Saturday, 29 May 2010

Rotterdam Poetry International

The 41st Rotterdam Poetry International Festival takes place from June 11-18. This year's event is devoted to the theme of prose and its relation to poetry. Nordic poets taking part include Jon Fosse, Hasso Krull and Ursula Andkjær Olsen, and there's a special festival blog which may be worth checking out from time to time.

Friday, 28 May 2010


by Eeva-Liisa Manner

Like Odysseus, the Inquisitive, I have felt this journey
to be dangerous, and have rejoiced in it.
I am empty now,
my empty boat is tired of the adventure.

Take these cocooned words and put them away
In them are tree and butterfly and lizard and dragonfly
and snail and gastropod and spiral staircase
and snake because it too is necessary.

In them are plesiosaur and the swan's stretched neck and song
and rain forest and the scales and the cry of the cross bill.
In them are the fleeing hoof and the memory of the injured horse,
and the memory of how human beings, snares must be avoided.
In them are slow snowy death and swift hieroglyphs
and the slender writing of toes in sedimented salt.
and the plates of the mussel shell and the spirals that ring
and the secret of the counterpoint invented by the nummulites,
- oh, how they ring -

In them are brain-coral and coral and the brain
in which all the mysterious numbers do their patient work,
practise mathematics and change
and ceremonial magic;
the numbers which are beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful thing there is,
but bring misfortune, seldom fortune
even to those who know the formulae of alchemy.

Take them and sow them in the wind
Take them and sow them in the current
Take them and sow them under the snow to overwinter

Take and deliver me from evil.

(from Tämä matka [This Journey], 1956)

translated from Finnish by David McDuff and Hildi Hawkins

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Mirjam Tuominen - 6

By Tuva Korsström

Two of the most enjoyable essays in Stadier concern the letters of Proust and Strindberg. Proust was one of Mirjam Tuominen's constant companions and she read the volumes containing his letters over and over again. Her description of Proust is characterized by the tender irony she used when writing or talking about her literary favourites. Proust was just another of those unpractical victims who make themselves hopelessly absurd whenever they undertake something.
His letters are as a rule very considerate, so considerate that they may seem to consist of nothing but politeness, flattery, almost. He is so polite that his politeness sometimes kills itself and becomes an impoliteness, because his equally great need for sincerity gets in the way. The result is an intricate arabesque with a succession of constantly new explanations, each of which annihilates the last.
Strindberg was one of the authors whom Mirjam Tuominen read intensely for a while but later rejected. She describes in her essay, not without irony this time, too, the restless Strindberg who included the whole world in his private life and then suffered from having it there, who could not live without women and then suffered from being at their mercy.
She writes with perspicacity about Strindberg's paranoia:
He could renounce neither woman nor the world... Subsequently mankind appeared to him as divided into two halves, one containing enemies, and the other containing people who were not yet his enemies...
For Strindberg Sweden was Little Puddleton, and anything else one would not have expected, it gave him paranoia, and that is very understandable, even if one might have wished that his brain had retained the upper hand.
It is worth noting that a large number of Tuominen's prototypes were men: mostly unusual, 'unmasculine' men like Kafka, Proust, Rilke or Hölderlin. What preoccupied her, just as it would preoccupy the French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva decades later, was not the problem of masculine and feminine but that of marginality and dissidence.
Female artists who fascinated Tuominen included, for example, the Finland-Swedish poet Edith Södergran, the Norwegian novelist Cora Sandel, the French philosopher Simone Weil, and the Finland-Swedish painter Helene Schjerfbeck. These women, like her male favourites, are characterized by the vulnerability of marginal beings. They are all in pursuit of the same self-consuming search for the the absolute.
Of Cora Sandel, Tuominen writes:
This writing is in the highest degree feminine, as feminine as Strindberg's is masculine, it constitutes an index of features that are normally feminine, raised to an intensified and therefore abnormal level of emotion in the same way as Strindberg in his writing becomes an index of the `normally masculine at an extremely heightened level of emotion. I have never seen a portrait of Cora Sandel and I have no idea what she looked like, but something of the same terrifying, at once defenceless and strong, expression that is reflected in Helene Schjerfbeck's self-portraits emanates from her writings; a white face with dark, wide-open eyes, the expression of a being mercilessly incorporated into the nerve of life's essence and with the same mercilessness exposed to the conditions of reality; extreme sensitivity and extreme, overpowering temperament are here united, the fruit is extreme shyness, a scream of existential agony.
(to be continued)

Tuesday, 25 May 2010


by Ursula Andkjær Olsen

One could form the
suspicion that I
was simply looking for an

excuse to get

One could form the
idea that I had
chosen you to
play this

But it was
probably a
trap. That idea was a
part of

the plan. I am
still not alone.

