Thursday, 30 December 2010

The background to the language situation

In the latest issue of the Finland-Swedish journal Nya Argus (nr. 11-12, 2010) linguistics professor Fred Karlsson considers the present uneasy situation surrounding the status of the Swedish language in Finland above all through the prism of the past. In doing so he raises some interesting points that are sometimes forgotten: the men who in the 19th century worked to establish Finnish as Finland’s national language were, after all, Finnish Swedes. Snellman, Forsman and other representatives of the country’s Swedish-speaking intelligentsia helped to bring about a peaceful linguistic revolution, but were soon regarded as traitors by their own Swedish-speaking compatriots. Karlsson also examines the nowadays neglected role of the Finnish linguist and politician Emil Nestor Setälä (1864-1936) who single-handedly drafted Finland’s declaration of independence in 1917 and also wrote an important work on the language law of 1922, in which he emphasized that although Finland had two languages, this did not mean that Finland had two nationalities: “Finland’s people are one.”

The essay also traces the history of pakkoruotsi (tvångsvenskan or “compulsory Swedish” – the preferred translation “mandatory Swedish”  seems like a bit of a euphemism) – in Finland’s schools, pointing out, somewhat drily by reference to online discussions, that compulsion is not usually the way to make friends. There are, however, difficult decisions to be made. An education minister of the Kekkonen era is quoted as saying that if compulsory Swedish is abolished, it will be replaced by another language, “and that language is not Spanish”. Karlsson believes that it’s incumbent on Finland-Swedes to keep a low profile in the current language debate, and to leave it up to the Finnish-speaking majority and their political leaders to draw up guidelines as to their situation in Finland, Europe and the constantly changing modern world.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

WikiLeaks and extremism

This article in Reason magazine looks at some aspects of the WikiLeaks operation that seem to have been largely ignored by its supporters.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Nordic Council Literature Prize 2011

The complete run-down of candidates for the 2011 Nordic Council Literature Award is as follows (NB Norway's Beate Grimsrud wrote her novel in both Norwegian and in Swedish versions):


Josefine Klougart
Stigninger og fald
Novel, Rosinante, 2010

Harald Voetmann
Novel, Gyldendal, 2010


Erik Wahlström
Novel, Schildts, 2010

Kristina Carlson
Herra Darwinin puutarhuri (Herr Darwins trädgårdsmästare)
Novel, Otava, 2009 (Swedish translation, Janina Orlov)


Gyrðir Elíasson
Milli trjánna (Bland träden)
Short stories, Uppheimar, 2009, (Swedish translation, John Swedenmark)

Ísak Harðarson
Rennur upp um nótt (Stiger upp om natten)
Poems, Uppheimar, 2009, (Swedish translation, John Swedenmark)


Beate Grimsrud
En dåre fri
Novel, Cappelen Damm, 2010

Carl Frode Tiller
Innsirkling 2
Novel, Aschehoug, 2010


Beate Grimsrud
En dåre fri
Novel, Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2010

Anna Hallberg
Colosseum, Kolosseum
Poetry Collection, Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2010

Faroe Islands

Tóroddur Poulsen
Útsýni (Utsikt)
Poetry collection, Mentunargrunnur Studentafelagsins, 2009, (Swedish translation, Anna Mattsson)


Kristian Olsen Aaju
Kakiorneqaqatigiit (Det tatoverede budskab)
Novel, Forlaget Atuagkat, 2010

Åland Islands

Sonja Nordenswan
Blues från ett krossat världshus
Novel, PQR-kultur, 2009

The Sami Language Area

Kerttu Vuolab
Bárbmoáirras (Paradisets stjerne)
Novel, Davvi Girji OS, 2008

(Via the Nordic Council)

Friday, 3 December 2010

Mr Darwin's Gardener

Otava's Hanna Kjellberg reports that Kristina Carlson's novel Herra Darwinin puutarhuri (Mr Darwin's Gardener) [2009], my translated excerpts from which were published in Books from Finland magazine earlier this year, has been shortlisted as one of the Finnish candidates for the 2011 Nordic Council Literature Award.

Friday, 26 November 2010

The global book

In Hbl, Philip Teir reflects on the increasing internationalization and globalization of contemporary fiction, and wonders whether we are heading for a new literary world where national identity doesn't count for much:
Perhaps part of the explanation for Sofi Oksanen's success is that she is one of the first to try their hand at taking stock of the new Europe?

Slovak-born Alexandra Salmela's shortlisting for the Finlandia Prize could perhaps be seen as a sign of a coming trend... her new novel 27 - Eli Kuolema Tekee Taitelijan (27 - Or Death Makes an Artist) is not particularly rooted in one spot, but is a sort of cacophonous young person's novel that could have been published in almost any language at all...

...It's an interesting thought: are we heading towards a future in which the national literature project dissolves and we get literature that is trans-European? That may be too optimistic...

Thursday, 25 November 2010


The new blog is up and running in both versions: the one and the one. There are two new posts, representing two collections of poetry: Karin Boye's Moln (Clouds)[1922] and Jär (Standing Here)[1988] by Gösta Ågren, both in my own translation. Soon I hope to be adding some work that hasn't previously had much exposure, including my versions of poetry by Arvid Mörne and Bertel Gripenberg.

I still haven't decided how to proceed with the question of the two versions of the blog. I feel that the Xtreemhost server-hosted one gives me more personal control over the content and management, while the one, though off my computer, is quite a lot easier to administer and maintain, and most of the relevant plugins are ready-supplied. Anyway, time will tell. Perhaps one of the blog versions can serve as a backup for the other, and vice versa...

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Nordic Voices in Print - New URL

The URL of the new blog has changed: it's now

And, after some wrestling with my wp.config file, it's also once again

So you can take your pick. :-)

I think that for the time being I'll maintain both versions - the one and the server-based one - and eventually one of them will be the "winner".

From the WP About page:
The general idea is to provide a space for Nordic texts (Finland-Swedish, Swedish, Icelandic, etc.) that I’ve translated over a number of years. Some have appeared in published book form, others haven’t. I had thought of reviving the old Demon site, as many of its pages are still up on the Web, isolated and unadvertised – but WordPress seemed like a more up-to-date and user-friendly way of dealing with the issue.  In particular, there are some older Bloodaxe titles that are now out of print, and WP might be one channel that could be useful for making these available again, in part or in whole. Another alternative might be to reissue the texts as e-books – but I think I prefer the less formal method of the blog, which also gives more control, potential interactivity and editing flexibility...
The first main posting is my translation of Moln (Clouds), the 1922 collection by Karin Boye.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Vanishing Point

Joel Haahtela’s novel Katoamispiste (Vanishing Point) – excerpts from which I posted in my own translation in some earlier posts to this blog – has been selected as a nomination for this year’s Finlandia Prize, FILI reports.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Ice Floe

The first issue of the new series of Ice Floe is now available from University of Alaska Press - the inaugural issue presents new poems as well as a selection of work from the first seven years of the publication's existence, and the poets represented hail from  Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Elmer Diktonius - 2 Poems

The child's dream

 An angel came from heaven
with a sausage in her hand
and gave it to me –
oh how good it was!
And the angel said, come to heaven!
and we flew. And there was God.
With a lollipop in his mouth.
And he gave it to me.
And it was good too!
And God said: there is always meat
for poor children,
and pastries on top
and ice cream!
And we ate.
And all our tummies rumbled full.
And God said:
who ‘s that singing so nicely?

My name is Diktonius

My name is Diktonius –
a liar like everyone else.
not songs do I sing
but concrete,
have no ideas –
an iron skeleton is my inner being.
My lines are the explosion’s,
my heat the crater’s -
if you seek coolness
I give you blocks of ice,
I understand much,
know very little –
but what do you care!

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Summer Poems

by Lars Huldén

Even the Ice Age had its summers,
short it is true
as the Nordic summers are,
but light, light.
One saw the expanses of ice.
But one didn't despair.
That is my consolation.


Hay belongs to the summer,
fragrant hay.
How lovely
a well-kept meadow smells!
And a barn full of hay,
the kind there were still in the country
until a short time ago,
could make people drunk.

The days of free hay are gone.
People don’t make love among bales.


The mist cups its hand
over the meadow’s bosom.
The sun throws down its gaze.
A curious moon rises
to see what is happening,
is going to happen, or has happened already.
The meadow says that she is unfortunately
already married. The mist’s hand
stays where it is.


We flesh-eating plants
are not so numerous here in the north.
I am the only one on this moss,
says the drosera.

It gets quite lonely sometimes.
My surroundings think I’m mysterious,
but I don’t care about that.
There are plenty of little flies here,
and creepy-crawlies.
One doesn’t have to go hungry.

But occasionally I
envy the grasses and the semi-grasses
that stand so close together.
I have no I
on whom I can rely.

But it’s all right.
And soon the summer
will be over.

