Thursday, 31 December 2009

Espoo mall shootings

Aamulehti has some background on the gunman who carried out the shootings at the shopping mall in Espoo, Finland, today:

The suspect, Ibrahim Shkupolli (born 1966) is a Kosovo Albanian who according to Aamulehti's information came to Finland via Norway in 1990. He was placed in the reception center at Mikkeli [Eastern Finland], which he later left to live in Espoo, Finland.

In the early 1990s he already had a Finnish girlfriend who is one of the victims of the Sello tragedy. Aamulehti understands that Shkupolli later separated from this girlfriend and married an Albanian woman. He also had children in common with her. The whole family lives in Finland.

The suspect's wife and child as well as his parents and brother live in Finland.

So far, unconfirmed reports suggest a triangle as the background to the shootings. Shkupolli may have been driven by jealousy of his former, Finnish girlfriend's new life.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Edith Södergran: a biographical profile - 9


The visit lasted only a few days. Hagar Olsson has left a slightly vague account of it in her edition of Edith Södergran's letters to her. One has the sense that the meeting was an uneasy one, and that the temperamental differences between the two women were too great for there to be much real chance of any fruitful development of the relationship. Edith Södergran saw her `sister' mainly as a vital link with the outside world, someone who was connected with the actualities of literature and politics and who could help further the 'cause'­the spiritual, moral and intellectual revolution of her dreams. But Hagar Olsson's preoccupation were more worldly, it seems, and in spite of her great admiration for Edith Södergran, her efforts to comply with the poet's wishes seem to have been largely in vain Nevertheless, the two women continued to correspond, though it must again be stressed that the letters came mainly from Edith Södergran. Isolated in Raivola, stricken with an illness which she hated and saw as a deadly sin, a vice which had to be overcome, she had more than enough time in which to weave imaginary fantasies around her `sister'.

That the friendship between the two was an unequal one can be seen from the many letters from Edith Södergran which begin skriv (write), berätta (tell), titta (look), and with ever-­increasing frequency - kom (come). Hagar Olsson was engaged in journalistic work in Helsinki, and frequently travelled abroad as part of her activity-to Stockholm, for example, where she interviewed Ellen Key. Edith Södergran lived these travels vicariously and often made urgent requests for books­Nietzsche, for example, was unobtainable in Finland, but available in Sweden. Hagar Olsson tried to fulfil these requests as best she could, and tried to keep Edith Södergran informed of her activities. On one occasion she even went to visit Selma Lagerlöf, not so much out of personal inclination as because her friend wanted to know what the great novelist was like. But long spells would elapse between Hagar Olsson's letters, and throughout the correspondence Edith Södergran's complaints about this grow more and more frequent. In the meantime Raivola was declared a restricted area by the Finnish military authorities, which meant that travel to and from it became extremely difficult. Nonetheless, Hagar Olsson did manage to make a second brief visit there in the summer of 1919, not without some early misgivings.
But how happy I was when I actually got out onto the country road, it was exactly as sun-warmed and happy and full of smiling 'delight as I remember all my summer roads to have been in Karelia. How well my soul felt in this nature, among these old Russian dachas, so inviting to the birds with their ornamentation and curlicues, which lay embedded in the luxuriant verdure and seemed to be mysteriously lost in their blossoming dilapidation. This was Edith's country, it should be seen in summer. She herself stood waiting outside her house, and I had the feeling that everything here was standing, waiting for something-the wonderful tall trees, the half overgrown garden where a few yellow raspberries and bright red clusters of currants gleamed among the weeds, the warm den of the suntrap between the bushes of the courtyard, and the great abandoned dacha, the ghostly castle where no one could live any more and which was guaıded by the enormous larch tree.* What was the old place waiting for, what was it dreaming about? It was so imbued with Edith's poetry that one involuntarily listened to its echoes when one walked in the garden under the catkins of the birch trees, and her own dreams about the future and the feast of two kindıcd souls seemed to wander around behind the locked doors of the eınpty, decaying house.

I stayed a little longer this time, and this was perhaps why I now had such a depressing insight into the truly Indian famine that reigned in the Södergran household. The situation had grown even worse. Even when she was able to procure a little flour, goixl Mrs Södergran was better versed in world literature than she was in the art of baking bread, baked, what is more, in an awkward old oven fired with home-gathered sticks and twigs, often green. It was dreadful to sit down at table. The food was such that it was hard to keep one's tears back when one thought that this was what a sick and utterly enfeebled human being had to live on. But at the same time a sense of tact forbade one to say anything that could have given offence or been badly received. The best thing that was obtainable was the milk, which they got on credit from the nearest neighbours, the Galkíns, but on no account would Edith drink this. These neighbours had an evil eye trained on her dear child, the beloved cat Totti or Råttikus, and one can understand therefore why the milk that came from them was `evil' to her. Edith's mother appealed to me, and I did try to talk Edith round, but this was almost as heartrending as to see her leave her milk untouched, so real and deeply rooted in her emotions was her aversion to the Galkins' milk. For the first time I saw how completely it depends on psychological factors whether our food can nourish us or not.

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(to be continued)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The fire

by Gösta Ågren

The fire was a story never
told. Pulsating
figures, motionless adventures
were glimpsed before they fell
apart, and the farm grew dark
and the wind called
from the future.

But the future is a place
from which the only road
that leads away is the one that leads
home. Now that everything is
told, I sit again
by the burning

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

Monday, 21 December 2009

Edith Södergran: a biographical profile - 8


The fear of betrayal was insistent. Edith Södergran had circulated a letter among the literary world of Helsinki in which she demanded that her friends should stand up and be counted: Hagar Olsson, Ragnar Ekelund, and others 'should take back their hasty condemnation of my press insertion' (the one about Septemberlyran). She based her demand on the authority of Nietzsche and claimed: 'I am an individual of an entirely new species. When I speak of the unprecedented [det oerhörda] in my art I am not talking of the content, but of the species.' This new insertion was hopelessly misunderstood. Most of the literary world in Helsinki considered it in the worst possible taste, and Hagar Olsson herself was by her own confession irritated at being solicited so directly for a reply.

She wrote a cross letter. Edith Södergran's answer was violent:

You have publicly exposed me to disgrace. I asked you if you thought that this insertion could be of great benefit to the cause. Naturally on the assumption that you would reply and by no means in order to criticise you. No one has ever acted like this towards me.

The worst of it for me is that I have lost the sister who had begun to play a wonderful role in my poetry. My health does not permit me to come to you. If you can tear yourself away for days I am now ready to receive you at any moment you please. If you refuse to do refuse to do this, I wish to brew.: with you forever, for I am a person of irrevocable decision.

... Remember that this letter is a letter of destiny. I will believe no letter-I demand a proof of your fair-mindedness in that you come here. With one whom I distrust I do not want to have any dealings and do not want to wait for her for several months. That is my character-I can be no other.

I demand that you pay the price of our friendship through this journey - otherwise I shall understand that I am to be alone. Bow before my will, Hagar, you are approaching something that more beautiful than any love, and we could experience that which is most wonderful.
And so Hagar Olsson published a long article in Dagens Press on 8 February 1919. She defended Edith Södergran against the attacks of the critics, and associated her with the "new wave" of poets and writers that was beginning to appear in the other Scandinavian countries. Of this defence Hagar Olsson wrote later: `I wrote what my heart inspired me with at the time. I tried above all else to make people understand that an inspired poet like Edith Södergran spoke in the name of the spirit, of the god that lives in all our breasts, and not in the name of her private ego. And that all talk of self-assertion in connection with her was just as tasteless and stupid as it would be in connection with the great mystics who felt the presence of the Almighty in their own souls.'

At the same time, Hagar Olsson wrote to her friend saying she would accept the invitation to come to Raivola. Edith Södergran's reaction was one of joy:

Welcome to Raivola. Will be at the station, from where it is 2 kilometres to our home. My mother is very pleased you are coming. The cat Nonno and the dog Martti will also greet you cordially, as will our punikki [the 'Red' household help] Aino.The night before your malheur-letter I dreamt that a beautiful black horse had broken loose at me. The night before the press insertion I dreamt that a herd of cows was following me with ringing bells and I also dreamt that I was walking along the street wearing a red cap and that a pedant of my acquaintance was nodding to me from the church tower which you will see...

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(to be continued)

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Levels Two to Five

Not strictly a Nordic item, perhaps, but Anthony Briggs has some interesting reflections on judging this year's Rossica Prize. Incidentally, a literal translation of the piece's title is: "God deliver us from judges like these." Money quote:
There is no circle in Dante’s Inferno to accommodate this kind of punishment for a life conducted in sin; those of us who have tormented others with words will probably have to move in somewhere on Levels Two to Five alongside other incontinents: the gluttons, misers and spendthrifts, the wrathful and sullen. (Plenty of friends there, then, and no shortage of translators).

Friday, 18 December 2009

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (VII) - 1

I write for myself regardless of readers, in a process that deals with identity and continuous creation. Only later does the wish to be read arrive.