Nothing suggests
it. This is unforgivable naivety.

I can
clearly hear you talking about
the unacceptable behavior
of the care staff.

Your incompetence in
the field of thinking has shown itself

to be your
strength. In situations where it
cannot possibly be predicted.

I ought really to
remove your headaches
surely and

quickly. I ought
probably to cut out

my tongue.


Now that I
am sitting

The windows are totally

opaque. I don’t
know whether I should view this as a
sign of your

As an attempt to
spare me the sight of the world’s
oh so familiar


For a sofa it was
actually something almost

One could have hoped that
it was an expression of
the situation’s

stability. But I am
not certain

any longer.

A sofa cannot
really be

that much of a
basis.There are
remnants of food underneath
the cushions once you
start to
look around. And the coffee is

corrupt. I
clearly hear the words
food control.

I can hear the word
guarantee but it is a

glass clear
lie. You can
howl and scream.

You can shut me
up and blow into me. It will
not help.

Now I sit
here with the sofa pricking
under me. The fact
is that I am not lying

The fact is that I
thought it was a

Right until I
saw it.

And what can one learn from
that. The only thing that saves me

is my almost scary
adaptability. My great
talent for

avoiding any kind of
hardness any
pricking basis with a
flexibility that almost recalls

that of capitalism. A
quite intolerable

A feminine side

of my personality that ought to be
eradicated immediately if
wasn’t because it soothed

the bedsore.


Now that I
am sitting

It is nearly as
bad as my earlier

mobility. It is
unbearable but it is
the image I am
created in.

It’s absurd this eternal notion
of putting down
roots. Here on
the sofa wherever it is
it is

not a
pretty sight. It is the
flesh I am
made of running
after me.

While I suddenly
cannot move

hanging out of my

It is an
age-old tragedy.

An age-old tragedy

between the peasant and
I want to cut my roots.


But this is
not the sea

What am I doing

I thought it was
the sea. Right until I
saw it.

Had it not been for
the obvious ugliness of the

I might possibly have
sat on a

But now this is
out of the question.

It is nevertheless
how I

I will get no

If I reached
all the way to
the windows.

Then I would probably
how dirty they

And I would
still not be able
to get a

view of the

If you had
seen me leave
something. You would

be in no
doubt. It is
not good

And if you had
heard me arrive.

I must
try to look it in
the eyes. It

does not remotely
concern you All I am
saying here. It is a form of

one-way communication that is
not easy
to mistake.


If I had
hoped for a
quiet life.

Then I
have come to the
wrong place.

I am still not

This is neither

the truth nor
the sea.

It doesn’t even

of fish. It wasn’t
the real sea.

I withdraw my
longings. It was
not that sea they were
to swim in.

I haul my
ashore and

there they stay.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Mirjam Tuominen - 5

