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

Monday, 16 November 2009

Voces intimae - 3



15) My old suffering (even not to be... etc.)! Will I really never escape from this pettiness. Always suffering - about everything! Suffering that gives me a metallic taste in my mouth!

23) At last signs of life from Breitkopf via Paul. – Verträge geschlossen. Result again equal to zero, I think! Mikael's "lizard" [op. 8] torments me. Must get rid of it as soon as possible. So it has taken a month to sell the piano stuff [op. 58]. Good God! My nerves!

Maud Allan again! Suppose I shall have to write her some music. Got 3000 Rmk. from B.& H. The first swallows in a long time.

[in pencil]


27) [September]
October 3)

In Koli! One of the greatest impressions of my life. Planning "La montagne"! Ill. Business affairs.

13) Sent off 'Shakespeare Songs "[op. 60] and "Christmas Song" [op. 1 No. 4]. All bagatelles. Still on “The Lizard”. [op. 8]. Appetite for work = 0.

15) “Lizard [op. 8] finished.” Yes. Yes.

21) Loafed about and attended to business in H:fors. Now the important thing is to get it all finished and out of the way. [deleted words]

23) How infinitely far I am from that rational work which brings life and joy to the practician and to those around him. I suppose I ought to console myself with the thought that this "joy" is always selfish, whereas my misery - - -!

Working on "Marche Funèbre" [op. 59]. Want it to have the most monumental form possible. Strange to think that it will probably be played when I am a corpse.

24) Have, I believe, a “sight” of "Marche Funèbre" [op. 59].

29) We must see how my brother holds up. He has enemies who want to bring him down. Him – a soul of the purest, a man of work and ideals. (My business affairs are taking up all my time).

(to be continued)

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

Voces intimae - 1
Voces intimae - 2

Sunday, 15 November 2009

The Cities Inside Hall

Michel Ekman, reviewing Johannes Anyuru's Städerna inuti Hall (The Cities Inside Hall) in Hbl (excerpt, my tr.):

...The Cities Inside Hall is a daydream, or rather, given its grim tone, a waking night dream. At the beginning we meet the poetic “I” on a park bench. To be on the safe side, the bench is left empty, so all one has to do is sit down in the author's position. Then we set off on a journey, an inner journey, but still in a largely recognizable world, with concrete features (troubles) to make up our minds about. The distinguishing characteristic of this world is described in the title. Hall is a Swedish prison: the whole world is locked up in it.

The poetic “I” is suffused by a never-ending flood of pain and discomfort. Prison scenes, riots in Paris and Copenhagen, flashbacks to the war in Algeria, expressions of alienation and suffering in modern society fill the poems like short, specific scenes of violence. On a more abstract level Anyuru chooses – with a shade too much didacticism – the lock as a symbol of oppression. Detailed descriptions of various locking mechanisms pop up repeatedly. Another motif – the law – appears with lesser frequency, becoming lost in airy ambiguity.

There is obviously something impressive about a poetry collection that runs to 358 pages, and one feels that the sheer mass of print would be enough to knock the critics on their backs. For myself, however, I think that The Cities Inside Hall suffers from monotony and lack of conceptual focus. The poems seem to constantly generate new poems because they find it difficult to stand on their own. It is, after all, impossible to read a colossus like this as carefully and with the same attention to the whole that one would devote to an ordinary collection of poems. The question then becomes: what is the poetry form really being used for?

That question is reinforced by the fact that the form itself is also problematic. The staccato idiom employed by Anyuru often does not work particularly well in print. Presumably, it was originally conceived for reading aloud, but in contrast to two of his obvious models, Göran Sonnevi and Bruno K. Öijer, Anyuru finds it hard to create a style that also works in print. He falls short of his predecessors on another point, too. This has to do with the poetry’s political potential. Anyuru has been hailed as a renewer of the political poem, but I find neither the political acumen of a Sonnevi nor the provocative anti-politics of an Öijer in his work. Anyuru ends up in a tepid middle ground where much centres on the idea that policemen are not nice people.

The Cities Inside Hall strikes me as a book that is only half-finished, written by an author who is feeling the heavy hand of expectation on him. That doesn’t alter the picture of Johannes Anyuru as one of the most promising voices in Swedish poetry.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Voces intimae - 2



15) A shock because others (?) write compositions to my texts. A sign of their weakness. Nobilitas unfashionable! Working on 8 songs to texts by Josephson, six of which completed today [op. 57]. – Beware this dreadfully cynical view of life. You cannot go through your entire life playing the cold cynic. Though can probably get away with the "man of honourable jealousy", etc. Ugh. Is this really worthy of Jean Sibelius?

18) 8 Songs Op 57 finished [the green line under the box] Have fulfilled the terms of Lienau’s contract. Went to bed at 9, dead tired.

21) Must go home. I can no longer work here. A change of style? Was at Lienau’s. He believes in my art. And knows how to keep company. Deswegen: write a Piano Piece for him.

[in the left margin]

Got home at 11pm.

Järvenpää. Bad conscience because of laziness.

28) Regarding the piano pieces [op. 58]. Do I really need to follow this advice – as this piano technique is rather alien to me. So. Nothing "for piano" yet, at least. "The Hunt" [op. 66 No. 1]! At the planning stage.


3) At work again. My business affairs compel me to write the piano pieces [op. 58].


12) Continuing with the piano things [op. 58]. They are starting to interest me. Evil tidings about business. Summer! Wonderful to live in the family.

26) Contract with Mikael Lybeck. "The Lizard" [op. 8]. (19) Music for it.


5) Bad reviews in Russia. Abuse. Where do they want to go? In England, too. My nerves are already pretty bad. A happy 30 years!

28) 10 piano pieces finished. Op. 58. It seems to me that the technique in these is better than in the other ones. Business affairs atrocious. I am beginning to think that the debts are impossible to settle. However, it depends on how I am paid. Reading proofs of Romance in C major Op 42 [op. 42]. Happy days when I wrote this music. "Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore.’”

(to be continued)

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

Voces intimae - 1

Friday, 13 November 2009

Second thoughts

The board of directors of Norges teknisk-naturvitenskapelige universitet (NTNU) in Trondheim have unanimously decided to reject the proposal for an academic boycott of Israel, Haaretz reports:
The vote resulted in total victory," said Professor Bjorn Alsberg, a member of the board of the Trondheim-based Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Alsberg, a chemistry professor, led a campaign at the Norwegian city against the boycott.

He said that the vote to boycott Israel - which drew condemnations from Jewish organizations in Israel and elsewhere - was rejected after none of the 11 board members objected when NTNU Dean Torbjorn Digernes suggested scrapping the motion from the board meeting's agenda.
Meanwhile the Jerusalem Post writes that Swedish journalist Donald Boström has "reevaluated his position" on the matter of claims that the IDF harvested organs from dead Palestinians:
According to the report, Bostrom recently canceled his participation in a Beirut conference, the goal of which was to slander Israel.