Usually when one wants to say something one addresses a specific living person, but with the poem it is different, and must be so. If I have a particular reader in my mind as I write the poem, I limit it, clip its wings by instinctively speaking into the shared space which the given reader and I have already established. The addressee ought to be unknown, an abstract subject, but the dream of a possible reader imposes itself on form and composition as an implicit and necessary structure. Only when I have surrendered the poem is it aimed at anyone who may read it. For a moment, the person who takes the poem into his or her hands is the chosen one.


As a poet I address something that exists outside me, something that is greater than myself. Even if one prefers to call this something God, it does not change the poems. The most important thing is that I who do the writing do not imagine that I am the highest, that I as creator do not confuse myself with God.


It helps to have literary models. Preferably dead ones, but God is and remains the highest authority. The poems do not have the character of prayers or invocations, but are written upwards towards this thing that is greater.

Yet I also replace God for another, but very important reason. Since God is an absolute value, God ‘sees’ the text differently from anyone else. God will not let himself be defined, but that does not prevent us from talking to God…

As the person who does the writing I am certain of at least one thing, namely that my poems will meet with countless divergent interpretations. Not necessarily because they are complex or unclear, but because every dedication is not just about the poem itself, but also implicates the person who reads it.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Edith Södergran: a biographical profile - 7


She told the story of how the publisher had mutilated her work and how her publicity in Dagens Press had only been intended to forestall an attack which she knew already to be inevitable. Even so, one cannot help but feel that even had the book appeared exactly according to her wishes, the critical reception would hardly have been any the more favourable. The letter included some new poems which their author invited the critic to consider, and ended with a remarkable appeal:
Nietzsche says: Ich ging zu allen, aber kam zu niemand. Is it now to be that I am to come to someone? Could we reach a hand to one another? I am now launching my offensive against you, I want you to see me as I really am and I want you to show me who you are. Could there be a godlike relationship between us, so that all barriers between us would fall? I speak to you in a tentative, degrading language. Nietzsche is the only human being in whose presence I would be afraid to open my mouth. Are you the sea of fire I wí11 plunge into? If you laugh, you are my own If you do not laugh, you ought still to be worthy of the highest form of friendship, which Nietzsche advised his followers against on grounds of prudence
.Hagar Olsson's reply overwhelmed Edith Södergran. She believed that at last she had a found a companion with whom she could share the secrets of her experience. Hagar Olsson was her `sister', to whom she could confide the most intimate secrets of her life. Edith Södergran's side of the correspondence between the two women was eventually published in book form, with a linking commentary by Hagar Olsson.* It makes painful reading. Involved in the hectic early stages of a career as a publicist and socialist literary critic, Hagar Olsson had little time to spare for her 'sister'. While the published letters give a valu;ıhle insight into the development of Edith Södergran's nature mysticism and her gradual movement towards the Sufism of Goethe and Rudolf Steiner, they also reveal how far the 'godlike relationship' fell short of the poet's hopes. Raivola was far from the Finnish capital, and in reply to Hagar Olsson's invitation to visit her there, Edith Södergran wrote:
My charming young girl! Cannot come. Insomnia, tuberculosis, purse is empty (we live on the sale of our household effects and our furniture). What we have in Russian and Ukrainian securities could only be redeemed in the event of the f1ılI of Bolshevism. If the insomnia gets better I will try to come in a few months, but no certainty of this. Now I have found what l need: your objective view, and you have brains enough for us both.

May one ask; do you work for the cause in gencrıl, or will you meet certain individuals? Give a list of them, 1 want to capture certain souls. Hemmer to sing for the cause and Grotenfelt to sing or scrawl. Ragnar Ekelund does not conic into my plans. I share Severyanin's view that if a talent is a little boring it is not full enough of genius. Igor Severyanin is at present Russia's greatest poet. Saw him at a poetry reading, never spoke to him. But he is the one in whom I have a similar trust to the trust 1 have in you.

He is a very great power and should be ready for our ideas. But we must

first educate him, he has, to be sure, certain café-concert mannerisms and does not know how to discipline himself. He will be the bridge to Russia, with him we will certainly be able to get the best of Russia on its feet again. What do you think of Sweden? Will it go there? One fine day we will certainly seize hold of Europe. Do you talk directly to certain Iıecıple and have you the intention of doing this? You must read the best poems of Severyanin, they would quicken and enliven you, even though he is submerged in the boudoir and you will not find our heights in him.

I was reborn in September, whence The September Lyre. I knew suddenly with unmistakable certainty that a stronger hand had grasped my brush.

How old are you? Health? Nerves? I want you to be well and in full strength. Give a short biography! Mrs or Miss? Degree of education? Myself: residence: Raivola, Petrischülerin, tuber­culosis from age 16, Nummela, Davos, pneumothorax, waiting for someone to invent a cure for TB.

We must be ruthless with one another and sharp as diamonds...

I have a sister and have not heard her wonderful voice. I want to see your inner being, what is holiest in you.

The style and tone of this letter, its peremptory demands for concrete action at an absolute level, demands it would be impossible to fulfil in "real life" - all this is typical of the letters sent to Hagar Olsson with great frequency by Edith Södergran, even though she often obtained no reply. Hagar Olsson found the memory of this unequal friendship so painful after Edith Södergran's death that it took her twenty-five years to bring herself to look the letters out and publish them. For those twenty-five years she tried to forget about Edith Sodergran and her own failure to meet the demands of a soul that had in many respects already crossed over into another world.

The 'Sister' poems of Edith Södergran's third book, Rosenaltaret [The Rose Altar], grouped under the heading 'Fantastique', illustrate the poet's violent attachment to Hagar Olsson, and her fear that her 'sister' would betray her:

My sister...
Has she betrayed me?
Does she bear a dagger at her breast - the light-footed one? Answer me - laughing eyes.

('I Believe in My Sister')

(to be continued)

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Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Seeing the dark of print

WhyTranslator's Lev Hrytsyuk has a link to a site that specializes in unpublishable books. The site asks:
What constitutes an unpublishable work? It could be many things: too long, too experimental, too dull; too exciting; it could be a work of juvenilia or a style you've long since discarded; it could be a work that falls far outside the range of what you're best known for; it could be a guilty pleasure or it could simply be that the world judges it to be awful, but you think is quite good. We've all got a folder full of things that would otherwise never see the light of day.
In the field of Nordic translation one could think of a fair number of works that might fall into this category. How about the Collected Poems of Arvid Mörne, for example? Or even - The Unknown Soldier?

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Cold comfort

Swedish crime fiction is very popular in Germany, but it's not so often that German crime fiction is translated into Swedish. Reviewing the third of three recent translations of detective novels by Andrea Maria Schenkel – the three books constitute Schenkel's entire output so far – Bodil Zalesky notes a disturbing trend:
The voices of the main characters are almost completely interchangeable and shorn of identity, which gives me as a reader a sense of discomfort. Perhaps this is the author's intention, and it contributes to the cold undercurrent that persists throughout the book.

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (V) - 2

The notion of a 'middle' probably has a religious origin. In the Bible it is displayed in many different contexts. In the work of the mystic Angelus Silesius, talking about the middle assumes the character of the soul’s union with God:


Setz dich in Mittelpunkt: so siehst du alls zugleich, Was jetzt und dann geschieht, hier und im Himmelreich.

When in certain neo-religious movements today an altered world view manifests itself in a seeking for divine identity, it is not simply a pure caricature of, for example, the internalized spiritual direction Angelus Silesius expresses, but also a loss of the Judeo-Christian understanding of existence. All is not one, and we are not God. Poems cannot possibly be written from such a position. The story of creation is a narrative about multiplicity and separation. The innermost zone is not identical in two individuals. And above all: the zone – and the individual – are not one with God.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

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Monday, 14 December 2009

Edith Södergran: a biographical profile - 6


Her `dimensions', needless to say, were the dimensions of the entire universe, which she had experienced as a personal crisis and which had led her to reject all partial positions. Such an experience seemed merely luidcrous to the critic of Dagens Press. On 4 January 1919, signing himself `Pale Youth', he dismissed the poems of Septemberlyran as `31 laughing pills' and wrote a parody of the poem `The Bull' called `The Cow'. Referring to the passage in the Introduction about `dimensions', he directed his readers' attention to the portrait of the poet which appeared in the publishers' Christmas catalogue and wrote that `íf the body fulfils what the face promises, the dimensions could be reduced by a couple of dozen ounces without harm to her poetry.' As Tideström points out, the reviewer could certainly had had no idea that he was writing about someone literally on the brink of starvation.

Other reviews were equally offensive. The poet was accused of megalomania and called a `Nietzsche-crazed woman'. What had really drawn the ire and contempt of these critics was a notice Edith Södergran had published in Dagens Press before they had a chance to publish their reviews. Called Individual Art, it had stated that the new book was `not intended for the public, not even for the higher intellectual circles, but only for those few individuals who stand nearest the frontier of the future.' The poet could `not help those who will not feel that it is the wild blood of the future that pulsates in these poems.'
The inner fire is the most important thing that mankind possesses. The earth belongs to those who bear the highest music within them. I address myself to the exceptional individuals and exhort them to heighten their inner music, and build the future. I myself am sacrificing every atom of my strength for my great cause, I am living the life of a saint, I am immersing myself in the greatest that the human spirit has produced, I avoid all inferior influences. I look upon the old society as the mother-cell which must be sustained until individuals construct the new world. I exhort individuals to work only for immortality (a false expression), to make the highest possible out of themselves - to put themselves at the service of the future.