By Tuva Korsström

Besk brygd concludes with essays on Edith Södergran, Franz Kafka and Hjalmar Bergman. 1949 saw the publication of Tuominen’s essay collection Stadier (Stages), which contains studies of Valéry, Proust, Rilke and Cora Sandel, among others. Tuominen was an assiduous reader of literature in the Nordic languages,  German, French, and to some extent also Spanish and Italian. She had extraordinary literary intuition and, while she still wrote reviews in newspapers she often introduced new names there. She was one of the first people in Finland to write about Kafka, and was drawn to Hölderlin years before he was rediscovered by literary fashion, though she seldom used literature as a source of news items. The essays in Besk brygd and Stadier indicate that she wrote only about writers whom she liked and with whom she felt a spiritual affinity.
Of Kafka, she writes:
This latterday relative of Jesus of Nazareth was born in Prague and grew up in an incurably bourgeois home.
One may wonder if there is anything so immensely liable to have a hostile effect, an effect that is deeply and inwardly incurable to the bottom of the soul, on a growing poetic force that senses its possibilities but as yet has no idea of its own existence, than the helplessly arch-bourgeois mentality.
For Tuominen, Franz Kafka became n almost ideal object of identification. Both are victims and outsiders. They feel surrounded by despotic executionerss who want to reshape and adapt them to 'normal', bourgeois life. Both bear the harshest executioner within themselves.
Franz Kafka carried an extremely harsh executioner within himself. He was harsh with himself, exacting as to the quality of what he wrote, and equally exacting of other people.
In her Kafka essay, Mirjam Tuominen consciously or unconsciously defines herself and her writings. When she describes Kafka's irony, it is her own sense of humour she portrays, that of the physically passive, non-aggressive victim.
The irony of both writers is predominant in her analysis of Kafka’s story ‘Die Verwandlung’ (Metamorphosis). The metamorphosis is the only way of escaping the strains of normality:
Gregor Samsa persists in his existence as a beetle, he cannot part from this existence even by his own will, he lives in his dark, untidy bedroom, shabby and neglected, bitter and ashamed, guilty and yet neither ashamed nor guilty, because if he looks like a beetle in the eyes of the family, then there is nothing to be done about itl, then he must be a beetle, he wants to be a beetle, he has no wish to be the respected son, the good brother any more.
Tuominen concludes: 'In order to write a story like “Die Verwandlung” Kafka must have felt the conflict between the demands of his inner being and those of the world around him with extreme and almost intolerable intensity.'  She could hardly have found a more accurate definition of herself and many of her own characters.

(to be continued)

Friday, 21 May 2010

The tongue-breaker

Fabulous Iceland has an interview with photographer Sigurgeir Sigurjónsson, whose book on the "Island-Mountain-Glacier" eruption is due to be published in June: :

Without warning, the tongue-breaker “Eyjafjallajökull” permeated the world news following the April eruption, causing newscasters around the world to struggle with the mouthful as the ash-plume played havoc with air traffic.

“Yes, I'm still wondering about the book's title,” Sigurjónsson continues. “The name Eyjafjallajökull really says it all. It's a book about an eruption which is still going on – nobody knows how it's all going to end. The book itself is ready. It's split into four chapters, showing the beginning of the eruption, its development, and last but not least the effects on the people living in the area.”

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Vanishing point

Otava have published the short novel Katoamispiste (Vanishing Point) by Joel Haahtela, an unusual book which describes a search for a missing person and in the process enters the landscapes and cityscapes of the Finnish novelist Raija Siekkinen, who died in a house fire in 2004. The novel establishes a curious relation between Siekkinen’s fate and that of the Austrian poet and author Ingeborg Bachmann, who died in similar circumstances in October 1973.

Monday, 17 May 2010

The house of forgetting – 3

From Kastelimme heitä runsaasti kahvilla by Timo Harju

Come let’s build a home for old folk. Let’s build it from the crooks in fingers, lightly porous bellyaches, we  can take the armfuls of fir needles and bright cuckoo fluff up to the attic. Let’s make a lot of mossy rocking chairs, they can rock in them. Let’s collect gazes and make them into coffee cups, you old folk can paint the flowers of your lives on them, at the first lunch hour Martta is the first to announce that there’s too much porridge and she doesn’t eat anything. I go to reduce the portion. The porridge observes: "If you start to give in, everyone’s lives will soon be impossible here." The kitchen nods, swaying. Do the old folk need limits?
They’re not children. So are they able to set their own limits?
Far away you can see bundles of mist drifting into the watercolour.
Are the porridge rules security lights in the water?
The traffic lights are there to stop the cars from touching one another.
Will I affect her if I reduce this portion of porridge now?
You’ll get rid of her more quickly if you do what she asks.
Shall I reduce this portion of porridge or not?
Don’t ask me.
Should we educate old people?
You're right, old people can learn new things too.
Or should I just make this moment as easy as possible?
You're right, they don’t have much time left.
Huh? What do you want of me?
Don’t be afraid.