Sources close to the journalist related that Bostrom's recent visit to Israel and the fair dialogue he held at a Dimona conference caused him to think twice about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
See also: Fighting back

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Finlandia candidates announced

The shortlist of candidates for this years 30,000 euro Finlandia Literary Prize has been announced (apparently leaked by Uusi Suomi a day early), Hbl reports, noting that Finland-Swedish author Merete Mazzarella's Ingen saknad, ingen sorg – En dag i Zacharias Topelius liv is present on the list in its Finnish translation (published by Tammi). The other candidates are:

Turkka Hautala -  Salo (Gummerus)
Kari Hotakainen Ihmisen osa (Gummerus)
Antti Hyry Uuni (Otava)
Marko Kilpi Kadotetut (Gummerus)
Tommi Melender Ranskalainen ystävä (WSOY)

In their statement, the members of the jury remark that many of the novels submitted for consideration this year show signs of the influence of the methods and conventions of the detective novel - even those which have little connection with the thriller genre. This is a tendency that has been pointed to on this blog more than once.

The prizewinner will be announced on December 2.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Karin Boye - a biographical profile - 9


Kallocain, a strange, nightmarish novel of cells and staircases and corridors, is open to several interpretations. On one level, it may be read as a political satire in the tradition of Zamyatin's We or Huxley's Brave New World: it concerns events within a World State of the future, which resembles both the Third Reich of the Nazis and the Soviet Union of Stalin. A central role is played by a truth serum ('Kallocain') invented by Leo Kall, a worker in a state chemical plant, who seeks to overthrow the state and the lies with which it has indoctrinated humanity. On another level, however, the novel may be read as a meditation on inwardness and confession, or 'breaking-open'. It contains many passages of extreme power and evocativeness, underscored by the eerie presence of wartime Sweden, with its military personnel on the streets, its whispered conversations held in fear of being overheard.

When it appeared in the autumn of 1940, Kallocain met with enthusiastic reviews. Artur Lundkvist declared that it was in 'the international class', while another critic called it 'a thoroughly thought-through, thoroughly felt, one might even say thoroughly suffered work of art.' The poet herself wrote to Ingeborg Holst on 23 January 1941:

You asked me how it (the novel) had gone and how it had been received. It has had consistently excellent reviews and has even come out in a second edition... All kinds of people, friends and strangers alike, have written and thanked me...
As Margit Abenius writes in her biography, both Kallocain and the poems of The Seven Deadly Sins should be seen as the fruits of the liberation experienced by Karin Boye when she perceived that 'our most intimate and most extreme problems are and remain problems of life-philosophy and faith': 'It was an image of man that was formed in her view of life - an image that hads probably always been there in rough outline - a Spinozan image, in which man is a multiplicity of countless forces that strive towards the 'unity' which it reflects in its broken life-utterances. In 'Man's Multiplicity' the prophetess speaks as out of a dark Middle Ages:

We were born of mothers of heaven and earth
and of powers with no end in view,
nocturnal wills and wills of light
with names that no one knew.

May one of the many
not gain power over us,
though she be of heaven's race
and shine in magnificence.

In us a multiplicity lives.
It fumbles towards unity.
Its capturing, gathering burning-­glass
we were born to be.

Great is man's striving,
great the goals it has set ­
but much greater is man himself
with roots in universal night.

So give, that we shield a secret room
and never a flame do lack
on the altar of an unknown god,
that may tomorrow wake.

The last year of Karin Boye's life was one of tragic contrasts, paradoxes and deepening insight. Realizing the depth of her love for Anita Nathorst, she also realized that that love could not be returned to her. In a letter to a friend, she wrote:

That not even the times and the decline of the West should prevent one from collapsing like a house of cards and burning like a piece of tinder and that when one finally attains something that has lain in one for twenty years, the person concerned is dying of cancer and sufficiently exposed to radium not to have a spark of sex left. We agreed that life is macabre in a way that no reforms can ever remove, macabre to its innermost kernel.
Yet this was also the year in which she visited Denmark, which was now under German occupation. Conscious of the propaganda value of cultural visits, the German authorities in Copenhagen had arranged for a delegation of German writers and poets to come and give readings there. No one attended them. Then the Danish cultural authorities invited a group of Swedish poets and writers, including Karin Boye, to take part in a 'Swedish week' in the Danish capital. Karin Boye was introduced to the Danish royal family, and Kallocain was written about enthusiastically in the Danish press. This visit was perhaps the nearest the poet ever came to a direct political action, and it also set the seal on her fame and international reputation. She is now considered one of the major Swedish poets of all time, in the same tradition as Viktor Rydberg, Gustaf Fröding and Vilhelm Ekelund. She was also a seminal influence on the development of Swedish modernism, in particular the generation of 1940's poets that included Gunnar Ekelöf, Harry Martinson, Erik Lindegren and Artur Lundkvist.

The inner conflicts that split Karin Boye and which were reflected in her tortured love relationships gained the upper hand over the artist in her. Inwardly doubting about Anita, whose move away from Alingsås to Malmö may not have been entirely for medical reasons, and deeply ambivalent about Margot Hanel, who was still completely emotionally dependent on her, Karin Boye succumbed to an access of despair. On 23 April 1941 she left the house at Alingsås and walked off into the surrounding countryside, taking only a bottle of sleeping tablets with her. Some days later, after a police search of the district that proved fruitless, she was found by a passer-by, dead from exposure. A month later, Margot Hanel gassed herself. Anita Nathorst died of cancer in August.

(the end)

Biographical Profile - 1
Biographical Profile - 2
Biographical Profile - 3
Biographical Profile - 4
Biographical Profile - 5
Biographical Profile - 6
Biographical Profile - 7
Biographical Profile - 8

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Land of one language?

In Finland the vexed and perennial question of the position of the Swedish language in the country's affairs continues to provoke discussion in Finnish and Finland-Swedish media. Last week Ulla-Maj Wideroos, chair of the Swedish People's Party group in the Finnish Parliament, gave an interview to the regional Finnish dailyTurun Sanomat in which she said that
the climate within the government had changed to the disadvantage of Swedish-speaking people over the past two legislative periods... "There has been a change of generation and today's politicians do not relate to the Swedish language in the way earlier ones did"...(Helsinki Times)
Last month the youth wing of the Perussuomalaiset (True Finns) party demanded (Turun Sanomat) that Finland should become a monolingual country, and that the special official status accorded to Swedish should be removed, "because the language legislation does not correspond to the real declaration of will in our country". In their statement, the campaigners said that too much of Finnish taxpayers' money was being spent on maintaining Swedish as the country's second language relative to the small area in which Swedish is actually spoken. Alluding to the growing numbers of Russian-speaking migrants to Finland, they asked if Russian. too, would be made an official language when the numbers of Russian-speakers reached the same proportions as those of Swedish-speaking Finns.

