Archive for September, 2011

Between life and death

23 September 2011 | Authors, Reviews

Gösta Ågren. Photo: Studio Paschinsky

The latest poems by Gösta Ågren, in the collection I det stora hela (‘On the whole’, Söderströms, 2011), are a continuation of the poet’s lifelong striving to unite the realm of private and personal experience with the domain of the shared, the social and the universal.

Ågren, born in 1936 in Ostrobothnia, on the west coast of Finland, has published twenty-eight collections of poetry. I det stora hela is the latest in an apparently inexhaustible series of books that reflect upon life and death, mostly in terse, aphoristic blocks that are hewn out of the poet’s own existence.

In the background of nearly all his poems is an Ostrobothnian childhood which, in its remoteness and solidarity with his close relatives, sets him apart in the same way as the Swedish language in which he writes sets him apart within a Finnish cultural context, though perhaps not in a Finland-Swedish one – for he shares not only its linguistic heritage, but also its traditional concern with the polarity and ultimate reconciliation of the individual and the community. More…

High above the years

23 September 2011 | Fiction, poetry

In Gösta Ågren’s poetry austere aphorisms alternate with concrete observations of life in a small village that was and again is his home, and with portraits of people he has met on his journey in the world. Introduction by David McDuff

Poems from the collection I det stora hela (’On the whole’, Söderströms, 2011)

Father’s hands

Father’s hands were like stiff
gloves; a furious
kettle had bewitched them
in his childhood. We ride
from the church’s tall letter
along the river’s long sentence
to the parenthesis of the bridal house,
and the thunder of three hundred hooves
fills the space beneath the clouds.
I saw father driving through
his life with those numbly
gripped reins, and later,
right now, I think of the
life-long body in which a man
comes, is wounded, and goes. More…

In memoriam Herbert Lomas 1924–2011

23 September 2011 | In the news

Herbert Lomas. Photo: Soila Lehtonen

Herbert Lomas, English poet, literary critic and translator of Finnish literature, died on 9 September, aged 87.

Born in the Yorkshire village of Todmorden, Bertie lived for the past thirty years in the small town of Aldeburgh by the North Sea in Suffolk. (Read an interview with him in Books from Finland, November 2009.)

After serving two years in India during the war, Bertie taught English first in Greece,  then in Finland, where he settled for 13 years. His translations – as well as many by his American-born wife Mary Lomas (died 1986) – were published from as early as 1976 in Books from Finland.

Bertie’s first collection of poetry (of a total of ten) appeared in 1969. His Letters in the Dark (1986) was an Observer book of the year, and he was the recipient of several literary prizes. His collected poems, A Casual Knack of Living, appeared in 2009.

In England Bertie won the Poetry Society’s 1991 biennial translation award for one of his anthologies, Contemporary Finnish Poetry. The Finnish government recognised his work in making Finnish literature better known when it made him a Knight First Class of Order of the White Rose of Finland in 1987.

To Books from Finland, he made an invaluable contribution over almost 35 years – an incredibly long time in the existence of a small literary magazine. The number of Finnish authors and poets whose work he made available in English is countless: classics, young writers, novelists, poets, dramatists.

Bertie’s speciality was ‘difficult’ poets, whose challenge lay in their use of end-rhymes, special vocabulary, rhythm or metre. He loved music, so the sounds and tones of words, their musicality, were among the things that fascinated him. Kirsi Kunnas’ hilarious, limerick-inspired children’s rhymes were among his best translations – although actually nothing in them would make the reader think that the originals might not have been written in English. A sample: There once was a crane / whose life was led / as a uniped. / It dangled its head / and from time to time said:/ It would be a pain / if I looked like a crane. (From Tiitiäisen satupuu, ‘Tittytumpkin’s fairy tree’, 1956, published in Books from Finland 1/1979.)

Bertie also translated work by Eeva-Liisa Manner, Paavo Haavikko, Mirkka Rekola, Pentti Holappa, Ilpo Tiihonen, Aaro Hellaakoski and Juhani Aho among many, many others; for example, the prolific writer Arto Paasilinna’s best-known novel, Jäniksen vuosi / The Year of the Hare, appeared in his translation in 1995. Johanna Sinisalo’s unusually (in the Finnish context) non-realist troll novel Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi / Not Before Sundown, subsequently translated into many other languages, appeared in 2003. His last translation for Books from Finland was of new poems by Vilja-Tuulia Huotarinen in 2009.

It was always fun to talk with Bertie about translations, language(s), writers, books, and life in general. He himself said he was a schoolboy at heart – which is easy to believe. He was funny, witty, inventive, impulsive, sometimes impatient – and thoroughly trustworthy: he just knew how to find the precise word, tone of voice, figure of speech. He had perfect poetic pitch. As dedicated and incredibly versatile translators are really hard to find anywhere, we all realise our good fortune – both for Finnish literature and for ourselves – to have worked, and enjoyed with such enjoyment, with Bertie.

