack much freshness now, but her production could afford the odd failure now and then because her overall contribution was so voluminous. She was a novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, critic, politician, translator, talent scout and strategist. In a way she was also a poet, as in the evocative meditation Kinesisk utflykt (‘Chinese excursion’, 1949) and in the fantasies of her short story collections Drömmar (‘Dreams’, 1966) and Ridturen (‘The riding tour’, 1968).

She established her reputation as a prose artist with Chitambo.(1933), a novel which leads through psychological crisis and fear of death – one of Olsson’s favourite themes – to a perception of human solidarity as a liberating imperative. Within the context of Swedish literature the novel is an early example of abruptly alternating time frames. The novel is a female Bildungsroman from Finland’s extremely turbulent years at the beginning of the last century: the general strike, the early adoption of women’s right to vote the advent of Independence and the Civil War surround and influence the development of the central character, Vega Maria Dyster (‘Dreary’).

Chitambo is a voyage of discovery to the protagonist’s inner world, and it is a classic of Nordic women’s writing. Vega is named after the ship of the Finnish polar scientist A.E. Nordenskiöld who in 1878 navigated the North-east Passage for the first time, and the novel’s title, Chitambo, refers to the village where the explorer David Livingstone died after opening the way to Africa’s interior.

Hagar Olsson introduced the modern drama to Finland. Opinion is split as to whether she did so with her anti-realistic shadow-play Hjärtats pantomim (‘Pantomime of the heart’, 1927) or in the following year with S.O.S., a play about chemical warfare which is an appeal to mankind for an abandonment of the blind alley of rearmament. A play she wrote in Finnish in the autumn of 1939, Lumisota (‘The snowball war’), anticipated Finland’s Winter War, which took place a short time later. The censor got cold feet: both too clairvoyant and burningly topical, the play was not performed until 1981.

A modernist ought to be ahead of the times, but this may come with a cost. With no one else about, one may perceive that one has gone too far too late.

Translated by David McDuff


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