In the Swedish-language Hufvudstadsbladet it's possible to follow an ongoing discussion of the issue. Some of the contributions illustrate the intensity and bitterness of some of the debate. Excerpts:
  • Our history with Sweden was horrible and vile. We don't want a Little Sweden here in Finland any more.
  • It is simply that there is no need to learn Swedish. Everywhere in Scandinavia one can get by with Finnish and English.
  • Swedish Finland (Svenskfinland) - that's not something one talks about in Finnish. What is it , exactly? 
  • In the metropolitan area nearly all Finland-Swedes speak "proper" Finnish. But there must be something wong with  the Swedish teaching in Finnish schools, because Finns don't learn Swedish? The majority of Swedish teachers in Finnish schools don't know Swedish well enough and are also incapable of inspiring their students to learn it.
Note: to an outsider, it would seem that from a literary point of view Finland is quite clearly a land of two languages - the Finland-Swedish contribution is at least equal to the Finnish one. But seen in contemporary social and general cultural terms, the situation appears to be different. Is it a case of one Finland for the Finns, and another for the rest of the world?

Monday, 9 November 2009

Karin Boye - a biographical profile - 8


Among the German-Jewish emigré friends she made during the summer of 1937 time were several men. To one of these she became very closely attached, and it seemed that some kind of decision was imminent. But at the last moment the poet went away to Stockholm to see Margot Hanel for a few days, and when she came back she asked the man to forget everything that had passed between them. Something seemed to have changed in her relationship with Margot, and from that time onwards she ceased to talk of it and her in condescending tones. The epigram 'To You', written in July 1937, put the seal on this. Yet the problems within the relationship were not resolved: indeed, they seemed to intensify. In 1938 Karin tried to send Margot to Paris to live with a family there, but Margot returned within a month. Karin spoke of 'events that have made my life into chaos', and in a letter to the handwriting expert, Dr Blum she wrote, in German:

Nur tun mir Ihre Schlussworte über die notwendige Resignation ein bisschen weh. Ich stehe eben in einer Situation, wo eine absolute Selbstaufopferung - von Arbeitsfreude, Kameradschaft, künstlerischem Schaffen, Ruhe, Harmonie - verlangt wird, und ich habe so schwer ein solches Opfer zu bringen, jedenfalls kann es nicht mit Freude geschehen. Glauben Sie wirklich, dass Resignation der Sinn meines Lebens sein kann? {Eine zu persönliche Frage... Die Antwort kann nie von einem Anderen kommen.)

Only your words at the end about necessary resignation hurt me a little. For I am in just such a situation where an absolute self-sacrifice - of joy in my work, of friendship, of artistic creation, of peace, of harm ony - is demanded of me, and I find it so hard to make such a sacrifice - at any rate, it cannot happen with joy. Do you really believe that resignation can be the meaning of my life? (A too personal question... The answer can never come from someone else.)

In February 1938, Karin Boye visited the cathedral town of Linköping in order to give a reading of her poems. While staying there, she visited the cathedral and had a deep spiritual experience while standing before the altar-painting of Christ by the modern Norwegian artist Anna Sørensen, and the tapestries by Märta Afzelius. The result of the experience forms the subject of the long poem 'Linköping Cathedral', in The Seven Deadly Sins.

During the summer of the same year, the poet visited Greece on a travel scholarship from the Swedish Academy. On the way she visited Vienna, Prague and Istanbul. In Greece she travelled from Athens to Delos, where she wrote: 'the Aegean sea is brilliant blue, and on the other side of the water lie other rocky islands in a thick heat haze. The light is wonderful. It overwhelms one, takes one's breath away. It is apt here. After all, Apollo was the one "whose eyes had never seen the darkness".'

In the autumn of 1938, at her own request, Karin Boye took up full-time teaching at Viggbyholm, but the workload proved to be too much for her, and she suffered from overstrain and exhaustion. Her consciousness of the cruel and terrible events that were taking place in Europe at this time, the German invasion of Czechoslovakia and the persecution of the Jews, also contributed to her sense of confusion and breakdown. She was unable to write or work on her poetry, a condition which for her was tantamount to a complete paralysis of spirit, and she developed a severe and acutely painful inflammation of the nerves in one of her arms, which nothing would cure. Eventually she left Viggbyholm, and returned to Stockholm.

4. 1939 - SUMMER 1941

It was at around this time that the poet began to correspond again more frequently with Anita Nathorst, whom she had now known for almost twenty years. Anita had contracted a disastrous form of skin cancer, which was eating its way inwards into her body. Karin, who was still in love with Anita, travelled to Alingsås, near Göteborg, in order to be with her and look after her. While she was there, she wrote letters to Margot Hanel assuring the latter of her continued loyalty. In many ways, the poet seemed split in two - something noticed by her mother, who wanted to encourage her daughter's move away from Margot Hanel, but was concerned by her psychological state. This may not have been made any easier by the fact that Anita was by now the assistant of the psychoanalyst Iwan Bratt, who lived in Alingsås and whose house she frequented. Karin came into contact with many seriously disturbed patients, and Bratt himself seems to have been a somewhat controversial figure, with an approach to psychoanalysis that some called crude and oversimplified.

Nonetheless, all this time Karin Boye continued to work at her writing with great application and an almost demonic intensity. Not only did she produce a large body of poetry - she also wrote and completed her prose masterpiece, the novel Kallocain, which bears an epigraph from T.S. Eliot:

The awful daring of a moment's surrender,
which an age of prudence could never retract,
by this, and this only, we have existed...

Biographical Profile - 1
Biographical Profile - 2
Biographical Profile - 3
Biographical Profile - 4
Biographical Profile - 5
Biographical Profile - 6
Biographical Profile - 7

(to be continued)

Sunday, 8 November 2009

A War Story - 3


It was evening and the mother and the daughter were home, but the boy was in bed. He had been in bed ever since his return from the exhibition, facing the wall.

“How is he?” The grandfather asked in a low voice. He was getting ready to go to work.

As his wife was about to reply, the phone rang. She cupped the receiver with her hand and said to her husband with both respect and a touch of alarm in her voice, “it's the city doctor.”

The man took the phone. The doctor needed a taxi for the whole of the evening and the entire night. His regular driver had been taken ill. The man took a pen and wrote down the doctor's address. “You haven´t seen my glasses?” the old man asked his wife as he took the piece of paper, folded it and put it in his pocket.