Collect the flour falling from old folk. Bake a skilled attendant.
The skilled attendant is direct and honest, frankly
says now I've had enough and could you please buzz off.
Stretch the dough. People work is open in the middle.
Fetch hundreds and thousands from the cupboard to fill his head.
Raise, roll, rotate, twist
press your hands on his heart.

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

See also in this blog: The house of forgetting
The house of forgetting – 2

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Mirjam Tuominen - 4

By Tuva Korsström

Victim and executioner

'This morning I saw my book: Bitter Brew. In this dawn without light, in which whiteness glowed: melting snow, dirty white walls of houses. Rain, snow, slush, black trees with torture-twisted trunks. December dawn in this city, which can only inspire me with agony.

On this border I apprehend everything with painful clarity. But the tension in my throat gives me the evidence that it is the borderline that, overstepped, leads to the terrain of madness.'

The long essay Besk brygd (Bitter Brew, 1947) marks a watershed in Tuominen's writing, and it has been viewed by many critics as her most important book.

The mood of Besk brygd is one of departure and disintegration. Tuominen would soon abandon the short story and fiction as literary genres. She was about to leave the small town, and her marriage. Humanity had gone morally bankrupt; the holocaust of Hitler's Germany had been revealed to its full extent:
'If I were to stand on a square and howl out the horror that has seized me, they would take hold of me and cart me off to a mental hospital. They would look after me and declare me insane, but no one would look after my horror. Because I feel my horror so strongly that I must howl in order to obtain an answer, I am considered insane, but if I conceal my horror in my heart and talk about the weather, the shortage of food, clothes and tobacco, I receive a many-worded and many-voiced reply, and am considered sensible.'
Tuominen does not howl out her horror in the streets. Instead, she uses the tool she possesses, literature, to bring order to the chaos and decay. She analyses human guilt and the part played by the executioner, methodically, step by step. Her starting point is a news item about a German soldier who threw a little Jewish boy into a sewer because the boy cried as the soldier was whipping the child's mother.

This scene remained in Mirjam Tuominen's mind forever. She would return to it over and over again. When she was writing Besk brygd, she believed that she could analyse it away or, more typically of her character, that she could take the guilt upon herself.
'I want to become embodied in this German soldier, in his body and his soul. I would like to return with him into his mother's womb, be born with him, grow up with him and then, organically coalesced with him, exist until the day when he took the boy and threw him into the sewer.That is my most fervent wish and and my greatest desire. Often. But I cannot do it, and therefore I am helpless. I know nothing.'
In her autobiographical book from the years of the Second World War, La Douleur (Pain, 1985), the French author Marguerite Duras makes a similar effort to analyse a executioner. She states: 'His stupidity is impenetrable. It is completely without holes.'

In Besk brygd, Tuominen describes a more nuanced but equally impenetrable executioner:
'Yes, if the executioner could express himself - then nearly everything would be gained. Only he could fix on a pin this harmful human insect - only he see through it. But the executioner never speaks, he is the most laconic being that was ever created. He forces his victims to do the talking, the wailing, the stammering -- he himself is silent - one might think it was stupidity, but it is not stupidity, one might think that it was contempt for words, but he does not despise words, he is interested in words. It is perhaps quite simply inability. He is bound to the action, the victim is bound to the word.'
The classic example of the executioner who compels his victim to talk incessantly is, of course, 'The Sultan and Sheherezade' in The Arabian Nights. Tuominen points out that Besk brygd could equally well have been called 'Sheherezade and the Sultan' The book's cover illustration is a pen and ink drawing by Mirjam Tuominen's husband. It shows the cruel, sensual face of a man behind the slim silhouette of a young woman.

The relationship between man and woman is often based on ties that are reminiscent of those between victim and executioner. We all have a executioner inside us, we are executioners to our nearest and dearest, to our children, to our pets, to ourselves.

But, Mirjam Tuominen argues, there are people who have both a executioner and a victim inside them. These human beings have a highly developed sense of humour.

'The executioner has no sense of humour, he is always deadly earnest. How could he have a sense of humour, as he does not speak, but act. There is in fact in every action something irresistibly absurd. The victim senses the absurdity and acts very reluctantly.'

