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

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