“No,” said his wife, “and we gave the whole apartment a thorough cleaning yesterday.”

On his way to the doctor two enormous aircraft came flying in low over the city to land. They were B-17s. He was able to identify them from an illustrated article he had read in the newspaper. It was obvious that some sort of airlift was under way. It was getting dusk.

He knew the doctor slightly, had driven him on former occasions. The doctor was a rather short-tempered man. Influenza was ravaging Reykjavík. They drove from house to house. “Will you come with me into the next one and phone the hospital and write down the patients’ addresses?” the doctor asked. “It´s all I can manage to deal with these kids and those crazy grandmothers. The grandmothers are the worst, they make more trouble than the children do,” he added stroking his large bald head.

The man had thought of mentioning his grandson's strange malady, but now thought better of it.

“I´m sorry,” he said. “I can't see well enough to write. I lost my glasses last week and can´t find them anywhere.”

The doctor muttered something and went into a house. Yet another B-17 came sailing over the town.

It was well after midnight until the doctor got a break from his house visits. The driver mentioned the big aircraft to the doctor, who was suddenly filled with an urge to see them. They drove towards the airport.

A few MPs were guarding the great planes that were larger still in the darkness. Under their wings the soldiers looked tiny.

One of the MPs, holding a gun, came over to the car. The doctor rolled down his window. He had been educated in America and explained their business. He and the soldier had a short pleasant conversation. The doctor had been in Idaho and the soldier happened to come from the same state.

Suddenly the soldier pointed to the sky. Yet another flying fortress was coming in. They could see the warbird growing bigger all the time, and the lights on the wing tips blinking.

Then without warning the soldier ran away from the car. It was obvious that something was very wrong. The plane was coming in over the city lake at much too low an altitude. “My God, it's going to crash-land!” the doctor said.

And like a black goose that had been shot down, the enormous plane crash-landed on the gravel airfield. Soldiers were running towards it. The doctor and the driver were out of the car. The soldier who had been talking to the doctor was beckoning to them. The doctor returned to the car to get his bag and then ran towards the soldier. The driver followed. The broken plane seemed to hiss with anger at its own destruction. Then suddenly fire broke out in the cockpit. The driver could see the trapped crew. It was obvious from the men’s terror that they had no chance of getting out. The fire grew more intense with each swiftly passing second. Then, in less than an instant, a fireball engulfed the B-17. Only the tip of the cockpit protruded from the flames.

“Those men are trapped,” the driver said out loud. “Those men are trapped!” he repeated.

They heard strange crackling sounds, like someone letting off fireworks. “My God!” the doctor exclaimed, “they’re shooting the crew.”

On the edge of the light cast over the airfield by the fire the driver watched as a group of riflemen, resembling an execution squad, fired at the cockpit which was now completely swallowed by the flames. He didn't know if the sound they could hear was the shots or the windows cracking from the heat. An officer was pointing to the driver and the doctor and shouting something in an angry voice.

“Let´s get the hell out of here now,” the doctor said and both men ran to the car. When they drove away the driver saw in the mirror that they were not being followed. Nothing was visible of the plane now but flames. They met two cars heading towards the airfield, obviously out of curiosity. A few men were also running in that direction. “They’ll be turned away,” the doctor said.

“We were lucky they didn´t shoot us,” the driver said.

“Well, they know who we are. Who I am. I won’t be surprised if we’re called in tomorrow by the police for an investigation of some sorts. They’ll want to keep the shooting from getting into the papers.”

"They couldn’t have done anything else,” the driver said.

The doctor nodded. “Just take me home. I have to rest a bit. Then I'll phone the hospital and go in my own car in the morning and attend to any patients who may phone during the night. You go home now and have yourself a rest, old pal.” He patted the driver on the knee in a brotherly fashion. “This is quite enough for one night.”

They parted, and the man drove home. The shock of seeing the men being shot in this way to save them suffering had not yet sunk in.

He parked his car and opened the door of the apartment block where he lived. He entered his apartment, took off his clothes in the living room, and looked up into the dark sky where the boy had seen the angel or whatever it was, but there was nothing to see except the moon which stood out large and cold-looking. On the sofa the boy was peacefully asleep in his usual way, with his face turned away from the wall.

The man opened the door to his bedroom, slipped under the sheets and lay there in perfect stillness. He decided not to wake his wife. No matter how hard he tried, he could not get to sleep. Grey light began to show in the window. It would soon be daybreak. He must have slept. He woke up. He had had a strange dream, or was it a vision? He had seen his glasses. They lay by a fence in front of a house by the city lake and they were covered by grass. A few days earlier he had stood there before picking up a resident who had ordered a taxi. “Damn it,” he said. He tried to lie still but knew he would not be able to go back to sleep without making sure that the vision was true. He slipped out of bed.

“Are you going somewhere?” his wife said in a sleepy voice.

“Yes,” the man said. “I have to check something.”

“Will you be long?”

“No, I´ll be home in time for coffee.”

He quickly put on his clothes, went outside and started his car. He drove downtown. There was the fence he had seen in his dream. And the tree at the street corner. He stopped the car and got out. He moved the grass near the fence pole with his shoe. There were his glasses. He picked them up and put them on. They were definitely his.

When he got home, his coffee was ready. As his wife poured him some coffee she said: “Oh yes, the boy´s teacher phoned last night. He was rather upset. He said he just wanted to let us know why he hadn’t included our grandson’s work in the school exhibition. He said that the drawing had been totally unacceptable by any standards, so he'd destroyed it to prevent it causing any more offence. What’s wrong with the lad? What did he do?”

“Probably a fine piece of work,” the man said.


A War Story - 1
A War Story - 2

Saturday, 7 November 2009

A War Story - 2


The man woke up at noon. There was stillness in the house. He had been out on the job until the early hours of the morning but nothing much had happened, no drunken soldiers, no desperate girls craving for the company of their army boyfriends who were confined to barracks.

The man lay still for a moment and checked for sounds in the house. There was total stillness. Just the occasional rumbling of an engine when a car drove past. He called out for his wife in the dark tone of command that usually brought her into the room. It was her custom to give him his morning coffee in bed, but there was no reply, she must have gone out on some errand.

Suddenly the door opened and his grandson came in. The boy just stood there staring at him as if he had come across a stranger in his grandfather’s bed. “Yes,” the man said at last.”So what do you want?” The boy had a way of looking at him that sometimes made him shudder.

"Grandmother said you should take me downtown to school,” the boy said.

“She said what?” the man exclaimed. He had never before in his life entered that establishment.

“To see the exhibition,” the boy replied.

"What are you trying to tell me?" the man asked. He assumed at once that there must be some serious misunderstanding.

