Monday, 10 May 2010

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 She left two large unpublished manuscripts, diaries, hundreds of pencil drawings and about fifty abstract paintings.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)

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