Poet Aaro Hellaakoski (1893–1956) was not a self-avowed follower of Zen, but his last poems, in particular, show surprisingly close contacts with the philosophy. ‘Secrets of existence are revealed once one ceases seeking them’, the literary scholar Tero Tähtinen wrote in an essay published alongside Bertie’s new Hellaakoski translations in (the printed) Books from Finland (2/2007). Bertie was fond of Hellaakoski, whose existential verses fascinated him; among his 2007 translations is The new song (from Vartiossa, ‘On guard’, 1941):

The new song

Uusi laulu

No compulsion, not a sting. Ei mitään pakota, ei polta.
My body doesn’t seem to be. On ruumis niinkuin ei oisikaan.
As if a nightbird started to sing Kuin alkais kaukovainioilta
its far shy carol from some tree – yölintu arka lauluaan
as if from its dim chrysalis kuin hyönteistoukka heräämässä
a little grub awoke to bliss – ois kotelossaan himmeässä
or someone struck from off his shoulder kuin hartioiltaan joku loisi
a miserable old bugaboo – pois köyhän muodon entisen
and a weird flying creature ja outo lentäväinen oisi
stretched a fragile wing and flew. ja nostais siiven kevyen.
Ah limitless bright light: Oi kimmellystä ilman pielen.
the gift of lyrical flight! Oi rikkautta laulun kielen.


Lars Levi Laestadius: Lappalaisten mytologian katkelmia [Fragments of Lapp mythology]

23 September 2011 | Mini reviews, Reviews

Lappalaisten mytologian katkelmia
[Fragments of Lapp mythology]
Toimittaneet [Edited by]: Juha Pentikäinen ja Risto Pulkkinen
Suomentanut [Translated into Finnish by]: Risto Pulkkinen
Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura / the Finnish Literature Society: 400 p., ill.
ISBN 978-952-222-257-2
€ 28, paperback

The Swedish pastor Lars Levi Laestadius (1800–1861) is known as a preacher who criticised the dead dogma of the church and as the founder of Finland’s largest charismatic sect – although Laestadius did not even live in Finland. He was also a journalist who was active in the temperance movement and wrote a great deal of religious literature; Laestadius may be the best-known Sámi of all time. As well as an ecologist and botanist, he was also a philologist with a knowledge of the dialects of the Sámi language, and as an ethnographer Laestadius studied the history of the Sámi, collecting their beliefs into a system he called the Lapps’ mythology. It is only now that this work has been published in its entirety in Finnish. An expedition funded by Louis Philippe, king of France, in 1838–1840, played a decisive part in the birth of the work: Laestadius was appointed guide to the expedition, and a study of Lapp ‘history’ was commissioned from him. Part of the manuscript was long lost, but in 1946 it was discovered in the library of Yale University.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins

Science and fiction

15 September 2011 | Authors, Interviews

Kristina Carlson. Photo: Tommi Tuomi

Interview with Kristina Carlson, author of William N. Päiväkirja (‘William N. Diary’, Otava, 2011)

‘Monsieur W. Nylander had died alone, his head resting against his desk. We’d known for a long while that your beloved relative was not well, but whenever he was walking along the street and someone enquired as to his health, he always replied that he felt fit and well.’

Finnish-born Monsieur William N. lives in Paris at the end of the 19th century. The grumpy old scientist spends his days studying lichens in his small, dusty apartment and writing bitter comments in his diary about the way of the world, all things meaningless, and the glory and reputation that he never achieved.

William Nylander (born Oulu, 1822 – died Paris, 1899) is a historical figure who truly existed, and the remarks quoted above are taken from a letter sent by William’s housekeeper to his sister Elise in Finland, but other than this William’s diary is entirely the work of Kristina Carlson. The hermetic botanist has now become the protagonist of a novel written in 2011. More…

Notes for an unwritten autobiography

15 September 2011 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel William N. Päiväkirja (‘William N. Diary’, Otava, 2011). Interview by Soila Lehtonen

Paris, 15 November 1897

Constance probably bought this notebook for housekeeping purposes, but forgot it when she left, so I shall take it for my use, and I am not going to tear a single page, because the paper is of good quality and the covers are made of calico. When I write in a small hand there is plenty of room for the text, and when I write in Swedish Constance will not understand, if she chances to see the notebook. She has promised to visit once or twice a week and continue to bring food and do the cleaning (we cleared up the differences of opinion that were related to her departure), even though she has now moved and married a retired officer, having been my housekeeper for nearly 30 years. The laundry she has delegated to Madame L., who lives in this house, although that lady is intolerably nosy and talkative, and she has six smutty children. I have decided to write my autobiography, so that posterity shall receive a full and proper impression of my work. (Let Prof. Schwendener from Berlin and Dr Louis Pasteur be content with minor roles!) I shall not begin until tomorrow, for today I intend to study the specimens of South American lichens Prof. D. has sent if there is enough daylight. More…

Nature boy

15 September 2011 | In the news


Seal signed: Saimaa ringed seal by Erik Bruun

The graphic artist Professor Erik Bruun has been awarded the Luonnotar / National Spirit of Nature Award for 2011.