“Grandmother had to go away,” the boy said. “Her friend was taken ill all of a sudden. You have to take me downtown, for the exhibition. It’s today.”

The man felt himself getting irritated. “What exhibition are you talking about? What’s happening? Where is your mother?”

“The exhibition of the best drawings and paintings by the pupils this year opens today. My drawing is the very best of them all,” the boy said with no obvious pride, as though he took his superiority for granted. Then he looked at his watch. “It opens at one o’clock, he said. “And we mustn’t be late.

His grandfather felt uneasy. He was not used to dealing with things like this. He drove a taxi, and by doing so provided for the family, but all this business of teachers, authority and too much education made him unsure of himself. He only felt at home in his taxi: there he was in total control of his surroundings.

The boy looked at him with a flat expression.

“And where is your mother?” the man asked again.

“She went out last night with her friend and hasn’t come home yet,” the boy said.

The man got out of bed. He felt that he shouldn’t inquire into these matters any further, at least for the present. He got into his trousers and put on the suspenders. He found his slippers with his feet and made his way to the kitchen. He would have to do without coffee this morning. He had no clue as how to go about making himself a cup.

The clock on the wall showed twenty minutes to one and the boy was looking downcast and nervous.

“And did your grandmother say when she’d be back?” the man asked. The boy shook his head and his grandfather gave up all hope of escape. “Well, get dressed then,” he said. “We’d best get this over with.”

He found his shirt, jacket and a tie and put on his shoes. The boy was waiting for him out on the veranda. He looked unusually pale and distracted. “So what are you so uptight about?” his grandfather asked.

“It’s my drawing. I’ve never taken part in an exhibition before, so naturally I'm nervous about showing my work in public for the first time.”

His grandfather suddenly felt an urge to laugh. How strange his grandson was. He was almost like a grownup locked into the body of a child. “Well don’t you worry about it,” he said. “I'm sure the other kids are not as handy with the crayons as you”.

“Oh, they aren't,” the boy said looking at him. His face broke into an enormous smile. “I know I'm by far the best.”

“Now how do you know that?” his grandfather asked, feeling his mood change from amusement to sudden irritation.

“I just do,” the boy said.

When the school came into view the man saw that flags were snapping in the wind high on top of the pools to both sides of the entrance. The stairs to the doorway were broad and wide and reminded him of the entrance to some official building in Germany he had recently seen in a picture in a newspaper. He felt his old sense of discomfort become more intense. Pupils were streaming through the gate with their parents or other relatives, brothers or sisters. The boy and his grandfather walked up the steps.

Slowly they walked along the corridor and then made a tour of all the rooms. The walls were covered with the kind of drawings that children do. There were houses and people and animals, horses and dogs and cats and chickens in drawing after drawing with an eternal sun shining over most of the scenery and the people and the animals and the occasional flower. When they had made the rounds the grandfather said: “Well?”

“Mine isn’t here. They haven’t hung it up.”

“So much for your lady in the sky,” his grandfather remarked. “Never pay any attention to dreams, for the most part they’re nonsense.”

He knew the words were harsh, but he was hoping the whole thing would teach the boy a lesson.

Suddenly the boy looked over to a handsome young man with jet-black hair and square jaws. “That’s my teacher,” he said in a low voice. He tugged at his grandfather's sleeve. “Let’s go and talk to him.”

“Do you think that’s a good idea? If they didn’t see fit to exhibit your picture, and they sure didn’t, you had better accept it,” the old man said.

But the boy was insistent. He tore himself free from his grandfather and went up to his teacher. Suddenly he seemed even more firm and more independent than usual. The teacher was talking to an elderly couple, apparently trying to hide the fact that he was a little annoyed at the intrusion, but the boy kept on talking. The grandfather felt it his duty to go closer in case his grandson needed any help.

The teacher looked in his direction and said, “We only hung the pictures we thought were good enough to exhibit.”

“Come on,” the grandfather said. “I’ll treat you to a soda pop on the way home.”

He glanced down at the child. The boy had a stunned expression, as though for the first time in his life he had had a glimpse of reality.

It was a good lesson, his grandfather thought. But he felt annoyed that the child’s drawing had not been considered good enough to be included in the exhibition.

(to be continued)

A War Story - I

Friday, 6 November 2009

A War Story - 1

By Ólafur Gunnarsson


If there was anything positive about the whole affair it was mainly the fact that whoever had got his daughter pregnant, it wasn’t one of the soldiers. It was one of the members of the jazz band that now entertained the soldiers downtown. The boy, strange child that he was, had actually been conceived well before the war.

The boy was now seven years old, and he had always been strange. But the day before, when the man was dining with the family, the boy had really surpassed himself and made his grandfather uneasy. The boy had suddenly looked up from his plate and pointed to the window and said, “I saw a lady in the sky last night!”

“A lady?” his mother asked.


“And was she out in the street?” the grandmother asked.

“No,” said the boy. “She was up above the rooftops. In the sky. She was flying.”

Now the boy’s mother had one of those crazy, explosive fits of laughter that were the hallmark of her temperament. “A lady in the sky! Flying. Now that beats everything!”

“Tell us more about it,” the grandmother said.

The man felt sudden irritation. Anything out of the ordinary made him uneasy, and his grandson was most certainly out of the ordinary.

“Well,” said the boy, ”the lady was very beautiful and she was all dressed in blue and holding a yellow harp and she was looking at me. She stood still in the sky for a long time. Her enormously long gown moved in the wind. It moved softly," he added. "And then I just went back to bed.”

“Oh, she’d just come down from the Almighty to tell you that you’re going to be a great musician like your father,” was the mother’s response. “That´s why she was holding a harp”. She was still laughing, but the laughter now verged on hysteria. “Oh, what a funny boy you are,” she gasped.

“No, I don’t think that’s why it was,” the boy said solemnly. “I don’t like it when you try to make me play an instrument. I like drawing better. I thought you knew that.”

By now the boy’s grandfather had picked up a newspaper, he was trying to read something but could not find his glasses, he patted his breast pocket, but the glasses were not in their usual place there.

“But what were you doing up in the middle of the night?” the grandmother asked. “Did you need to go to the toilet, maybe?” She had infinite love and patience for the boy.

The boy looked at his grandfather. “No, I was just very sorry because I’d got butter on the wallpaper and wanted to see if the mark had gone away.”
“Well, that explains it all,” the grandfather said, greatly relieved.

The day before the grandfather had papered the living room walls. The new paper had strange designs that nevertheless seemed to reveal a regular pattern, and as the boy had been admiring this he had, quite by accident, put a spot on the wall and been scolded for doing so.

“You only woke up because you felt sorry about the spot, and you dreamt it all,” the grandfather said.