Mirjam Tuominen constructs a system of guilt and non-guilt, of executioners and victims. The least guilty beings are infants and animals. This book of meditation on humanity's greatest crime is about 'feelings of gratitude towards a fly, remorse for offence done to a cat, and the genuine joy the company of two infants has given me.'

The world of adults is false and hostile to life.

'The infant and the animal love what they see and feel in man, the adult person loves what he wishes to love.

What makes social relationships with other adults so difficult is that the other person for the most part seems to be indicating that he is associating with someone different from whom one really is, and that one is probably acting in the same way oneself...

An invisible executioner, not joy and happiness, seems to be the host at every social event.'

Mirjam Tuominen is looking for better company than that hosted by the invisible executioner. She finds her new intellectual friends among those who, according to her own interpretation, have 'pointed out' the executioner; writers and artists who seem to have known all there is to know about the problems of guilt and the anguish that 'fill my days and nights until it seems to me that I have sunk into a burning sea of fire.'

(to be continued)

Friday, 14 May 2010

Mirjam Tuominen - 3

By Tuva Korsström

Mirjam Tuominen's Fiction

I have focused on two of Mirjam Tuominen's earliest short stories in order to highlight something that characterizes all her writing from the very beginning: a continuous study of life's inner essence, a deep penetration into its nerve. Perhaps this is what Hagar Olsson had in mind when she characterized Mirjam Tuominen's earliest short stories as 'not products of literature', but as objects that 'contain within their form the living word.'

During the 1940s the two early books were followed by a steady flow of short stories and essays: Visshet (Certainty, 1942), Mörka gudar (Dark Gods, 1944), Kris (Crisis, 1946), Besk brygd (Bitter Brew, 1947), Bliva ingen (Become No One, 1949), Stadier (Stages, 1949). Shortly after the outbreak of the Winter War Mirjam Tuominen had entered into an impulsive marriage, typical of those days, with Torsten Korsström, the man she had loved for several years. Since before the outbreak of war Torsten Korsström had obtained an art teaching post at the Teachers' Training College in Nykarleby, Ostrobothnia, his young wife had to spend the war years there, isolated in Finland's smallest town, far from her family, her friends and the intellectual circles of Helsingfors. Their daughter Kyra was born in 1941, their daughter Tuva in 1946. For most of that time Mirjam Tuominen's husband was fighting at the front. Contact was kept up through letters and short, intense visits.

This biographical background permeates the stories of the '40s. She depicts love between man and woman with all its eroticism, tenderness, struggle for power, and jealousy. She depicts childbirth and the mysterious closeness between child and mother. She depicts the small town and the Ostrobothnian plain. She depicts the war and the alarming upsurge of Nazi sympathies in the Finland of her day.

In routine literary contexts it was often pointed out that in her short stories Mirjam Tuominen specialized in describing children, animals, women and sick people. She certainly described and analysed all these beings with great psychological acuity, but it cannot be emphasized enough that at the same time she gave a picture of the whole society of that time. Through the deviant, who precisely because they stand slightly outside are particularly sensitive, Mirjam Tuominen registers the normal. Through the child she sees the adult, through the animal human beings, through the sick she describes the healthy, through the woman the man.

One of her most fascinating short stories is called 'Bara en hund' ('Only a Dog', from Walls, 1939). It is the long monologue of a dog, like many of Mirjam Tuominen's characters struggling to choose between its desire for independence and its need for love. At the same time the dog is witnessing his master's and mistress's painful divorce. The most obvious dissident and outsider in human society is the witch ('Jan and Marietta', from Certainty, 1942). Mirjam Tuominen was to return to this subject later on in her poetry, making it clear that her witches are consumed not only by the pyres that society lights, but also by an inner, ineluctable flame.

In the book that can be considered her farewell to the short story, Bliva ingen (Become No One, 1949) she summarizes and anticipates all her themes within one short tale, called 'In Absurdum'. It tells the story of a dancer who strives for absolute skill in her dancing and for absolute solitude in her life, who falls and badly injures herself, and who sees God as she is dying.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Mirjam Tuominen - 2

By Tuva Korsström

The absolute

 Mirjam Tuominen's next collection of short stories, Murar (Walls), was published the following year, in 1939. The first story in this book, 'Anna Sten', is both strange and magical, and thematically enigmatic.

