Saturday, 29 August 2009

Curiouser and curiouser

Here's an odd item: the author of a book called Meeting Jesus at University: Rites of Passage and Student Evangelicals, which examines what he refers to as the "under-researched" life of student evangelical groups at British universities, has turned his attention to the subject of Finland, in a work entitled The Finnuit: Finnish Culture and the Religion of Uniqueness. From the book's dustjacket:
In The Finnuit, Edward Dutton reveals Finnish 'uniqueness' to be a religious dogma. It reflects the modern-day religions of Romantic nationalism and its cousin Cultural Relativism which turn disempowered cultures into mysterious gods to be worshipped and awed at. And Dutton argues that Finnish culture can be 'understood' - like anything - through comparison. Drawing upon detailed fieldwork, he finds that Finnish culture makes sense as a diluted Greenland - the world's most advanced Arctic culture.
And in an article published last year in Britain's Telegraph newspaper, the same author tells us that

Finland is NOT Nordic: the language is related to the Siberian languages; it was (disputably) a Soviet client-state until 1991; and the Finns' intense quietness is very different from the more confident Norse.

As one among several puzzled commenters points out,

Please, Finland is not 'Arctic' - and has nothing in common historically, linguistically, culturally or ethnically with Greenland or with Siberia, for that matter. The language was probably always spoken here and in the area around here (it closely resembles Estonian). You simply cannot say in one word what might take ten in English (unlike Inuit).

Hat tip: Soila Lehtonen

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

No factual evidence

modernityblog, writing at the new blog CiF Watch, notes that

Israelis are accused of harvesting the organs of Palestinians, on the basis of no factual evidence and even the author of the piece, Donald Boström, says “But whether it’s true or not – I have no idea, I have no clue.” yet the Guardian and CiF can’t be bothered to question this conspicuous racism.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Kreetta Onkeli: Housewife - 2

It was half past eleven. Sirre fetched a microfibre cloth from the utility room and wiped the dust from the small bronze sculptures she had bought from Galleria Sculptor. She did not know who the young Finnish sculptor was who had made them, but as abstracts they went well with the broad and simple window ledges, and they induced one to imagine what they represented. They were surprisingly heavy. For some reason Sirre had initially avoided art galleries, in her memory there was some trauma connected with art, and in her new life she did not feel like thinking about it. Now she experienced art in terms of its surface, superficially. She wasn’t interested in the person who had made it, just as she didn’t give a damn about who had designed the dining room furniture or the ceiling lamp. She decided to go and have lunch at the Nepalese place. It was a small and cosy restaurant. Its lunchtime clientele included civil servants, graphic designers, people in the film industry, architects. The calm buzz of voices reminded her of a wasps’ nest at night. These people knew how to hang together. They ate in a leisurely fashion. Their lunchtime was a different affair from the hour-long lunch break at the hospital, where the staff ate film-wrapped sandwiches as they ran from one ward to the other. A jangling, discordant tape recording droned away behind the Finnish consensus. As she picked at the rice with her fork Sirre felt lonely. Which group did she belong to? Housewives didn't have a union. Assar was hardly ever away from his job. Vita was in fourth grade at school. Dear Vita! Sirre would give her a surprise and fetch her straight from school. Vita wouldn’t have to go to her extra afternoon class. It was wonderful – she was so lucky to have a child. At the same time she remembered that Assar was still unwilling to sign the adoption papers that would make Vita her own. Sirre drank two glasses of water. She had a moral responsibility to take care of Vita. She was Vita’s mother in a practical and ethical sense, and she must not think about side issues. Sirre left the rice uneaten, as was nowadays advised. She would leave the restaurant, go to the school, quick quick, before Vita had time to start playing in the playground with the other children.

Behind the old prison the children’s shouts rose in the air like the snowballs. The junior school was in red-brick building that also housed the kindergarten and the sports hall. Inside, the premises which had been reconditioned from an old turbine factory were white and high-ceilinged, enlivened on the outside by the original dark red brick wall. The old decommissioned chimneystack rose from the schoolyard like a tower erected in honour of learning. In this part of town the children were red-cheeked and warmly dressed. She did not see a child left out of games, or kicking the ice alone in a corner. The girls were prettily dressed, their long tresses tied up in pigtails. The pigtails reached far down their backs. Vita’s jacket was covered in black and wine-red squares.

Sirre stood outside the school to wait. She expected that Vita would come running to her as soon as she saw her. Vita said goodbye to her friends and ran to hug her.

“Mummy’s here! My Mummy’s here!” she cried.

Housewife

Housewife - 1

Monday, 24 August 2009

Kreetta Onkeli: Housewife - 1

Some excerpts from the novel:

11.

How long have they lived there? One and a half years? Two? Her job as a housewife is the longest one she has ever had. They have adapted. They live in a spacious apartment. The ceilings in the stone building are up to four metres high. There are so many rooms that they haven’t enough furniture for them all. Assar bought the apartment with shares. Sirre doesn’t know what kind of shares they were, and has never even asked him, because she was more interested in the bathroom tiles than the source of the money. She couldn’t choose between dark blue tiles and dark green tiles. At any rate the bathroom would look new. Assar could see nothing wrong with white tiling and cute oval-shaped wash basins with two faucets. The bathroom is very important for a woman, and Sirre didn’t want to wash, scrub and oil herself in an ordinary bathroom of the kind you might find in Hakaniemi. Only Italian or Spanish tiles would do, and a pure-style wash basin with automatic faucets. As she thought about the bathroom next to an enormous pile of product catalogues, it occurred to her that a single brown-coloured painting would be an original choice for the door of the WC. She remembered seeing a painting that would be suitable. She didn’t think she had painted it herself. Assar would hardly object. He had promised Sirre a home. Sirre’s home was her office. That was how she thought of it. Sirre was responsible for all of the choices in the home that affected interior decoration and the feeding and clothing of the family. In the kitchen she made a cup of cappuccino.

She found a quiet life satisfying. Every woman needs a family. Assar and Vita had made her complete. She caressed the Kitchen-Aid blender and sat down on the broad ledge below the window. What was missing was a view of the sea. One and a half meters away was the wall of the office employees. It looked like something out of a social realist East German Advent calendar. It had little square compartments with dangling blinds, and poor-postured fluffy-looking females in knitted cardigans stuck bright yellow post-it notes on the wall’s free surface area. The office workers’ slavishness emphasized Sirre’s privileged lot. Sirre turned her back on them. Fortunately the apartment had lots of space. Through the living room another living room opened up on the horizon, behind it were Vita’s room, the office where Sirre sorted her interior design magazines and cookbooks, the utility room, the bedroom, the library and the guest room, as well as some other silly little rooms that were full of nooks and crannies and were all that people could think of building a hundred years ago. They were wonderful places for storing rowing machines, exercycles and steppers, she thought, affectedly, as if she were Louis XII.