The prize, established by the Puu kulttuurissa / Wood in Culture Association in 2001 and now worth € 12,000, is awarded bi-annually to Finnish professionals of any field of culture whose work has helped to make the public in Finland and abroad more aware of Finnish culture, heritage and environment.

Erik Bruun (born 1926) – who was the Art Editor of  Books from Finland from 1976 to 1989 – is perhaps best known to the public for his numerous posters and advertisements, in particular his nature posters for the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation: the Saimaa ringed seal, the bear, eagles, owls, seagulls and other birds.

Bruun’s interest in nature photography, drawing, etching and lithography have long combined in his work for the Finnish wood processing industry as well as in his illustrative work for magazines and books and in designing postage stamps and banknotes.

A book on his life’s work, Sulka ja kynä. Erik Bruunin julisteita ja käyttögrafiikkaa (‘The quill and the pen. Posters and graphics by Erik Bruun’) by Ulla Aartomaa was published in 2007 (and reviewed in Books from Finland 3/2007). Take a look at his work on his home page.


Matti Salminen: Yrjö Kallisen elämä ja totuus [The life and truth of Yrjö Kallinen]

15 September 2011 | Mini reviews, Reviews

Yrjö Kallisen elämä ja totuus
[The life and truth of Yrjö Kallinen]
Helsinki: Like Kustannus, 2011. 271 p., ill.
ISBN 978-952-01-0612-6
€ 27, hardback

Counsellor of Education Yrjö Kallinen (1886–1976) was a Social Democrat politician, a passionate speaker and a pacifist who served for one parliamentary term as an MP and for two years as a cabinet minister. Kallinen was a working-class man who independently acquired a broad general education. His life and thought contain many paradoxes and contradictions. In the Civil War (1918) he received four death sentences, though he tried to act as a peace-broker between the Whites and the Reds. Kallinen avoided the death penalty but suffered a long prison sentence. After the Second World War he became Minister of Defence, though in spite of holding the post he did not abandon his pacifism. Kallinen was also strongly influenced by oriental religions and theosophy, and he is known as an early advocate of vegetarianism. The most important sources for this biography are Yrjö Kallinen’s own writings, many of which have never been published before, and his recently discovered correspondence. The summaries of Kallinen’s interviews for foreign newspapers open up interesting perspectives on recent Finnish political history.
Translated by David McDuff


Weird and proud of it

5 September 2011 | Authors, Essays, Non-fiction, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

In this series Finnish authors ponder their profession. Johanna Sinisalo, detests literary pigeonholes: in her opinion, the genre isn’t the point, the story is. Instead of having her books labelled ‘fantasy’ or ‘science fiction’, she would like to coin a new term: Finnish weird

I’ve got a problem, and it’s a problem I share with my agent, my publisher, book retailers and librarians.

Nobody really knows which literary pigeonhole my works belong to. Almost without exception my stories include some element that is mystical, magical or otherwise at odds with our everyday reality, or they might be set in the future.

‘Doesn’t that make it fantasy?’ some might ask. ‘Or science fiction?’

Seasoned readers will of course appreciate that both ‘fantasy’ and ‘science fiction’ are very broad concepts that can encompass a whole variety of different texts. Even so, I still don’t want my works to be bunched into either of these categories. Why not? More…

The sound of music

2 September 2011 | This 'n' that

Helsinki Music Centre: the main hall. Photo: Arno Chapelle

The long-awaited new concert hall, Musiikkitalo (’Music house’, in English Helsinki Music Centre), in front of the Parliament house in the very heart of the city, was opened with a concert (this concert is available at YLE Areena until 30 September) featuring Sibelius and Stravinsky on 31 August.

Musiikkitalo finally provides a new home for two orchestras, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, as well as for the only Finnish university of music, the Sibelius Academy. It is owned by the Finnish government, the City of Helsinki and Finnish Broadcasting Company. The costs of the building rose from an original estimate of 98 million € in 2005 to 190 million €.

The acoustics designer is the renowned Japanese specialist Yasuhisa Toyota. The building, containing seven halls of various sizes, will provide specialised surroundings for different kinds of music and musicians, acoustics in the existing Finlandia Hall (designed by Alvar Aalto) and other local venues long having proved inadequate or faulty.

The site has remained misused for decades: the brick warehouses, dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were finally abandoned by the national railway company in the 1980s and subsequently occupied by various artists’ and civil organisations, housing popular restaurants and flea markets. Many protests took place when the warehouses were doomed to demolition – and then the buildings were finally destroyed in 2006 in a fire.

The brand new concert hall in Reykjavik, Iceland, is called Harpa (‘Harp’). Wouldn’t it have been nice to give also Musiikkitalo a more exciting name to go by – maybe conduct a straw poll among listeners? Some of the rows of seats (1,704 in all) in the main hall resemble logs floating down in a river, so what about Log jam? Or does that have unfortunate connotations for a project that’s meant to provide Finnish music with a new dynamism?