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

Friday, 22 October 2010

Sontag Award

From the Scandinavia House website:
The 2010 Susan Sontag Prize for Translation was awarded to Benjamin Mier-Cruz, a Ph.D. candidate in Scandinavian Languages and Literatures at UC Berkeley, for his proposed translation of selected letters and poems by the Finland-Swedish author Elmer Diktonius (1896 -1961). In celebration of the translation prize, programs will include the panel discussions The Challenges of Literary Translation Today and Elmer Diktonius, Finland-Swedish Literature, and Modernism in Scandinavia. Programs will also include a screening of the rare Sontag film Duet for Cannibals/Duett för kannibaler (Sweden, 1969).

Thursday, 21 October 2010

18 Gothenburg Poets

Lev Hrytsyuk's large anthology of contemporary Swedish poetry in Ukrainian translation, 18 поетів із Гетеборга, is now available on Issuu.

I personally find the Issuu interface a little tricky, but it's nice to be able to turn the pages!

Monday, 18 October 2010


Swedish author and translator Ulf Peter Hallberg recently visited Helsinki and wrote about what he perceived to be a "slightly alarming" social and cultural uniformity (entydighet) in the place and its citizens. When the piece was reviewed in Hbl (with an accent on Hallberg's pessimistic take on the future of Finland-Swedishness), some commenters took the opportunity of pointing out that because of its unique history, Finland and the Finns play a special role in today's Europe, preserving the concept and practice of national identity in an era when it has been less than fashionable to do so. Hallberg's reactions to Finland are particularly interesting in the light of German chancellor Angela Merkel's recent remarks about the failure of multiculturalism in her country.

Sunday, 10 October 2010


Qué dicha para todos los hombres,
Islandia de los mares, que existas.
Islandia de la nieve silenciosa y del agua ferviente.
Islandia de la noche que se aboveda
Sobre la vigilancia y el sueño.
Isla del día blanco que regresa,
Joven y mortal como Baldr.
Fría rosa, isla secreta
Que fuiste la memoria de Germania
Y salvaste para nosotros
Su apagada, enterrada mitología,
El anillo que engendra nueve anillos,
Los altos lobos de la selva de hierro
Que devorarán la luna y el sol,
La nave que Algo o Alguien construye
Con uñas de los muertos.
Islandia de los cráteres que esperan,
Y de las tranquilas majadas.
Islandia de las tardes inmóviles
Y de los hombres fuertes
Que son ahora marineros y banqueros y párrocos
Y que ayer descubrieron un continente.
Isla de caballos de larga crin
Que engendran sobre el paso y la lava,
Isla del agua llena de monedas
Y de no saciada esperanza.
Islandia de la espada y de la runa,
Islandia de la gran Memoria cóncava
Que no es una nostalgia.

- Jorge Luis Borges

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Bending the knee

At Absinthe Minded blog, Rita Dahl considers the Finnish case involving the Mohammed cartoons [excerpt]:
The cultural magazine Kaltio, based in Oulu, was the first magazine to republish the Mohammed cartoons in Finland. The 6-page-long comic appeared on the internet in September 2006 and was drawn by the Finnish comic artist, Ville Ranta. The prophet Mohammed was presented in the comic as a very furious, fundamentalist figure, who was wearing a mask and criticizing the Western world for the bad deeds it had done in the past to Arab countries and at the same time imposing the demand for freedom of speech in Arab countries. At the end of the comic the Finnish prime minister, Matti Vanhanen, and president, Tarja Halonen, burn the Danish flag in the hope that the Islamists would not get angry with them. (This burning of a flag refers to the apologies already made by Vanhanen and Halonen in February 2006, after the Finnish magazine, Suomen Sisu, had published the Mohammed cartoons for the first time in Finland.)

We call this heritage of bending the knee to other countries Finlandization. I will shortly explain what this way of reacting (still common among Finnish politicians) means. Finland has a long history of being suppressed, first by Sweden, then by the Soviet Union, until our independence in 1917. Even after that our political leaders continued to bend the knee to Russia whenever it was considered to be politically wise. Our country became famous for its unique foreign policy-- Kekkonen´s and Paasikivi´s line. That meant precisely that--bending the knee. Finlandization became another term for that foreign policy.

In my opinion, Ranta criticizes in his comic both Western and Islamist countries for their own kind of fundamentalisms. His starting point is that it is never good in the long term for anything--be it religion or politics—to be presented and heard only by its most fundamentalist representatives. His argument is that it is especially not good for anything--be it a religion like Islam, or western politics—to be represented by its most fundamental figures, be they fundamentalist Islamists, or Finnish politicians, who in their fear of losing good relations with other neighbouring countries, bend in every possible direction.

Read it all.


News that Gösta and Anna-Lisa have moved from the country environment of Skogslund to Vasa City. The following is my translation of Gösta's poem Orfeus' återkomst (The Return of Orpheus):

No poet can endure
being dead, a sojourn without
rhyme or reason. He needs
order and rhythm. His poems
are really laws. He
always turns back
from the underworld, which resembles
the everyday.

The darkness hides the screams
around him, when
the walking begins. The sun is
only black heraldry, only
a cavern in the sky
of stone, and he sees
it, without being blinded.

Then he goes, through the walking's
immobile, invisible lattice
from horizon to horizon.
An occasional tornado
of consciousness moves
through the journey, which is
what will remain.

The figures he meets
are shadows remembering
all that could have been.
Broken illusions are the name of
the only space in which we
are always free, can
always breathe, but those who
do not give up for lost what they have lost
will never attain it. He passes
a gateway, and continues in its
long, invisible arm. A gateway
never ends; it waits.
The darkness expands until it is
obscurity, no longer threat but
depth for all. Orpheus is like
a lonely child in a poem.
He is afraid. Perhaps there are
no dangers. But then there is
no protection against them

But then there is only

That is why he is not afraid
when the smiles begin to gleam
in the darkness, a swarm of knives,
slowly approaching. He knows
that he must go towards them
in order to escape from them. In that
way we flee from all
that we cannot flee from:
by seeking it out.

In vain do we ask for names.
Only the myth can answer.
The particular is too
general. Orpheus runs
through the crowd of indistinct
demons, created by that
reality whose innermost,
subatomic particle's name
a scientist's trembling hand
will one day write: Emptiness.

Now he is threatened by the total
consciousness which exists
in the darkness in his body.
They strike him as
hatefully as though they
were striking themselves, his image
within them. He flees
by enduring. For
he must write his
poems. Only thus can he
silence them. When he
at last lies alone
by the roadside in the underworld
he rises up once and for all,
as though he were abandoning
the figure lying there,
and continues, continues
the journey.

The wordless autumn wind
puts people's grief
into words. They themselves cannot
do it, for it is existence
that grieves, a nothingness
inside us all that compels us
to torment, and be tormented,
and thus exist so
intensely that being
drowns out the grief. Orpheus
sees the enemy, one
who is helpless, and strikes him
in order to be freed from the blows
he himself has had to accept.
It was thus he became
their prisoner.

To walk through the north wind is
like pushing one's way forward
between the ice­cold atoms
in a knife blade. What is it called,
the helpless voice that shouts
in the cold without doing so?
Love? No, love is never
helpless. It is an immense
bath­sponge that sucks into itself
everything, and thus, imperceptibly, becomes
everything. The one who holds fast
to his name cannot
accept life in any
other way than by
hating it. Orpheus is
helpless, but he is
Orpheus, and while

the sun thunders against the rockface
he meets Christ, here
and now a beggar
whose task is to
save people from
their insight that nothing
can save them. The kindness
his misery compels them to
shows that something else is
possible, if only
as the void in which it
does not exist. Thus may a haze
of mercy be wrapped
over facts. The ragged
figure walks slowly
onwards, total as a blind
judge. But Orpheus knows
that kindness is only part
of suffering, and they pass
each other without a word
while the sun burns
above the centuries.

His footsteps echo in the silence,
a monotonous leitmotif that
has got stuck. To
continue demands weakness.
His heart beats without resistance,
but Orpheus himself is strong.
He stops, he
turns round.

Who is she who is dimly seen
and vanishes inside
his gloom?

Now he knows: She is
a legend which no
narrator will tame. The
form he loves
he has himself sculpted.
Only if she becomes
real can he become
free. When one has waited long
the meeting
is a farewell.

The night closes society
and opens the stars.
Even in the underworld,
whose starless night
surrounds Orpheus' brain,
fatigue can grow
into grace. That is why the
sparse crowd of people
he meets is peaceful
as a landscape,
but stubbornly, mechanically
as a series of copies
of himself, Orpheus
walks in the opposite

The gateway's vault of clouds
and pillars of pines are
invisible. One sees only clouds
and pines. He walks out
into the unproven theory
that is called reality,
into the village where the faces
turn towards him like
lanterns in the gloom. He
thinks of a poem about what
he is thinking of: these
people who move
through the village, dragging long,
impassive shadows. Now
once again they know the result
of today's work: tomorrow's
work awaits. To endure
is a way to get strength
to endure. So

he thinks, and that is why
he does not shout that the one
who has walked long through
the underworld can only reject
everything, even this
meaningless gesture of
rejecting everything.