Sirre was a lucky woman. She put her cup back in its saucer on the window ledge, got out the yoga mat and began to do stretching exercises in the living room, which in its half-furnished state looked like Maya Plisetskaya’s dance class. Sirre saw himself in a black tights and a black gym top, straight-necked and upright, a smile on her lips even though the stretching was making her muscles ache.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

Swedish blood libel scandal still festering on

At Z-Word, Ben Cohen notes that the "freedom of expression" argument used by the Swedish authorities to justify their refusal to condemn the Aftonbladet article is basically a pretext and an excuse: "Thus far, the Swedish government has portrayed the concept of press freedom as equivalent to the right to chuck vicious, unsubstantiated allegations at anyone you don’t like, especially if they are Israeli." Cohen also points out that

...Sweden’s government is not being asked to revoke press freedom but to comment on an article entirely built on lies that was published in the country’s principal daily newspaper.

However, there is a long-established tendency in Sweden to take Palestinian claims at face value, no matter, apparently, how outlandish these may be. Gerald Steinberg points out that the Swedish government is a “major source of funding” for NGOs whose strategy is based upon vilifying Israel with scant regard for such pesky considerations as facts...

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Bildt "may be unwelcome" in Israel

The Jerusalem Post reports that because of the Swedish government's refusal to condemn the Aftonbladet article which accused IDF soldiers of stealing the organs of Palestinian civilians, Swedish officials, including the country's foreign minister, Carl Bildt, may be "unwelcome" in Israel:
While [Israeli Finance Minister Yuval] Steinitz did not specify his meaning, his comments were possibly a reference to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who is set to visit Israel in early September but has rejected calls to condemn the story.

"We have a crisis until the Swedish government responds differently," Steinitz said.
In another development, the Israeli newspaper Maariv says that the Swedish foreign ministry helped to fund the book which contains the accusations of organ harvesting.

Heavyweights join opposition to Google Book Settlement

The Google Book Settlement will go before a U.S. district court on October 7 this year, and Microsoft, Amazon and Yahoo! have all announced that they will join efforts to block the Book Rights Registry. The Register reports that
Amazon's Jeff Bezos is on record as saying about the proposed deal: "Clearly, that settlement in our opinion needs to be revisited and it is being revisited... it doesn't seem right that you should do something, kind of get a prize for violating a large series of copyrights."

The battle lines are clear. Authors see the Registry as a way to gain even a meager amount of cash from their work, and Google's competitors see the settlement as cementing an intellectual Googleopoly.
The European Union is also to hold a hearing September 7, "to gather input on how the deal might affect European authors."

Inger Edelfeldt: "An Uninhabitable House" - 9

Eric's been moving house. Hence the long silence between part 8 (13th July 2009) and part 9 of this tale. So:

The gallant knight left the picnic hamper where it stood in the corner forthwith, where the contents would go off in the sun. He didn't even choose to mention it! But I knew that somewhere inside him it would be standing there going off all day long.

I cannot in all honesty say that their trip to Visby was one unmitigated success. To keep myself amused, I began to set up a little artistic project there in the bedroom. I only listened with one ear to their conversation. He was speaking about how it was now time that old-fashioned architecture came into vogue once more and she about the fantastic acoustics of the Anthroposophists' brick meeting hall in Järna. Poor old Sofia, how she had to exert herself to say interesting things about houses. I know Sofia: she'd prefer not to have to say anything at all, since every word uttered is one more risk taken. It could just be the wrong one. Something she said could be misinterpreted as being an opinion. No, now I'm being unfair but I think I could be forgiven in the circumstances. I cannot control myself: I even think that Sofia would like there to be a phrasebook covering the Language of Normality. She believes every word she reads in books. She considers that the only things which are not true are her own ideas. She imagines that at the banquet in Heaven, where we shall all ultimately meet up beyond time, there will be a special table reserved for Philosophers, and that these will never become her drinking partners. For that reason, she doesn't even want to listen to them, let alone actually say something back.

She would like to sit on one of those small, finely crafted chairs at the table for Humble Women, where the candles match the serviettes and with a smile discuss whether it isn't dreadful for the King and Queen not to have private lives.

And sometimes she will sneak a peep over at the largest table of all, where God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost, served Mary in her humility, embarrassed at also having received a golden crown, talk to one another in a quite incomprehensible manner.

Maybe she is right; maybe I do think I'm God. Maybe I really am? Maybe we all are? Or ought to be. Forgive me: that's the way I am. My thoughts and feelings are uncontrollable, I know. That is why I'm sitting here in my loneliness.

A quaint little legend came to mind as I sat there bored with their conversation: once upon a time in History there was somebody, let's say a man, as a woman would just complicate the story; anyway, there was this man who thought he had found the Truth. He swathed himself in a cloak and found a knoll from which people were wont to preach. People flocked from far and wide to listen to him and his heart swelled with pride. He looked out over the multitude and said: "This is the unbearable truth you shall have to live with: never believe anything anyone says you must believe in."

And since they believed him, they turned and went their way, leaving him alone. He had expected a different reception, a group of disciples, discussing with fervour and respect.
Longtime he walked alone, filled with bitterness. Some while later he contemptuously clomb the knoll anew and preached in a voice filled with fulmination: "God consists of three potatoes and seven turnips which have been combined in an ingenious manner."

This gave rise to lively discussion and gave him a group of devotees who eagerly proceeded to interpret his utterances.

Was that a boring little truism, of no further use to anyone? I should have said something grand instead. That life is a tree or maybe a stream. That camels can get through the eye of a needle, if only they shut their eyes tight and imagine they are fleas.

But to get back to Sofia and Andreas. While I was painting, they paid their visit to the pavement café and then wandered around all the narrow streets in that fairy-tale city of Visby.
And as often happens in romantic films, fate looked down clemently upon Andreas. All of a sudden he caught sight of a notice saying: ROOMS TO LET.

When I tuned in on him, I discovered a great number of conflicting thoughts struggling for precedence within him. The thing was that there was only the tiniest shadow of ire. That was that picnic basket which you may perhpas remember. And all that chit-chat about Sofia's sister.

He wanted under no circumstances to become angry, but he was. And Sofia's anxiety to please had begun to make him unsure. He got just that tiny bit annoyed at her way of listening to everything he said as if these were words of wisdom, uttered by the King himself. He felt her to be evasive, like a phantom.

When he caught sight of that notice, a forbidden thought entered his mind: he wanted to rent a room for the night, even if they would only be there for a couple of hours. He would be the one paying.

The extravagance amused him, but what was worse, he also discovered that the thought of paying for what shall we call it, an hour of dalliance, a silly expression if there ever was one, the thought of buying such an hour made him grow all excited. And irritated as he already was, there was a certain aggression in this excitement. That frightened him, but the original thought would not be put off or gainsaid.

