Frans Emil Sillanpää (1888-1964) was one of Finland's best-known 20th century classic authors. In 1939 he received the Nobel Prize for "a profound understanding of the country people of his land, and the charming artistry with which he portrayed their way of life and their relation to nature."
In the world of Sillanpää's novels, man is only a part of the universe: nature is equally important, if not more so, and forms a unity with human beings under the energy-releasing force and guidance of the sun. Among authors whom Sillanpää read and learned from were Tolstoy, Maeterlinck, Strindberg, Hamsun and Spengler, and he was deeply influenced by the racial and polygenist biological theories of the German naturalist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel.
Although his political sympathies in the Finnish Civil War of 1918 were with the victorious White side, Sillanpää was also acutely conscious of the suffering and horrors that the war had brought to Finland. By the late 1930s he had become a voice of cultural liberalism, and his former right-wing supporters turned against him. He was however, also viewed with suspicion by most of the Finnish left, who saw him as unreliable and reactionary. The award of the Nobel in 1939 was widely seen in the West as a gesture designed to give backing to General Mannerheim's stand against Stalin's Soviet Union in the same year, but in Nazi Germany the translations of Sillanpää's books were removed from sale in German stores when the author published a "Christmas Letter to the Dictators" Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, which was critical of all of them.
After Finland's defeat in the Second World War, Sillanpää turned to radio broadcasting. His regular radio talks had a large audience in Finland, and his Christmas sermons became a national institution.
Sillanpää's most famous work is Ihmiset suviyössa (People in the Summer Night, 1934). The excerpts that follow (there will be a series of posts) are from the opening pages of another book written a few years earlier and published in 1931, the novel Silja, nuorena nukkunut eli vanhan sukupuun viimeinen vihanta (Silja. Fallen Asleep While Young, or the Last Green on an Old Family Tree). Page numbers are from Volume 5 of Kootut teokset (1988).
The life of Silja, a young and beautiful country girl, came to an end about a week after the days of St. John’s, while the summer was still in its younger half. Considering her position in society, she had a comparatively respectable death. Although she was a fatherless and motherless servant girl with no other relations who might secure her existence, and although for a time she had to be looked after by others, she had no need at all to resort to charity. Thus, her life, too, was saved from a rather innocent trace of ugliness. At Kierikka Manor, where she was serving at that time, there was a sauna room. There she was allowed to lodge, and there she was given her meals, the meagre size of which was perfectly justified, as she never finished them. This humane treatment in no way stemmed from any special love of humanity on the part of the master and mistress of Kierikka, but rather from a kind of carelessness; the house was on the whole rather badly run. It is possible, too, that Silja’s savings were also a factor that played a role. At any rate, she had good clothes, and they would of course be passed on to whoever looked after her. The mistress had already tried to borrow Silja’s clothes on occasion.
Silja took after her father in being extremely tidy by nature; she made that miserable hovel of a room a very pretty place. From there her feeble coughing could be heard through the ramshackle window all the way to the lawn in the courtyard, where Kierikka’s sallow-faced children spent their time and planned their games. It was one of the small details which, together with the grass and the flowers, formed a part of the life of the Kierikka courtyard that summer.
There, in the last of the time that remained to her, the girl was also able to experience the incomparable charm of solitude. Since, as is often the case with consumptives, her mood remained quite radiant until the end, the solitude of this early summer was an excellent remedy for her slightly excitable amorous feelings. She was lonely only with regard to human beings; sympathetic company - wordless, it is true, but all the more devoted for it - she had in abundance. The relative sunniness of the box-like room and the twittering of the swallows that nested in the entrance to the sauna gave her finer instincts excellent material for the creation of radiant and happy mental pictures. The terrible phantasms of death kept their distance until the end, and she hardly realized it was the death she had often heard about in life that was now coming to her. The arrival of death itself took place at a moment when the wordless charms of her surroundings were at their keenest and most powerful. It happened as the hour of five in the morning was approaching, the sovereign time of the sun and the swallows. Moreover, the rising day was a Sunday, and no detail of the surrounding world had yet disturbed it at that hour.
The life of man, viewed from the moment of death, is like a brief vision stopped in its tracks; it is a kind of symbol that awakens longing. And so that maiden lived for twenty-two years; she was born up there, some three leagues to the north, and during her life she logically moved down here to the south. From that incorporeal image which a death, once it has taken place, invariably conjures up as if into the air that surrounds it, from that image all the inessential features invariably fall away, so that that it might almost be said that in the illumination of that moment the images of all individual human fortunes are to some extent of equal value. In the image of that maiden – an image which at that moment on an early Sunday morning no one was really there to receive into consciousness – there was not much to fall away. From its secret, timeless beginning, throughout the days of her life the whole of her being had grown beautifully into place. Within resilient surfaces a pure, unbroken skin contained its own darkness, near which the inclining ear of one in love had heard the beating of a heart and his questing eye had seen the reflection of his gaze. The girl had not yet lived long enough to be much more than a person who smilingly carried out her fate. Everything that concerns Silja, who fell asleep in death in the sauna room of Kierikka, is now for the most part quite unimportant.
To be sure, from the distant moment of the girl’s birth there gleams a series of events in which natural destiny moves with a firmer grasp, as it had to arrange the fortunes of this dying family branch on a different basis for its final span of life. For Silja was the last person in her family. The dyings-out of families of this social rank do indeed pass unnoticed by anyone, but in them are repeated the same sorrowful outlines that characterize the more exalted cases.
translated from Finnish by David McDuff