The notice ended with a plea:
I hope I shall not remain alone with the greatness I have to bring.
It is easy to see how such a statement could have aroused the conservative critics. Totally caught up in her experience of oneness with nature, revolution and the cosmos, cut off from the everyday world of literary journalism by sickness and political events, Edith Södergran never even considered that her words might be construed as the ravings of a megalomaniac, a pompous and hysterical female aristocrat. Her insistence on `the future' was seen as a craven alignment with Bolshevism, and her talk of `height' and `dimensions' as folie de grandeur. In order to overcome this tendency in an appreciation of Edith Sodergran's poetry-and it is a tendency that is not always entirely avoided even by her most devoted admirers (witness Tideström's constant reference to her `disturbed' state of psychic health in his critical biography)­it is necessary to understand how complete was the experience that she had undergone and would continue to undergo until her death. She had absorbed the whole of the external crisis, both that of the outside world and that of her own ailing body, into a subjective pathos which every so often gave rise to the writing of poems. It is important to see that she regarded the willed and conscious development of this extreme subjectivity as a kind of duty, a holy sacrifice. This is what she means when she says that she is living the life of a saint. The victim of this sacrifice was her uwn body, and she tried to communicate the sacrificial act by means of another kind of sacrifice, more symbolic: the poem. Georges Bataille has defined poetry as a sacrifice in which words are the victims.* His contention is that poetry leads from the known to the unknown, and the images conveyed by the words it uses are doomed to disappear and die. Edith Södergran's poems are imagistic in the extreme-but the images (of childhood, of Raivola and the lake, the garden, and so on) are nearly aways used not for their own sake, but in order to render more vivid an ecstasy, a state of mind and soul. In a poem like `Fragment', language is used to create a sensation of chaos, of time and space collided to induce a feeling of dizziness. Through her poems, Edith Södergran was trying to bring her readers into contact with the cosmic forces she had encountered. There is evidence that the act of writing the poems was for her a very arduous business. The excitement which accompanied their composition usually led to an attack of pulmonary bleeding. Thus the sacrifice was also a very real one.

Not all the reviews of Septemberlyran were as damning as the ones referred to above. Ragnar Ekelund sprang to the poet's defence, but his review was not published until 10 January. A literary feud began to develop around the book, until psychiatrists were even claiming in printed articles that the poet was either mad or immoral, or both, and a few literary "names" upheld her integrity and dissociated themselves from the published slanders. One review by a member of the latter group is of especial interest. Hagar Olsson, then a young Helsinki writer just beginning her literary career, wrote a sympathetic article about Septemberlyran in Dagens Press on 11 January. She wrote admiringly of the poems themselves, while deploring the damage their author had brought to her own cause by publishing accompanying `explanations'. Quoting Nietzsche (`Der Autor hat den Mund zu halten, wenn sein Werk den Mund auftuť*), Hagar Olsson reproached Edith Södergran for having set herself out on the market-place for the jeers of the crowd, and accused her of acting `like some cheap chanteuse out to make propaganda for herself.'

This latter remark stung very deeply. A few days later Hagar Olsson received a long letter from Edith Södergran (whom she did not know personally) which began: `You ascribe to me unjustly cheap motives for my public action' She went on to explain why she had acted as she had done:

I had asked for a selection. The publisher took a good part of the best poems out of the collection (thereby robbing the book of its weight).

(to be continued)

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Friday, 11 December 2009

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (V) - 1


The word ‘zone’ carries within it a danger. It attracts and repels at the same time. A zone is something someone has designated as an alien region, a terrain in which one is not normally allowed to travel. A closed area, an independent and restricted world that is separated or liberated from the world outside.

I imagine that all human beings have within them a zone, a centre that is filled with energy. That innermost zone is the place where something dangerous is at stake. People’s dealings with the zone may be very different. Some will be able to live their whole lives without ever really coming into contact with it, while others will be knocked down by its power..


Although the innermost zone never permits itself to be defined, it is not simply an unconscious region, a centre of hidden vulnerability or of psychic gravity, even though it could be a specious idea, really more like the middle of being, and thus an existential category.

As an artist one needs to have an especially conscious attitude to the fact that the zone contains material which is inert. Though I may delve into the zone with great caution, I must return as quickly as possible. There is a kernel that must be respected, material about which I must be silent, mysteries that must be allowed to remain mysteries.

Thus the innermost zone contains something that can serve as a beginning, but must never be written out in full. An artist wandering about in this zone is not much different from those African tribes who, after all the depots are emptied of food – either in panic or from sheer ignorance – start to eat the grain that was being stored as seed corn.

The innermost zone is a complex value of consciousness, and is also linked with the anonymity that exists behind the artist’s deeply personal striving.


The innermost zone derives its vitality from what ought never to be spoken aloud.


In the work of forcing language into poetry one’s strength may turn into its opposite. When I demand total presence, I risk being destroyed by the forces I challenge. Rilke writes of how one it is possible to establish contact with one’s centre and either derive strength from it, which can form the basis for creation, or face the danger of being banished into total powerlessness. If the gaze tries to enter and lose its way, things go wrong. Creation always carries the risk of mental disintegration.

The consciousness that the zone exists gives me the strength to be myself. Being oneself is something that ought to be obvious, but this is not always so. It has nothing to do with spontaneity, it is a battle, and therefore a great victory when it succeeds. The innermost zone is a force field from which the new must grow. It is therefore a place that cannot be protected too much. Only one’s consciousness of the zone’s existence is of extreme importance. If I am careful with it, I can have dealings with it for time eternal.

Paul Celan is also an expert in this kind of topography, and he reveals a strange location on the map of the soul:

"Meine Damen und Herren, ich finde etwas, das mich auch ein wenig darüber hinwegtröstet, in Ihrer Gegenwart diesen unmöglichen Weg, diesen Weg des Unmöglichen gegangen zu sein.

Ich finde das Verbindende und wie das Gedicht zur Begegnung Führende.

Ich finde etwas – wie die Sprache – Immaterielles, aber Irdisches, Terrestrisches, etwas Kreisförmiges, über die beiden Pole in sich selbst Zurückkehrendes und dabei – heiterweise – sogar die Tropen Durchkreuzendes –: ich finde… einen Meridian."

 "Ladies and gentlemen, I find something that also gives me a little solace in having taken this impossible route, this route of the impossible, in your presence.

I find the uniting factor, and – as in the poem – the force that leads to the encounter.

I find something – like language – immaterial, but earthly, terrestrial, something circular, something that traverses both poles to return into itself and there – in the serenest of ways – even intersecting the tropics - I find ... a meridian. "

– Something of the same consciousness that Rilke expresses in his idea of a “medial praxis”, written from the centre or ‘middle’, as one seeks a reality that is not yet given.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009


Nordic Bookblog has a list of the Top 20 Bestselling Scandinavian Books at Amazon US.

As the NB post points out, the list is a somewhat idiosyncratic one, with notable and questionable omissions. There are also problems of geography (where is Scandinavia?). And there's an interesting feature:
to the extent the list can be assumed to tell anything – old Nordic sagas and writers like especially Sigrid Undset, but also Rolvaag, Hamsun and Ibsen seem to be selling quite well in the US.


by Per Kirkeby

Just forgetting won’t pass
one just has to let time pass
Time passes
trees are felled
the stubble’s saw-blades gleam.

(from Den arktiske ørken ("The Arctic Desert"), Borgen 2004

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Edith Södergran: a biographical profile - 5

Edith Södergran was now to stay in Raivola until her death. She spent the years 1917 and 1918 in an anxious and exultant contemplation of the revolution, and in the reading of Nietzsche. At nights it was possible to hear the sounds of the fighting and see the flash of the gunfire. Raivola lay very close to the garrison of Kronstadt, and was particularly vulnerable to the relentless process of division between Red and White that went on all through the civil war. Just inside a Red zone, Raivola was subject to attacks by White saboteurs, who cut the lines of supply from Petrograd and Helsinki. A famine set in. During these years the Södergrans, together with most of the rest of Raivola's inhabitants, came very close to starvation.

The poems of Septemberlyran [The September Lyre] represent the poet's reaction to the upheaval Two poems, `Prayer' and `The World is Bathing in Blood' illustrate the ambiguous attitude she had to what was happening. The anxiety apparent in the first poem is in sharp contrast to the Nietzschean joy of the second. One April evening, Raivola was taken by the White forces. The childhood world of the garden and the pine trees seemed about to be torn to pieces by the violence of war. Edith Södergran felt her mental équilibrium slipping. A poem like `The Whirlpool of Madness' shows this quite clearly:

Guard yourself - here you no longer matter -
Life and death are one before the frenetic joy of power...