He was hoping there would be no free rooms. He was hoping Sofia would say a firm no to the plan.

But of course she did not, and even offered to pay her share. When she didn't get her way, she said she'd invite him to a slap-up meal later that evening. With our money! And there was me who had to buy new paints, especially crimson.

Anyway, things were at least hotting up a bit. I could see the little room in the pension in front of me as clear as day: white walls, a low ceiling, small greyish-green bedside tables, one sole chair and then one huge double bed under a gorgeous flower-patterned bedspread.

Sofia is sitting on the chair, pale and stiff as a schoolgirl. Andreas is standing at the other side of the bed, not knowing how to conceal his aggression; then his gaze falls on an old photo in a frame of a trotting-horse pulling a sulky. The picture is taken from the side, the eyes of the animal stare exaltedly, his nostrils are flaired, the muscles and tendons can be seen traced on the smooth body. And for the most fleeting of moments, Andreas imagines that his penis is the tautly reined head of the horse.

Andreas, you're such a romantic, not to mention a frustrated one.

Look at Sofia now, she's not at all on the same wavelength. She can't bear the thought that it's you who's paid for this little fling.

But what's she doing now? She's getting undressed. Compliantly and a little primly, as for a medical examination.

Aren't you going to stop now? It'll only end up being a fiasco.

But Sofia, who is filled with the thoughts she ought to feel, and cannot bear the thought of Andreas being frustrated, and who, if you'll forgive the expression, is driven most by the urge to be a real woman, takes those few steps up to the bed and lays herself on it in an inviting manner, her blond hair a golden swathe across the pillow, her graceful body quite still. She tends to close her eyes on such occasions and pretend she has swooned, that she has been swimming naked somewhere in a magic forest and that the first man to come by is a dashing robber baron, not a shitten woodcutter with scab and seven children. Sorry, there I go again.

[to be continued]

Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens

An ambitious literary manifesto

According to Swedish daily DN, seven young Swedish prose authors have launched an ambitious literary manifesto called, in Swedish, Manifest för ett nytt litterärt decennium. Whether they will stick to what they promise is another matter, but their hearts are, in my opinion, in the right place. The culprits are: Susanne Axmacher, Jesper Högström, Sven Olov Karlsson, Jens Liljestrand, Anne Swärd, Jerker Virdborg and Pauline Wolff. The points of the manifesto can be summarised thus:

1) Bring back storytelling to prose. No more novels about shopping ladies or crime novels set in various Swedish places for couleur locale.

2) Serious novels are called for, more epic than lyrical, following a list of Swedish greats including Lagerlöf, Söderberg, Delblanc, Dagerman, etc.

3) No exploitation of the biographies of those unable to defend themselves masquerading as literature.

4) "Vi vill låta stilen och formen underordna­ sig berättandet, miljöskildringen och karaktärs­gestaltningen – inte tvärtom." That is to say: we want to let style and form remain subordinate to the narration, the description of setting, and of character - not vice-versa.

5) Literature is not autobiography or diaries.

6) No overload of slapstick or word play.

7) Literature is not journalism. No books fostering social debate masquerading as novels.

8) No sensationalist novels written by journos at leading Swedish dailies.

9) Literature as an art form. No more cliques centred on publications or groupings.

10) No selling out of prose fiction. Novels are to be read.

*

Well, I hope they practise what they preach. I shall be looking out for works by these revolutionaries.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Israel denounces Sweden's silence on IDF organ harvesting article

Haaretz reports that
Israeli officials demand that the Swedish government denounce a recent article by a top Swedish newspaper alleging that Israel Defense Forces soldiers kill Palestinian civilians in order to harvest their organs.

On Friday, the Israeli Ambassador to Sweden Benny Dagan met with Deputy Foreign Minister of the Scandinavian country and urged his government to issue a denunciation of the article. Deputy Foreign Minister Frank Belfrage emphasized his country's freedom of speech and how it limits the ability of the government to respond to articles in the media.

Dagan rebuffed Belfrage's explanation, saying that in the past the Swedish government responded to similar articles and their reluctance to do so in this case has made it unclear what their stance is.

The stance of the Swedish deputy foreign minister was backed up on Saturday by the country's prime minister.

A Netanyahu aide said that "Israel does not wish to infringe upon the freedom of the press in Sweden. However, as much as the Swedish press is entitled to freedom, the Swedish government should enjoy the freedom of denouncing such reports."

See also: Bildt silent on anti-Semitic article
Bildt responds

Housewife

Here's the text of a recent review. The book concerned is Kreetta Onkeli's Kotirouva (Sammakko, 2007, 224 pp.):

The author describes her book as a rakkausromaani, or romance novel, but it is really a sardonic and realistic portrayal of an artificial relationship that eventually breaks down under the psychological pressure and need for authenticity that are experienced by the central character. It is Kreetta Onkeli’s third novel, and it represents a significant evolution of her earlier style.

Sirre Määttänen is a 30-year-old hospital cleaner who lives alone in a one-roomed apartment in Helsinki. Behind her she has a career as an artist and painter, but has given it up, just as she has given up her dreams of finding a suitable partner and starting a family. At this low point in her life she encounters a lost child who turns out to be the daughter of a businessman, Assar Elo, who is looking for a woman to run the domestic side of his life for him. Sirre exchanges her hospital job for a new one as a housewife – she sees the relationship in practical terms, as a form of employment and a way to realize her dreams of a family.

The new “job” is not without its complexities, however. Sirre, who has now acquired financial security but is also financially dependent on her husband, settles down to the task of creating a family home in the expensive and spacious apartment Assar has bought. She immerses herself in glossy interior design magazines and becomes an expert on the latest consumer fashions, organizing the redecoration. At the same time she has to live with Assar and Vita – something of a challenge, as Assar is a dominating and aggressive male chauvinist who spends most of his time at the office but expects his home and wife to be ready for him when he returns, and Vita an uncertain and selfish pre-teen with a growing array of needs and problems that require constant attention. Quarrels are a regular occurrence, yet Sirre wants to make a success of Vita, seeing her as the daughter she never had, and wants to give her everything — too much, in fact.

Sirre’s old watercolour paintings are stored in a furniture warehouse, and Assar has the idea that they can be used to make money, by creating a series of postcards. But the paintings turn out not to be suitable for the postcard project, and so they are destroyed, in order to save money on the storage costs. Sirre’s life develops into a kind of nightmare, as physical demands are compounded with emotional ones to create a prison-like net of limitations and constraints which prevent her from living her own life as an individual. Yet even though she has possibilities, she doesn’t make use of them. Years earlier, she painted a watercolour on the theme of cancer which became nationally known, and the city’s cancer relief foundation wants her to deliver a talk about her painting. Yet she turns the offer down, and when eventually she tries to break out of the net by returning to work as a cleaner at the foundation’s office, the director recognizes her – her painting is hanging there in a special ceremonial spot.

