Henry Parland hailed from a Germano-Russian family whose members fled revolutionary St Petersburg to settle in Finland. He was born in Viborg in 1908 and did not learn Swedish until he was 14 years old. A reluctant student of law, Henry was drawn to the literary life of Helsinki and entered the world of Finnish Modernism – to the dismay of his father Oswald, who felt his son needed sobering up, both mentally and otherwise. So, in May 1929, Henry Parland was dispatched to Kaunas to stay with his maternal uncle, Professor Vilhelm Sesemann. And it was in Kaunas that the budding writer died of scarlet fever in November 1930. He was 22 years old.
“Ich schreibe einen Roman”, he wrote to his brother Ralf in January 1930. This novel was Sönder (om framkallning av Veloxpapper) (To Pieces (on the developing of Velox paper)) and Henry hoped to enter it for a literary prize. He had completed work on the main manuscript by late summer, but was still playing with various alternatives and reworkings when he died. A posthumous collection of his work, published in 1932, included the central body of the Sönder manuscript. The editors were Gunnar Björling, Rabbe Enckell, Sven Grönvall and Henry’s father, Oswald. Björling and Enckell took main charge of the text: correcting spelling, changing names, editing out some passages and bringing the language in line with the conventions of the time. A somewhat modernised and rearranged version was then produced by Oscar Parland, Henry’s brother, in 1966. The novel, stripped further of Finlandisms (and of “Parlandisms” arising from Henry’s cosmopolitan linguistic heritage) appeared on its own for the first time in 1987, published by the Swedish Författarförlaget.
I became interested in Henry Parland on discovering Podium’s 1998 print-on-demand edition of the 1987 version. After discussion with Oscar Parland’s son, Oliver, I began to translate... Meanwhile the Swedish academic Per Stam – whose doctoral thesis centred on Sönder – was studying the original manuscripts and has now produced a consolidated text, restoring much of the quirkiness of the original. This, with its appendices and commentary, is the basis for my translation.
Stam amusedly notes that the novel is “a modernist classic written in invandrarsvenska, or rather invandrarfinlands-svenska”. In the world-weary way of youth, Parland writes of an affair that pretty much ended before it began. (A prefatory Motto announces: “This book is perhaps a plagiarism of Marcel Proust”.) Drawing on the language of photography, Parland evokes the process of writing – and suggests that much of life is in our heads. Proustian moments in 1920s Prohibition Helsinki.
Here are the first two chapters of Sönder, based on the working version of the latest edition of the Swedish text, now published as: Sönder (om framkallning av Veloxpapper). Utgiven och kommenterad av Per Stam. (Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland, Helsingfors/Atlantis, Stockholm, 2005).
I The writer inspects himself in the mirror
Before he began writing this novel the writer took his mirror from the washstand, placed it in front of him and inspected his face. It was somewhat elongated, neither out of the ordinary nor without its personal stamp. The eyes were grey and weary, the hair dark, struggling its way back from the forehead to settle, smooth and thick, above the ears. The mouth was a bit bored and heavy, anxious to convey irony – but that required effort. And effort cut two extended streaks at either corner. The chin kept its counsel.
Overall the impression was of tentativeness, coupled with a strong sense of self. Sometimes one trait predominated, sometimes the other, depending on his humour, which in turn was dictated by the interplay and harmony between his tie and the invariably semi-starched and long-tipped collar. All this duly corre-lated with a host of external factors such as a ready supply of money, cigarettes, sensual input etc. The writer was none the less in rotten humour on occasions, flawless collar tips notwithstanding. But further probing on this front would take us farther than we might wish to go, so suffice it to say: he was a man of moods.
The mirror reflected his image disinterestedly. It had done so several times a day for one-and-a-half years and was now thoroughly sick of the writer’s physiognomy and ties. Mirrors (leaving aside the more phlegmatic pocket variety) are like camera lenses in that they tire incredibly fast of forever seeing the same old face. So that a shaving mirror veritably craves the occasional sight of a pouting female mouth working in its lipstick. And a Zeiss-Ikon lens becomes blurred and out-of-focus when called upon to photograph the same person several times over. The writer’s mirror was no exception. It reflected his jaded and yawning face and, when he continued to stare regardless, grimaced.