There is a sense of panic at the unchained quality of events and the equally unchained state of the poems psyche. There seems to be no restriction, no limit to the possibilities of destruction. The poet's character is a `red rag' to a `bull':
The bull has no horns;
he stands at the manger
and stubbornly chews his tough hay.
Unpunished the reddest rag flutters in the wind.
(`The Bull')

The poems emanate a certainty that both the poet and the revolutionary forces are bent on destruction, on self annihilation, `so that God my live'. Mankind is on the road to a higher stage of development-the emergence of the superman, the man-god, entails the destruction of human beings, who must come to a realisation of their own weakness and nearness to death. Edith Södergran herself was acutely aware of her own impermanence. This is why she could neither align herself with her aristocratic past nor turn her back on it for the sake of a revolutionary future. Bengt Nerman has suggested that `she chose a third way... She did not agree with anything. But she took precisely this as her starting-point: that she just barely managed to preserve her own nature, her own subjectivity. She laid herself open to her own contradictions, stepped from abstraction down to earth and let her experience take the form that was possible. This meant that in the moment of creation she drew a parallel between all things and was thus able to give birth to something entirely new in language... She sought her security not in a group or a class or a system, but in the total experience of meaning that only openness can give.' Nerman adds: `I believe that Edith Södergran succeeded because she did not protest against death. She accepted it as a part of her life.'

We may see the obvious influence of Mayakovsky and Severyanin in these poems, then, as a spur to increased vitality rather than a sign of inner kinship with these poets. Edith Södergran certainly wanted to `épater le bourgeois'; but she saw this more as a spiritually quickening and curative mission rather than as a social or "anti social" crusade. She was not on any particular side - she was on everyone's side, on the side of the world and on the side of God.

This acceptance of the whole vision, as opposed to the partial, opened her to her own childhood in a way that is not very common As Loup de Fages points out, her spontaneity would not allow her to use `grands mots' when describing great events. In her poem on the death of Nietzsche, for example, Nietzsche is her `father', the poet is a child kissing the cold stone of the grave:

Strange father!
Your children will not betray you,
they are coming over the earth with the footsteps of gods,
rubbing their eyes: where am I, then?
De Fages notes: `This natural approach, which has remained entirely youthful, these extremely precise images of child­hood spontaneously reaching the heart of adult problems, this union of two poles that are normally opposed, are one of the most original-and one of the most marvellous-aspects of her poetic art.'

The self-confident tone of the introduction which Edith Södergran found it necessary to affix to the published col­lection Septemberlyran perhaps betrays the anxiety she felt about their future reception by a literary press she already knew to be more or less lacking in understanding of her work:
That my writing is poetry no one can deny, that it is verse I will not insist. I have attempted to bring certain refractory poems under one rhythm and have thereby discovered that I possess the power of the word and the image only under conditions of complete freedom, i.e. at the expense of the rhythm. My poems are to be taken as careless pencil sketches. As regards the content, I let my instinct build up what my intellect sees in expectation. My self confidence depends on the fact that I have discovered my dimensions. It does not become me to make myself less than I am.

Biographical profile - 1
Biographical profile - 2
Biographical profile - 3
Biographical profile - 4

Tuesday, 8 December 2009


by Satu Manninen

I cut the patients out of the diagrams in an anatomy book,
under the paper-thin skin the blood doesn't circulate.
I trace the flowing blood vessels, cut the tumours
and appendix. The patients fold the pain into origami.
The nurses glide past like seagulls,
I feel their wing-beats in my abdomen.

Leikkaan potilaat anatomian kirjan kaavakuvista,
paperinohuen ihon alla veri ei kierrä.
Piirrän virtaavan suoniston, leikkaan kasvaimet
ja umpisuolen. Potilaat taittuvat kivusta origameiksi.
Hoitajat lipuvat lokkeina ohitse,
tunnen siiveniskut palleassani.

From Sydänfilmi ("Heart film"), Gummerus, 2009

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

Lost and found

In Hufvudstadsbladet's Plock & Fynd, Annika Hällsten considers the slightly uusual friendship between the Swedish feminist Ellen Key and the Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, and Pia Ingström reflects on some meaningful remarks cast in her direction by two literary men at the recent award ceremony for the Finlandia Prize (won this year by Antti Hyry). There is also a discussion of Slow Reading in Finland...

Monday, 7 December 2009

Edith Södergran: a biographical profile - 4


At Davos, Edith Södergran began to discover English literature. In the library there she read Dickens and Swinburne, also the Border ballads and Shakespeare. She read Whitman, and the influence of his Leaves of Grass can be seen clearly in such poems as `God' and `Beauty'. She also began to learn Italian, and she read Dante, whose Inferno she sometimes pictured to herself as the sanatorium: `empty conversation, chatter about death, illness, sleep, lying-cures and sitting.' Certainly the poem `Hell' from Dikter (1916) concerns this Dantean vision of the sanatorium. But nature was ever­present as a backdrop to human life. Every day she could see from the windows of the sanatorium the green mountain meadows, the white peaks of the Alps and the dense forest.

In 1913 she made an excursion with her mother to Milan and Florence (the Mediterranean is the `strange sea' in the poem of that name). On 31 May 1913 she was back in Finland. She was never to see Muralt again, but she did not forget him, and kept his photograph on her bedside table at Raivola until she died. † In 1914 war broke out, cutting her off from central and southern Europe, and coinciding with a sharp deterioration in her medical condition The woman who returned from Davos was the one

who smiling and painted with rouge
threw dice for her luck
and saw that she lost.

The ring of the poem was the ring of her destiny, which she knew to be ineluctable. She had to go back once more to Nummela, which she loathed.
I wrote to the doctor an unreasonable and immoderate letter, but I hope that it will explain a few things to him. I have a dreadful and superstitious horror of Nummela. When I came to see my father, when he was ill, there, I experienced a fear without bounds, a dreadful horror of death, a fear of this illness, this slow conscious death. Here at Nummela I have never been able to escape from these horrible sensations; I have always felt myself oppressed there.
Yet she was not wholly cut off from the outside world. In 1916 she managed to have her first book of poems accepted for publication, by Holger Schildt in Borgå. It is perhaps difficult to imagine now the unheard-of audacity, the shocking quality which was the principal impression made by these poems in the provincial literary atmosphere of Swedish Finland: poems which dispensed with rhyme, which drew their literary inspiration from Rimbaud and Whitman, and from expressionists like Mombert, Dauthendey and Else Lasker-Schűler-poets practically unknown in Finland at that time-met with blank incomprehension from the bulk of the press. `Vierge moderne', `Hell', and `God' gave particular offence, and the wife of a country priest organised a petition among her friends which she sent to Schildt, asking him to issue a written certificate declaring that the poems were a forgery, not the work of their author. The reaction in Helsinki was better. Erik Grotenfelt wrote a sympathetic review in Dagens Press. But somehow the book was too advanced for its time and place, and a long time was to elapse before Edith Södergran's poems found a truly understanding audience.

The poems of Dikter (1916) display, besides the obvious originality and directness that were the real cause of the scandal they occasioned, a marked diversity of literary influ­ences. Besides those already mentioned, there are clear signs of the influence of the Russian Bal'mont, and also of Edith Södergran's childhood reading of fairy-tales-Snow-White, the cat that spins the thread of luck, the maiden and the dragon This fairy-tale element is of the utmost importance for an understanding of the Södergranian world. It underlies all the other themes of the poems work and was the medium through which she sought to give meaning to her life and to the world in general. In 1917,when she was confined to bed as the result of a severe attack of pulmonary bleeding, and wrote very little, she conceived the idea for an allegorical fairy-tale, the manuscript of which has been lost This fairy-tale unfolded against a backdrop of islands: the island of the virgin, the island of midnight, the island of the hermit, and a lake which was never more beautiful than by the last ray of the November sun, a lake where the princess Hyacinths lived, surrounded by celestial beings.

It was at this time, too, that she learnt of the death of Ludwig von Muralt at Davos-Dorf. She let her imagination resuscitate the memories of Davos and Muralt, and experienced the bitterness of loss. She was `vierge moderne'-neither a woman nor a man, a "neuter", nearer in spirit to a fact of nature, a material object.

In March 1917 the Russian Revolution broke out. Tension between the Russian and Finnish communities grew, and at Raivola there was the sense of being near to events of overwhelming magnitude and importance without actually being able to see anything very much of what was going on. Only a few clues were apparent: Raivola, being one of the first stations over the Finnish border, was a natural disembarkation point for political delegations; the Södergrans could hear the music of the military bands playing on the station platform. Excited beyond the bounds of patience, Edith persuaded her mother to accompany her on a visit to St Petersburg, now called Petrograd. By all the evidence, the journey must have been extremely long and exhausting, and on her return to Raivola Edith succumbed to another attack of bleeding. But something seemed to have stiffened her will to be active: she sensed the importance of the events that were taking place around her and wanted somehow to be a part of them. She believed that the Russian Revolution was a sign that the world . was progressing to a new stage of its development We know that at this time she was reading a great deal of Nietzsche, and she tended to interpret events in the light of his philosophy. There was nothing unusual in this, for one of her background and reading. The Russian symbolist poets Blok, Bely and Bal'mont shared this approach to reality, as did the Russian poets whom Edith Södergran admired even more: Severyanin, Mayakovsky and the futurists.

