Life: facts and fiction

10 September 2014 | Extracts, Non-fiction

arch In his latest book, the architect and author Arne Nevanlinna (born 1925) recalls, among other things, his Helsinki childhood and family, the wartime period, his fellow architect Alvar Aalto, various aspects of the spirit of the times, his own work and writings. His first novel Marie was published in 2008. Extracts from Arne. Oman elämän kintereillä (‘Arne. On the trail of one’s life’, Siltala, 2014)

My attitude to my own identity has developed from the unconsciousness of childhood, the uncertainty of early adulthood, the artificial arrogance of middle age and the self-analysis of approaching retirement, to my present situation.

Despite the fact that my first book had some degree of success, it took many books before I felt I was a real writer. The process continued for well over ten years, by which time I was already over eighty. Before that, I thought of writing as a way to pass the time and combat loneliness. I imagined that I was writing for a living, and that I lived in order to write. I was in the fortunate position of not to think about my income.

Even then, I knew that this was just a catchphrase for the event that it occurred to someone in the audience to ask me why I wrote. That never actually happened. No wonder, as both question and answer would have been unnecessary, to put it mildly, and stupid, to put it harshly.

I stopped to think about what it really means to be a writer, in the deepest sense of the word. Anyone can write for themselves and their loved ones, and can write what they like. But if the book is published, either by self-publishing or by a publishing house, an unpredictable number of strangers are drawn in.

There is then the involvement of public debate, which can have an influence on the way that readers think, and can increase or decrease their understanding and prejudices, or even change their patterns of behaviour.

A disproportionate exaggeration? Yes, or no. Finnish cultural identity consists not only of the thoughts and actions of social activists, but also, and above all, those of ordinary citizens. This means that, like it or not, a writer has to assume responsibilities and obligations which in the case of professional writing acquire an additional importance.

On my desk is Jörn Donner’s [autobiographical] book Mammuten (‘Mammoth’). I have read only a small portion of it, but the sheer size of the work is already making me doubtful. I think it possible and even probable that the author wrote this book in order to give vent to his own inner feelings, without considering his readers, and through them the effects this could have on Finland-Swedish and Finnish culture.

The attitude shows emotionalism and arrogance. Both bear a close relation to irresponsibility. Not brothers, perhaps, but cousins.

A similar phenomenon is also seen among architects. There are those for whom satisfaction with their own artistic creativity, real or imaginary, is enough. There are those for whom the estimation of their colleagues is enough. There are those for whom the satisfaction of their client’s current needs is enough. But rare are the architects who even try to widen their responsibility to include present and future environmental issues, let alone the wishes, expectations and needs of those who use their buildings.

I don’t remember how high the profession of writer ranks on the status lists. But I do know that many of these people are men and women who believe that the right to call oneself a writer is something worth pursuing. This despite the fact that in very many cases the writer cannot live on his or her work.

This is a small but important sign that the humanist tradition still manages to scrape by in a climate of self-interest and a general atmosphere of greed. My faith in Finland’s future is strengthened.

In three of the novels I have written the main character is a woman, which may be read as a sign that I consider the equality of the sexes an important social aim.

In the balance

I am able to state, almost to the exact day, when the normal awareness of my own mortality turned into fear. I was then eighty-two years and three months old.

They told me it was a very serious illness. If the blood clot proceeded to my heart, the result would be death. I felt all right, and I knew, or thought I knew, that I had inherited a strong heart from my mother. I did not feel any fear.

I was kept in the hospital for examinations for about a week, though a few days would have been enough for me. The doctors’ diagnosis, a man over eighty, with an illness that was statistically fatal, led to my being transferred to the home care system without being asked for my permission. At regular intervals a nurse arrived, took a blood sample from my finger and informed me of the appropriate dose of medication.

When I got home it was only a few weeks until the fear of death assailed me. I fell into a depressive state, I considered psychiatric treatment, but eventually found my way to the surgery of a general practitioner. He listened to me for a moment, told me that it was a completely normal reaction, and wrote me a prescription for some anti-depressants.

After a couple of months my attitude to life and death had returned to normal, the fear was gone and the remainder of the pills left unused. The home care treatment concluded with the nurse’s report, in which she said that the patient was in too good health. Instead of lying pale in bed, smiling weakly, I changed the time of her visit because of my schedule.

How was it possible that my idea of myself as a rational thinking person had been shaken just because a doctor told me that I might die, even though I felt all right? My painstakingly built self-esteem received a blow. I remembered distant times when the tension caused by some matter that in hindsight seemed trivial led to allergic reactions.

Later the hospital experience served me as a needed reminder of how complicated a phenomenon the human mind is. It is important to be aware of what one thinks, does, says and writes. But it is even more important to try to understand why it should be in this, and not some wholly different way.

In the general atmosphere of [post-war] reconstruction, as an architect I had become used to keeping my gaze trained straight ahead. Projects consisted of a given task, the planning phase and the final result. There was little time left for tranquil reflection.

In professional terms the result of this was that no lessons were drawn from architectures of the past as they represented ‘wrong’ stylistic directions. At some point the university’s architecture department considered it necessary to organise a separate series of lectures on the history of modernism. It was felt that the professor who specialised in architectural history placed too much emphasis on the distant past.

We relied on the examples offered by respected domestic and foreign colleagues, or rather, to put it a little less charitably, we mimicked them. We did not consider it necessary to specify our aims, objectives, expectations and implementation, and we did not analyse them.

After the period of depression I was forced against my will to examine and question my approach to history, philosophy, religious faith, and my outlook on life and death. Probably a good deal later than many of my fellow citizens.

I had later also given up my purposeful familiarisation with these topics for the (artificial) reason that there did not seem to be time for the writing of novels. Contrary to what I thought immediately following my recovery from depression, the apocalyptically flavoured meditations did not go to waste.

Earlier I had thought of myself as a kind of atheist, and that had led me to leave the church some time during the turbulent years of the 1960s. The true meaning of atheism I never bothered to discover. My critical view of the clergy was sufficient reason for that. At the time the question of whether God exists or how the word of the Bible should be taken did not occupy my mind.

Nowadays I consider the understanding of issues related to religious faith important for my peace of mind. As my starting point I take the fact that man is the only living creature who is aware of his own mortality. The root cause of the need to believe in higher powers and the life hereafter is the fear of death.

On this rests my heretical conviction that Man is not a creation of God, but that, on the contrary, God is the creation of Man – both have earned their large initial letter. Michelangelo’s famous painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling is open to both interpretations.

With the scientific revolution, secularisation has spread radically. Yet the majority of people in the world still believe in their own gods and in the glory of a life after death. I envy them because I know, or think I know, that after death there is nothing at all.

This renders the utterances of the clergy decidedly hollow, but I can understand that at a time when literacy was rare they were needed as interpreters of God’s word. The unfortunate aspect of that is that history offers plenty of examples of how they abused their position of authority.

At best I am able to forget my fear of death, at worst it troubles me. Not so much because of death itself, but because when I imagine them in advance the physical agonies seems intolerable.

I do not want a secular funeral. I do not want the cross on my obituary to be replaced by a snow-suited war veteran or a vignette displaying a sunset, or some lines of poetry. But if my loved ones want to proceed in this or any other way I will not object, for the simple reason that I will no longer exist.

I do not reject the idea of ​​the traditional funeral, with a hymn and the dispassionate words of an unknown pastor. How does this accord with my critical outlook on life and my disposition for protest? It is because I do not see the various religions with their holy books as the achievement of heavenly powers, but as a consolidation of the wisdom that has been developed over the millennia by the human race itself.

The key to this apparent contradiction is that I see religions not as religions, but as cultures. Criticism can and must be presented. But it is as well to remember that it is almost impossible to understand the norms and mentality of past generations. The same thing also applies to cultures active in our time that are foreign to us.

I assert this without belittling the achievements of Western historiography. In the course of my conscious life I have observed, partly with the benefit of hindsight, how radically the interpretations of different cultures have changed at various periods. I see no reason to suppose that this should be a temporary phenomenon.

As I understand it, in the Islamic faith the emphasis is on prohibitions and punishments. The same features exist in the Old Testament. The New Testament lays stress on mercy and forgiveness. I say this, though I have not read a single line of the Koran and only fragments of the Bible. The Holy Book was written not by God or Jesus but by the countless unknown clergymen and scribes who supplemented the work of the better known evangelists and apostles. The meaning of the Bible lies in its profound symbolism, on which the Christian moral codes are built.

But without the humanist tradition, without the persistent contributions and criticism of thinkers, philosophers, writers, artists, scientists, statesmen, legislators and enlightened citizens, Western culture would never have attained its leading position in the world.

I read what I wrote and wondered if this was really how I wanted to end a book that told the story of my life? I took a step outside myself and replied that it was not.

True and beautiful as the Biblical and humanist ideas are, I do not recognise the aggregate of them my own after all. As if some outsider had intervened in the matter and told me in a didactic tone what the majority of readers expect me to say in this situation.

Where have they gone, the uncertainty and doubts, the hopes and disappointments, the thirst for knowledge and the moments of joy, the loneliness and feelings of inferiority, the tendency to criticism, the depression and the passionate relationship to life, the irony, the satire, parody and humour?

They have not gone anywhere, but such are human beings and such is the world, that it is easier to squeeze simple beliefs out of wise-sounding final conclusions than to wrest them from complex reality.

From being on familiar terms with higher powers and lofty thoughts, I moved back to my simple daily routine. The reflections that followed my illness were forgotten, or integrated into my personality.

To watch urban life from a window, a car or on foot is enough to maintain my daily peace of mind. A cheerful smile at the store checkout, or a stranger’s courtesy, save the day. It is fun to meet family and close friends, and the forming of new acquaintances is exciting.

The current events and items of news that stay in my mind are those that are interesting, curious, amusing, annoying or sometimes even endearing. I leave the political blustering to the opposition and the ideological demonstrations of Greenpeace.

I write or edit my own books for two or three hours each day. In the evening I spend an hour or so reading books written by others. In the morning I wake up early. I go to the window, check the weather and look at the thermometer.

I once saw a fox trotting along the deserted walkway on Oksasenkatu Street. On the corner of Museokatu Street it stopped, looked left and then right, before continuing its journey towards the Elite restaurant.

Once I was standing on the corner waiting for the lights to change at a pedestrian crossing. Next to me was a man with his young son. When the lights showed green, the boy gripped his father’s hand, gazed upwards and gave him a look in which there was everything. Admiration, faith, trust and love.

Both stories contain both fact and fiction. Just like all the stories in this book.arch

Translated by David McDuff


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