Anna Sten does not possess the thematic elements which, though skilfully concealed, can be traced in many of Mirjam Tuominen's stories, for example 'Irina' and  'Brevet' (The Letter) in the first collection, and later on 'Flickan som blev en växt' (The Girl who Turned Into a Plant), 'Chérie Klosters dagbok' (Chérie Kloster's Diary), or 'Resan' (The Journey). The heroines of these stories are slim, beautiful, intelligent young girls or women struggling on account of their need for intellectual independence on the one hand, and for a physical, 'normal' life on the other.

Anna Sten has none of the beauty and creativity of these protagonists. She is totally ugly, totally isolated, totally passive, totally unhappy.

But before she becomes the incarnation of absolute misery, Anna Sten is given a certain number of chances in life. She is gravely handicapped from birth, but she can use her hands and takes a delight in her work as a seamstress. Then her hands are ruined by rheumatism. Anna Sten might possibly have taken pleasure in reading. Infirmity makes her half blind. Anna Sten, who is so repulsively ugly that human beings cannot stand the sight of her, gains the affection of a kitten. The cat disappears. Gradually but inexorably, Anna Sten is stripped of everything. She becomes the sum-total of suffering:

'She looked as though she had never done anything but suffer and she looked like one who has never reconciled herself with her suffering, who is completely helpless before it. One might have taken her for suffering personified. That was why her appearance frequently had the effect of a violent insult brutally thrown the face. It was as though she deliberately wanted to force upon people the assertion, for the suffering consciousness at least an atrocious and wounding one, that suffering is completely without purpose or meaning.'

What other people find particularly shocking about Anna Sten's face is its expression of active suffering:

'It looked as though it had constantly placed its hopes on this earth. Otherwise it would not have looked so desperate. Otherwise it would not have borne this imprint of suffering, of dissatisfaction with suffering.'

To the young man Sven Kolmar, who is mortally ill, Anna Sten is as the pawnbroker is to Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment: something that ought to be eliminated. The reason for this is that Anna Sten, unlike Sven Kolmar, still paradoxically, senselessly, hopes for something. But when he comes to Anna Sten in order to kill her, it is she who discloses life's inner essence to him:

'And then Sven Kolmar understood that he had forgotten or overlooked the most important thing, he had forgotten love, human love and the one that exists outside human beings; more patient, stronger, more merciless, more compassionate than any human love, because it will not give up until it has forced to the surface that within man that will help him to help himself, life's love for all creation, which for its part will not give up until man has blessed it.'

In 'Anna Sten' Mirjam Tuominen expounds the essence of Christianity in its most naked and for many its most unacceptable form. She returns to the New Testament and its injunction to love the ugly, the poor and the suffering.

'Anna Sten' is a timeless story. Its image of suffering and existence makes it possible to understand why, for example, Grünewald's paintings of Christ are so repulsively ugly. Mirjam Tuominen also anticipates Samuel Beckett's terrifying and humorous descriptions of beings that possess nothing except life.

(to be continued)

Monday, 10 May 2010


Hiidenkivi, the Finnish-language magazine of culture, history, language and literature now has its own website. In order to access the whole publication, readers must register and also subscribe to the paper version of the magazine. But some of the articles are is available free of charge, and the site gives a good idea of the range of material on offer, including some items that are not in the current subscriber's version - this month, for example, discussions of the ideas and writings of Väinö Linna.

Mirjam Tuominen

By Tuva Korsström

The 25 year-old Mirjam Irene Tuominen made her debut in 1938 with a collection of short stories, Tidig tvekan (Early Hesitation). Hagar Olsson, Edith Södergran's friend and the leading Finland-Swedish critic of her time, gave the book an enthusiastic review:

'With her collection of short stories Mirjam Tuominen, hitherto an unknown name, has won a place among the very elite of our literature; it is a long time since we have witnessed such an important début. What is so strange is that the author who is now making her appearance is a truly original talent. She is an artist in soul and spirit and not merely a more or less good writer... It is certain that she touches the nerve of our time very intimately and that her short stories are no products of literature, but really do contain within their form the living word.'