Although she realised that she could never hope to be popular with the broad public, Edith Södergran thought that she might be able to win over the elite of the literary world. In September 1911 she went to Helsinki and met as many Finland Swedish literary personalities as she could Runar Schildt, Ruth Hedvall, Olaf Homén and Hjalmar Procopé, Erik Grotenfelt and Jarl Hemmer, Hans Ruin, Eino Leino, Ture Janson, Alexis of Enehjelm, the sculptor Gunnar Finne, and others. Some of these people have written down their impressions of the strange young woman who had suddenly appeared in their midst. Jarl Hemmer, who together with Erik Grotenfelt entertained Edith Södergran to an evening of literary discussion at a restaurant, later described by her as `one of the most beautiful memories of my life', has left an account of this meeting:
I have never seen a being that was so identical with its poems. In her emaciated face and her enchanting gaze, a gaze that recalled moonlight on dark water, there was something mysterious and as if marked by fate. Her manner of speech was not like ours: between fits of coughing, paradoxes and ineptitudes Shot forth as in some wild game of hide-and-seek; just when one felt she was approaching something like common sense, she would laugh and then proceed to turn the whole conversation on its head.
Ture Janson writes:

She was just as one imagined her to be, absolutely out of her element in the world, pale and unhealthy in appearance, but avid for conversation
The young critic Hans Ruin was summoned from his bed to meet the poet:

It was about nine thirty when the doorbell rang once, briefly and discreetly. Kaisi and I were still in bed, since it was Sunday morning. I padded to the front door and asked through the locked door who it was who had rung the bell The reply did not come at once, but I heard a voice say `Edith Södergran'. Edith Södergran! I was well and truly dumb­founded. I asked `Miss Södergran' to wait for a moment and I dressed as quickly as possible, though it seemed to take an age. When I opened the door I saw in front of me a lady in a brown muff, a fur around her neck and wearing a hat with light blue feathers. We greeted one another and I asked her to come in She sank into one of the armchairs, put the muff under her chin and looked at me for a long time without saying a word At last she formulated a request: she would like my autograph. She took a leather-bound notebook from a small portfolio. I leafed through the notebook. There were several names there: Hjalmar Procopé, Runar Schildt, Erik Grotenfelt, etc. It was my critical notice of her poems that had provoked her visit. I asked her what she thought of my review. She replied: `You must be a profound psychologist. No one has understood me as you have.' I became more curious and asked her if there was any one thing in particular that had especially caught her attention `Yes, when you say of me: the desire to think the impossible, to experience the fantastic is second nature to her.' She wanted me to write this sentence in her notebook. I thought she spoke in a curious fashion, uncouthly, with a pronounced accent. And during all this time she kept her muff to her face, almost under her eyes, and never stopped looking at me. She stayed for half an hour or so, but left suddenly, after I had said when speaking of human relationships that one should be careful when one gives time the opportunity of correcting the first favourable impression one has of someone. Without saying a word she got up, went to the door-I followed her without saying anything either-gave me her hand and - disappeared.
Jarl Hemmer sums up Edith Södergran's visit to Helsinki like this:
She found us starchy, reserved, impersonal; only the bohemian Eino Leino corresponded fully to what she expected a poet to be. For she had a personality that was too extraordinary, too highly charged with her solitary exaltation for her contact with us to be even a little fruitful Several times she inter­rupted the conversation with the strange question: `Tell me, do you think I will be happy?' Perhaps we did not understand quite what meaning the word `happiness' had for this soul who thirsted only after the extraordinary, but we did not omit to stress that we believed in her future. She did not read a complete trust in our colourless faces-and as she had come to Helsinki alone, so it was that alone she arrived back at the villa with its luxuriant garden, never to return again.
(to be continued)

Biographical profile - 1
Biographical profile - 2
Biographical profile - 3

Friday, 4 December 2009

War notes

Monday is the 70th anniversary of the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union, and Helsingin Sanomat is running a number of features connected with the event. In the English-language section, Anna-Stina Nykänen wonders, along with other Finns,  "if Finnish men of today could handle the conditions of the Winter War today."

There is much talk nowadays about conscripts who do not finish their term of service. Nevertheless, more than 80 per cent of those who are called up for duty complete their military service before turning 30. This is more than in the 1930s, when less than 70 per cent did so. At that time many had tuberculosis, Marjor Mälkki says.

But what is worse, malnutrition, or obesity. Before the Winter War many of the men came from such poor conditions that they were actually malnourished.

Many of today’s soldiers suffer from allergies, and there are rumours of barracks with fungus growing in the structures. However, in the 1920s and 1930s, doctors were very critical of the barracks dating back to Tsarist times, where clothes did not dry, and latrines stank.

Today’s conscripts are healthier than before, and their teeth are also.
Meanwhile, with Independence Day coming up on Sunday, members of the newspaper's HS Council respond to the question of the week: Are Finland's War Years Given Too Much Emphasis in the Independence Celebrations? The answers of the Ayes, the Nos and the Don't Knows make interesting reading, as they show how Finnish public opinion divides on the issue.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Edith Södergran: a biographical profile - 3


At the end of 1908 Edith Södergran contracted tuberculosis, probably as a result of infection from her father. A cure appeared to be possible and she was sent to the same sanatorium at Nummela where her father had died. The next five years were spent mostly in sanatoria, first at Nummela, then at Davos in Switzerland until 1914. The sanatorium at Nummela was the largest in Finland and even in Scandinavia. Loup de Fages describes it as `a massive building, white and cold, in Germanic style, isolated in the woods at the edge of a lake which even to this day has retained a beauty that is wholly wild'. Tideström gives an account, based on a diary impression, of how Edith Södergran looked at this time: `She was small built, slightly emaciated and comparatively small in stature. She looked tired and limp, she was pale and had "dark circles under her eyes". The limpness was only external, however. Her inner unrest and tension is witnessed to by a later jotting, which notes that she was always upset and nervous before medical examinations, which were rendered the more difficult by her irregular and shallow breathing.'

The time in Nummela contained a crisis in Edith Södergran's life. `Her external appearance was neglected. She was even "ugly, dirty, oily", says an observer, who at the same time stresses that there was an extraordinarily great difference between the young girl as she appeared during the time at Nummela and the worldly and elegant lady who later returned from Switzerland' She concealed her terror of her illness under a habit of answering drolly and sharply to questions. In all, she presented a somewhat eccentric appearance, and there is reason to believe that her illness was then less physical than psychological: `When the time came round for the doctors' visit, she had usually disappeared... She would be discovered on the roof of the kitchens...' Once she made a proposal of marriage to one of the male doctors at the establishment. Needless to say, this was refused. `Some people took pity on the mother, who had no authority over her daughter, and sought to explain the peculiarities of the young girl by saying that she was spoilt and that she came from a Russian background Others, including the female director of the establishment, saw in all this merely a mild derangement of the mind. To the patients who came into contact with her it was clear that they had to do with a person who was lively, original to the highest degree, but lacking in equilibrium, intelligent, mild, and yet coldly critical, now sarcastic or cuttingly ironic, now on the contrary gentle and benevolent, outwardly reserved yet burning inwardly.'

She did not stay at Nummela all the time. Over a period of two and a half years she left and re-entered the sanatorium no less than five times. As soon as she felt the slightest bit better she would leave for Raivola. She dreamt of going to a women's college where she could pursue her studies of literature and philosophy. At Nummela she made extensive use of the library.