Instead the poem ends
like this: He comes home.

The air is motionless in the cottage.
Slowly, with movement after
movement, mother peels potatoes.
Is it poverty and illness
that stand still in here?

No, but she is choked
by an unsung song
of sorrow, our chance
to live.

That song aches like a child
without words. It is so hard
because sorrow demands love,
that immense hand
in our breast which no one
can reduce to fate.

The evening's black, swaying
trees are the horns of slowly moving
herds. Inexorably
everything journeys.

Orpheus sings
of sorrow.

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

Monday, 20 September 2010

The art of aphorism

Over the past 25 years Finnish poet and scholar Markku Envall (b. 1944) has pubished seven collections of aphorisms, a literary genre particularly favoured in Finland, where it has a long tradition stretching back to the nineteenth century. Envall's seventh collection has just been published by WSOY, but these are a few examples I've translated, drawn from earlier collections, courtesy of Aforistiblogi:
He loved Bach as the music of the future. Bach was the only sure thing he knew about it.
Break out of prison, at every moment.
          Life a dream? If a nightmare, it has a happy ending. Awakening.
You think you are using the machine. The machine is using you. 
          It is frowned upon to eat so much at the table that the other goes without. Not so
          in the world at large.
The trees will  be there when you are gone. When the trees are gone you will not be there. 

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Reading matters

The interesting blog of Swedish military historian and defence analyst Lars Gyllenhaal continues to provide thought-provoking insights into aspects of Nordic and European security, past and present. with references to little-known and little-publicized historical, literary and other documentary sources. Among recent posts to the blog are:

  • a review of a book called If Germany Had Won --  53 Alternative Scenarios, with a chapter containing speculations on questions such as what might have happened if Sweden had been drawn into the Winter War of 1939-40, or had said no to Hitler in 1941.
  • a dissection and general Fisking of the 9/11 “Truth Movement”, with some unexpected words from Noam Chomsky.
  • an examination of Russia’s new defence policy in the light of a recent BBC report, and a look at one puzzling recent development.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Work poems

Lev Hrytsyuk and Linn Hansén have drawn my attention to another poetry collection that deals, among other things, with the experience of work in a care home. According to the publisher's blurb, Swedish poet Johan Jönson's 800-page Efter arbetschema (2008), his twelfth volume of verse,  focuses on the reality of work: "dels försörjningsarbetet i vården eller i den tunga industrin, dels ett arbete med att förstå och besvärja 'världsfabriken'."

Although work in a care home is one of its subjects, Jönson's massive book appears to cover a much wider field of concerns than the remarkable first collection by Timo Harju, recently published in Finland, and partly available in English translation on this blog and elsewhere. But it's interesting to see that the subject of work is one that engages the attention of some Nordic poets - it's certainly a topic that's encountered less frequently in contemporary English and American poetry.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

A private story

I've now finished the third volume of the German-Swedish author Peter Weiss's long novel The Aesthetics of Resistance, and so have now read all 1787 pages of the 2005 Suhrkamp edition. It's a varied reading experience - something akin to a blend of fiction, documentary report, ideological tract, historical treatise and autobiographical reminiscence - and it's possible to see why if it were to be translated in its entirety, the book would probably have a limited readership, placing its author firmly in the category of a 1000 copy guy. Although the voice of the narrative is not directly Weiss's own, but that of the novel's youthful narrator, it's hard to swallow the illusion that the teenage chronicler and historian would in real life be capable of disgorging this stupendous volume of earnest, didactic oration.

On the other hand, the book does offer some unique insights into the history and psychology of the Germany of the immediate post World War 2 era. The sections in volume 3 that deal with the problem of why a country that was able during the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to produce one of the most highly-evolved aesthetic cultures of Europe, and indeed of the world as a whole, proved at the same time to be an almost total failure in the art of state building and political endeavour, and ended by nearly destroying not only itself but much of the rest of the world as a well. Weiss appears to pin the blame on what he perceives to be an innate Germanic (not only German, for Sweden also comes in for a large dose of criticism) yearning for an ideal realm, a longing unaccompanied by any substantial practical ability that might have brought about its realization. The link between aesthetics and politics which forms the novel's principal thesis is only an abstract one - in practice, the link did not exist, and most of the writers, artists, filmmakers and composers who began by espousing the cause of a New Jerusalem built from Marxist revolutionism ultimately found themselves cast adrift in a murky sea of violence, war, totalitarianism and genocide.

Weiss extends his judgment to condemn not only Germany, but also most of Europe and America. The Soviet Union is seen as a deceptive friend and foe, which during the 1920s and 30s encouraged the aspirations and actions of radical idealists only to betray them, delivering them into the hands of their tormentors and destroyers. The parts of the novel which deal with this - such as the long passages of analysis and recrimination that precede the gory accounts of executions in the Nazi jails - are probably unlike anything else in postwar German literature, possessing the kind of clarity and frankness sought by W.G. Sebald in his book of essays On the Natural History of Destruction, but not found by him there.

The third volume stands apart from the other two by containing elements of a more conventional narrative kind. The long account of Charlotte Bischoff's voyage from Stockholm to Nazi-occupied Holland aboard a Swedish merchant vessel could be taken from a 1930s spy thriller, while the section describing the executions of German communists (including two of the novel's principal characters) in Plötzensee Prison have a lurid quality that is possibly at odds with the elevated style of much of the rest of the book. In the end, I found that the unyielding nature of the narrative technique, the unbroken yet breathless hammering of the syntax and diction, made it hard to be swept along by the flow of language and rhetoric as the author undoubtedly intended. By the last 100 pages or so there is a definite sense of exhaustion, with the clauses of the long sentences coming in shorter and shorter bursts - one literally feels that the narrator is almost at his last gasp.

Sebald called this a "genuinely catastrophic novel in which, with a shattering sense of system, Peter Weiss wrecked what he knew was the little life remaining to him", and it is hard not to concur with that judgment. For a work which aims to embrace the aspirations and sufferings of an entire generation, with only a few exceptions this is all too clearly a book of individual self-analysis and self-destruction. Perhaps, given the continued silence about the inner, intellectual reasons for the rise of Nazism in pre-war Germany (a silence that persists not only in Germany itself but also in the rest of Europe), there was no other way in which Peter Weiss could write his fascinating, cataclysmic but ultimately private book.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

A view of The Magic Mountain

Karin Boye, talking to the narrator in volume 3 of Die Ästhetik des Widerstands:
Neunzehnhundert Achtundzwanzig, Neunundzwanzig, sagte sie, habe sie den Zauberberg übersetzt, zuerst sei sie von diesem Buch mit der denkwürdigen Liebesgeschichte ergriffen, dann aber, beim eingehenden Studium der Sätze auf ihren letzten Gehalt, von Abscheu erfüllt vvorden. Wieder werden die Funktionen der Liebe einzig vom Gesichtspunkt des Mannes aus dargestellt, und dazu noch in einem plötzlichen Umschlagen der Zärtlichkeit und des Begehrens zur Herabwürdigung, zur Verächtlichmachung der Frau. Gegen Ende des Romans finden sich der junge und der alte Liebhaber zusammen, in der Verurteilung des Objekts ihrer Liebe, im eignen Versagen ihre mannliche Dominanz dennoch aufrechterhaltend, schreiben sie der Frau zu, was sie gemeinsam ausgebrütet haben, daß sie sich als reaktives Geschöpf, ohne Initiative, eben nur als Objekt empfinde und sich, durch weibliche Bestechlichkeit, der primären Wahl des Mannes überlasse.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010


The third volume of Peter Weiss's The Aesthetics of Resistance opens with a tribute to the narrator's parents, who have succeeded in fleeing to Sweden. The tribute is also one of mourning for his mother - though still alive, she is ill and has withdrawn into a silence from which she cannot be recalled.

Imperceptibly, the image of the mother merges with the image and memory of another female character, that of her friend and colleague, the Swedish poet and novelist Karin Boye, who like other women in the novel is referred to solely by her last name. Boye's suicide, and her own rationale and explanation for it, form the subject of the early part of volume 3.

The novel's sharp focus on the life and work of Boye and the acute attention the narrator devotes to her indicate that for Weiss this author and poet had a more personal significance for Weiss than was the case with Brecht, for example. One wonders if Weiss had met Boye in Sweden - after all, in 1938 his family took up residence in Alingsås, West Gotland, where Boye herself moved in the following year in order to be close to Anita Nathorst. A meeting does not seem improbable.