“No, no, I didn’t!” the boy shouted suddenly becoming very excited, and there was an edge to his voice, something close to outrage. “There was definitely a lady there.”

“Yes, yes, that's right,” the boy’s mother said. “Let’s not talk about it any more.”

“Are you taking him to school tomorrow?” the grandmother asked.

“No,” the boy’s mother said. “I have business to see to.”

The grandfather abandoned the newspaper, looked at them all, and before he could be drawn in to whatever was in the making said: “I’m off to work.”

“It’s all right, dear,” the grandmother said to the boy. “I’ll take you.”

“Yes,” the boy said nervously. “It's a big day and I don't want to go all by myself.”

The grandfather was out on the veranda now, and the rest of the conversation was lost to him. He looked at his car and somehow felt a sense of relief at returning to the normal world. He was a taxi driver, and was duly proud of his car. It was a 1940 Chevrolet Sedan.

(to be continued)

Note: this is an original edited text, not a translation

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Karin Boye - a biographical profile - 7


3. 1933-1938

One of the ways in which Karin Boye sought to clarify the problems in her inner and emotional life, and even to seek answers to them, was the writing of prose fiction. In novels such as 'Crisis', 'Astarte' and 'Merit Wakes Up', she explored the themes of the strong woman and the weak man, of lifelong self-deception, of the 'doil's house', and other problems of inner and outer existence. These works, of which she wrote many, are less 'pure' than her poetry. They are often somewhat schematic, and the characters tend to be merely vehicles for the author's ideas. From many angles these works can even be viewed as commercial, which they were insofar as another aim of her writing them was to secure herself an income, a task made all the more pressing by the expense of analysis. Yet in these books she tackled themes that were controversial in their time, and she probably helped others by publishing them. This was particularly true of 'Crisis', a book which depicts her own adolescent religious crisis and discovery of her own bisexuality. Around 1933, at the time it was written, there was much discussion in Sweden about a liberalization of the laws on homosexuality, and her documentary novel was a contribution to the public debate. It is probably her strongest prose work after her masterpiece, Kallocain, and it was widely read and discussed.

Back in Sweden in 1934, the poet bought a small flat in Stockholm consisting of two rooms and a kitchen 'in an environment so devoid of tradition, more functionalistically cold and impossible than anywhere else in Stockholm... a hell of lines that gives not the slightest opportunity to the imagination.' According to Margit Abenius, however, the flat possessed a good view in summer of flowering gardens and a fountain, and it is possible that Karin Boye felt less lonely in a city than she might have done living alone in the countryside. There was, nevertheless, the fact that all her attempts to make a life with another human being had failed. Temperamentally unsuited to solitariness, she must have found her life at this time extremely difficult. In desperation, she decided to invite Margot Hanel to come from Berlin and live with her. At first the experiment went well: for the first time in her life, Karin Boye felt calm and reassured, and as if she had some sort of root in existence. But Margot Hanel was extremely jealous amd dependent, and as time went by she began to develop chronic illnesses, making Karin look after her and take complete responsibility for her. In a matter of months, the 'marriage' degenerated into a destructive symbiosis: while, out of jealousy, Margot refused to let Karin see her literary friends and tried to make her stay in the flat and talk about trivia, Karin repaid her with personal cruelty, talking to others condescendingly about her, and even calling their relationship 'ein ausgehaltenes Verhältnis'. Yet the couple stayed together. Karin evidently found in Margot, who made such very great demands on her, an outlet for her need for self-sacrifice and self-immolation. Margot Hanel also seems to have been a substitute for the child Karin Boye never had. And, while it must have been profoundly tormenting for both partners much of the time, the relationship also had its brighter moments. According to Margit Abenius, the couple 'became welded together in the way that cannot be avoided between two people who share life's troubles for a long time.' It was to Margot Hanel that Karin wrote the epigram 'To You':

You my despair and my strength,
you took all the life I owned,
and because you demanded everything,
you gave back a thousandfold.

At this time, also, Karin Boye wrote her novel Too Little. Its hero, Harald Måhrman, is torn between art and life, and ends by choosing neither, creating an atmosphere of disharmony and hostility wherever he goes. His failure is a failure to love - either his art or his family, or both. Margit Abenius quotes Karin Boye's diary of 1921, with its entry: 'I believe that what one receives in love is precisely what one gives - not necessarily from and to the other person, but from and to love.'

1935 saw the publication of Karin Boye's fourth book of poetry, För trädets skull ('For the Tree's Sake'). This met with a mixed response from the critics, many of whom saw in it a capitulation to free-verse modernism. In fact, however, the volume continues and develops many of the poet's earlier themes and concerns, though now with more austere technical means, and an almost 'neo-classical' restraint. The free verse poems give the impression of avoiding rhyme and metre in order to approach the truth more closely, not in order to shock, or to disrupt conventional modes of perception. One detects a shift away from Christianity, and at the same time away from the ideals of Clarté towards a more abstract, impersonal kind of art - yet the familiar themes of love, suffering, sacrifice, hope and betrayal are always present, too. Much of the negative thrust of the critcs' response to the collection - they wanted the 'old' Karin Boye back - was precisely because she had moved on from political radicalism towards an individually-conceived view of the world and of cosmic reality.

Margit Abenius describes a dream which Karin Boye related to Harry Martinson: 'She was dead and had come to paradise. Heavenly bliss was organized like a school. On the wall hung a timetable showing hours and lessons. Karin and the other blessed ones had to sit in the chalices of sweet-scented roses and God hurled the roses with their souls through the azure. A radiant, unutterable sense of happiness accompanied the rose lesson. After that came the "lily lesson". Brilliant white madonna lilies grew everywhere in large clumps and clusters as far as the eye could see. One could hear singing. Pilgrims walked in multitudes. But the lily lesson was not as eventful and highly-charged as the rose lesson; it led nowhere but seemed to stand still. Then an immensely large female figure appeared. She was wonderfully beautiful, but her hands were large and coarse like a charwoman's. Karin knew that this was Reality. She suddenly saw this hybrid of goddess and charwoman sitting on a throne, and seized by reverence she bowed down and kissed her foot. And then Reality asked: "Why are you kissing my foot? After all, you do not know me."'

In 1936, Karin Boye started work as a teacher at Viggbyholm boarding school, near Stockholm. The school's founder, a Christian pacifist named Per Sundberg, wanted to bring together children from different ethnic backgrounds, and many of the pupils were refugees from Hitler's Germany. There were also many children of divorce, and children with problems of development. At first, Karin Boye went on living in Stockholm and travelling to the school to teach, but eventually she moved to Viggbyholm and spent all her time there. It was a milieu that brought together several of the previous environments in which she had lived: the radical, pacifistic intellectual atmosphere was reminiscent of that of Clarté, while the Christian element in the teaching was similar to what she had experienced as a young theology student at summer camps. There was also the presence of trees and nature. Initially, Karin Boye taught very young children. There were problems attendant on this, however, for the children tended to laugh at their teacher and call her names. One little boy even said, when the children were asked why they laughed at her: 'because she looks like a little pig!' Thereafter, Karin Boye was transferred to the school's higher classes, the 'gymnasium', or grammar school, where she became a much-admired and loved teacher.

