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Like a Child on a Literary Expedition
An Autumn of Books About the Senses
Maria Antas
Translated by Neil Smith

This article appeared in the 2005 supplement.

Maria AntasThere are roughly as many Finland-Swedes as there are Icelanders: 300,000 is a good figure to bear in mind. 300,000 people in Finland live their lives in Swedish, with the entire range of careers and mixed postmodern identities. 300,000 people speak Swedish every day in Finnish surroundings, dealing with their jobs, their children, their pets. Quite a number of these people write books. Finland-Swedish literature is a tradition of its own, with a repertoire quite unlike what is written in Sweden, or what is written in Finnish within Finland. A handful of established publishing houses publish books which attract attention both within and beyond the country’s borders, and ten or so more publishers bring out books which provide depth to the literature.

Right now, after the publications of autumn 2004, everyone in the literary world is talking about a blossoming of Finland-Swedish literature. This means that everyone’s interests and needs have coincided: the publishers publish books which are selling reasonably well and which have been nominated for various literary prizes, the critics have found books which are interesting to review, and the readers say that they have enjoyed the books they have read.

A similar literary blossoming occurred fifteen years ago, when Ulla-Lena Lundberg and Lars Sund published the first instalments of their substantial trilogies about the lives and loves of common people during the turbulent changes that rocked Finland in the twentieth century. With Ulla-Lena Lundberg’s novel Leo, about seafaring in the Åland Islands, Finland-Swedish literature finally got the Great Novel which critics had been calling for for decades. The novel was realistic, in both its facts about beautiful ships and its depiction of conflicted individuals. An aura of security and lightness rested over Lundberg’s texts. We all rejoiced! The fact that Lars Sund, with an equally assured hand, then published his depiction of a village community in Ostrobothnia on the west coast of Finland only increased our delight. Perhaps it will eventually become an accepted truth that modern Finland-Swedish literature, born around 1890, finally reached a state of maturity where all literary genres were equally strong after its first century. Poetry has always been a golden thread running through Finland-Swedish literature, the essay has been a dynamic form throughout the twentieth century, and Tove Jansson’s children’s books deserve a chapter of their own. And today, after the publications of autumn 2004, we have a confident literature which delights in formal experimentation and unexpected narratives.
Interestingly, this blossoming appears to be just as strong within Finnish-language publishing. The bestseller lists are topped by native literature. But in two years’ time everything might have changed: literary trends shift rapidly. But nonetheless: I shall never forget the books published in the autumn of 2004. They taught me to discover my senses, and the whole of human complexity, all over again. I have been on a journey, and have returned home to my computer to tell of what I found on my expedition. Just think: to be a stranger in a literature that you thought you knew... Even a jaded critic can become a child again.

Being Lost

The first novel I read out of everything published last autumn was Anders Larsson’s (b.1952) En liten man i norr (A Little Man in the North). I’m glad I read it first, because it threw me into an abstract world without secure structures. It set the tone for the books that would follow. I knew that Anders Larsson was a phenomenal playwright, whose comedies deal with people trying to find fixed points in life, and that he was also an actor, and that his pastiche of Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala, Kalevala för lata (1999, The Kalevala for Dummies) had made me laugh out loud many times. Larsson moved to Finland from Sweden, and perhaps this is why he can see and depict life in Finland from a disrespectful and comic perspective. A Little Man in the North centres upon a civil servant who always means well, but who never has any idea of how to go about it. He works in an unnamed bureaucratic department in the public sector, and is married with teenaged children. Simultaneously, he has none of these things, because he continuously loses himself in dreams and fantasies. He seems to have many lives at the same time, and in the end the reader does not know which reality is true.