Sirre does everything to close off the avenues that might bring her the opportunity of fulfilment, yet the new life she has chosen is even more restrictive. Assar and Vita are completely absorbed in the problems of their own personal development, and Sirre gives her life to two people who are incapable of valuing it. In the end, as Assar is openly unfaithful with other women and Vita becomes increasingly sulky and withdrawn, Sirre is returned to herself, alone.

The style of the book is laconic, and the sentences are either short in themselves or built from short phrases which give an impression of breathlessness and stress. Although the description is vividly realistic, reproducing many facets of the visual and tactile reality of life in a big city, it is also characterized by an element of otherness and alienation: familiar scenes and places are presented in terms that make them seem strange and almost other-worldly. This effect is linked to Sirre’s growing sense of estrangement from herself, as she grapples with the impossible task of living the life of a traditional “housewife” – a role which in contemporary society has become obsolete and no longer offers a viable route for women who seek identity and self-esteem. At the end of the novel, Sirre remains an enigma, both to herself and to the reader.

Kreetta Onkeli doesn't judge her characters, but presents them as they are, with their conflicts and personal flaws and problems: her criticism is reserved for a social environment that is perceived as hostile to individual aspirations and genuine human development. This portrayal of life in a big city would be understood anywhere in Europe or North America today.

David McDuff

Friday, 21 August 2009

In search of a narrative

Pia Ingström, reviewing Emma Juslin's third and most recent novel (out in Septemnber), Ensamma tillsammans (Lonely Together):
Although the existential message is big enough - our loneliness together, the relaxed sense of sharing that still sometimes emerges, the possibility of reassessment and making the right choice. But how much more there might have been to say about these three young women, in their families, in their time. Perhaps even a little plot?

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Bildt responds

On his blog, Sweden's foreign minister Carl Bildt has now responded to the Aftonbladet article. But his response hinges on the lame "freedom of speech" argument that is used by the left:

På sina håll i Israel har man begärt att vi på ett eller annat sätt skulle ta offentligt avstånd från denna artikel eller t o m ingripa för att förhindra att en sådan artikel skulle kunna publiceras.

Men så fungerar inte vårt land – och skall inte heller göra det.
It's disappointing.

Bildt silent on anti-Semitic article

Not strictly speaking a literary topic, perhaps, but in view of our earlier coverage of the issue of anti-Semitism in Norwegian public and intellectual life, it seems at least consistent to mention the outrage that was provoked by a recent article published in the mainstream Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet which repeated accusations against Israel's defence forces, or sections of them, of murdering Palestinians in order to steal their internal organs.

The article appears to reflect a belief that is common among left wing circles in Sweden, and it has been roundly condemned in some quarters, including Svenska Dagbladet, which has also published in one of its blogs a statement disclosing that the Swedish embassy in Tel Aviv has sent out a message from Ambassador Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier reminding the world that "Aftonbladet's cultural page does not speak for all Swedes", and calling the article "as shocking and appalling to us Swedes as it is to Israeli citizens."

One of the most troubling aspects of the whole affair is possibly the fact that so far Sweden's foreign minister, Carl Bildt, has remained silent on the issue, apparently preferring to make no comment.

Update: the Swedish government has distanced itself from the statement by Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier.

The Jerusalem Post comments that the Aftonbladet item
reads more like an opinion article than a straight journalism piece, and it attempts to connect claims he heard in the West Bank in 1992 that Israeli soldiers were illegally removing organs from Palestinians killed in fighting with a campaign for Israeli organ donors, supposed illegal purchases of organs in Israel in the early 2000s, and the recent story of American Levy Izhak Rosenbaum who was accused of illegally trafficking Israeli organs.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Shop talk

Discussing the current state of translated Nordic fiction with a publisher in the field recently, I ventured to suggest that a good deal of the really interesting, original and creative new writing from Scandinavia doesn't make it into English at all. The field as a whole is clearly marked out. Specialist houses like Norvik Press cater to the market in translations of Nordic classics, where the readers and buyers are often ethnic Scandinavians who have forgotten or never learned their mother tongue. The larger companies - Harvill Secker, Vintage, Orion, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Random House, etc. - look for bestsellers, whether crime novels (from Henning Mankell to Kerstin Ekmnan) or cult fiction of the Saabye Christensen type. In the middle are smaller publishers like Arcadia or Graywolf Press, who do try to publish Nordic writers who fall outside these major categories, but whose sales and distribution are - of necessity - strictly limited.

The publisher with whom I was talking told me that, especially where serious literature is concerned, he thought the "Nordic" label almost by definition implies a specialized minority readership - one for which it's important that the books that are translated and published should be identifiably "Scandinavian" in character. I mentioned two recent examples of Scandinavian novels where most or all of the characters and settings don't meet those criteria - Olli Jalonen's 14 Knots to Greenwich and Kristina Carlson's Mr Darwin's Gardener. It seems, however, that while these books may be very well-written and deserving of being read, they wouldn't have much appeal to the general reading public, as they're not set in Scandinavia.

In the the field of poetry, the situation is a little more encouraging. The work of major poets like Tomas Tranströmer, Paavo Haavikko, Roy Jacobsen, Gösta Ågren, Pia Tafdrup and many others has been able to reach an English-speaking public largely outside any specfic Nordic context, as voices in the universal language of poetry. It's this kind of freedom in relations between author and reader that's currently lacking in the sphere of prose fiction, where the message is often lost in exotic details and carefully-mapped journalistic agendas. One wonders, perhaps, whether a writer like August Strindberg - who held wildly changing views on society and human beings but at the same time possessed an authorial sweep and magnificence of writing style that made such considerations appear irrelevant - could achieve an international reputation if he were producing his works in today's literary and publishing world.

David McDuff

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Blue Tower

Sagenhaftes Island's author of the month is novelist and poet Þórarinn Eldjárn. The profile page includes a presentation of his new novel The Blue Tower, which was recently translated into Danish.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Ordering Swedish books

Although it's intended for readers and translators in North America, Laura Wideburg's page of information on how to order Swedish (and other Nordic) books from abroad is a useful resource.

Finnish as she is spoke

The Finnish publishing house Gummerus has issued the 500+-page Oikeeta suomee - Suomen puhekielen sanakirja. Dictionary of Spoken Finnish, which contains some 7,000 words and phrases. Books from Finland's editor Soila Lehtonen writes in a note to the magazine's translators: "you probably already know what for example säväri, terkkari, opo, arska or perseet olalla means (and perhaps the Internet provides the translations easily)..."

Sunday, 16 August 2009

The skills gap

Something that translators might want to bear in mind when dealing with publishers nowadays: according to a new report by the U.K.'s Skillset council, the move to digitization in the publishing industry has "exposed existing skills gaps", some of which the report calls "critical". The Bookseller quotes Random House CEO and chairman Dame Gail Rebuck as saying:
"There are those who know the [publishing] business really well — often those who are more experienced, middle-management types — who are very uncomfortable with the wholly changing digital landscape.”