In 1911 Edith Södergran refused to stay at Nummela any longer. She wanted to go to Switzerland, and in January 1912 she and her mother set off for Davos. The Davos of this time has been extensively described by Thomas Mann in his novel The Magic Mountain.* The hothouse atmosphere of sanatorium life, the stark contrast between material luxury and inner spiritual misery, the frantic search for pleasure in the face of death, the petty scandals and storms in teacups, the black flags, symbolising death, which hung from the windows of the sanatoria-all these need no further elaboration here. The Södergrans stayed at Hotel Meierhof, which is still standing, while Edith received medical attention at the sanatorium of Davos-Dorf. At the sanatorium she was placed under the care of a man who was to become very important to her, Doctor Ludwig von Muralt. This former assistant of Eugen Bleuler had a keen interest in problems of psychiatry, although he had been compelled to relinquish his post with Bleuler owing to the activation of an old lung tuberculosis, and to seek the healthier climate of Davos, where he occupied the position of head doctor. At Davos he had become particularly interested in the psychological effects of tuberculosis. When Edith Södergran met him she was able to describe him in one of her English compositions for her teacher of English, an Australian lady called Miss Jenkins: `...something quiet and superior, charming and mild under a morose appearance... His hands have an expression of firmness and cleverness. His feet are perhaps a little long, but the sound of his steps is like exquisite music. His eyes are grey, but with a greenish sparkle, when he is smiling or amused. He speaks German with a Swiss accent, powerful and ingenuous.' This was not the first time she had let her feelings centre on an older man, as the episode with Henri Cottier reminds us. And again there was no chance of it being a happy love affair. She felt inferior to Muralt, submitted to him, and thought of him as `the impossible'. Her feelings can be observed in this fragment from another English "composition":
Today I had a great misfortune, which has broken my forces and my energy, so that every word and every step is an enormous effort to me. Never mind I write this composition. I will tell you my sad story of this morning... As I knocked at the door of the waiting-room, there came out the head of dr Muralt. Instead of inviting me a(nd) saying to me nearly this: `Please, enter! Excuse me, that my arms are naked. Here is my darling between the pneumothoraxes and here is Professor Wilms from Heidelberg,' he looked at me furiously and said `Please, wait a moment.'
(to be continued)

Biographical profile - 1
Biographical profile - 2

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Steinar Sigurjónsson

Sagenhaftes Island has a profile of Steinar Sigurjónsson (1928-1992), whom I knew and talked with in Copenhagen in 1978. The profile has a description of one of his remarkable novels which brings back memories to me:
The book is about Hansi, a composer who has composed nothing and lives in a hovel in Reykjavík with his girlfriend. When he receives an unexpected legacy he buys a piano, a hat and an overcoat, and starts looking for better accommodation. The composer fritters away his inheritance, and loses the piano and an unfinished composition to a swindler. By the end Hansi is on the street; his girlfriend is gone, the hovel demolished, and he is playing the cello in alleys. The work focuses on the plight of creative arts in a society dominated by individualism and materialism. And there is some resemblance between Hansi and Steinar himself, in the homeless, rootless drifting described in the book.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Nordic Council Literature Prize nominations

They are as follows:


  • Peter Laugesen, Fotorama (Photorama), Poetry Collection, Forlaget Borgen 2009
  • Ida Jessen, Børnene (The Children), Novel, Forlaget Gyldendal 2009


  • Sofi Oksanen, Puhdistus (Purge), Novel, WSOY 2008
  • Monika Fagerholm, Glitterscenen (The Glitter Scene), Novel, Söderströms och Albert Bonniers Förlag 2009


  • Einar Kárason, Ofsi (Fury), Novel, Mál og menning 2008, (Danish translation, Kim Lembek)
  • Steinar Bragi, Konur (Women), Novel, Mál og menning 2008, (Swedish translation, Inge Knudson)


  • Karl Ove Knausgård, Min kamp 1 (My Struggle, Part 1), Novel, Förlaget Oktober 2009
  • Tomas Espedal, Imot kunsten (notatbøkene) (Towards Art (the notebokks)), Novel, Gyldendal 2009


  • Steve Sem-Sandberg, De fattiga i Łódź (The Destitutes of Lodz), Novel, Albert Bonniers Förlag 2009
  • Ann Jäderlund, Vad hjälper det en människa om hon häller rent vatten över sig i alla sina dagar (What Does It Help A Person If She Pours Clean Water Over Herself For All Of Her Days), Poetry Collection, Albert Bonniers Förlag 2009

Faroe Islands

  • Gunnar Hoydal, Í havsins hjarta (In the Heart of the Sea), Roman, Forlaget Sprotin 2007, (Danish translation, Jette Hoydal)


No nominations submitted

The Sami Language Area

No nominations submitted

The winner will be chosen in Helsinki on March 29-30 2010.

Shadows of Recession

The latest issue of Hiidenkivi, the cultural magazine published in Helsinki by SKS, the Finnish Literature Society, is focused on the theme of "The Long Shadows of Recession", with a look in words and pictures at three periods of economic crisis in Finland: the early 1930s, the early 1990s and the late 2000s. Articles examine social attitudes to unemployment and poverty through the decades, and there's also a survey of Depression and wartime cookbooks, and a sobering photograph of a Helsinki leipäjono (literally "breadline") or soup kitchen in 2006. Jouni Jäppinen contributes an interesting study of the tiny Baltic-Karelian island of  Tytärsaari, whose Finnish inhabitants traded with local Estonians from the 14th century onwards until the Second  World War, when the island was lost to the USSR (it's still in Leningrad Oblast). And Taru Kolehmainen ponders the history of the Finnish Literature Society's language committee, which was founded in 1928 and modelled to some extent on Germany's Der Allgemeine Deutsche Sprachverein, which in the Nazi period attempted to rid the German language of foreign - particularly French - loanwords. It's somewhat eerie and even rather disturbing to note some details of the Sprachverein's experiments, such as its aspiration to replace the names of the months of the year with "Germanic" equivalents like Herbstmond (September) and Julmond (December) - for some of these creations seem to have been borrowed from equivalent formations in Finnish (syyskuu, joulukuu). In Finland, the struggle was against Swedish influence, however, and probably represented a natural historical development more or less untainted by ideology.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Edith Södergran: a biographical profile - 2


Between January 1907 and the summer of 1909, when she was between 14 and 16 years of age, Edith Södergran wrote some 225 poems. Of these, about twenty are in Swedish; five are in French, and one is in Russian All the rest, the great majority that is, are in German. It is doubtful whether she had read anything at all in Swedish by this time. Her mother had always lived in a Russian milieu, and her father could hardly write, so it is not very likely that either parent could have helped the child to develop her knowledge of her mother tongue. Edith Södergran was educated in German, it was in German that she spoke to her schoolmates, and her favourite authors were Heine and Goethe. As Professor Tideström notes, the main portion of Edith Södergran's school poems bear the strong influence of Heine: `Sometimes there occurs an allusion to or an echo from the poet whom she later loved most, Goethe, but his influence on the poems' style can in no way be measured with that of Heine. It is the verse forms of the latter she usually employs, mostly the single three- or four­footed four-liners with the odd lines unrhymed, the even ones rhymed And here are the typical moods of Heine: Liebeswonne and Liebesweh, "der Hohn, die Sehnsucht and die tiefsten Schmerzen". Like Heine she uses on the one hand a slightly abstract poetic vocabulary-"süsse" and "zärtliche" "Liebchen" with red mouths and lily-white hands; "marmor-kaltes Herz", "Blümelein", "Stern... am Himmelszelt", etc.-on the other hand nonchalant conversational terms and everyday words, easily rhymed-"obligierť', "ridicul", "kapriziöse wie eine Ziege", "Schnurrbart". But the alternation between these two word groups is naturally far less refined in the hands of the schoolgirl than it is in the hands of her master.'

Poems in which the romantic world of knights and ladies, of frenzied horse rides mingles with a curiously personal nostalgia are found beside poems which express a deep love of nature and an intense longing for a companion with whom to share this love. Numerous poems are addressed to Henri Cottier, a teacher of French at the Petrischule who seems to have held a strong attraction for the young schoolgirl. Olof Enckell has stressed that this teacher, who had the reputation of an 'anarchist' at the school, had a profound influence on Edith Södergran's intellectual development.†

The theme of death is ever present. Matts Södergran contracted tuberculosis in 1904. His daughter visited him in the sanatorium at Nummela in Finland, and was horrified by what she saw. In 1907 Matts died. The manner of his death filled Edith Södergran with a horror of sickness and disease. One poem in particular, written on 22 September 1908, seems to characterise very well her sense of loneliness, of confusion about her place in space and time, and her longing for a companion, a `heart' that will understand her and love her:

Ich weiss nicht, wem meine Lieder bringen,
Ich weiss nicht, in wessen Sprache schreiben,
Ich weiss nicht, zu wessen Herzen dringen,
Vor wessen Augen stehen bleiben

Ich habe für mich selbst gesungen
Und bin schon müde geworden,
Was ist mir jetzt das verschneite Tal
Im kalten, weissen Norden,

Dort schluchzen die Fichten meine Qual.
Ich aber verfluche die Einsamkeit
Und suche in der weiten Welt
Nach einem Herzen

Und schau in der Menschen Augen.
Und suche eine menschliche Seele
Die mich verstehen könnte

Jedoch ihre Augen sind mir so fremd,
Sie schauen auf andere Dinge.

[I do not know to whom to bring my songs,
I do not know in whose language to write,

I do not know whose heart to move
Before whose eyes to stand.

I have sung for myself
And am already grown tired,
What is to me now the snowed-in valley
In the cold, white north, There the pine trees sob my pain.

But I curse loneliness
And look in the wide world
For a heart
And look into people's eyes.

And seek a human soul
That could understand me

Yet their eyes are so foreign to me,
They look upon other things.]