Reading Anders Larsson’s prose is like getting lost in a novel. You follow the Little Man, you feel for him and his engaging helplessness, but you have no idea where he is going and where all the stairways and doors in the text will lead. It is absurd throughout all of its 347 pages, and there are clearly limitations to how lost a reader is willing to put up with being, but at the same time I am full of admiration. Anders Larsson is consistent in his intention of constantly shifting the perspective, of leading the Little Man and the reader astray. His vision is absolute, and with a warm and gentle hand he forced me to test the boundaries of art and reality. A Little Man in the North is like a gospel: See: art is great! Life is great – and sometimes dangerous. Your imagination is infinite! This is a beautiful and useful message for a critic who has read too many books and believes that every form and message has already been used.

Being lost is also a theme which runs through Erik Wahlström’s (b.1945) novel Den dansande prästen (The Dancing Priest), set during the nineteenth century. In this novel the concrete points of reference are easily identified: the protagonist is the priest and educationalist Uno Cygnæus (1810-88), who laid the foundations for universal, free schooling in Finland during the 1860s, one of the absolute fundamentals of Finland’s development into a modern nation. The historical characters and events surrounding Cygnæus are also identifiable. But instead of creating a commonplace historical biography out of these basic facts, Wahlström – also a renowned journalist and naturalist – ventures into the fantastical terrain of fiction. He introduces secondary characters who, like Anders Larsson’s Little Man in the North, mean well, but somehow fail in their efforts. One of them means to discover the great synthesis between science, art and philosophy, but instead ends up becoming head of Helsingfors’s first gasworks. Another wants to enlighten the eskimos, but is instead enchanted and absorbed by their culture. A third, a young woman, is seeking absolute, pure knowledge, but never succeeds in understanding even what is closest to her: her own body. Among these wayward characters runs the tale of Uno Cygnæus, whom the women of Finland in particular have to thank for the fact that they have been able to go to school (thanks, Uno!). The oppositional pairings between which Uno is tossed are, on the one hand, his pure and strong belief that children must be granted knowledge, access to words and numbers, without the involvement of the church, and, on the other, his tendency to allow himself to be enticed all too easily by women’s bodies, their scented, sweet sensuality.

Portraits of remarkable historical figures often tend to focus on their achievements and the more or less obscure ideological and political complications in which they become entangled. But Wahlström focuses on Cygnæus’s body; he is a hedonist, and becomes a great educationalist almost by accident. He is ridiculous, almost as lost as Anders Larsson’s civil servant, and it is this which makes the novel so disarming. Cygnæus ends up having adventures in Åbo, Alaska, St. Petersburg and Helsingfors, and the fact that he became “A Great Man” is almost accidental. Maybe I too, with all my odd shortcomings and contradictions, could achieve something big, I thought hopefully once I had finished the book.

The Strong Body

Human beings as physically strong creatures are an unusual motif in literature – as far as I am aware. Athletes, like blondes, belong to the group of people to whom few serious authors pay any artistic or psychological attention. Or have I got that wrong?

If this is the rule, then Zinaida Lindén’s (b.1963) novel I väntan på en jordbävning (Waiting for an Earthquake) is a rare exception. The cover shows a photograph of a huge granite foot in St. Petersburg. The foot belongs to one of the four Atlases who bear the weight of the portico of the New Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and which in Soviet songs became metaphors for all the human strength which man would need to hold up the heavens – or the Soviet state. Anyone can see that the giant's strength, notwith-standing his stone bulk, will never be up to the task of keeping his heavy burden in the air. But it is worth trying, even so. This is the experience of the novel’s protagonist, Ivan Demidov. The old Soviet Union does its best to nurture this sort of strength in him, so that he will be able to lift and carry aloft the Soviet illusion while the western world applauds in astonishment. Ivan Demidov trains relentlessly at weightlifting, he competes abroad, and takes anabolic steroids so as to be up to the task. But nobody knows that he is simultaneously consumed by a desire for destruction: he suffers from pyromania, a rather fatal personality disorder if you are also supposed to be a brave fireman. Like Erik Wahlström’s Uno Cygnæus, Ivan Demidov is something of a comic antihero, who is deceived by both turbulent circumstances and his own body. Admittedly, he is given another chance to use his strength when he is engaged by a Japanese businessman to become a sumo wrestler in Japan, and, in the rigid hierarchy of the wrestlers, has to use all his strength to succeed in this time-honoured and prestigious sport, which – like weight-lifting in the Soviet Union – acts as a metaphor for their cultures’ desire to suppress reality. The earthquake, the tumult suggested in the title, lurks everywhere; the whole world knows this in 2005, after the tsunami. The Atlantic plates are deceitful, catastrophes and destruction loom over us, even if we use every last bit of our strength to suppress our awareness of this impending demise.

Zinaida Lindén has a quite unique ability to combine precision with the fantastical, the real with the vaguely imagined – this has been evident from her two previous collections of short stories. We learn a wealth of information about weight-lifters’ bodies, their muscles and the consequences of doping, about the history and rituals of sumo wrestling, and about life in the old Soviet Union and in ultra-modern Japan, countries in which she herself has lived. At the same time Lindén has a clear grasp of the novel’s possibilities for exaggeration, for creating sympathy, and for making excursions via interesting peripheral characters. This is genuinely impressive, and for a moment I wonder how it would feel to have really, really strong muscles. Then a moment later I am happy just to read about such great strength. I am happy with the soft body I’ve got. But this excursion to the Atlases and the athletic world has stayed with me as a physical memory.

Merete Mazzarella (b.1945) has been an intelligent and stylish essayist since the early 1990s. In both her newspaper columns and books, for instance in Tanten och krokodilen (1995, The Old Lady and the Crocodile) and Otrohetens lockelse (1997, The Temptations of Infidelity), she notices trends in contemporary life, combines her observations and actions in suggested moral conclusions which are based upon humanistic respect for the individual and our responsibilities towards our fellow human beings. This sense of responsibility and mutuality is also demonstrated in her collection of stories, November, albeit in the form of a mirror image. In these stories, which actually make up a novel of sorts, the various protagonists have got lost in an extreme form of individualism and strength which is just as fragile and hopeless as Ivan Demidov’s. They have success, beauty, wealth, influence, the chance to travel without restriction. They also have the right and the opportunity to choose when their bodies should die. Euthanasia has become a commodity for anyone wanting total control; assistance to die is given on a daily basis, either cheaply, or luxuriously and expensively, according to the wishes of the customer.

Mazzarella’s stories take place on one and the same day, 13 November 2012, and they feel terrifying. Futuristic tales are often dystopian, of course, but what makes these stories so unsettling is that in a very skilful and nuanced way they deal with things that are only a small shift away from what we regard as normal today. Everyone is concerned about their body, everyone has the right to seek their own happiness, everyone has wondered about creating and maintaining relationships via their computer... But somewhere there runs a boundary where what today is commonplace becomes narcissistic and, quite simply, destructive, both on an individual level and for society as a whole. The step from warped self-image to terrorism need not be as great as we in the so-called civilized world believe it to be. Only deluded Islamic extremists hijack planes? The fact that Mazzarella chooses to have a group of young Finnish men hijack a plane on 13 November 2012 is consequential: how far are we prepared to let individualism have free rein? These particular terrorists do not appear to have any lofty aim behind their actions, but it affects all the central characters in the book, one way or another.

On the Edge of Society

Finland-Swedish literature has often been accused of being obsessed with the examination of the problem of bourgeois identity. It is too psychological, too interested in the modern human being who has shut out the rest of the world and the ideological conflicts in society. It is rather boringly self-obsessed. Supposedly. This is in part a striking characterization, but it is just as applicable to the critics and literary historians who have investigated Finland-Swedish literature. These overwhelmingly male critics have themselves had their roots in the bourgeois middle-class, and have therefore drawn attention to what they themselves recognize. In the backyards of the canon are a lot of forgotten books about workers, exhausted bodies, the oppression of women and issues of justice of a global nature. Sometimes I ask if my literary friends know of the author Greta Gustafsson-Knyphausen. No-one ever has (apart from the poet and bibliophile Thomas Mikael Bäck). She wrote in the 1950s about the Cold War and women’s responsibility to act as agents for peace. Before 1968, in other words. This is merely one example of forgotten literature.

During the autumn of 2004 two novels were published which reminded me of literature’s possibilities of sensitively exploring the underbelly of society, the people who don’t have much, but who are masters of survival because they are careful collectors of discarded goods and earthy stories. Robert Åsbacka (b.1961) has long lived in Sweden, but continues to publish his books in Finland. This is a good thing, because he is both an intelligent and funny writer, as he proved in his previous novel, Döbelns gränd (2000, Döbelns Alley), which used both parody and realism to depict a group of odd characters in a small town. In his new novel Fallstudie. En roman om materialanskaffning (A Case Study. A Novel about Gathering Materials), he pushes the underbelly theme a step further. The main characters are Øyvind and Ralf, who travel around Stockholm collecting scrap from which they intend to create a large art installation in the House of Culture, according to the designs of a great artist. Both scavengers are exiles: Øyvind from Norway, Ralf from Finland. They may be connected to the vaunted citadel of the House of Culture in central Stockholm, but only as casual labourers. Somewhere they have dreams of creating something themselves, in some way they know they have the intelligence and capacity to survive. But instead they choose to drive around like anonymous losers in their van, looking for scrap which can be transformed into high cultural art. A Case Study is an urban road movie, and it feels very physical. It has a taste of metal, worn rubber and scrapheap, and the fact that one of the main characters eventually cuts open his body on the installation’s rusty metal wires is entirely consistent – and loaded with tragedy. He falls from the lofty installation, precisely as many others have fallen in various ways throughout the book. The pull from below is strong: even someone who has managed to climb just one step up the social ladder is likely to fall and tear open old wounds, in soul or body. Åsbacka’s novel is wise, warm, funny and sad in a uniquely stylized way. You can tell that he has spent time researching one of the forgotten writers of Finland-Swedish modernism, R. R. Eklund, the master of minimalism. And he is certainly not self-obsessed in a bourgeois and individualistic way.

The same positive description could be given to the most remarked-upon literary debutante of the autumn, Sabine Forsblom (b. 1961), whose novel Maskrosguden (The Dandelion God) chronicles the history of a family through the twentieth century. The family has been tested hard by being on the wrong end of rifle barrels, by worn-out shoes, war, miserly employers and damp houses. Not one of them got to live the life depicted in the beautiful Hollywood films seen in various decades. Certainly, the characters can summon up jaded cinematic dialogue on demand, but in reality they have no control over what happens in their lives. Sabine Forsblom’s setting is the classic small town and its surroundings, an environment with idyllic and pastoral associations. But in her version no-one has time to stop and admire nature. They are all workers, and they work, dance, weave rugs, work in sawmills, sell train tickets or sit in the sauna. Everyone is active, they are in motion, just as time itself is in motion. Sabine Forsblom’s well-linked episodes are detailed and burlesque depictions of, and paeans to, the twentieth century’s working class: the characters are not shown in dialogue with the grand narrative of Finland’s political development. On the contrary, they are placed in the foreground, and the grand master narrative has to take its place in the background. These characters are thus more powerful and tougher than official history. They have more body, they have a greater repertoire of experience, tales and perspective than those in power, who can only afford one sort of narrative, that of progress, of continuous growth. In order to survive morally we all need precisely these sorts of stories about vulnerable and worn-out bodies, regardless of whether they belong to people who lived before us during the period of European industrialization or those who are struggling today in vast factories in Asia. I believe that the depiction of bodies can, paradoxically, promote responsibility and conscience.

Inner closeness

Monika Fagerholm (b.1961) has become internationally known and acclaimed for her unusual novels about women and children who do as they please, who do not abide by the norms of language and behaviour. In Underbara kvinnor vid vatten (1994, tr. Wonderful Women by the Water, 1997) a mother leaves her son in order to pursue a beautiful life abroad, and in Diva (1998) a teenage girl obstinately and wonderfully transgresses the expectations of her environment of what a girl should be like. In her new novel, Den amerikanska flickan (The American Girl), Monika Fagerholm's exploration of boundary transgressions has moved to a further level of complexity. In the framework narrative we meet Eddie de Wire, who arrives from America to spend the summer in Finland, and becomes friends with some children in the area, but who then dies unexpectedly. What really happened, and the relationships between the various children and the adults around them, gives rise to a construction which resembles an oriental carpet. The finger – the reader’s searching gaze – runs over and through the detail, but loses itself before the line meets another natural line. Somewhere in the jumble of beautiful and vividly coloured detail is something which could be called the centre, and which everyone within the narrative, and the reader outside it, is searching for. Is this a case of murder? Does everything revolve around repeated betrayals and treachery? Perhaps it is not really important to look for a defined centre in this book: perhaps it is more stimulating simply to enjoy the colours, the depiction of 1970s culture, and above all the depiction of the relationship between two girls who give and take everything from each other. They lie close to one another and tell secrets, discover their bodies, give each other space simply to be. In spite of all the uncertainty which exists and moves around them, they proclaim a world of inner closeness and their own norms. Out of everything that one can admire Monika Fagerholm for – her texts are extremely original and daring – it is this feeling of transgressive closeness, not necessarily anything to do with sexuality, which stays with you, in your own body’s experience of reading.

One author’s oeuvre which is developing a few paces behind Monika Fagerholm’s is that of Mikaela Sundström (b.1971). She was unexpectedly nominated for the prestigious Finlandia Prize for Literature for her first novel Dessa himlar kring oss städs (1999, These Heavens Around Us Always). The book was very short and was not sensational in any particular way. But it simply had a direct charm in its story of a young female photographer who makes the move from an urban life abroad to the Finnish countryside. After they had read the book many readers were enchanted by Sundström’s ability to depict the warm body of a cow(!). Sundström has refined this love of the intense warmth and vulnerability found in the countryside in her novel Till alla hästar och till vissa flickor (To All Horses and to Certain Girls). The theme sounds classical: a man describes in retrospect his memories of summers in the country, his friendship with two girls, and their struggle to train a champion trotting horse. But beneath the surface lies a skilfully constructed tale of the boy’s alienation from what his body is telling him about life in the countryside, and an implicit grander narrative about the progress of civilization and urbanization. The sensual way of life which the young boy gets to know in the countryside is brutally dying. The practice of keeping horses as obvious and practical pets, and as a means to economic advancement on the trotting tracks, is dying out, and with it is dying the small person’s ability to make a living from agriculture. In an EU where agriculture is becoming ever more industrialized, Sundström’s lament to the countryside assumes a political dimension. Closeness between one person and another, between people and animals, has been transformed into a memory, nostalgic and clear-sighted. Would we really want to – do we want to – extinguish the organic, the sensual, the unarticulated corporeal?

