Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Edith Södergran: a biographical profile - 9


The visit lasted only a few days. Hagar Olsson has left a slightly vague account of it in her edition of Edith Södergran's letters to her. One has the sense that the meeting was an uneasy one, and that the temperamental differences between the two women were too great for there to be much real chance of any fruitful development of the relationship. Edith Södergran saw her `sister' mainly as a vital link with the outside world, someone who was connected with the actualities of literature and politics and who could help further the 'cause'­the spiritual, moral and intellectual revolution of her dreams. But Hagar Olsson's preoccupation were more worldly, it seems, and in spite of her great admiration for Edith Södergran, her efforts to comply with the poet's wishes seem to have been largely in vain Nevertheless, the two women continued to correspond, though it must again be stressed that the letters came mainly from Edith Södergran. Isolated in Raivola, stricken with an illness which she hated and saw as a deadly sin, a vice which had to be overcome, she had more than enough time in which to weave imaginary fantasies around her `sister'.

That the friendship between the two was an unequal one can be seen from the many letters from Edith Södergran which begin skriv (write), berätta (tell), titta (look), and with ever-­increasing frequency - kom (come). Hagar Olsson was engaged in journalistic work in Helsinki, and frequently travelled abroad as part of her activity-to Stockholm, for example, where she interviewed Ellen Key. Edith Södergran lived these travels vicariously and often made urgent requests for books­Nietzsche, for example, was unobtainable in Finland, but available in Sweden. Hagar Olsson tried to fulfil these requests as best she could, and tried to keep Edith Södergran informed of her activities. On one occasion she even went to visit Selma Lagerlöf, not so much out of personal inclination as because her friend wanted to know what the great novelist was like. But long spells would elapse between Hagar Olsson's letters, and throughout the correspondence Edith Södergran's complaints about this grow more and more frequent. In the meantime Raivola was declared a restricted area by the Finnish military authorities, which meant that travel to and from it became extremely difficult. Nonetheless, Hagar Olsson did manage to make a second brief visit there in the summer of 1919, not without some early misgivings.
But how happy I was when I actually got out onto the country road, it was exactly as sun-warmed and happy and full of smiling 'delight as I remember all my summer roads to have been in Karelia. How well my soul felt in this nature, among these old Russian dachas, so inviting to the birds with their ornamentation and curlicues, which lay embedded in the luxuriant verdure and seemed to be mysteriously lost in their blossoming dilapidation. This was Edith's country, it should be seen in summer. She herself stood waiting outside her house, and I had the feeling that everything here was standing, waiting for something-the wonderful tall trees, the half overgrown garden where a few yellow raspberries and bright red clusters of currants gleamed among the weeds, the warm den of the suntrap between the bushes of the courtyard, and the great abandoned dacha, the ghostly castle where no one could live any more and which was guaıded by the enormous larch tree.* What was the old place waiting for, what was it dreaming about? It was so imbued with Edith's poetry that one involuntarily listened to its echoes when one walked in the garden under the catkins of the birch trees, and her own dreams about the future and the feast of two kindıcd souls seemed to wander around behind the locked doors of the eınpty, decaying house.

I stayed a little longer this time, and this was perhaps why I now had such a depressing insight into the truly Indian famine that reigned in the Södergran household. The situation had grown even worse. Even when she was able to procure a little flour, goixl Mrs Södergran was better versed in world literature than she was in the art of baking bread, baked, what is more, in an awkward old oven fired with home-gathered sticks and twigs, often green. It was dreadful to sit down at table. The food was such that it was hard to keep one's tears back when one thought that this was what a sick and utterly enfeebled human being had to live on. But at the same time a sense of tact forbade one to say anything that could have given offence or been badly received. The best thing that was obtainable was the milk, which they got on credit from the nearest neighbours, the Galkíns, but on no account would Edith drink this. These neighbours had an evil eye trained on her dear child, the beloved cat Totti or Råttikus, and one can understand therefore why the milk that came from them was `evil' to her. Edith's mother appealed to me, and I did try to talk Edith round, but this was almost as heartrending as to see her leave her milk untouched, so real and deeply rooted in her emotions was her aversion to the Galkins' milk. For the first time I saw how completely it depends on psychological factors whether our food can nourish us or not.

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

(to be continued)

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