Some of Weiss's account of Boye's life and of her final months appears to be drawn at least in part from the biography by Margit Abenius (Drabbad av renhet, 1950)- yet there are also some details that may derive from actual contacts with the poet. In particular, Weiss is at pains to analyse Karin Boye's existential, political, artistic, sexual and personal situation in 1941, describing it through the words of the psychoanalytically-trained doctor Max Hodann. Hodann says that in her moment of surrender to Goering at a mass rally in 1932, Boye had made it impossible for her to forgive herself or receive forgiveness, and had consciously and unconsciously abandoned hope. Her novel Kallocain (1940), which depicts the merciless and inhuman conflict in a world that is divided into two opposing blocks, is the testament not only to her own despair but to the despair of a generation. Hodann sees a continuation of Boye's fatal inner and outer dilemma in the inability of the radical German youth of the 1930s and 40s to avoid either a collapse into Nazism or an embrace of Stalinist Communism:
Ich gab Boyes Schilderung wieder, wie sie sich hatte betören lassen dem Mann mit dem bleichen Hysterikergesicht auf der Tribüne in der überfüllten Sporthalle, und wie sie zu spät erst das Ruchlose seiner Reden begriffen habe. Viele von uns, sagte Hodann, immer noch, und oft grade, wenn es um Entscheidendes gehe, wie Kinder, wir ließen uns beherrschen von Hoffnungen, deren Ursprung eingebettet sei in der Erinnrung an das Ertasten der Mutterbrust, im Aufgehn in einer Harmonie, die es für uns nicht mehr gebe. Auch Boye müsse, wie wir alle, nach der Mutter, dem Vater in sich gesucht, und diese, in wachsendem Maß, und durch andre Gestalten ersetzt haben... Ich möchte behaupten, sagte er, daß unsre Generation mehr gezeichnet ist von dem Unheil, das die Sowjetunion ergriff, als von den Verheerungen durch den Faschismus, denn an dem Arbeiterstaat hingen wir mit unserm ganzen kindlichen Glauben, während uns von Anfang an bekannt war, was in Deutschland aufkam.
I'll return to this subject in another post.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Pact and the Poet

I've found the remaining part of volume 2 of Peter Weiss's novel The Aesthetics of Resistance something of a mixed bag, as it deliberately avoids settling down into one main stream of narrative. The sections on Engelbrekt seem a little contrived, as though the author were spinning material to fill out space, especially when one learns that Brecht himself has lost track of the project and the narrator is left alone with his research on the subject. Of more interest are the extensive deliberations on the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which is now providing all sorts of headaches for the various radicals, including Rosner, who continues to try to find some justification for the nefarious agreement, engaging in a Kafkaesque series of arguments in which the Pact becomes the basis for an "understanding" between the working classes of Germany and Russia. Weiss makes it perfectly clear that he regards the situation as patently absurd, and the characters of the novel appear trapped and helpless in the face of a historical conundrum that goes against all they have worked and fought for.

Brecht's preparations to leave for Finland, and the dismantling, disposal and transporting of his vast private library of world literature (the authors and titles are listed over several pages, take up most of the narrative. There is a nice concluding scene in which Brecht leans out as the Swedish secret police depart after searching the contents of the library for "subversive" literature. "You've forgotten the thrillers!" he shouts to them, and then throws his copies of books by Edgar Wallace, Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Sayers, etc. out of the window down to the garden below.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Soul support

In another recent Hbl feature the paper notes that it's becoming more and more common for Finland's authors to derive all or most of their income from state arts subsidies of various kinds, with such support increasingly being perceived as the measure of a writer's success and the quality of his/her work. According to researcher Elina Jokinen, who is quoted in the article, the subsidies are far from regular or reliable, with grants being made on a one-off basis, and there's a need for a more stable and long-term solution to the problem.

Language talk

The debate about whether Swedish should continue to be a mandatory subject of instruction in Finland's schools, and about the general status of the Swedish language in Finland, continues to occupy the columns of the Finnish press. Ten days ago the magazine Suomen Kuvalehti devoted a readers' discussion to "10 common statements" about the subject, including "Finland is a bilingual country", "Everyone must know Swedish", "Swedish-speakers have too much power", "Civil servants must be able to speak Swedish", and so on. Judging from the majority of the large number of readers' comments, the consensus appeared to be a thumbs-down for Swedish as an obligatory part of Finnish education and society, though few seemed to be eager to ban it from the curriculum altogether. Not to be outdone, Finland's main Swedish-language daily Hufvudstadsbladet has hosted a discussion of its own featuring the same 10 statements. Oddly enough, the consensus among Hufvudstadsbladet's readers is largely the same -- no one has much objection against Swedish as a language, but they don't want it to be forced on them if they don't grow up in a Swedish-speaking household. An interesting feature of Hufvudstadsbladet readers' discussions in general: it appears that comments written in Finnish are not accepted by the editors, and are routinely deleted from the discussion board...

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Resisters - 2

I've now reached the second half of volume 2 of Peter Weiss's The Aesthetics of Resistance, and Bertolt Brecht is now the main focus of attention. In Stockholm the book's young narrator is seeking employment with the great exiled German radical playwright and poet. The personality of Brecht is sketched out fairly clearly - his self-absorption, his freedom to engage in his literary work full-time while many of his assistants, like the narrator, have to work in factories during the daytime, his manner of behaving, his short temper.Weiss characterizes him somewhat ironically as a "factory owner" - the "factory" being Brecht's own numerous projects and productions, which include not only plays for the theatre but also large-scale theoretical works like an Encyclopedia of Nazism and a Problematics of Exile.

The narrator becomes involved in one of these projects, working as a lowly researcher for a new play Brecht wants to write about Engelbrekt, the leader of a 15th century peasant revolt in Sweden. Weiss devotes a large number of pages to giving an exhaustive account of this. In fact, it becomes another of the novel's "set pieces", like Heracles and the Pergamon frieze, or the paintings by Delacroix, Goya, Brueghel, Gericault and others. There is also a long discussion about Swedish politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the weakness of Sweden's parliamentary democracy, and the significance of mineral ore for the country's industry, with particular reference to the period of the Second World War.

Interestingly, the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 is discussed in some detail, with the characters, including Brecht, giving their various interpretations of it. Although it's sometimes difficult to extrapolate the author's point of view from that of the narrator and other figures in the book, Weiss appears to take a highly critical view of the Pact, seeing it as a major enigma and obstacle for the European left. At all events, the issue is hardly swept under the carpet, as might have been expected in a work by a less complex radical author. One of the characters, the Comintern official, political journalist and editor Jakob Rosner tries to compose a justification for the agreement, which he plans to circulate in his newspaper Ny Dag to likely subscribers in Stockholm:
He asked me to search the phonebook for Jewish names, and enter them in the register of people who were to be sent sample issues of the paper. He refused to believe that the Jacobssons, Danielssons and Rosengrens were of old-Swedish origin. Jakobsohn, Danielsohn and Rosenzweig, he said, shaking his head with its rumpled hair, and so the Lewins and Blumenbergs are also Christians in this country... (p. 664)
In a bitter conversation with Rosalinde Ossietzky, the narrator questions her "Marxist" argument that the cause of the impending world war is the conflict between the capitalist nations of the world. At the end of November 1939 the signs that an armed confrontation is about to break out between Finland and the Soviet Union leads the Sweden-based radicals (most of whom are in Sweden illegally)  to speculate on the outcome.

Göteborg poets in Ukraine

The final part of Lev Hrytsyuk's major anthology of contemporary Swedish poetry, 18 Poets from Gothenburg, is now online. This volume-by-volume sequence has been published in stages, with the last section, containing Ukrainian translations of poems by Mauritz Tistelö, available on Scribd.

This seems like an enterprising way to go about publicizing a poetry translation title, and one hopes that mainstream poetry publishers - Bloodaxe? - may take note.

Friday, 3 September 2010

1,000 copy guys

Over at Three Percent, E.J. Van Lanen is writing about the FILI editors' trip:
We do different kinds of books here (My favorite story so far is when a publisher was going to tell us about two books: one, a more commercial author, they thought would sell 10,000 copies in the US, and the other, a more literary author, who was wonderful but who they thought would sell 1,000. Chad and I both said at the same time, “Tell us about the 1000 copy guy.”), and because we do a special kind of book, I feel like we have different kinds of meetings with publishers.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010


In the second volume of Peter Weiss's long novel - I'm now in the section between pp. 553 and 627 - I notice a sudden change in the narrative technique. For one thing, the sense of "paragraph-lessness" is receding. There are more frequent breaks in the blocks of text, and one is now reading what are almost long but clearly demarcated paragraphs. For another, the specific locale - in this case Sweden and Stockholm - is being described and invoked in a much more concrete and realistic manner than was characteristic of the section devoted to Spain (the second half of volume one). One supposes that a reason for this may be that the author has a greater degree of immediate and long-term familiarity with the places he is describing, The need to insert chunks of art history and Greek mythology into the text seems for the present to have lost its urgency, and the story is developing in a manner that is almost that of traditional nineteenth century fiction - one almost could be reading a story or novel by Tolstoy. The characters converse, they eat and drink, they laugh, they are becoming almost human.