Knife-like, the streaks at the mouth’s corners clove his features, eye symmetry was lost and the chin gaped contemptuously down. The writer stuck out his tongue at his mirror image, which immediately did likewise; then he lit a cigarette and started to write. He began with a love letter.
You died a year ago last week, Ami, and I owe you an apology for failing to mark the occasion until now. Goodness knows why I so completely and utterly forgot; I can’t even remember what I was doing on the day. Probably sitting in the consulate, flicking through stiff, impersonal papers and looking out of the window. It was raining. Although I actually can’t remember too clearly. – Maybe I’m getting mixed up with this time last year. Then it rained all autumn: fine, sharp drops that seeped through clothes, stinging one to a shiver. As we walked home from your funeral, all Sten and I wanted to do was slip in somewhere for a reviving cup of hot coffee. We made for Hotel Kämp on the Esplanade. The café there was so empty that we were in two minds about going in. We sat for two hours talking business.
Rolf approached as we were about to leave. Sten told him we’d been to your funeral. Rolf’s spectacles flashed uncomprehendingly. Then something seemed to spring into his mind. “Indeed, indeed”, he said – and proceeded on his way, his carriage a bit too upright.
But the last thing I want to do is gossip about your old friends, Ami. Rolf was uncharacteristically vague that day and I’m sure he thought better of his behaviour afterwards. Not to mention the fact that we were standing in the hotel lobby, with people running up and down stairs and doors banging. Distraction enough to bemuse anyone.
I’m sure therefore you’ll forgive Rolf and me for failing, each in our own way, to fret enough over your death. My trouble is that I forget things so incredibly fast. Almost faster than you – and you weren’t half good at it. Writing to you as I am now – and there’s a matter I wish to raise with you, almost a business proposition – it is not easy to hit a direct, personal note. I do not see you clearly enough any more. Well, I can maybe just about force my brain to focus in on your every detail, but the image simply doesn’t come to life. Six months back it was another story. But what a difference six months can make!
Do you realise you’ve been elevated to the status of some kind of saint? When speaking of you these days it has become obligatory to adopt a dolefully official tone of voice. (Sickening as it admittedly is, I am probably partly to blame.) All these people seem to have forgotten that you were a human being; in their eyes you are but an accretion of fine traits and qualities. I’m sure you don’t much care for that – pretty sure, anyway. Which brings me on to the matter I wish to raise with you – almost a proposal, as I mentioned earlier – and I do hope you’ll oblige. No worries, it’s nothing terrible! I even have an inkling you might like the idea, although I’m having some trouble expressing myself. Hence this long introduction.
Look, Ami, I’d like to write this book about you. With your permission of course. I want to write you down as I remember you and I’d very much appreciate your assistance. The manner of that assistance doesn’t matter too much. You’ll doubtless have your limitations: you are dead, after all. Yet you could still potentially help me find a way of not leaving anything out; of getting you properly defined and alive before my eyes. Your cooperation would be much appreciated.
Look, I want to have you in front of me again as you were, not as the badly painted icon people have since turned you into. I must smash that icon to pieces, for it is not you. Your job is to assist.
I intend to tear your image from every nook of my soul and write it down on narrow-lined, white vellum paper. Maybe it will hurt. There is undeniably a touch of brutality involved. Yet the key, I’m sure, is to prise you free from all the representations you’re tangled up with and which stop me from seeing you there in front of me.
You’re afraid you’ll end up dying for me all over again? Darling Ami, in that case just think of those moments of life before you fade out and this book reaches completion. If you are prepared to help me with the writing, that is. And what happens next? Goodness me, we’ve only just begun – and here you are worrying about the end!
Anyway, even if you’re not up for it, I’ve at least done the decent thing and notified you of my decision. It’s a pity I had to disturb you in that case, but the damage is now done. I’ll wish you goodnight then, Ami. Think it over. We ought ideally to start tomorrow evening. I’ll be waiting for you around 10. Any earlier probably wouldn’t be a good idea; there’s too much light during the daytime. So, I’ll see you at 10 tomorrow evening. Sleep well.