As Tideström notes, this poem bears a certain similarity to one of Edith Södergran's best-known poems, written many years later, about the little princess who looks in vain for a heart and who finds the eyes of people so alien. Tideström writes: `It is interesting also from another point of view. The first part has traditional form, in the second part the rhythm becomes broken and rhyme is abandoned The change in the verse form is obviously connected with the fact that an emotion is breaking loose, an emotion which is so violent that it will not allow itself to be bound by a conventional rhythm, an emotion which gives grounds for the name of Lebensangst.' The line 'Ich weiss nicht, in wessen Sprache schreiben' is significant. From now on Edith Södergran was to stop writing in German. Apart from one poem in French, the poems which follow are exclusively in Swedish, the language which was after all her mother tongue. Tideström draws attention to the fact that her written knowledge of Swedish was inferior to her written knowledge of German. He notes that these early Swedish poems are artistically weaker than their German predecessors, and that they contain a number of linguistic errors, including spelling mistakes. `Edith Södergran had at this time really read very little Swedish poetry, and both she and her mother had indeed grown up outside the boundaries of our language area. They spoke an archaically marginal and not entirely correct Swedish. Gunnar Ekelöf has recalled that Mrs Södergran even in everyday conversation used the plural form of verbs. And Edith Södergran, even in her mature poetry, was sometimes uncertain about word forms, gender, conjugational shifts, etc.'

(to be continued)

Biographical profile - 1

Friday, 27 November 2009

The Delirian

Reviewing Matilda Södergran's recently-published second collection of poetry, Deliranten (Schildts, 2009), on the website of Finland-Swedish radio/tv (, Marit Lindqvist finds echoes of Edith.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Edith Södergran: a biographical profile - 1

By David McDuff

Edith Södergran was born in 1892, and lived in Finland for most of her life. Finland has been traditionally subject to the influence of Sweden to the west, and of Russia to the east The Swedes dominated Finland until 1808, and colonised its west coast. Thus a Swedish-speaking minority established itself in the country as peasants and fishermen, but also as administrative functionaries. Matts Södergran, Edith's father, came from this Swedish background, as did her mother, Helena Holmroos. Another circumstance saw to it that the family was influenced by the Russian presence to the east Matts Södergran, an engineer who had travelled all over northern Europe, finally settled in St Petersburg. It was here that Edith was born.

A few months after the birth, Matts took his family away from St Petersburg during a cholera epidemic to a little village called Raivola, situated on the Karelian isthmus some sixty kilometres from St Petersburg, just behind the Finnish border. Raivola was a poor settlement which served in the summer as a villa resort for the intelligentsia of St Petersburg. It stood away from the sea, on the edge of one of the many Finnish lakes. The surrounding district had a distinctly Russian quality. Most of the villas were dachas in the Russian style, with brightly painted balconies, verandas and windows. The church at Raivola was also Russian, with onion-shaped domes surrounded by birch trees and a Russian cemetery. Loup de Pages, in his critical study of Edith Södergran, writes of the place: `Raivola had an unreal and fairytale atmosphere in its surrounding of forests and lakes. A population of sharp contrasts, as regards both material conditions and language. It was only after the revolution of 1917 that Raivola, from then on cut off from its Russian hinterland, lost near a burning frontier with its impoverished, even ruined population, acquired little by little that air of neglect, that atmosphere of romantic decadence which have struck the few visitors to the place, and which were to mark the poetry of Edith Södergran with such a strange hue.'*

The Södergran dacha at Raivola was built of wood, with a dozen or so rooms for the small family and a few servants. A Russian craftsman, an old man called `the hermit', lived in a little outhouse. The garden was a small park -gården - planted with firs and maples. One side of the park gave onto the Russian cemetery mentioned earlier. It was in this house that Edith Södergran was to pass the greater part of her life.

Accounts of Edith Södergran's early childhood vary, but the consensus seems to be that she was not particularly happy. Her father was a man of simple tastes, while her mother was attracted to books and literature. Marital quarrels were frequent, and Helena Holmroos was driven increasingly to escape from these in reading and in the company of her daughter. A very close relationship formed between mother and child, one which did not end until Edith's death. Describing the photo­graph (see page 13) of the young girl at the age of five, Professor Gunnar Tideström has drawn attention to `the sensual mouth and especially the eyes, which have a peculiar intensity, an expression at once observant and absent-minded.'*

When Edith Södergran was ten years old she was sent to school in St Petersburg. Her school education lasted six years. In the holidays she would return to Raivola, where her father continued to work. The choice of school was significant: Edith Södergran was sent to a German school, Die deutsche Hauptschule zu Sankt-Petri. This was a "prestige" school: it had 1600 pupils and had its premises on Nevsky Prospekt It was strongly cosmopolitan in character. Modern languages and literatures were very high on the list of priorities, and the pupils came from every part of Europe, although Germans and Russians tended to predominate. Lessons in all subjects were given, and ballet was taught by one of the dancing masters from the Russian Imperial Ballet Visits to balls, concerts and theatres were frequent, and museum trips included excursions to the Hermitage. Lessons and convers­ations were in German.

By the age of fifteen Edith Södergran had received a broad education which was international in outlook. Her health at this time already gave some cause for anxiety-she was infected with typhoid for a brief spell, and also suffered a form of trachoma. One of her former schoolmates, Sally Räikkőnen, has left this account of their first meeting:

In fact, Edith was already twelve when I came to know her in the second form of the Petrischüle, when she was introduced to her schoolmates at the beginning of the school year; she was a pale little girl, with a face enlivened by large, bright eyes. I also noticed that her blond hair was very long and thick. She was at first very intimidated, which the schoolmistress did not fail to notice; she tried to give her pupil courage by telling her that in her class there were other Finnish girls ready to greet her. When the hour was over, I went up to Edith and asked her, among other things, if she spoke Finnish, and I learned that at home she spoke Swedish. We talked together in German.

Some time later, Edith's mother paid a visit to my parents; she had come in order to take me to see Edith. In this way we crossed a bridge over the Neva and reached the district known as `Vyborgski', quite a long way from the centre; we entered a wide street flanked mostly by wooden houses. In one of these lived the Södergran family with their only child, Edith. Edith's parents looked older than my own, an impression heightened by the pince-nez of Mrs Södergran and the long beard of Engineer Södergran. These childish observations nonetheless made me well disposed towards the pair. What struck me especially was that Mrs Södergran smoked. I saw that very often Edith's parents had visitors. The whole company would sit round a large table. A lit samovar occupied the place of honour on the table and spirals of tobacco smoke floated in the room. The discussions around this table were endless, or so it seemed to me. But Edith and I had permission to walk in the courtyard It was a very big level courtyard with large trees growing here and there, which Edith climbed. Wooden buildings looked onto this courtyard, possibly warehouses, against which ladders were placed It was thus easy to climb up onto the rooftops. Up there we used to sit and talk in perfect peace and quiet about her life at school, or we would see a cat in the courtyard and run after it in order to stroke it. Cats occupied a special place in Edith's childhood, and in her early youth. She had made an entire album of cat photographs: on the roof we would often admire these cat faces.
(to be continued)

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Karin Petherick

Svenska Dagbladet has published an obituary (pdf) of Karin Petherick, the distinguished British Scandinavianist who died recently at the age of 80. Sarah Death has published an English-language appreciation of Dr. Petherick's life and work here. I remember Karin Petherick from the mid-1980s, when she showed kind and supportive interest in my translations of Edith Södergran's Complete Poems.

Hat tip: Peter Linton

Terrier tactics

Hufvudstadsbladet is running a series of articles and features (the website includes only a selection from the paper edition) under the general headline "Swedish Under Attack", focusing on the current language debate in Finland. Yesterday the paper asked some leading Finland-Swedish personalities what they thought of SFP ([Finland-]Swedish People's Party) leader Stefan Wallin's proposal, voiced during an interview on Sunday, that the party should be a "terrier" for Finland-Swedish interests.

Respondents were asked:

1 What do you think of terrier tactics in the defence of Swedish questions?

2 What sort of tactics should they be?

Among literary respondents, Jörn Donner wrote:
If by terrier tactics what is meant is a more aggressive style that beats fists on the table, I can probably see a point in it. It's getting too easy for the Finland-Swedes to become too accommodating and seek consensus. But if terrier tactics are on the agenda, the SFP should probably have left the government a number ofl times during the past 20 years. So far I have seen no indication that they ever intended to do so, alas.
And in the course of his (longer) reply Kjell Westö said:
I have no easy counter-prescription. I'm surprised that so many Finland-Swedes seem to experience Finnish-speaking Finland as a scary, completely alien world. This autumn's debate has made me realize that I've underestimated that sense of alienation. I personally get along well with  Finnish-speakers and have always felt myself to be a Finn who happens to have Swedish as his mother tongue. For me language - any language - is a tool that makes it possible to build bridges, and I don't think I'm going to abandon that position.
See also: Land of one language?
Land of one language? - 2

Knocking Finland

In the latest manifestation of what seems to be a neverending cycle of Nordic self-distrust and mutual dislike, Finnish author Sofi Oksanen has badly upset many of her compatriots by giving an extended interview to Danish television (mostly in English) in which she condemns Finland as an unpleasant, inward-turned country characterized by male chauvinism, repressed violence, actual violence against women and subservience to Russia. When asked in conclusion by her interviewer what Finland has to offer to the other Nordic countries, she says that she doesn't think other people have anything to learn from her country.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