The analogy with Tolstoy also comes to mind in the fact that the characters now being developed and described are historical figures. This is a historical novel, after all. Just as in War and Peace Tolstoy introduces military figures and political leaders into the narrative, Weiss now brings in not only Max Hodann, but a number of other real-life people who worked as political activists in the exiled German Communist anti-Nazi resistance movement. We meet Charlotte Bischoff, who having fled the Third Reich is now in Sweden preparing to return to Germany in order to carry out undergound resistance work there. "Lindner" appears to be the German-Czech resistance worker Hertha Lindner, though from a historical point of view it isn't clear that she was in Sweden during 1939. Weiss now also introduces Rosalinde Ossietzky, daughter of the radical German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky (1889-1938), who in Stockholm tells the narrator and Max Hodann about the torture and murder of her father by the Nazi authorities. She also recalls the actions of some pro-Nazi Norwegian cultural figures, including the novelist Knut Hamsun, who took part in an active campaign to discredit her father and to deny him the award of the Nobel Prize which he received in 1935.

It has to be said that Weiss succeeds in leading these new characters onto the stage quite naturally, without much ideological ballast - they act and talk like real people, and above all one can believe in them. It is only a pity that the author forgot (or perhaps decided not) to include explanatory notes on these figures, who will  probably be unfamiliar to many of his readers, even - or especially - in Germany. There the affinity to Tolstoy breaks down, for Tolstoy's historical characters were all well-known to his readership. However, with the advent of Wikipedia, it's not too hard to keep abreast of the historical and biographical background as one reads - this was hardly the situation of readers of this challenging novel three decades ago.

Although Sweden in 1939 is now a temporary home for many of the political activists being brought to life, most of them are there illegally. Weiss is scathing about the country's Aliens Act of 1938, which in a response to antisemitic protests (among others, by students at Lund and Upsala universities) virtually closed the door to Jewish refugees altogether. As is consistently the case throughout the whole of the Aesthetics, Weiss groups Jewish and Communist refugees together - for him the Holocaust has two elements, a racial one and a political one. Sometimes they overlap, but they are distinct, separate and of equal validity. The reader is left unaided to deal with this debatable historical construct.

Another problem is the account of the international political events of 1939 which led up to the outbreak of war. The account is heavily influenced by Stalinist versions of history, with the Baltic States, for example, being stigmatized as "semi-fascist" and standing in the way of a successful Soviet defence - part of an anti-Soviet conspiracy being cooked up by Great Britain, France and the United States. One feels that, although this Tolstoyan historical digression is put, somewhat unconvincingly, into the mouth of the youthful narrator, who is only in his teens, one can't help feeling that it would have been better if Weiss had left it out, for it leaves an unpleasant taste, even as fiction. The bewilderment of the narrator and his friends as the German-Soviet Credit Agreement of 1939 is signed is well-described, but again there need to be some notes or other signposts for the reader.

I'm now moving on into the closing section of the first part of volume two, in which the narrator visits the island of Lidingö near Stockholm where the Swedish sculptress Ninnan Santesson has put her home at the disposal of the German writer and dramatist Bertolt Brecht and his family. 

Tuesday, 31 August 2010


Reading on into the second volume of Peter Weiss's vast and strange novel The Aesthetics of Resistance, my principal impression so far is of how loose and episodic the construction of the work appears to be. The forbidding slabs of text and the absence of paragraph breaks are not alleviated by the way in which memory, reflection, dream and commentary are interchanged within the narrative, so that the reader has to steer through the flow of words as if it were a tide, picking up the interconnected strands of association and taking navigational bearings from the rising blocks of thematic emphasis which dominate the horizon in shifting succession.

So far in Volume Two I've crossed three of these blocks: the first was the long introductory sequence devoted to an analysis of Géricault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819), in which the narrator seems to be draw an analogy between the situation of the people on the raft and the oppressed working class of 19th century Europe, but then begins to analyse the scene in terms of a personal shipwreck, a disillusionment and abandonment of hope. This shift is discussed by W.G. Sebald in his essay on Weiss as a "transfer" - I would even go so far as to use the psychoanalytical term "transference", as it does not seem out of place here. The reflections and musings on Géricault’s aesthetic intentions melt almost imperceptibly into a second block of narration centered on the narrator's political exile with Max Hodann in Paris. There are Walter Benjamin-like street scenes of the city during the years immediately before the outbreak of the Second World War, and then gradually we enter a third block, which gives a vivid account of the narrator's mother's political exile in Sweden and her efforts to evade the clutches of the German secret police.

The writing is at times inspired, with a particularly memorable description of Stockholm during a blizzard:
Durch die schwebenden Flocken gingen sie die enge Straße entlang. Ab und zu erschallten Rufe von den Dächern, ein Posten hielt die Fußgänger auf, heruntergeschaufelter Schnee fiel in die Haufen am Gassenrand. Zwischen Schneewällen gingen sie hindurch, auf den Hafenkai zu, im milchigen Gestöber waren Kräne und die Rümpfe einiger großer Schiffe zu erkennen. Weit wird die Aussicht nicht reichen, sagte die Schwester, sie fuhren aber trotzdem im Fahrstuhl hinauf, das Verkehrsrondell an der Schleuse sank zurück, die Querbalken des Eisenturms glitten vorbei, zuerst waren unten noch Straßenbahnen, Automobile, Omnibusse, auf hohem Sockel ein Reiter mit vorgestreckter Hand zu sehn, dan verschoben such im Flimmern nur noch formlose Schatten. (p. 550)
Yet one has the sense that the narrative is constantly being eaten away by Weiss's need to engage in didactic pedagogy, with homilies drawn from contemporary Communist Party texts (mostly Swedish, one gathers) which follow the Soviet line of the time, casting Nazism as a result and product of Western capitalist greed and intrigue, and the Soviet Union as the only hope for the future not only of the working class but of the whole of mankind.

Somehow these political sections, with often stretch for pages, have a curiously desperate ring, and suggest that Weiss himself is not convinced by their content and message. This tension, which was already noticeable in the first volume of the novel, is becoming harder and harder to ignore as I continue to read.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Peter Weiss - 4

As I pointed out in an earlier post, unlike the main body of the text, the extensive footnotes in Jan Christer Bengtsson's examination of the films of Peter Weiss often contain rather controversial material. A further example of this is provided by the long note that accompanies a consideration of the negative reception by Swedish critics of Weiss's full-length feature film Hägringen (The Mirage, 1959). Here the focus is directed on an aspect of Weiss's personality which seems to derive from an inner masochism. The conclusions Bengtsson draws from this are, at first glance, surprising - yet I believe that they are worthy of serious consideration.

Observing that in Weiss's response to his critics it is possible to discern a form of pre-emptive self-harm, Bengtsson notes that the response is typical of avant garde artists, and that it comprises the three distinct elements of sacrifice, struggle and exemplariness:
For the present is he who is the victim that is being sacrificed. The exemplariness consists in an apparent David-and-Goliath struggle, the result of which is an unspecified dreamed-of victory. The latter is attained through faith - faith in an artistic achievement that is placed above the ordinary. And this will later appear in a faith in certain specific political solutions.
Än så länge är det han som är den utsatte och som offras. Det förebildliga ligger i en skenbar David-Goliat-kamp och resultatet i en drömd odefinierbar seger. Det sista uppnås genom tro ― tron på en konstutövning stadd ovanför det vanliga. Och detta skulle längre fram dyka upp i en tro på vissa särskilda politiska lösningar.
Bengtsson now turns to a passage in a 2002 monograph by the literary critic Arnd Beise (who is chairman of the International Peter Weiss Society), and in a summary of Beise's intepretation of what he perceives to be the aesthetic and moral rationale underlying much of Weiss's work, quotes the following, pointing to
a poetics which provides a reply to one of the still open questions of the Marquis de Sade and Trotsky. Is it worthwhile to subordinate individual needs such as love, friendship or family to the demands of the struggle for a better society? Yes, because [...] there is a poetry of memory, which preserves the sacrifices and efforts of those who [...] fought or still fight the oppression, even if this struggle was or is in vain. Again and again the memory of this struggle [...] will eventually bring forth a revolution that puts an end to all coercive orders. This also explains why Marat, Trotsky and Hölderlin are increasingly to be seen as martyrs.
eine Poetik, die auf eine der offen gebliebenen Fragen des Marquis de Sade und Trotzkis eine Antwort gibt. Lohnt es sich, individuelle Bedürfnisse wie Liebe, Freundschaft oder Familie den Forderungen des Kampfs für eine bessere Gesellschaft unterzuordnen? Ja, weil [...] es eine Poesie der Erinnerung gibt, die die Opfer und Mühen derjenigen aufbewahrt, die die Unterdrückung [...] bekämpften oder noch bekämpfen, selbst wenn dieser Kampf vergeblich war oder ist. An diesen Kampf zu erinnern, immer wieder [...] werde irgendwann doch eine Revolution hervorbringen, die alle Zwangsordnungen beendet. Das erklärt auch, warum Marat, Trotzki und Hölderlin in steigendem Maß als Märtyrer zu verstehen sind.
Some 30 pages further on in this book, in an analysis of Weiss's play Viet Nam Diskurs (1968), Beise quotes a remark by a contemporary Communist Party member, referring to this person as "Parteigenosse des Viet Cong". As Bengtsson points out, the use of the word "Parteigenosse" was strictly confined to a single historical and semantic context - the Lingua Tertii Imperii (LTI) designates it as being used solely within the German Nazi Party (NSDAP) to refer to its members, usually in the abbreviated form "Pg."