II On taking photographs and developing prints
I am the owner of a Zeiss-Ikon camera: 6 x 9 cm plates; aperture: F/6.3. My preferred choice was the F/4.5 model, but it would have cost nearly twice as much and my finances could not stretch to that in one go. The camera has been with me now for three years and I've spent a fortune on plates, accessories and developing.
Once upon a time I took landscapes, but now only do individual and group portraits. Landscape photographs are constantly trying to pass themselves off as high art – neither proper nor feasible in my opinion. A photograph should settle for capturing every last detail of a situation and nothing more. Therefore it will always be the snapshot of a moment. Exposure times longer than 1/5th of a second run counter to the very essence of photography.
I always do my own developing. Three or four times a year I am gripped by a furious urge to develop and print plates taken several months earlier and left to lie for so long in the cupboard, wrapped in their light-resistant paper, that I cannot even remember what they are. I lock myself into my room, screw a red bulb into the lamp and mercilessly sweep everything off the desk. On it I place baths containing water, developer and acid fixing salts, purchased that same day and dissolved by an ecstatic me in a measuring jug full of hot water.
Metol-hydroquinone is my favourite developer. It is handy to use and, given my tendency to get carried away when working on negatives, there is less likelihood of mistakes being made in the heat of the moment. I am also fond of Agfa’s double-sided glass capsules, with their soft tinfoil casing which tears open more readily than a living body, allowing the powder to stream out in white, vitreous grains. Fixing salts, on the other hand, fill me with a certain hostility. Their crystals behave in far too demanding and self-assured a fashion as they plop noisily to the bottom of the glass.
I lay the plate in the bath and let the developer glide caressingly over the gelatine membrane, which blushes slightly at the touch of the red lamplight on its pale, matt hue. I sway the bath back and forth and my heart beats ever faster. And when, like a burgeoning flush, the first dark flecks on the plate begin to emerge, the experience reaches its climax. Henceforward I perform with a perfectly cool head as I make the necessary adjustments to shade and intensity. Further mistakes are rare; my hands work with machine-like precision and I experience a weary limpness inside – until the plate in question is sufficiently darkened and the next can be plunged into the bath. Then I surge back to life.
Semi-matt, soft paper is my favourite when it comes to printing out negatives, for it offers greater depth and does not distort the image in the way that hard or glossy paper can sometimes do. And whereas developing negatives is a rather theoretical activity – you can only guess at the final result from the density and sharpness of the black swathes – printing renders the miracle real. All at once a face, a landscape, stares out from the pure white sheet, just as you remember, yet clouded by impressions and associations too indistinct to be separated out. Here in the bath, rosily tinged by the red light from the bulb, that blurred and clouded impression reclines intact, sharply differentiated from everything around it, and detailed in a way that only a camera lens – never a human eye – can capture.
The whole joy of a photograph lies in those previously unobserved details; once you are used to them and your image of the subject in question is complete, the picture itself is of no further interest. A photograph thus turns out to have a very short lifespan. After just a few hours it appears rather forlorn and bygone and is best put aside and forgotten – until one day, by chance, you are visited by that same sense of immediacy and novelty that comes when small and trivial details make the remembrance of something quite removed and forgotten flash up with all the compelling brightness and suggestive illusion of reality. Never do you get a stronger feeling of this than when you are bent over a developing bath and feature after feature shoots forth, each one complementing – giving new meaning and weight to – the next and finally coalescing as a picture which, wide-eyed, takes in the room like a newborn child.
A prime instance is when you are printing out negatives of faces and groups. There is something of an awakening from the dead in the process. A state of affairs or an expression which in real life is never repeated can now be reproduced at will, the only requirement being an adequate supply of printing paper and developer. You can create hundreds of copies of the features of a person who died many years ago. You can fill your whole room with pictures, one identical to the other and all smiling or staring in the same manner. Pretty much a guaranteed way to go crazy if photographs did not have such a short lifespan that they managed, after just a few hours, to forsake their lifelike selves and transmogrify into forlorn and superficial reproductions of something not even worth a second thought.