August Prize winner

Sweden's 2009 Augustpriset (Strindberg Literary Prize) has been won by Steve Sem-Sandberg for his novel De fattiga i Łódź (The Poor of Lodz [Bonniers]), which is written on the theme of the Holocaust. Kristina Rotkirch has reviewed the book for Hbl here. Excerpt:
Why does a Swede write a book about the Lodz ghetto? The author himself has talked of how we are nearly always confronted with the Holocaust from the point of view of the survivors. Where are the rest? In his book, all the main characters die, even the tenacious Adam Sege Rzepin who holds out until the Russians are visible on the horizon. But Sem-Sandberg's idea is that we as readers bring the characters back to life, at least for the space of time our reading lasts.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Land of one language? - 2

The renewed and often bitter debate about the position of the Swedish language in Finland continues to cause waves in Finnish cultural and political life. Last week Anna-Maja Henriksson, chair of the Swedish Assembly (Folketinget) which promotes the interests of Finland's Swedish-speaking minority warned that if the anti-Swedish trend continues (the future of the country's Swedish-language television service is currently in doubt) the Åland Islands may seek separation. At present Åland (in Finnish, Ahvenanmaa) enjoys a special autonomous status within Finland, enabling the province to conduct its affairs entirely in Swedish, without the need for the people who live there to learn and speak Finnish at all.

This statement, which Ms. Henriksson subsequently modified, saying she had been misunderstood, caused outrage in the comments section of the Helsingin Sanomat article in which it appeared, and she began to receive threats and accusations of treason.

Polarization around the issue does appear to be gathering momentum, though the discussions I've read generate more heat than light. Today's issue of Hufvudstadsbladet leads with a story about Finland-Swedish hospital patients and their experiences, suggesting that Finland-Swedes demand more of the public health services than Finns do. On the other hand, most of Finland's medical personnel don't speak much or any Swedish, especially those doctors and specialists who have migrated to Finland from abroad.

Finland's current prime minister, Matti Vanhanen, is the first politician to hold the post who in meetings with his Nordic colleagues uses English, not Swedish, as a means of communication.

Svenskfinland in English has much more on all the related issues - seen from a Finland-Swedish viewpoint, of course. 

See also: Land of one language?

Friday, 20 November 2009

Finlandia candidates announced - 2

FILI has issued more details of the Finlandia fiction prize nominees and their books:

Turkka Hautala: Salo (Gummerus)

The theme of Turkka Hautala’s debut novel is one of human destiny.One by one the residents of Salo take their turns speaking, in a chain-like structure. The spectrum of viewpoints extends from the anguish of a factory manager to the everyday compassion of the seller at a sausage kiosk, but the personalities merge into a cohesive whole. Hautala takes ordinary people as his characters and he knows how to see the humorous side of their actions. The novel is written in supple language using different registers and dialects. Salo builds a mosaic portrait of the declining Finland of today, and the author’s gaze is sharp and fresh.

Kari Hotakainen: Ihmisen osa (The Human Lot, Siltala)

At a bookfair, a writer meets a button seller who sells him her life story for 7,000 euros. Along with the sale, the reader receives a large slice of Finnish life and the history of entrepreneurship. The small business owner’s grind grind is replaced nowadays by endless meetings and imagination for sale. Like its characters, broken under the blows of an unrestricted market economy, Kari Hotakainen’s novel is customer-oriented but strongly resistant to change, critical of society, warm and intelligent.

Antti Hyry: Uuni (The Oven, Otava)

In Hyry’s novel, the reader’s interest is not directed to a plot or character portraits. There are no dramatic turning points in this description of the construction of a baking oven. On the surface,Hyry’s writing is reminiscent of the kinds of modernists who build their texts on simple perceptions of the world of objects in order to emphasize incompleteness in their sketches of the world. Instead, the person in Hyry’s book is taking concrete steps to establish a home in the world. His tasks gain their significance from the meaningful places of life in its entirety. This portrait of everyday life thus opens out into a cosmos where the central character is living the life he was meant to live.

Marko Kilpi: Kadotetut (The Lost Ones, Gummerus)

Kilpi’s work explodes the conventions of the detective genre,because attention is focused not on the intellectual puzzle of solving a crime or understanding a criminal’s motivation. Instead, crime is taken seriously as a psychological, humanistic moral and societal phenomenon. The violent criminal is seen as psychologically abnormal, while at the same time his activities provide the impetus for the popular media’s pursuit of simple labeling of our society.

The police are shown as psychologically stressed due to their experiences of the human suffering and cruelty inherent in violent crime, and the victims of crime are examined not only in the narrow terms of rescue or death – rather, the possibility that those “rescued” are so psychologically wounded that they may never be able to live a normal life is seriously considered. Kilpi’s book reveals how deeply traumatic violent crime is for everyone it touches.

Merete Mazzarella: Ingen saknad, ingen sorg (No regret, no sorrow,
Söderströms / Atlantis)

Merete Mazzarella’s novel is a nuanced and empathetic description of a day in the life of 79-year-old Zacharias Topelius, at the same time viewing Topelius as tied to his own time, giving the portrayal a delicate irony. On the one hand, the novel is a study of old age with all that it entails: memory, renunciation, loss, emotion, the reevaluation of perceptions, even doubts about one's past deeds and thoughts. On the other hand, the book is a study of the Finnish mentality of the 1800s through the contemplation one who would in future be a central cultural figure. In a Topelius family circle made up for the most part of women, women’s issues in various historical eras gain particular significance.

Tommi Melender: Ranskalainen ystävä (The French Friend, WSOY)

Tommi Melender’s novel is about friendship in a world where friendship is a diminishing resource. At the beginning of the novel, a well-known academic, identifying with Gustave Flaubert’s disgust with modern life, leaves his job and escapes to a small town in France, where he encounters certain darker aspects of contemporary European reality. The novel’s skillful composition combines a contemporary portrait of the European literary heritage with the bleak and pessimistic tones of a reluctance to believe in solidarity between people, or the possibility of friendship, or love itself.

See also: Finlandia candidates announced

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Nordic fingerprints

Reviewing Don Bartlett's translation of The Consorts of Death (Dødens drabanter), the thirteenth of Gunnar Staalesen's sixteen Varg Veum novels, in the Independent last month, Tone Sutterud relayed the news that Arcadia Books intend to publish all sixteen novels in English. This is welcome news, although I wonder why it has taken so long for Staalesen's work to reach an English-speaking public, when other Nordic crime writers, several of them somewhat less talented than the pioneering and innovative Staalesen, have fared so comparatively well. I have to confess an interest here: back in 1985 I translated an earlier novel in the Varg Veum series - At Night All Wolves Are Grey ( I mørket er alle ulver grå) - which attracted some favourable reviews in the British press, but  is now, more than two decades later, out of print.

I'm still equivocal about the rise of Nordic crime fiction in the Anglo-U.S. publishers' lists. When so little serious Scandinavian new writing and poetry is published in English translation, it seems wrong that quite so much attention should be given to what's really, in spite of attempts to characterize it otherwise, an escapist entertainment genre.  Also, when raising this point, I've constantly been struck by the intensity of the negative reaction that usually follows. There's a defensiveness in the reaction which suggests that some of the more central issues concerning the crime genre and the effects of its popularity are being avoided, and I feel that there's a reluctance to discuss those issues in public (though much is said in private).

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Voces intimae - 4



3) Mood up – the Himalayas again! [deleted words]

8) Have been in Hades. A valley such as never was.

9) Better already. [hairpin crescendo] Business H:fors.

15) Mood has been good. Not much appetite for work. Hard to learn to work without a stimulus. A must!

21) Have worked well – freudvoll, leidvoll – for a few days. Business tomorrow.

30) Axel Carpelan was here. I admire this fine talent. His powers of discernment are outstanding even though he is physically worn out. Appetite for work has been very poor. Yet this evening it is good!


14) In Memoriam, the funeral march, finished. 3 [green box] Op 59

15) Melartin, that neuter, has been with me. A refined nature.

17) A deep valley again! Horribly dark and empty, and concentrated feed! Will the sun never shine again? My life is ebbing away before I have been able to carry out what I had sight of. My business affairs are dragging me down. My destiny! Is this to be the end of my composing = life?

21) Melartin! I admire his method of working. How to achieve this "nulla dies sine linea." And the technique! Starting on the ballet in earnest. [deleted words] And my business affairs! A miracle that I produce anything at all. Not out of the valley yet.

26) Abandoning the ballet because of too little reward for too much time. "Up and at ‘em” again! Damn it, do I sound like that?

27) Himalayas again. Everything bright and strong. Worked like a giant.

28) My throat! Good God! Worked a bit

29) Have even given up the Lottery Music. I am burning my boats deliberately. Holding high the banner of true art. Don’t let go of pathos in life. And one’s "grip".

30) Worked, though ill.

31) Another year. Everything still "pending".

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

Voces intimae - 1
Voces intimae - 2
Voces intimae - 3