Bengtsson says that he assumes that this somewhat ambiguous use of the term - an ambiguity that in Beise's text is clearly deliberate, and according to Bengtsson not disclaimed by Beise himself  -  is intended to suggest  that
Weiss, in the political positions he took throughout his life, wandered from the one big ideology of struggle to the other, and that Beise, well aware of this and of what can and should be said today regarding Weiss, has expressed this fact in a somewhat cryptic manner.

Weiss i sina politiska ställningstaganden under livets gång vandrat från den ena stora kampideologin till den andra och att Beise väl medveten om detta förhållande och vad som kan och bör sägas idag rörande Weiss på ett något kryptiskt sätt uttryckt detta förhållande.
If we recall the life and work of Karin Boye (who features as a character in the last volume of the Aesthetics), her single moment of overt and personal fascination with Nazism, and her sustained attack on it and on herself in her dystopian novel Kallocain (1940), this passage of Bengtsson's ceases to be so surprising, and one begins to see Weiss's later left-wing radicalism in a new light, as an outgrowth of his political development during the 1930s. In a future post, I hope to examine this question further.

Sunday, 29 August 2010


Pia Tafdrup's recently-published collection Trækfuglens kompas (Gyldendal) is part of a Danish government-sponsored project which aims to provide a series of artworks along the route of the so-called "Hærvejen" - the old Military Road that links Southern Jutland with Northern Germany. The project is primarily intended to boost tourism in the district, and the participants also include well-known Danish painters, composers, sculptors and others working in the field of the arts.

Although the theme of Trækfuglens kompas is that of travel, and most of the poems relate to this in one way or another, the book's real focus is on discovery - both of oneself and of the world, with a view to confirmation and affirmation. While the subjects of the poems range far and wide - from the experience of international airports to a "global spring-cleaning day" in Sierra Leone and Gaza, and from the poet's experience of losing personal possessions while traveling to that of her parents in flight from the Nazis in wartime Denmark - the emphasis is always on the return, the homecoming. The following poem is perhaps characteristic of the whole collection (my tr.):


My body has landed,
it has set a period to the journey.
And the nervous system
which had adapted 
to other latitudes,
is accustoming itself to the usual again.
My body has landed,
the luggage is there,
               but the soul
is apparently doing fine in New Delhi
among birds and reflected light,
   it has not returned.
It sees dogs playing in the dust, sees
women in colorful saris and sandals
go swaying
with pyramids of fruit
in baskets on their heads.
It listens to young women chirping
like birds in a bush, it listens
and understands immediately
  without knowing the words.
My body has arrived
at its own home,
has jockeyed the suitcase up the stairs
and unlocked the front door.
It had no problem
finding its way back
to the cold moonlit nights
                    but the soul
still sits under a tree watching
a little girl fan away the flies,
while she plays with her chair in the grass
in a park
where it’s warm and quiet
   and the sun is low.
I return
with wide-awake eyes to see
my own world again, 
  soon the soul will be here, too.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Peter Weiss - 3

While reading Jan Christer Bengtsson's study of the films of Peter Weiss I was struck by the amount of  hostility and opprobrium Weiss appears to have attracted during his varied career as a creative artist. While the main text of Bengtsson's dissertation is largely neutral on issues relating to Weiss's intentions and orientation as a creator, the footnotes to the text often contain comments that from time to time call into question Weiss's good faith and integrity. In particular, the lengthy and minutely documented examination of the history of  the 1960 Swedish feature film Svenska flickor i Paris (known under several English titles, but mainly as The Flamboyant Sex), which Weiss co-directed together with Barbro Boman, seems to be aimed at demonstrating that, far from being upset and angry about the way in which the film developed (though it contained little material that could be considered overtly pornographic, it was ultimately marketed as a porno flick), Weiss acquiesced in the film's more doubtful episodes, and only later, during the long period of his career as a left-wing radical, attempted to dissociate himself from his part in its production.

There are also digs at Weiss's profile in general, both as an artist and as a human being. Bengtsson quotes the left-wing Swedish author and poet, who in 1966 (in a book called En orättvis betraktelse) wrote of Peter Weiss and others of his ilk that they were
känsloparasiter, äventyrare, hysteriker, små sökare efter stora ämnen, folkhemsflyktingar, kvantitetsromantiker, sökare efter tillräckligt starka skäl till oproportionerligt starka aggressioner, tomgångsexperimentatorer som griper efter ett engagerat halmstrå, förnyelseegoister, kontaktvägrare som ser en chans att älska på avstånd, Belsenpornografer, godhetsexhibitionister och vanliga kvalterrorister. Därför tycks rätt sakliga litteraturkonventioner av nöden, och sådana bryter också allt starkare fram i Europa. Expressionistiska indignationspjäser ger plats för featurepjäser av typ Rannsakningen.

[emotional parasites, adventurers, hysterics, small seekers of big topics, welfare state refugees, quantity-romantics, seekers of sufficiently strong reasons for disproportionately harsh aggression, experimenters with idleness grasping for a straw of commitment, renewal-egoists, contact-deniers who who see a chance to love from afar, Belsen-pornographers, goodness-exhibitionists and ordinary pain-terrorists. So really factual literary conventions seem to be required, and they are breaking through in Europe with increasing intensity.  Expressionistic indignation-drama is giving way to feature plays like The Investigation.]
Although it's quite possible to see what Palm is talking about, and to sympathize with some of the characterizations in this portrayal (which Palm himself apparently considered somewhat exaggerated), one also wonders if there was not an element of literary (and ordinary) politics involved in such polemics - a cloud of Vietnam-dust that makes it hard for us now to see what was really going on in the Europe of Weiss's time, with its extreme tension  between a posturing, theatrical international political radicalism on the one hand, and a self-satisfied, philistine social and political conservatism on the other.

From a reading of the available biographical sources it seems hard to deny that Peter Weiss did engage in a  fairly advanced degree of creative and political opportunism, often tailoring his writing, painting and films to the intellectual fashions and preoccupations of his era - and with a degree of single-minded, humorless obduracy that led at least one contemporary observer to describe him as a "steamroller". Yet, if one can make the right allowances, realizing now that the literary and spiritual gargantuanism that characterizes a work like The Aesthetics of Resistance proceeds not only from the author's personal need (admitted in the course of his own psychoanalysis) to affirm himself as the producer of something "great" and "classical", but also from the intolerable pressures exerted by the political establishments of both West Germany and the DDR, I believe that in some ways it's possible to see Peter Weiss as a victim of his time who nevertheless succeeded in creating work of a high aesthetic quality, work that deserves to be studied and re-examined in the light of more recent history. That there is currently no shortage of such studies is evident from the increasing though little-publicized flow of writing about him. It's to be hoped that the second and third volumes of the Aesthetics will be translated into English and published before long, to complement Joachim Neugroschel's fine translation of volume 1 - this will, I daresay, achieve a great deal more than the website of the International Peter Weiss Society is currently doing.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Peter Weiss - 2

A recently-published dissertation by the Swedish filmographer Jan Christer Bengtsson gives a fascinating inside view of the creative personality of Peter Weiss. Focused on Weiss's work for the cinema, the dissertation examines Weiss's career in chronological sequence, but is not limited solely to the films: Weiss's literary work and painting are also considered in detail in the course of this extensive treatment, and numerous interviews are cited and quoted.

Bengtsson places Weiss within the context of postwar European - specifically Swedish and German - cinema, He proceeds from an analysis of Weiss's early short films of the 1950s (many of them utilizing surrealist techniques), through the documentaries and officially commissioned work all the way to the less well-known full-length film projects of Weiss's later years, including Hölderlin and the collaboration with Francisco Javier Uriz involving the latter's screen version of the Spanish Civil War section of the first volume of The Aesthetics of Resistance.

Of particular interest are the links to a 1961 German television interview (Berlin stellt vor, in which Weiss is interviewed by the literary critic Walter Höllerer (the links are here and here), and Bengtsson's own consideration of The Studio of Doctor Faust (1956), which as Weiss's English-language Wikipedia entry states, "shows a persisting link of the emigrant Weiss to a German cultural background."

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Thought's winged horse

By Pia Tafdrup

Thoughts find their way 
forward in steady flow 
   in leap, in zigzag. 
Not exhaustion, 
just more fermenting,
while the mind circulates around them. 
Thoughts provoke 
new thoughts 
   ordered, chaotic. 
No grille obstructs, 
   no halo. 
Thought’s winged horse rises, 
   flies up 
from the brain’s infinity,
   throws light 
in the cerebral gray 
the physical body in a steep glide.