Far from being the 'school of reality', however, this was hardly an an ordinary environment. In many ways, it seems to have functioned in Karin Boye's life as a kind of continuation of her psychoanalysis: spending so much time in the company of children and young people, she found that new layers of her personality were constantly being opened. This process of 'opening' or 'being broken open' had become very important to her: 'All human beings want to be broken open', she wrote to her friend Anna Petri. At this time, too, she developed a lively interest in Gestalt psychology.

Biographical Profile - 1
Biographical Profile - 2
Biographical Profile - 3
Biographical Profile - 4
Biographical Profile - 5
Biographical Profile - 6

(to be continued)

Literary Dialogues

Swedish Book Review has published an anthology called Literary Dialogues: Contenporary Swedish Writing in English, edited by Sarah Death and Neil Smith. The book contains an introduction by Sir Michael Holroyd, and the featured writers and poets include Johannes Anyuru, Marjaneh Bakhtiari, Henning Mankell and Eva Runefelt. Among the translators are Sarah Death, B. J. Epstein, Tom Geddes and Tiina Nunnally. Copies can presumably be ordered from Swedish Book Review - see their website, though there doesn't appear to be any mention of the anthology there yet.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Whales and Horses

I was pleased to learn that Tarkovsky's Horses and Other Poems, my translation of two collections of Pia Tafdrup's poetry (The Whales in Paris and Tarkovsky's Horses) due to be published by Bloodaxe early next year, was selected as a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. The PBS book club recommendations mark out the books, not the authors or translators, and in the field of poetry translation there's usually only one recommendation per quarter. The PBS list for Spring 2010 is:

Choice: Derek Walcott, White Egrets (Faber)
Edward Hirsch, The Living Fire (Carcanet)
Lachlan MacKinnon, Small Hours (Faber)
Patrick McGuinness, Jilted City (Carcanet)
Robin Robertson, The Wrecking Light (Picador)
Recommended Translation: Pia Tafdrup (trans. David McDuff), Tarkovsky’s Horses (Bloodaxe)
Special Commendation: Louis Simpson, Voices in the Distance: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe)

Hat tip: Neil Astley

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Karin Boye - a biographical profile - 6


The years that followed were hectic ones, full of drama, both inner and outer. In 1927 Karin Boye's father, Fritz Boye, died of cancer. Immediately after graduating from Uppsala in 1928, Karin Boye moved to Stockholm, where she began a course of psychoanalysis with the analyst Alfhild Tamm, initially without her mother's knowledge. She took this first analysis very seriously, and could become quite upset if any of her friends criticized psychoanalysis, saying they could only do so if they tried it themselves. The work affected her quite deeply, and some of those who knew her considered that it changed her in many ways. Without it she would probably not have found her way to marriage, nor to the radical ideas that for a time were important to her.

In Stockholm, Karin Boye also became seriously involved with the organization and administration of the Clarté movement, with which she had already come into contact in Uppsala. She also helped to edit the movement's magazine of the same title. The meetings and activities of Clarté, a loosely-organized assembly of some five or six hundred radical intellectuals and political activists from all over Scandinavia, were above all meant to free the minds of its members from the constraints of bourgeois upbringing, education and prejudice. There were two main strands of concern, both of which derived from the movement's central aim of establishing world peace and the happiness of human beings: one focused on the social transformation of the world, and the other was mainly preoccupied with questions of inner transformation by means of psychoanalysis. Among the Swedish members were the poets Gunnar Ekelöf, Nils Ferlin, Harry Martinson, and Karin Boye herself; among lesser-known names were the young poets Stellan Arvidson, Leif Björk, Ingeborg Björklund, Ebbe Linde, Arnold Ljungdal, Erik Mesterton, Ellen Michelsen, Victor Svanberg and Herbert Tingsten. Leif Björk, a young left-wing radical with an interest in psychoanalysis, became Karin Boye's partner, and after some time the couple married. Together with Björk and some other male Clarté members, Karin Boye visited the Soviet Union. It is probable that her experiences there stayed in her subconscious and influenced her in the writing, much later, of her novel about a totalitarian state, Kallocain.

Karin Boye's marriage to Leif Björk did not last long. The couple were too estranged from everyday reality, too over-complicated, and their household economy too precarious for this essentially bourgeois 'social form of love', as Margit Abenius calls it. In addition, it seems to have been more a friendship, or comradeship, than a marriage, and its sexual component was probably not very strong. Karin Boye had already experimented with one extra-marital affair, which brought her a disturbing sense of being hunted by the man for her innermost being. In order to escape having to surrender her inner self, she gave herself to him sexually, in body rather than spirit. These confusions and disturbances grew more frequent after the divorce from Leif Björk, and there were many more opportunities for casual relationships. In 1931 she fell into a severe depression, with suicidal phases. From a friend she obtained the name and address of a psychoanalytic doctor in Berlin.

Her analyst in Berlin, where she moved in January 1932, was Walter Schindler, a Freudian who used techniques of active suggestion. He considered Karin Boye's situation extremely serious, and found her a difficult patient. She herself suffered greatly during the two months of analysis, which came to an end after a crisis. After this, Karin Boye began to be analysed by a woman, Grete Lampl. Of the analysis with Schindler, Scharp noted in his diary that the analyst had said: 'This will end badly. Within ten years she will have taken her own life.'

Apart from analysis, Karin Boye's life in Berlin also involved work. She was an editor of the Swedish avant-garde literary magazine Spektrum, which modelled itself on Eliot's Criterion, and took its name from the idea expressed in one of her poems ('Man's Multiplicity'):

In us a multiplicity lives.
It fumbles towards unity.
Its capturing, gathering burning ­glass
we were born to be.

Spektrum published the early work of Gunnar Ekelöf, Harry Martinson, Karin Boye and other Swedish modernists; Karin Boye wrote editorials and essays and commissioned work on contemporary European poetry: Erik Mesterton's 'Poetry and Reality in Modern English Lyric Poetry' and 'The Method of T.S. Eliot' first appeared in Spektrum.