Gunnar Harding poems

Salt magazine has published a selection of poems by the Swedish poet Gunnar Harding in translations by Roger Greenwald, who also provides an introduction.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 10

[68-71]

I once saw a poet reading his poems aloud as he stood barefoot on the floor. Had I not been able to hear him, I would have been able to see from the spellbinding movements of the muscles under his skin how musical his poetry was.

*

A poem is more than words, it also evokes countless physical states. The rhythmical element in particular designates the poem’s essence. The poem’s rhythm is what stimulates the imagination, what constitutes the poem’s forward-driving power. Akin to song and dance, the poem enters the blood of the reader or listener.

*

I don’t write to music, but listen my way into the poem’s own music. It is best if I can bring everything around to silence – or at least avoid listening to anything but the poem that wants out.

*

Silence is the central concept in The Bridge of Seconds. Silence is the precondition of everything, after silence everything can begin. The nightingale that introduces the book is a bird which, almost following to a mathematical principle, “works” with the pause. It is in these intervals that the most important things happen, when strictness and order in one dimension or other unfold behind all the beauty.

A poem does not consist merely of words, but also of silence, the space between one letter and the next, between word and word, stanza and stanza, interstices that point to what is implied or quite simply to the empty space itself. Even the single word has a blind spot called silence. It is this silence that is an ineluctable value, silence which works to organize the written and make it comprehensible.

*

The poem speaks, listens and is silent. All at the same time.

*

If a poem is not to drown in its own noise, it must have a relation to silence. The silence that is almost impossible to find anywhere any more must be heard in the poem. Silence is a very relative value. Here just now there is silence because I am absorbing myself and cannot hear the distant noise, but if I lose my concentration for a moment, the sound is back again at once. There is a world beside the poem, and it is full of sounds that cannot be heard as long as the concentration lasts.

*

Poetic language is not just a chance to set oneself out over something, but also to set oneself open to something. The poem is a magic potential.

*

What you see is not everything: there is more to hear.


translated from Danish by David McDuff

Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 1
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 2
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 3
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 4
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 5
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 6
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 7
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 8
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 9

Note: the posts with the translated text of Chapters I, II and III can be accessed here, here, and here.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Detective Story - 4

Continuing the discussion of this thorny subject, I've raised two contributions from the comments to this post:

Larissa Kyzer said...

I wrote the article responding to Nathaniel Rich’s piece about Scandinavian crime fiction, and have followed the discussion here and in other blogs surrounding these pieces with interest. The debate over what country or region produces the ‘best’ of any type of literature is bound to be limited (I said as much in my article), but I find myself a bit at odds with the polarization here: those who are for Scandinavian crime fiction and those who are against it. I am deeply interested in Scandinavian literature--including crime fiction--and aspire to translate Danish literature myself one day. I’d hope that one can be a ‘committed’ translator and also foster an appreciation for genre fiction at the same time. (It’s seemed to me that many Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian fiction translators have translated both ‘literary’ and genre fiction.)

While many of the points made by David McDuff regarding crime fiction have raised some important and interesting points—particularly that current Scandinavian crime fiction marks a “continuation of the "radical" movement that produced the socially-committed novels and poetry of the 1970s,”—I wonder at the assessment that the prevalence of this genre within Scandinavian literature is “a tragedy whose consequences it will take several generations to overcome.”

It’s a common enough opinion that genre fiction of any stripe is inherently sub-literary, which is a debate that is perhaps larger than needs be argued here. Suffice to say that I do think that genre fiction merits serious literary consideration for its content, structure, and yes, even prose style. There are certainly many, many poorly written and conceived crime novels, but surely enough there are terrible ‘literary’ novels as well. However, I don't believe that the existence of crime novels can, with any credibility, be faulted with ‘diverting’ Nordic writing talent. Rather, I tend to hope that translation begets translation—that every new Henning Mankell or Karin Fossum novel that is published in English opens the door a little wider for more ‘literary’ Scandinavian authors to be translated as well.


David McDuff said...


Thank you for this contribution to the discussion. While I also don't think there should be a "polarization" of the kind you mention, I do believe that it's important to set some sort of markers as to what constitutes literary culture and what is basically just "reading entertainment". I'm certainly not against the latter, and have translated at least one Scandinavian crime novel myself - but when crime novels become the flagship of a nation's literary production, I think it's a danger signal.

In a later post to this blog, I've been more specific. There I argue (together with the author of the article quoted by the anonymous blogger at Scandinavian Crime Fiction), that of all the Nordic countries it's primarily Sweden where the problem is most acute - in Sweden there is virtually no middle ground between the marginalized avant-garde literary scene and the huge space that's occupied by bestsellerdom, led primarily by trend-following crime novels of various kinds and tendencies. The situation in Denmark is different, as is evidenced by the popularity of the traditional historical novel genre there, for example. Finland presents a similar picture.

So while the problem isn't yet universal, what I have tried to make clear is that it has the potential for a disaster, a tragedy - please read what I wrote in my original post a little more carefully. My caveats are just that: a warning of what may happen, rather than a statement of accomplished fact. The developments that have taken place in Swedish publishing could affect the rest of the Nordic publishing world, too - let's hope that doesn't happen, and as translators let's make some efforts to make sure that it doesn't.

See also:
Cornering the market
Detective Story
Detective Story - 2
Detective Story - 3
The missing midfield

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

A book comes home

The Independent has a review of Don Bartlett's translation of Beatles, the 1984 novel by Lars Saabye Christensen:
Unbelievably, Beatles was almost lost to the world. Having written the entire tome by hand, Saabye Christensen thought it might interest his old schoolmates at most, and carelessly stuffed the script in a suitcase travelling from France. The suitcase got lost, but found its way back to Oslo after a two-week European round trip that took in London. "Which was only right and fitting," the author says. "Now the book has come home, so to speak."

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

F.E. Sillanpää: Silja - 13

[23-24]

Next morning, Hilma remained in the inner rooms, but in the kitchen old Martta made ready to leave, with a cold expression on her face. When Kustaa noticed her tear-stained eyes, he felt an unpleasant sense of pity for her. This aged and spiteful woman seemed not to be alone, on her side there was something invisible, old and repugnant, against which his mind wanted to rebel, even though his instinct told him that it rested on a foundation laid by generations.

With all the caution of which he was capable, Kustaa inquired about Martta’s terms of hire.

‘Old as I am, never in my life have I been a hired maid, and I do not intend to be one now.’