Tanker finder vej
fremad i lige strøm,
i spring, i zigzag.
Ikke rovdrift,
blot fortsat ynglen,
mens sindet kredser om dem.
Tanker provokerer
nye tanker,
Intet gitter spaerrer,
  ingen glorie.
Tankens vingede hest letter,
  flyver op
fra hjernens uendelighed,
 kaster lys -
i det cerebrale grå,
den fysiske krop i et stejlt svæv.

translated from Danish by David McDuff

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The Best

By Karin Boye

The best that we possess,
we cannot give away.
we cannot write it either.
and neither can we say.

The best that is in your mind
no one can make unclean.
It shines there deep inside
for you and God alone.

It is the glory of our wealth
that no one else can gain it.
It is the torment of our poverty
that no one else can attain it.

Det bästa

Det bästa som vi äga,
det kan man inte giva,
det kan man inte säga
och inte heller skriva.

Det bästa i ditt sinne
kan intet förorena.
Det lyser djupt där inne
för dig och Gud allena.

Det är vår rikdoms råga
att ingen ann kan nå det.
Det är vårt armods plåga
att ingen ann kan få det.

translation from Swedish by David McDuff

Johansson: Israel “contemptible country”

The Jerusalem Post reports that the head of Finland’s branch of Amnesty International stands by his comment that Israel is a “contemptible country” (nilkkimaa).
In a post now deleted from his Iltalehti blog, but still available in Google’s cache, Frank Johansson writes:
Ystäväni, joka työskentelee Israelissa, oli käymässä ja puita vajaan kasatessa päästiin hänen lempiaiheeseensa. Usean vuoden pyhässä maassa oleskelun jälkeen, hän on tullut siihen tulokseen, että ”Israel on nilkkimaa”. Omien vierailujeni perusteella, jotka ajoittuvat 1970-luvulle ja 1990-luvun loppuvuosille olen aika samaa mieltä.
“A friend of mine, who works in Israel, was visiting and while we were stacking firewood in the woodshed we got onto his favourite subject. After a few years of living in the Holy Land, he had come to the conclusion that “Israel is a contemptible country”.  On the basis of my own visits, which took place during the 1970s and late 1990s,  I am quite of the same opinion.”
The word nilkkimaa, which I’ve translated here as “contemptible country”, as it derives from the Finnish word nilkki, is actually more derogatory than that – the Jerusalem Post translates it as “scum state”, and that is not too far off, as the expression is stronger than "rogue state".

One wonders why a regional head of Amnesty would make such a statement about an entire country and its people, yet apparently feel no shame about it. He claims to be “breaking the silence”, but is surely breaking a lot of other things as well.

Update: in the Jerusalem Post interview, Johansson appears to acquiesce in the "scum state" translation of the word he used.

In an e-mail to the Post on Wednesday, Johansson wrote, “I decided to take down my blog because I appreciate that my comments were ill-judged and appear all the more so when taken out of context, and have obviously caused offence to many people although it was not my intention, at all, to cause such offence.”
He added “I am especially conscious, and regret that my ill-judged action may be detrimental to Amnesty International’s work on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the valiant human rights work being undertaken by my colleagues working for Amnesty International in Israel.”

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Peter Weiss

I've been reading Joachim Neugroschel's translation of vol. 1 of Peter Weiss's enormous novel Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, and while reading Fredric Jameson's introductory essay was struck by the numerous influences of Swedish literature on Weiss's work. The second and third volumes of the novel, which I hope to read soon in the German original, actually feature the personality as well as the work of Karin Boye, whose poetry I've translated into English. In the 1940s Weiss wrote two volumes of poetry in Swedish: the prose poems of Från ö till ö, and De besegrade. Although Weiss appears not to have been too happy about writing in Swedish, and soon returned to German - in Understanding Peter Weiss Robert Cohen says that "The two texts... did not lay to rest the doubts about his new language" - this early work with its expressionism and psychoanalytic explorations provides a unique way into Weiss's oeuvre. Cohen writes that "his lack of interest in ideology and attempts at explaining fascism rationally... fit into the conservative and restorative tendencies of the time..."

Weiss's contacts with the fyrtiotalister, the literary modernists who were grouped around the magazine 40-tal, seem to have been fairly extensive. Cohen again:
There was a basic kinship to this group of artists: for the painter and emerging filmmaker Weiss had just discovered surreaiism for himself, and his interest in psychoanalysis had been stirred by the exiled physician and psychiatrist Max Hodann. Especially with Ekelöf and Dagerman, Weiss seems to have entertained close relationships.
Hodann, of course, is one of the central characters in Die Ästhetik des Widerstands, and in conjunction with Karin Boye he provides a lead into Weiss's relation to Ekelöf and other fyrtiotalister.

I'll write about my reading of Weiss from time to time - among many other things, he seems an interesting and neglected link between German and Swedish modernism and their political and existential meaning, one that deserves wider and deeper investigation.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Dreams and fears

In Books from Finland magazine, Pia Ingström introduces some of my translations of Timo Harju's poetry, most of which have not appeared in this blog. 
These are the terms – those of ordinary crime journalism –  in which our recent public discussion of long-stay care of the elderly here in Finland was conducted. The discussion was followed by the usual misery of cuts, unchanged diapers, dehydration, over-medication, poor wages for hard work… No wonder that the concept of  ‘healthcare wills’ and ‘living wills’, in which people are supposed to say how they want to be cared for in the last stage of their lives – is acquiring a disturbing undertone of ‘better jump before you’re pushed.’

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Chitambo - 4


I understand nothing of what is really going on, don’t see the connections, don’t grasp the extent of the revolution that is underway, now silent and concealed, now with shouts and banners and hallelujahs, and least of all do I perceive that labour is the kernel of this as of all other revolutions, the sacred freedom of labour. But I do grasp something, at least, there is something that I sense instinctively like a call, an exhortation, a fanfare. I recognize the spirit that speaks in Nora’s lines, recognize it as my own, the fighting spirit. This unites me with all those of whom I know nothing, my sisters, my scattered and faltering legionnaires the world over.

Ida Aalberg was honoured like a queen that evening. In those days she was such a great star that her arrival at our National Theatre was merely a guest performance, in between her triumphs in St Petersburg and on the continent. The people were packed in crowds on the square outside the theatre, formed a human chain to the hotel where she was staying, cheered, wept, lifted her in their arms. I was one of those who pushed their way to the front! The tears ran down my cheeks, I shouted and cheered with all the might of my lungs. In spite of the biting winter chill, my coat fell open, and it never occurred to me to cover my bare head as I stood before this lofty, tragic figure, this first woman I had ever seen who could hold her head high. What good fortune that I at least had a leather cap to press passionately to my chest!

As I stood there like this I presented a thoroughly odd spectacle, and it was not surprising that the great diva noticed me as she passed. Perhaps she also felt touched by such naive and obviously youthful enthusiasm. She stopped right in front of me, took a rose from her bosom, handed it to me with a radiant smile and said: Thank you for coming, dear child!

I stood rooted to the spot holding the rose, the sacred rose of the elect. The people talked and babbled around me, they pushed and shoved me in the crush, trod on my toes. I stood still and looked at my rose. I no longer shouted, cheered, wept, or swam in a sea of bliss. The great solemnity of what had happened to me filled me with a pure, lofty, stern emotion, a responsibility, a demanding certainty that required me to muster all my inner strength. In my eyes it was not the celebrated actress who had given me the rose and marked me out from everyone else. It was Nora, the Nora my passionate heart had summoned forth and experienced with the last drop of its red blood, it was she who had given me the rose and said to me: Don’t give in, Vega! Revealed to me, by a gesture of fate, in a glittering second of inner perception were the secret direction of my conflicting sensations and experiences and the jealously hidden goal of my proud, indomitable dreams.

It was then that I resolved to become the knight of the proud, free woman! With the rose in my hand I gave a holy vow that I would never betray this cause. Never in my life would I marry, never submit to a man’s enticements! Free, untouched and pure I would lead women on to victory. Again with glorious flames within me burned activity long subdued and repressed, and the fighting spirit in my being, the dissension in my name claimed their due. Within my inner self, Atahualpa’s avenger rose up from his humiliation, swords clattered, armies prepared for battle. What music to my ears! What beatitude to my breast! I would show them all, show Mr Dreary and Fridolf and all who called me woman and tried to exclude me from a life of freedom and danger what a woman could achieve in this world. To think that no one had perceived this before! That was something I could not grasp. I was convinced that I was going to create a worldwide movement. For surely women could not voluntarily allow themselves to be shut in like this, like Nora, for example, become dependent and be dandled like children all their lives? A woman only needed to be brave and get to the top, and then all the others would follow. And the brave woman was I, Vega Maria Dreary!


translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

Letter from US Senator on Norway

On August 3, United States Senator Sam Brownback wrote a letter to the Ambassador of Norway in Washington DC. The text of the letter, and the attachment, are reproduced below (click the images to magnify the text).

Monday, 16 August 2010

Chitambo - 3


One evening I went to the theatre, to all appearances the same old spinster Dreary, confused by a thousand contradictory impulses that bubbled up from the restlessness of my blood and spirit, and I emerged from there like one who knew her mission in life, a hero, a liberator, a young Napoleon.

I had made a great decision.

I had gone like everyone else to see the great Ida Aalberg in the role of Ibsen’s Nora – I tried as best I could to keep up with the more noteworthy events in cultural life. But what I saw was a revelation! My own rebellious longing embodied in a dazzling female revelation. I was hardly able to sit still, so dreadfully did I suffer as I watched them tighten the noose around her neck. My eyes were glued to her as though my life were at stake. All the way up to the gallery where I sat one could feel how horrible that home was, detestable, narrow, poisoned. I shook with indignation, I could not understand her indecision. Was she really unable to see through that man, how selfish and foolish he was, utterly unworthy of a woman such as she? And the children were the same, of course! I clenched my fists in impotent rage, I dug my fingernails into the velvet of the barrier in front of me and in a state of passion and overexcitement whispered proud words to my heroine.

And look, a miracle has happened! There she comes in her simple attire – serious, reserved and firm as a fortress. That is what a woman ought to look like!

“I must stand quite alone, if I am to understand myself and everything about me. It is for that reason that I cannot remain with you any longer.”

My heart beats with violent joy, my eyes flash with lightning. The infamous scoundrel of a man speaks of course of her most sacred duties, of husband and child and what people will say.

“I have other duties just as sacred... Duties to myself.”

My heart laughs with delight. How wonderful it is that she can say this! Myself! She just says it, calmly, majestically, as such things ought to be said. Who can harm her when she is able to talk like that? But does anyone believe that this parrot will fall silent as a result? One might think he would have had about as much as he could take, but no! He just starts going on about her being a wife and mother. Before all else, a wife and mother, has one ever heard the like? I half get up from my seat, mutter my protests, hear hisses behind me, but in uncontrollable ecstasy lean far over the balcony as if I could catch from the air the passionately longed-for words:

“I don't believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a reasonable human being...”

Did you all hear that? Before all else a human being! I must reflect on all these things and find out what they mean. Do you realise their significance? If no one else does, Vega Dreary does. At that very moment I hear the sound of the door shutting after Nora, the door through which she breaks out of her home, I sense the curtain going up on a mighty drama in which I myself have been chosen to take part.

I am ignorant and conceited, I know nothing of real life, but even so I am seized by the same inspiration which in those years passes through the entire female world, which drives the suffragettes to battle, induces high-born women to hurl stones through shop windows and pour acid through letter-boxes, climb into ministerial cars in order to shout their “Women’s suffrage, Mr. Asquith!” in the face of the terrified statesman. I have no idea that such things take place, perhaps I don’t even know that, in advance of the women of every other country, the women of my own been granted that right to vote. I have never even heard of the existence of a venerable institution like the Finnish Women’s Union, and have given even less thought to its mission of elevating women in the intellectual sphere and improving their economic and civil status. The little sewing circles in Limingo, Suojärvi, Kangasala, Finby, Pargas, in the most remote parishes and in the largest cities across the land, perform their work entirely without my knowledge, sewing and darning and organizing on a small scale in order to help impoverished mothers and children, provide work for indigent women, support orphanages, workhouses, weaving schools, libraries. If I knew anything about them I would despise them from the bottom of my heart, the sewing circles. I know nothing of the women in my own country who work in quarries, copper mines, brickworks, in match factories, sawmills, pulp mills, paper mills, in cotton mills, bakeries, flour mills, tobacco factories, who earn their living by cooking, lace-making, needlework, washing, ironing, copying, book binding, stevedoring. Even if I knew of them and had seen their bended backs, their tired and worn hands, I would have no idea that it is these women, the most disempowered and despised of all, who with their hard, underpaid labour, their double service in community and home, have laid the foundations of women’s freedom and have made it possible for every Nora to open the door of her home and say: Before all else I am a human being!

(to be continued)

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

Friday, 13 August 2010

Chitambo - 2


Mr Dreary could probably have thought of many other names to replace the unfortunate Fram, had he been given a little more time and not been ambushed by the priest during the ceremony itself. There were several wonderful names to choose from among ships that had steered out upon uncharted seas. Think of the proud squadron with which Fernando de Magallanes embarked on his perilous voyage. Trinidad! Concepcion! Victoria! What radiance surrounded these names! I would willingly have possessed one of them. How easily they have evaporated, those names my schoolteachers tried to imprint on my memory – but the names which Mr Dreary taught me in the happy truancy of the imagination will never be effaced. Their symbolic splendour has only grown more beautiful with the years, like the splendour of old gold.

I can still distinctly feel the thrill of delight that crept down my spine as I sat on my stool at Mr Dreary’s feet, endlessly listening to his stories from seafaring history. Only the loftiest heroism was capable of satisfying me, and stories that lacked elements of defiance in the face of death left me quite unmoved. Mr Dreary himself derived indescribable enjoyment from moments of this kind. When the critical situation was upon the desperate, starving crew and they were threatening to mutiny, he would fall suddenly silent and give me a meaningful look. I would quiver with excitement and my little heart beat violently, but I did not move and uttered not a word, just fixed my gaze on his lips. Then he would get up and strike a cocky pose, as one does on deck in an extreme situation, with death before one’s eyes, and hurl out some incredibly heroic words by the leader of the expedition:

‘Though I am forced to eat the leather on the ships’ mast yards, I shall not perish until I have completed my work.’

We both had a passionate love for lines of this kind. They formed the longed-for climax of every story, and when it was finally reached we fell into each other’s arms, gripped by an inexplicable emotion which neither of us was able to control. We heard the wind singing in the ships’ rigging and saw that it was still the same wind singing the same intoxicating song: glory calls us, calls us... Such was the wind that filled your sails, my childhood’s Trinidad, Concepcion, Victoria!

If anyone had seen me only at home or at school they might well have thought that I was the virtuous daughter my mother wanted, a veritable Virgin Mary. In this world I lived asleep. A heaviness rested on my soul and my body, I felt tormented by my clothes, my pigtails, my duties. This profound discomfort made me apathetic, something I suppose to be the precondition for virtuous conduct in childhood. My mother did all she could to foster the domestic virtues in me, the only virtues a girl in our circles was thought to need. She placed special emphasis on dusting.

That repugnant ceremony was performed each morning with minute exactitude, under my mother’s implacable gaze, with the result that I came to hate every piece of furniture and every room in our home. I loathed all those objects so profoundly that I would probably have kicked them and broken them apart, had not fear held me back and compelled me to assume an air of submission and go around dusting and polishing in a manner that was idiotic and absurd. Lord knows, if only there had been an interval of a few days since the last dusting, some dust might have actually gathered, making one feel some purpose in what one was doing. But no, the whole point of womanly labour is that it must be so refined that it cannot be seen! This total absurdity is typical of all such work that is considered to belong to woman by nature.

It was the same with the work which is so tellingly called “handwork” – as though women would ever be allowed to do anything with their brains! Patching and darning was all right. Not because it was enjoyable, not that either, slow and tricky and petty like everything else in our home, but at least it was a task worthy of a human being compared to all those silly tablecloths and monograms and embroideries on which one was supposed to spend one’s time. Cross stitch and stem stitch, fore stitch and back stitch and pothooks of every conceivable kind, devilishly devised in order to give the absurdity a semblance of meaning. When the hole was darned and the torn cloth patched one did at least have the satisfaction of having done something sensible. But all those unneeded tablecloths, piles of which lay in the chest-of-drawers and were taken out once a year to be aired – they were the real handwork. Into their strange patterns Mrs Dreary and her friends poured all their womanly ambition. These patterns they showed off to one another every time they met, and woe to anyone who had “forgotten her handwork” and without this covering mantle simply sat down at the coffee table to hear gossip and drink coffee. The others would purse their lips and say that it could happen to anyone and not everyone always had a suitable piece of handwork ready, but their tone and looks said all too clearly that this woman was a sloven. They knew the sort of thing that women like her got up to. In fact, the handwork was much more than it professed to be, it was one of the great symbols of decorum, a sign of its possessor’s social status, a testimonial of respectability, conscientiousness and virtue.

In this company I had to sit, decently bowed over a piece of handwork, in an unbearably cramped position and also under close surveillance. My hair was drawn back so fiercely that it hurt my scalp, my nose shone from continual washing with soap and water, my undergarments were so thick that I could hardly move, my dress was so tight and my neckband so high that a straitjacket would truly have come as a relief. The old ladies beamed with contentment and said: Your daughter is a great credit to you, dear Agda. In this company I learned to loathe my own sex. From the dull apathy in my inner being this incipient gleam of fighting spirit rose slowly but surely to the surface of my consciousness.

translated from Finland-Swedish by David McDuff

(to be continued)