Over nearly twenty-five years Mirjam Tuominen developed an active career as a writer, publishing about twenty books. She wrote short stories, essays and poems. She reviewed contemporary books and translated literary texts into Swedish, including Rilke's letters and Sonnets to Orpheus. She compiled an extensive biography of Hölderlin. She left two large unpublished manuscripts, diaries, hundreds of pencil drawings and about fifty abstract paintings.

After her death in 1967 Mirjam Tuominen's work fell into neglect. During the last decade it has, however, undergone a sudden renaissance. Ghita Barck's biography, Boken om Mirjam (The Book about Mirjam) appeared in 1983. Tuominen's Finland-Swedish publisher Söderströms Co. published a selection of her work in three volumes, appearing in 1989, 1990 and 1991. In the spring of 1992 WSOY published an extensive volume containing many of her most important writings translated into Finnish by Harry Forsblom. Many of her poems have been translated into English by David McDuff. In 1990 her paintings were exhibited for the first time in the Amos Anderson Museum in Helsinki.

The return of Mirjam Tuominen has been hailed by critics in Finland and Sweden. In both countries a large number of articles about it have appeared in the press and in literary and arts magazines. She is also a focus of interest for literary research. It is obvious that this new interest is more than merely the due attention paid to an unjustly neglected author.

By her own Finland-Swedish minority Mirjam Tuominen was until recently considered to be a minor classic, mainly as a skilled short story writer. The Mirjam Tuominen who is now being discovered by new readers and art-lovers, and by a new generation of critics and researchers, is an unfamiliar and surprisingly topical writer. Her development proceeds from traditional prose forms, through avantgardist poetry and painting to Roman-Catholic mysticism.

The first choice

Hagar Olsson points out that there is an element of choice built into each story in the collection Tidig tvekan:

'Each one of these stories illuminates in its own way a certain psychological situation, in which the protagonist, under the pressure of dangerous and contradictory elements in his or her life, has to make a choice.'

The most difficult and important choice in Tidig tvekan is that faced by Irina in the very first story.

The girl Irina, one of Mirjam Tuominen's many alter egos, is a shy, contemplative, sickly child who has lost her father in early years. Irina has been taken to hospital and hovers between life and death. She sees her struggle as a matter of choice - between life and death, between darkness and life. Paradoxically, it is death that is light, while life is darkness and anguish:

If one looked towards death, one looked towards the light, but if one looked towards life, one looked into the tangled darkness of a primeval forest. Irina did not want to look into life, it hurt her physically inside; when now and then she made the attempt, the compress began to tighten around her chest, she lost her breath, there was a sudden and unpleasant stabbing in her back. The mere attempt to look into life made one lose one's breath. When one looked into the light for a long time one lost one's breath, too, but in a different way, for another reason: it was because the light spread within and around oneself, because the clarity grew inside oneself, because one was close to bursting. In life one lost one's breath because the darkness was narrow and full of insoluble contradictions and mysteries, it was narrow and at the same time bewildering large.

Irina told herself that she wanted to die.
Irina is the first and fundamental dissident in Mirjam Tuominen's writings. She is different, because she experiences anguish in the face of life even in its most prosaic, everyday manifestations. Life is night and fear, but it is also the daily inability to be like everyone else. In the hospital her Lebensangst takes concrete form in self-ironic, nightmarish memories of gym lessons at school and of her inability to 'keep in step with the others'.

Irina chooses life and the anguish of life. She chooses the awareness that her dead father was possibly the only person she ever kept in step with. She comes to the conclusion that 'one should always look forward, only forward.'

(to be continued)

Thursday, 6 May 2010

I write

By Mirjam Tuominen

I write it shows in the eyes of the dog
it creeps in the paw of the cat
it shimmers in the solitary fly's pair of wings
it leaps in foaling withers
it flies in the flight of birds
it flies
it sinks
into the earth down under roots
it smiles in the infant's eyes
it grows in the eyes of children
it wonders in young eyes
it yearns in human eyes.

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

Saturday, 1 May 2010


Gyldendal have published Laus Strandby Nielsen's latest collection of poetry, which bears the title Hvis der ikke er sandstorme, så er der nok noget andet (If there aren't sandstorms, there's probably something else). Translations of some of these prose poems have already appeared in this blog: