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)

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