As he entered the back room where Hilma sat in her Sunday best, Kustaa smiled at this weak gibe – he sensed that victory was his. He had got the better of Martta, but this day was a peculiar mixture of holiday and workday, of happiness and something else. He should have entertained the idea all along that Hilma would move in here to begin her new life — as mistress of the manor. He must take charge entirely of this sweet, childlike girl for whom all oppression of soul was as foreign as sin to an angel; he must get her into these rooms without needing to be afraid of anything, without Martta, without anyone… He had not gone into Hilma’s room in the night… but in all of this there was too much tenderness: it crushed, as it were, with its softness.

The stableman came to ask if it would be possible for him to accompany Miss Martta, since she had asked him to do so, and was waiting ready for the journey. The stableman also looked gruff and dispirited, as if he, too, had some bitter word on his tongue, were he given a chance to come out with it. When a little later Miss Martta and the stableman drove out through the gateway, Kustaa and Hilma stood at the drawing room window and watched, and then Kustaa felt that there was something insolent about what he was causing to take place, and the village girl at his side even more so. The manor was now finally rid of something that had had always been there, but would now never return — something of which Miss Martta had been only a feeble relic. Now it was gone, but an atmosphere of desolation had permanently settled within the walls of the manor.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

Silja
Silja - 2
Silja - 3
Silja - 4
Silja - 5
Silja - 6
Silja - 7
Silja - 8
Silja - 9
Silja - 10
Silja - 11
Silja - 12

Monday, 10 August 2009

The map of Greenland

In our discussion of modern Greenlandic writing, one name that inexplicably escaped mention was that of Naja Marie Aidt, who in 2008 won the Nordic Council Literature Prize for her short story collection Bavian (Baboon), which still apparently awaits translation into English. Whether a Danish writer who was born and raised in Greenland can really be called a "Greenlandic" author is a moot question, but it's one that perhaps deserves to be raised.

In an article published in Information's culture section at the time of the Nordic Council award, critic Bo Sørensen wrote about the prevalence of clichés in most debate and writing about Greenland in Denmark, pointing to the work of self-declared "post-colonial" writers like Peter Høeg, whose bestselling novel Frk. Smillas Fornemmelse for Sne (Smilla's Sense of Snow) may have started out as an attempt to break the conventional stereotypes about Greenland, but ended by falling back into the familiar "colonial" groove. In the article, Sørensen quotes the Danish Eskimologist and Greenland specialist Kirsten Thisted, who talks of Danes' apparent need to continue to represent Greenlanders as "The Other" - something that probably has its origins in a hostility to Western culture and civilization which developed among Danish left wing radical writers in the 1970s and 80s.

It seems that until the "colonial" and "post-colonial" parameters of the Greenland debate are removed, Greenland will continue to languish in terms of a real appraisal of its cultural and literary identity - though there are signs that the change may happen sooner rather than later. Aidt herself, who hasn't written about Greenland in her books so far, says:

Greenlanders themselves are tired of being portrayed exclusively as drug abusers and people who are associated only with social problems, incest and alcoholism. There must be authors who are able to write those stories, but this requires that they should have lived in the country as adults - either as Danes or as Greenlanders. One [Danish-Norwegian] author who has is Kim Leine, and that's why he gets away with it so easily. Because you can really tell that he's at home there.

See also:
Nordic or not
Modern Greenlandic writing
Scandinavia, postcolonialism and belles lettres

Saturday, 8 August 2009

The mailbox

Hannu Marttila, writing about Joseph Brodsky's grave in Venice:

Leaning against the gravestone is an ordinary steel mailbox, of the familiar kind that lines the roadsides and suburban streets of Finland, though without an address on the side. Behind the box a dozen lead pencils wait.

- - - - -

On top of the beautifully curving marble slab someone has placed two red granite stones that have been polished by water until they are round. They are probably a reminder of the Gulf of Finland shore, which Brodsky loved.

I would have brought a basket of mushrooms. If Orpheus could entice his dead spouse from Hades by his playing, Brodsky could probably be induced to return by the smell of mushroom stew. After all, we managed to persuade him to come to Finland at mushroom-picking time in 1988, in the midst of all his Nobel rush.

And remember, Iosif or Joseph, waterbuses 41 and 42 will take you from the cemetery back to town. Next time I visit I will put a waterbus ticket in your mailbox.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Marie Under: Two Poems

Marie Under was born on March 27, 1883, in Tallinn, Estonia, where she spent her childhood. She attended a German-language school. The poetry of Goethe and Schiller was among the earliest things she read. As a member of the "Young Estonia" aesthetic movement in the years before the First World War, she developed a modernistic style, influenced by French literary models, and translated the poetry of Rimbaud, among others. Her first collection was published in 1917, and was followed over the years by many more. She and her husband, the poet Artur Adson, left Estonia before the Soviet occupation of 1944, and settled in Sweden. Marie Under died in 1980.


QUESTION

We saw those berries, overripe and glowing,
in weak and tepid light of the October sun
persisting red as blood, in right full-growing,
without much inkling of the winter clouds to come.

And then a wind-gust brushed those heavy bunches:
and some of them burst, falling to the ground
on wilted grass, soon after, under branches
gold leaves with purple berries lay around.

And hand in hand we walked uphill together
and pushed by the capricious wind's bad weather,
eye to eye, as in anxiety, we asked:

our love's moist, joyful red in present flowering,
will life's wind carry it away, devouring,
or will it fall to the grave's soil, and last?



CHRISTMAS GREETINGS 1941

I walk the silent, Christmas-snowy path
that goes across the homeland in its suffering.
At each doorstep I would like to bend my knee:
there is no house that knows not mourning's sting.

The spark of anger flickers in sorrow's ashes,
the mind is hard with anger, soft with pain:
there is no way of being pure as Christmas
on this white, pure-as-Christmas lane.

Alas, to have to live such stony instants,
to carry on one's heart a coffin lid!
Not even tears will come now any more -
that gift of mercy also died and hid.

I'm like someone rowing backwards:
eyes permanently set on past -
backwards, yes - yet reaching home at last ...
my kinsmen, though, are left without a home...

I always think of those who were torn from here...
The heavens echo with the cries of their distress.
I think that we are all to blame
for what they lack - for we have food and bed!

Shyly, almost as in figurative language,
I ask without believing it can come to pass:
Can we, I wonder, ever use our minds again
for sake of joy and happiness?

Now light and darkness join each other,
towards the stars the parting day ascends.
The sunset holds the first sign of the daybreak -
It is as if, abruptly, night expands.

All things are ardent, serious and sacred,
snow's silver leaf melts on my lashes' flame,
I feel as though I'm rising ever further:
that star there, is it calling me by name?

And then I sense that on this day they also
are raising eyes to stars, from where I hear
a greeting from my kinsfolk, sisters, brothers,
in pain and yearning from their prison's fear.

This is our talk and dialogue, this only,
a shining signal - oh, read, and read! -
with thousand mouths - as if within their glitter
the stars still held some warmth of breath inside.

The field of snow dividing us grows smaller:
of stars our common language is composed....
It is as if we d started out for one another,
were walking, and would soon meet on the road.