Karin Boye also worked as a literary translator, producing a Swedish version of Frieda Uhl's book about Strindberg. Little of this work brought in any money, however, and what with the expense of the psychoanalysis, the poet's financial situation was very precarious. She did, however, manage to see something of Berlin's theatre and café life, moved among male and female homosexuals, witnessed the clashes between extreme left wing and right wing sympathizers, and through Vilhelm Scharp, who knew the Swedish-born Göring, and also Goebbels, gained some insight into the true nature of Nazism. She even attended an election meeting in the Sportpalast at which the Shakespeare-admiring Göring used all his rhetorical skills to outmanoeuvre Hindenburg to Hitler's advantage. It is at this meeting that Karin Boye is reported to have raised her arm in the Hitler salute - not to do so could have cost her her life. Yet there is also some evidence to suggest that she found the mass spectacle fascinating, and that she found some release in surrendering herself to the well-directed and orchestrated cries of 'Die Treue ist der Mark der Ehre'. There is, however, no evidence of her ever having embraced the ideas of Nazism. Scharp related that they agreed during a conversation that 'it was impossible to unite a faith in man, his worth and personality, with obedience to dictatorship' (Margit Abenius).

In Berlin, Karin Boye also began a sexual relationship with Margot Hanel, a German-Jewish woman who was twelve years younger than her. It was a relationship that was to have a tragic end. In many ways, Karin Boye's life in Berlin was influenced by the confused and gloom-laden atmosphere of the last years of the Weimar Republic, and her involvement with Margot Hanel was a part of that reality. The 'psychoanalytic' circles she frequented could not have been further removed from the Christian summer camps of her early twenties; while the contrast was necessary and salutary, there are also some factors that suggest her life might have taken a more fortunate turn had she avoided those circles.

(to be continued)

Biographical Profile - 1
Biographical Profile - 2
Biographical Profile - 3
Biographical Profile - 4
Biographical Profile - 5

Fighting back

On November 12 the board of directors of Norges teknisk-naturvitenskapelige universitet (NTNU) in Trondheim will vote on whether or not to declare an academic boycott against Israel. The chairwoman of the board says that while she opposes the move, she will not move to cancel the vote.

The university's rector, Torbjørn Digernes, has already drawn strong criticism for his decision to hold a series of seminars at which only one viewpoint - hostile to Israel - will be heard. Comments on this, and on the boycott project, can be read on the rector's webpage, where he calls the seminar series "a praiseworthy enterprise".

Professor Yossi Ben-Artzii of the University of Haifa has written to Rector Digernes protesting the boycott, Ynet reports, and
stressed that Israel is an enlightened state, and that any attempt to impose an academic boycott on it can only stem from lack of knowledge or a wrong perception of the Jewish State. An academic boycott will only hurt academic freedom, while curbing intellectual progress and undermining universal values.
Meanwhile, Ynet also reports that the Swedish journalist responsible for the Aftonbladet article
accusing the Israel Defense Forces of stealing and trafficking in Palestinians' organs, was received Monday with boos and shouts during a panel he took part in at a media conference held in Dimona.

The Swedish reporter said that he understands the anger and explained that his infamous article only claimed that the Palestinian families' allegations need to be investigated. He also said that there was much misunderstanding surrounding the article. "The fact is that the families said what they said. That's a normal article," he said.

Monday, 2 November 2009


By Lauri Otonkoski

Sitting in a car on a frosty morning only a Finn, as the cold
slams from the padding of the seat into his kidneys,
is able to ask the gods of pistons, liquids
and spark plugs to have mercy on him.
The trunks of the pines were the colour of asphalt
as I drove. The sea screams here on the island like an endless bullet train,
the voice of the south-westerly wind looks blue behind the strait.
If there were snow,
in the yard one would see the tracks of elk, hare and the neighbour’s dog.
But now on the move are only the ghosts risen from the boghole,
which leave no trace. Someone fades the dusk to darkness
by afternoon.
If among the trees now priests were running,
their robes would not be visible,
but the bands would flutter like white bats.
In the electric warmth of the cottage I fry an egg and am not afraid
of the darkness that is outside. If the TV were working,
I would get pleasure even from that.
I would watch a random show which would of course be the Business News.
Knowledge expands, love builds, but only the capitalist
is able to be anxious while idle, Paul forgot that.
Stocks were falling, but in the Northern Atlantic
an area of high pressure should give us hope as it filled.
Putin is almost a whore in French. O. bin Laden
looks like a moss-covered mushroom
as he talks on a grainy video about God
and mass murder in turns.
Now the feelings come. A screaming present
without the armour of alcohol, how I really hate them.
The spheres behind the frontal lobe, in which a substance heavier
than the soul is pumped until the head splits
and the heart splashes from its moist ark
to gargle a birch-branch stripped of bark.
The water has risen to the shed, the rowing boat seems to be moving there.
A thump carries through the dark air as it beats its nose against the wall.
Freedom in a carefully measured space. I tried to think
about alcoholism, but only that kind of thought came.
Without memory one could live happy as a green pea on a plate.
Then in spring the patches open in the melted snow and in them flower the intentions.
I had come here now and looked everywhere to see
that the doors were closed against the winter, the walls vertical
and the floor horizontal, like a sleepy sharp-shooter I had
thought I saw something moving. The night went in such a way
that the children’s inheritance was not much increased,
only one thing remained on my mind, whether a thought or a dream:
love and alcohol, that two-headed sorcerer’s serpent,
around my neck like a tightly knotted scarf. And quite hard to take off.
As soon as there was a bit of light in the morning,
for one cannot really talk of sunrise at this time of year,
the cloud cover on the horizon opens just a crack
and there it was all aurora as morning broke
I drove to the southern tip to take off that too-tightly-knotted scarf.
The young birches suddenly stripped raised their hands to their ears
in pure shame. They are sad and pathetic
as if on the way to a concentration camp. The juniper on the other hand
grows straight from the rock and boasts
that Hier gibt’s kein warum. In the inlets already ice-anglers
like black sticks on a grey background,
like a giant bird of prey would suddenly have flown over
and lightened its being swollen with a blueberry-containing meal
precisely at that place.
But I go further out,
throw the narrow spoon straight towards Tallinn.
Before Easter I will sail across the Atlantic. I have heard
that between Bermuda and the Azores there are no reefs,
love or alcohol, and surely that is reason enough
to prepare oneself for the journey. Are there also those
who simply open the doors of the floodgates,
let life slip into a book,
if they are writers, and if they are something else,
then into something else.
I just always have the feeling that I I have to go and look.
That much I am in debt to things. It may chill or warm,
but the sea smokes, it eats its furthest islets
one after the other in its white maw,
with increasing speed it drinks itself metre by metre
in some terrible thirst the size of the Gulf of Finland.
I understand you, sea. I do not fear you, too much.
How much fairer it would be if love were more like smoke.
So that its gushing could be touched.
So one could see it.
How it disperses.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff