Author: Pekka Tarkka

Tellervo Krogerus: Sanottu. Tehty. Matti Kuusen elämä 1914–1998. [Said. Done. The life of Matti Kuusi, 1914–1998]

22 May 2014 | Mini reviews, Reviews

Sanottu.TehtySanottu. Tehty. Matti Kuusen elämä 1914–1998
[Said. Done. The life of Matti Kuusi, 1914–1998]
Helsinki: Siltala , 2014. 856 pp., ill .
ISBN 978-952-234-194-5
€31.50, hardback

The folklorist Matti Kuusi vied for the status of the world’s leading researcher of proverbs with the Californian scholar Archer Taylor, his work extending from the shores of the Baltic Sea to Namibia’s Ovamboland. Proverbs revealed to him the deep structures of the human mind and showed that the nations of the world possessed a basis for mutual understanding. As a young man Kuusi read Spengler and predicted the destruction of the Western world. According to his ‘Kalevalan imperialism’, the Nordic region was to be the new world power. The war brought him to his senses: he understood that patriotism was mainly a matter of bland resilience. Professor Kuusi was a rigorous scholar, but also a provocative man of ideas who showed that pop music was today’s folk poetry. That idea received a mixed reception, but nowadays his department studies both rap music and ancient folk song. This biography by Tellervo Krogerus creates a rich portrait of a complex personality.

Translated by David McDuff

In good company

18 October 2013 | This 'n' that

Portrait of an artist: Joel Lehtonen, sketched by Pietro Annigoni in Florence, 1931. Picture: literary archives of the Finnish Literature Society

Portrait of an artist: Joel Lehtonen, sketched by Pietro Annigoni in Florence, 1931. Picture: literary archives of the Finnish Literature Society

Margaret, Countess of Snowdon (Princess Margaret, 1930–2002), Joel, Master of Putkinotko (1881–1934), and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (born 1921) met in the same museum case in Florerence in October, when an exhibition of the work of the artist Pietro Annigoni (1910–1988) was opened.

The morganatic juxtaposition of the English royals and the Finnish writer is based on Annigoni’s reputation as one of the best-known portraitists of the 20th century, in whom the royal courts of England and Denmark, among others, placed their trust.

Joel Lehtonen, author of the novel Putkinotko (‘Hogweed Hollow’, the name also refers to a place) and classic of Finnish literature, is included on account of the fact that, in celebrating his fiftieth birthday in Florence in 1931, he partied throughout the night with students from the Accademia di Belle Arte ‘to the rhythm of an excellent Chianti’.

Also present was the young Piero Annigoni, who, in a cellar restaurant, took out his working tools. A red-chalk portrait of Lehtonen was the result, along with a series of dancing girls drawn in Indian ink. ‘It was five in the morning before I realised,’ Lehtonen wrote back to Finland.

Lehtonen had already spent a year in Italy in 1908 translating Boccaccio’s The Decameron, which, to his annoyance, was censored by the publisher. He published a volume of poetic prose based on his Italian experiences, Myrtti ja alppiruusu (‘The myrtle and the rhododendron’), of which one section is dedicated to Florence, that ‘glittering, passionate city of the spirit’.

Young Florentine artists were used to world-class artists. When the poet Dylan Thomas visited the city in the 1940s, the poet and author Luigi Berti – an acquaintance of Lehtonen’s – complained that ‘poets travelling in Italy no longer give themselves the airs of “milords” – behave like Lord Byron.’ Lehtonen, however, was able to party stylishly and thoroughly in a way that appears to have pleased the sons of Florence.

As he set off on the return journey to Finland, Lehtonen wrote to his wife: ‘An embarrassing day is over’, ‘I am in fine spirits! Heat the sauna.’ He brought with him Annigoni’s works, which are now in the archive of the Finnish Literature Society.

The curator of the Florence exhibition found more sketches of Lehtonen in the Museo Annigoni: in the current show, they are placed alongside sketches of Princess Margaret and Prince Philip.

The opening of the exhibition, in the premises of the Ente Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze, was attended by 300 of the city’s elite. It was as if the nobility of the portraits of the Uffizi art gallery had stepped out of their frames to honour Annigoni, whose paintings continued the traditions of the renaissance. The Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica gave prominent coverage to the event. The young politician and Florence mayor Matteo Renzi said in his speech that in northern Italy Annigoni’s significance to art is parallel to that of Olivetti to industry.

Annigoni’s early portraits of Lehtonen are shown in a section entitled Opere rare o inedited. The 240-page catalogue also includes brief description of Lehtonen as a writer and an account of that night in Florence in 1931.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

Nationalism in war and peace

3 May 2012 | Reviews

House of words: the Finnish Literature Society building in Helsinki. Architect Sebastian Gripenberg, 1890. Watercolour by an unknown Russian artist, 1890s

Kai Häggman
Sanojen talossa. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura 1890-luvulta talvisotaan
[In the house of words. The Finnish Literature Society from the 1890s to the Winter War]
Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 2012. 582 p., ill.
ISBN 978-952-222-328-9
€54, hardback

The Finnish Literature Society has, throughout its history, played a multiplicity of roles: fiction publisher, research institute specialising in folklore studies, organiser of mass campaigns in support of national projects, literary gatekeeper, learned society, controller of language development.

The priorities of these areas of interest have changed from decade to decade, so Kai Häggman has taken on an exceptionally difficult subject to describe. He has, however, succeeded brilliantly in gathering the different threads together, using as as lowest common denominator the ideas of nationalism and nation whose role in global modernisation and European history have been studied, among others, by the British historians Ernest Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm. More…

In memoriam Bo Carpelan 1926–2011

24 February 2011 | Authors, In the news

Bo Carpelan. Photo: Irmeli Jung

I write one winter’s day,
write off the day and the night, the planets,
go into my house from a harsh sun
and extend those shadows that are swordlike aimed.
It is a day of drifting snow
and with a voice from that which is I
or was.

(From The Cool Day. English translation by David McDuff, published in Homecoming, Carcanet, 1993)

Bo Carpelan, one of the great names of Finnish literature, died in his home city of Helsinki on 11 February. Carpelan’s first collection of poetry appeared in 1946, his last in 2010.

In his poems and prose he frequently described his childhood in apartment buildings filled with the smell of cooked herring, the noise of quarrels and the sound of the news on the radio. Prosaic life is turned into poetry, images and music, the apartment house is built from the rooms of a dream.

Bo Carpelan loved music. His novel Axel (English translation by David McDuff, 1989), is about his paternal grandfather’s brother, who was a friend of Jean Sibelius and the composer’s first critic. Axel was an unsuccessful musician who chose to live through someone else, and Carpelan relates him to the theme of the dignity of rejected human beings. More…

Arne Nevanlinna: Hjalmar

5 November 2010 | Mini reviews, Reviews

Helsinki: WSOY, 2010. 294 p.
ISBN 978-951-0-36700-1
€29, hardback

‘Jansson!’ Hjalmar, the protagonist of Arne Nevanlinna’s second novel, is repeatedly woken by voices barking his surname at him. The people shouting at him are primary school teachers, commanding officers, nurses, psychiatrists and his bosses; these figures collectively serve as a sort of Orwellian ‘Big Brother’ figure, or Hjalmar’s social superego. At the core is penniless bohemian office drone Hjalmar’s relationship to his boss, Börje, who personifies the archetype of the Finnish banker, both idolised and loathed. Hjalmar eventually rises up from his lowly position into the opposition, aided by several picaresque characters and his own ‘pokeresque’ skills as a gambler.  Arne Nevanlinna (born 1925), an architect and essayist, began writing fiction late in his career: his first novel, Marie (2008), was a runaway success. It tells of a lady from the cream of Strasbourg society who had been married off to Finland and lived in isolation to the age of a hundred. Hjalmar does not quite match its predecessor in terms of quality, but the elegance of old patrician clans persists in its enjoyable irony.

A day in the life of a bookseller

12 August 2010 | Reviews

A happy day in Joel Lehtonen's life in 1933. Photo: Otava/H. Iffland

The bookseller Aapeli [Abel] Muttinen, a central figure in Joel Lehtonen’s ‘Putkinotko’ books, is one of those fictional characters for whom Finnish readers have cherished a particular affection, not least because of his keen enjoyment of the pleasures they themselves so regularly share when they escape to their lakeside cottages for the summer.

But although Aapeli Muttinen is Finnish through and through, he is not without counterparts in the literature of other nations. One of his close relatives is the laziest man in all literature, Goncharov’s Oblomov; others, perhaps more surprisingly, can be found in the works of Anatole France – booksellers like Blaizot and Paillot, both gentle dilettanti with a streak of individualism and a penchant for good living. Like them, Muttinen is tolerably well-read: at the beginning of the short story  ‘A happy day’ we find him musing about Horace, and at least one of Horace’s odes must have appealed to him strongly: ‘Happiest is he who, like his sires of old, / Tills his own ground, and lives his life in peace, / Far from the tumult of the noisy world.’

Veikko Huovinen (1927–2009) in memoriam

23 October 2009 | Authors, In the news

Veikko Huovinen 1927–2009

Veikko Huovinen (1927–2009). – Photo: Irmeli Jung /WSOY

Author Veikko Huovinen died on 4 October at his home in Sotkamo, in northern Finland, at the age of 82.

Huovinen was a graduate of the forest research programme at Helsinki University and worked for a period as a forest ranger. In the 1950s he began working as a full-time writer after his first novel, Havukka-ahon ajattelija (‘The thinker of Havukka-aho’, 1952), achieved great success.

Havukka-ahon ajattelija is the story of a stubbornly ruminative backwoods philosopher who ponders natural phenomena and the great political turning points that he hears about on the radio. The novel has been translated into six languages.

The soil that Huovinen’s works spring from is his northern community surrounded by deep forest, and his characters are modelled on its inhabitants: a self-sufficient business owner, a vagrant rascal, an ill-tempered hermit. They withdraw into the shelter of their homes, where the arctic winds and the evil of the world can’t reach them. Such humoresques might bring to mind Mark Twain or the early works of Nikolai Gogol. More…

In memoriam Paavo Haavikko 1931–2008

30 December 2008 | Authors, In the news

Paavo Haavikko. Photo: Kai Widell.

Paavo Haavikko. Photo: Kai Widell.

The poet, writer, playwright and publisher Paavo Haavikko died in Helsinki in October, at the age of 77.

Haavikko was one of Finland’s most internationally recognised writers, and his success was helped by many prominent poets’ interest in his lyric poetry. His work was translated by Anselm Hollo and Herbert Lomas (English), Manfred Peter Hein (German), Bo Carpelan (Swedish), and Gabriel Rebourcet (French), among others.

Haavikko debuted in 1951 as a lyric modernist who broke through all of modernism’s barriers. He was a master of intoxicating lyricism, and an intellectually discerning storyteller of general truths in his narrative poems. His collections Talvipalatsi (‘Winter palace’, 1959) and Puut, kaikki heidän vihreytensä (‘The trees, all their green’, 1966), in particular, have achieved the status of classics. More…

Conversation pieces

Issue 1/2005 | Archives online, Authors

Maria Jotuni (1880–1943) was a master of dialogue, in prose and drama. Pekka Tarkka takes a look at her talents and introduces a short story from the 1920s

The Norwegian Nobel prize-winning writer Knut Hamsun admired the stories by the young Maria Jotuni and wrote to her: ‘Extraordinary, what a sure sense of form you have – but above all, your book is full of profound poetry…. My God, how beautifully and warmly you write about things which another might treat coarsely unpleasantly. I admire you.’

Both Jotuni and Hamsun belong to the same literary atmosphere as the fin de siècle Viennese masters of the erotic, Arthur Schnitzler et consortes. Joutuni’s masterly use of dialogue was at its most brilliant in those stories in which we do not hear the other party in the conversation at all. Jotuni used her dramatic skill in a number of plays, such as Tohvelisankarin rouva (‘The wife of the henpecked hero’, 1924), whose burlesque satire even today stirs the most conservative audiences to rage. More…

Love and war

Issue 4/2000 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Väinö Linna ‘s famous war novel, Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier), was editorially censored, with the author’s agreement, on its first publication in 1954. But, as Pekka Tarkka discovers, the English translation that appeared three years later was outrageously falsified

Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier) is a story about Finnish soldiers fighting Soviet forces in Second World War. When it came out in 1954, it immediately gained an almost incredibly important place in the hearts of Finnish readers: it sold 160,000 copies in the first year, it has been made into a movie twice, and over the years, it has been one of the steadiest sellers of Finnish literature, reaching a record figure of more than 600,000 copies. More…

How many worlds?

31 March 2000 | Authors, Reviews

Veronica Pimenoff

Photo: Jukka Uotila

Veronica Pimenoff’s novel Maa ilman vettä (‘A world without water’) recalls in a startling way the time when the founding father of Nordic literature, Georg Brandes, urged readers to ‘make problems a matter of debate’ and when Henrik Ibsen’s plays The Pillars of Society and A Doll’s House provoked widespread debate about money and property, gender and marriage.

The tradition of problem-centred literature in the Nordic countries from the end of the 19th century onward has hardly been studied, but it could certainly be made visible by tracing a line from Brandes to August Strindberg and thence via the working-class literature of Sweden and Finland to, for example, the feminist fiction of recent decades. More…


Issue 4/1999 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Among Finnish writers of the younger generation, Jyrki Kiiskinen (born 1963) has wasted no time becoming a prominent figure, both admired and disparaged. While his entry in the new three-volume literary history of Finland is allotted as much space as one of our classics, it does not grant him the status of an innovator. Reviewing his new book of poems, Kun elän (‘As I live’, 1999), for my newspaper, I proposed that it introduces, for the first time in Finnish poetry, the automobile as a metaphor for our entire motorised life style. The president of the Finnish Writers’ Union, poet Jarkko Laine, responded by presenting a list of all the Cadillacs, Renaults and Volvos that can be glimpsed in the pages of Finnish poetry books. More…

Mystery and the imagination

30 December 1999 | Authors, Reviews

Jyrki Vainonen

Photo: Niko Aula

Jyrki Vainonen mixes reality with miracles: in his story ‘The pearl’ the central character is a living model in a department store. Introduction by Pekka Tarkka

The setting of Jyrki Vainonen’s short story ‘Helmi’ (‘The Pearl’) reminds me of the Finnish architect Sigurd Frosterus, who lived at the beginning of the 20th century. He wrote a brilliant essay on the Wertheim department store in Berlin, which he saw as a work of art of the age of capitalism, similar to the baths for Romans or the cathedral for the people of the mediaeval period. He realised his vision by designing a handsome building, the Stockmann department store, which has been a much-loved temple of goods for Helsinki people for 70 years. More…

All at sea

Issue 3/1993 | Archives online, Authors

Tytti Parras’ novel Vieras (‘The stranger’, 1993) is a chronicle of fear and loathing among boating classes of the Baltic. Introduction by Pekka Tarkka

Of all modern writers, the best delineator of life at sea is probably William Golding. His skill is apparent, among other things, in the way in which, as his ships do battle with the ocean, he arranges encounters between old styles of literature and, both on and below decks, lays bare the divisions of class. The most developed character in Rite’s of Passage, Mr Summers, has done something unusual, risen from deck-hand to first lieutenant; but despite his social ascent, he is forced to acknowledge: ‘In our country for all her greatness there is one thing she cannot do and that is to translate a person wholly out of one class into another. Perfect translation from one language into another is impossible. Class is the British language.’ More…

Dialogues with death

Issue 3/1992 | Archives online, Authors

Pekka Tarkka reassesses the work of Väinö Linna (1920–1992) and introduces an extract from Täällä Pohjantähden alla (‘Here beneath the North Star’, 1959–62)

Relations between Finland and Russia – and, analogically, the poor tenanted farm and the rich rectory – and their descent into violence are the subjects of Linna’s great novels: Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier, 1954) describes ordinary soldiers in the Finno-Soviet war of 1941-44; Täällä Pohjantähden alla is at its most powerful in its depiction of the civil war fought in 1918 between Reds and Whites.

The slice of Finnish local history that Linna recounts reflects 50 years of world history,’ said the Swedish professor Victor Svanberg in 1963 as he presented Linna with the Nordic Council’s literary prize. But is Linna’s work tied to its time to the extent that it will die now that he is dead, and that the epoch, in which he played so strong a part, is passing? More…