For an instant it will die away, that 'When? When?'
forever pulsing in you in your penal plight,
and we shall meet there on that bridge in heaven,
face to face we'll meet, this Christmas night.

translated from Estonian by Leopoldo Niilus and David McDuff

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Pia Tafdrup: Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 9

[66-68]

Not only words will express something. Both Tarkovsky and Wim Wenders tell stories cleverly, overwhelmingly, and almost without words. Their films are not poems, for poems are words, but they are great poetry.

*

Condensed expression has its source in selection. Attention to choice is all-important. But choice also affects that of which, consciously or unconsciously, nothing is said. Something must be left untouched. There must be a secret to return to.

*

Just as the moon’s sickle paradoxically emphasizes that part of the moon which cannot be seen, so every poem points to what is not said. Each time language mentions something, something else is left out. There will always be a residue. It is the body that registers that it is there, that to every poem belongs something unsaid. It is this irreducible but changeable value that forever makes it possible to enter new constellations. What cannot be captured in a poem can perhaps be discovered later, and there is hardly a dizziness greater than the thought of language’s unutilized resources.

*

To write something is to put it at a distance, so as to be able to move somewhere else, in freedom.

*

Poems were originally connected with song. Poems are not sung nowadays, but are bearers of music. Words unroll sounds. The poem has its level, its tone, which may alter in strength and volume. Its authenticity is greatly dependent on the phonic aspect, the integration of the sound-figures.

*

Language is not merely words. It breathes. It opens and closes. Is pushed forward or filters quietly out of one person and into another. With their dreams.

So many forms of breathing are censored. The song and the poem are the places in language where breathing is allowed to unfold itself with a maximum of freedom.


translated from Danish by David McDuff

Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 1
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 2
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 3
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 4
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 5
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 6
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 7
Over the Water I Walk (IV) - 8

Note: the posts with the translated text of Chapters I, II and III can be accessed here, here, and here.

Icelandic translation grants

The Icelandic Literature Fund (Bókmenntasjóður) is advertising again (hat tip: Sjón). This might be a good opportunity for translators who have some time to spare away from their work. There's not much time left for applications, though:

Translators in Residence/Travel Support for 2010

The Icelandic Literature Fund and The Writers´ Union of Iceland invite applications for grants for translators of Icelandic literature. Applicants selected will be granted a two to four weeks stay in Gunnarshús (The Writers´ residence in Reykjavík) in the spring or autumn 2010. The grant consists of travel expenses, housing and a sum of IKR. 20.000. pr. week - to cover living expenses during the stay.

The applications, which indicate translated works/planned translations from Icelandic should be sent no later than September 1st 2009 to The Icelandic Literature Fund, Hallveigarstöðum, Túngötu 14, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland. The result will be announced no later than October 1st.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

F.E. Sillanpää: Silja - 12

[22-23]

Martta was sitting silently in the kitchen when Kustaa entered, and made no answer when he asked for something to offer his guest. Kustaa began to see to the task himself, but when Anna, the shed-girl, came in, he asked her to finish dealing with it. Then Martta began to sob angrily about some minor inconvenience. Anna stood stock-still, and stared at Kustaa angrily, too. Kustaa said to her with a smile, but in great earnest: "Will you do it, Anna, please?" Without replying, the girl began peevishly to set about the task.

Kustaa insisted that Hilma should spend the night at the manor. He himself made up a bed in the guest room for her. Hilma smiled her quiet smile, feeling a little shy at the sight of the familiar, elegant surroundings, and also abashed by Kustaa, who presided as the guardian spirit over the whole house, and was therefore in some sense a stranger to her.

Far away in the past was the summer’s day when Hilma had left this place, a sweet memory with a charm and excitement of its own. Now it was a late autumn evening, as she said a slightly awkward “good night” to Kustaa in the doorway of the old, elegant drawing room. She realized perfectly well that Kustaa would not accompany her. Although she did not get much sleep at all, she found it pleasant and tranquil to lie in the dark silence – a silence which seemed to sum up with great objectivity the events that had taken place in this manor, Those events were quite unknown to her, but sweet to behold in nocturnal pictures like this. Towards midnight she even thought for a moment that Kustaa might come in after all, but felt no disappointment when she remained alone until morning.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

Silja
Silja - 2
Silja - 3
Silja - 4
Silja - 5
Silja - 6
Silja - 7
Silja - 8
Silja - 9
Silja - 10
Silja - 11

Short memories

The Independent's Boyd Tonkin on Norway:
Here we have a country whose foreign minister, part of a "red-green" coalition, not only writes a reflective and strong-selling book about his country's global responsibilities. He turns up at a literary conference to affirm the central role of authors and translators in his nation's life. British Euro-scepticism has only one political meaning: knuckle-headed, foreigner-scorning insularity. In Norway, it can mean the exact opposite. Would our Brussels-bashers really feel at home in Oslo?
Elsewhere, the news (pdf) that Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World is to be reissued in the U.K.

Some people apparently have short memories.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Mr. Darwin's Gardener

Kristina Carlson's new novel Herra Darwinin puutarhuri (Mr. Darwin's Gardener) will be published this autumn, and I'm working on the translation of an excerpt for Otava's website. The site already has a short description of the novel, a blurb that's worth reading.

From prose to poetry

Karelian author Eeva Tikka has just celebrated her 70th birthday. In the space of 34 years she has published 27 books, including many novels, and has received a very large number of literary awards and nominations. In an interview for the North Karelian service of Finnish State Radio, she talks about her life and work. Although she plans to write no more novels and short stories, it's possible that readers may look forward to some new poems from her.

Missing from the list?

The Times newspaper has published a list of what it calls the best 60 books of the past 60 years. No Nordic titles there, predictably enough. One commenter calls the list "relentlessly low brow and Anglo-American". However, the compilers ask readers if they agree with their choice, and it's possible to vote for one's favourite novel, and even write a short review of it...

Monday, 3 August 2009

Ulla-Lena Lundberg: The Marzipan Soldier - 2

[continued]

The milieu in which he is living is familiar. The school is home from home for him, the timetable and food are as they were in the artillery corps. He has always been surrounded by boys. The smells are familiar, nothing repellent, but not enticing either, like the female smells of the cowsheds.

More acrid where men gather. The smell of sweaty feet that is really something, familiar from gym halls and changing rooms. Underarm sweat, too. The smell of dirt that becomes distinct before the Saturday sauna. The smell of urine from the latrine, old tobacco in one's clothes. The smell of rot-gut from the mouths of those who have had a night out and dared to get drunk.

And then the fresh smell of snow in the school yard, the pines, the horse-dung, the fumes from passing lorries, the smell of firewood wherever one turns, smoke from all of Riihimäki's chimneys. Finland at war.

Mealtimes are irregular right from the outset, for Riihimäki receives assiduous attention from the Russian airforce. There are no air-raid shelters under the school, so the recruits are ordered out to the forest when there is an alarm. There they watch the brickwork receive a direct hit, a stack of firewood start to burn and the glassworks sounds like a gigantic breaking of the ice when it is hit. It's like being at the cinema, but in reality. The lads stand and gape as at a giant-sized screen, only throwing themselves to the ground when a flying bomb explodes nearby: Ouch, my ears!

It is undeniably war, but healthy lads with matriculation certificates and artillery corps experience can't be squandered away like cannon fodder. They need to be trained as officers, and so Göran Kummel and those like him selected for NCO training school. School is not something one can escape in this life, even though one thought one was joining the war in order to get the school dust out of one's lungs.

Göran also attracts attention in another way. His handsome artillery corps uniform is the reason why Sunday after Sunday he is detailed to the guard of honour that stands stiffly to attention at the heroes' funerals. One can't help being just a tiny bit flattered at being considered worthy of being displayed on solemn occasions. Washed as he has been taught by Mother, shaven and brushed, dressed in his finery and touchingly young, Göran raises the tone in the church. Still as glass, or almost, he stands with his gaze directed forward, but his features are soft and the lad in uniform as sweet as if he were made of marzipan. He by no means unaware of the fact that Riihimäki's women and girls like to look at him. Furtively or more or less directly, and one doesn't need to be ashamed about that. The guard of honour stands like an emblem of those one is mourning: young, young men with soft features and living blue eyes, fallen for the Fatherland in their first bloom.

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

The Marzipan Soldier

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Ulla-Lena Lundberg: The Marzipan Soldier

Marsipansoldaten (The Marzipan Soldier, Söderström/Bonnier, 2001) by Ulla-Lena Lundberg is the most recent of her novels. It tells the story of Finland’s Winter War of 1939-40 and the Continuation War that followed it – not in the traditional manner of war novels, with descriptions of battles and fighting, but largely in terms of the experience of ordinary people as they deal with the problems of recruiting, volunteering and military training, combat food shortages and get on with their lives as best they can in a highly abnormal situation.

The short excerpts I’ll post are from Chapter 6.


Göran goes off to the war as a volunteer and gives the Russians one on the jaw. Well, then. First there is training, of course.

Riihimäki. Recruit Göran Kummel is billeted with 125 others in Södra elementary school. There are 29 men in his dormitory. A good tiled stove, tolerably warm. Tea with bread and butter for breakfast, substantial lunch with potatoes and pork gravy or porridge and milk, soup with crispbread for dinner. After three days Göran still has more or less all his things in his possession. And it is nice to be able to strut up and down in the artillery corps tunic and warm cloak and military boots while many others are still trudging about in the things they marched in wearing. The truly privileged ones are probably attired in military fur-lined overcoats and fur caps from home, but the majority go about in civilian blouses and jackets and trousers, the most unfortunate in the same blue fine-cut suits in which they arrived, trusting that they would soon be changing into uniform.

Göran, who is comfortably off, has no reason to grumble. He arrived at Riihimäki in a positive frame of mind, red cheeks, cheerful eyes, fully-packed kitbag on his back and his skis over his shoulder. The right routine has stayed with him from the artillery corps, giving him a considerable advantage over the untrained and the green.

It would be unfair to say that Göran Kummel is a conscious timeserver. He just happens to be one of those whom officers notice: quick on his toes, background in the artillery corps. It does no harm, for in other ways Göran is at a disadvantage. Even though there are all-Swedish formations in the Finnish army, both Frej and Göran have chosen Finnish units. It is Father's idea, for he doesn't want them to be like him, hopelessly Swedish-speaking in the Helsinki region where Finnish is advancing on a broad front. The argument, not to be like Father, has an effect on Frej, and Göran also sees the advantages of coming out of the war completely bilingual. In any case, he already knows more Finnish than Frej because of his summer practice in the coastguards. 'It's all going to go just fine,' he thinks without a care in the world, and it does, all by itself. There is only problem of his Swedish name.

It feels so strange, it sounds so peculiar that sometimes he doesn't recognize it. The hard 'G', the spiky 'ö', the truncated 'l' that requires an 'i' at the end. And although the language war has been put to rest, there are some gibes and taunts,. which Göran takes in good spirit. What is worse is that he still has some way to go before he is completely bilingual. Though the Finns are supposed to be slow and taciturn, they can talk away something terrible, and sometimes the quick-thinking Göran Kummel loses the thread and has to bluff his way, not always with quite successful results. He manages his own talking better. Swiftly he picks up everyday idioms and expressions that would have made his Finnish teacher in Grani turn pale, but are perfectly acceptable at the elementary school in Riihimäki.

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

Out in the world - 2

Continuing his series of essays on Ulla-Lena Lundberg's Åland trilogy, Hbl's Philip Teir moves on from Leo to consider the second part of the sequence, Stora världen (The Big Wide World), which takes the story into the 20th century. Teir notes that "if Leo was an episodic family 'tall tale' in the best oral tradition, its sequel... is a modern, polyphonic novel with a myriad of versatile intellects."

The book appeared in 1991, the same year that saw the publication of Lars Sund's Colorado Avenue, a family saga about emigration to North America that's also set in the late 1890s and early 1900s (it was also made into a movie by Finnish director Claes Olsson). Teir says that if we include Kjell Westö's Där vi en gång gått (Where Once We Walked), set in the same decades, we end up with a Finland-Swedish trilogy about the years that led to the Finnish civil war of 1918, with a diverse geographical perspective: Ostrobothnia, Åland and Helsinki. Of the three books, Teir characterizes Lundberg's as the most realistic, and analyzes its preoccupation with male identity and the development of social class in Finland -- subjects that Lundberg handles with an absence of any ideological program or political slant.

Besides being a useful introduction to the Lundberg novel, Teir's essay also gives some background on the historical novel genre in Finland and Scandinavia as a whole. One feels that these books would appeal to readers beyond the Nordic countries: not only do they describe a world, but they also place the individual within that world and map out his everyday struggles and aspirations.

Again, one can't help feeling surprise: it's strange that none of these absorbing and well-written narratives has yet appeared in English translation. They do indeed represent the missing middle ground in Nordic fiction that Per Svensson discusses from a Swedish perspective in his Sydsvenskan article.

Out in the world
Philip Teir - a poem
Nordic historical novels
The missing midfield

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Nordic historical novels

There aren't that many available in English. Considering the prodigious output of 19th and 20th century Scandinavian historical novelists like Jonas Lie, J.P. Jacobsen, Verner von Heidenstam , Sigrid Undset, Selma Lagerlöf, Knut Hamsun, Gunnar Gunnarsson, and nearer to our own time Väinö Linna, Ulla-Lena Lundberg and Carsten Jensen, it's surprising that more of their work hasn't been translated.