Betrayal that burns the skin

If we say that Sundström is trying to recreate a rural form of life and culture, then Kjell Westö (b.1961) can be said to be the author who, in a more nuanced way than anyone else, has depicted the lives of the generations who are trying to make urban life their own. In his novels Drakarna över Helsingfors (1996, Kites Over Helsingfors) and Vådan av att vara Skrake (2000, The Perils of Being a Skrake) he created modern epics about people who have become alienated from both their past and the present in which they are living. People and time have lost their synchronicity. The inability of adults to orientate themselves and create durable structures for their lives becomes particularly apparent in their relationships with their children: they simply do not know what to pass on to those who are still growing. This bifurcation between various forms of life also runs like a red thread through Westö’s short stories, a selection of which is published in the volume Lugna favoriter (Soothing Favourites). It includes many of his earlier stories which have now become classics, but also newly written tales. In finely wrought prose he conjures forth portraits of people who are inhibited by internal demons which whisper of betrayal. In their efforts to choose between all the options available in the modern world, there is always someone who gets hurt, and it is here that Westö’s warm spotlight shines most intensely. His humanistically anchored empathy means that he differs from most authors whose have studied the theme of losers. Of course, he understands and can forgive those who betray, but above all he places the reader firmly in the body and emotions of the betrayed party. Under the surface are stories of the merciless progression of time, of great but impractical dreams, avarice, and individual and communal short-sightedness. In short: experiences of modernity. The depiction of these experiences has meant that literary historians have pointed out the links between him and the flâneurs of the 1910s, the worldly but world-weary decadents who promenaded through both Finland-Swedish and Swedish literature. But empathy is hardly the word that literary historians would use of the flâneurs. They were self-obsessed, unlike Westö’s characters.
Alienation at the pace of change is also a recurrent theme of Henrik Jansson’s (b.1955) and Peter Sandström’s (b.1963) novels. As in Westö’s writing, the father figure and masculinity is one of the most conflicted areas in the lives of their literary characters. How ought young and middle-aged men to understand their own fathers, and how do they themselves function as fathers to their own children? In Peter Sandström’s Manuskript för pornografiska filmer (Scripts for Pornographic Films – be warned: the title is more titillating than the content!) a man in early middle-age is confronted with his own shortcomings as a family member. He has evidently used violence against his wife, abandoned his daughters and is now supposed to take care of his sister, who has descended into depressive apathy. During this time he is to earn his living by writing scripts for pornographic films which a producer has commissioned from him. But the potent masculinity which pornography builds upon is nowhere to be seen around him, the project and title therefore produce a highly ironic distancing effect to the various failures depicted in the book. He has no particular understanding of his own father, nor does he himself possess the power to create alternative models of masculinity.

The ingredients of Sandström’s novel have been spiced up by the crises borne of experience of life: a single man writes about an existential failure, precisely as Christer Kihlman and Henrik Tikkanen did in the 1970s, and as Fredrik Lång (b.1947) does in his trilogy of novels entitled Den äktenskapliga komedin (The Matrimonial Comedy), where men try to find their own way of life in the shadow of feminism. In these texts there are glimpses of the insight that there must be other, more nuanced ways of embodying masculinity, while the text moves gradually between crisis-laden memories, accusations and failures. Occasionally there are glimpses of satire and humour, such as when Fredrik Lång describes the Finnish man’s automatic obsession with having to build a house for his family, no matter how capable he happens to be. Comedy and tragedy at one and the same time. There ought to be some sort of study into the rhetoric of Finland-Swedish masculinity. It has deep roots, all the way back to Karl August Tavaststjerna’s (1860-99) decadent novels of the 1890s. Is there a boisterous, life-affirming male author writing Finland-Swedish literature today, I start to ask myself? Actually, there is one: Lars Sund (b.1953), the manifoldly crowned king of adventurous novels, and also Lars Huldén (b.1925), the multi-faceted poet who occasionally makes excursions into prose and lays fantastic tales of heroism at the feet of his astonished readers. He has brought this sense of masculinity to his magnificent translation into Swedish of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. There the heroes are boisterous, physical – and yet still credible within their own mythical universe. But other boisterous men, are there any left in these postmodern times?

The end of (hi)story: Delirium

Whatever parameters one uses to speak about a culture and its literature, one book or other always slips through the thematically constructed mesh. And this has happened here as well. Alongside the intelligent, surprising and amusing books which I and my body have enjoyed this winter is a slender volume which is quite unlike everything else. This in spite of its also being intelligent, surprising and amusing. It is a picture book for adults, Delirium. Romanen om en hund (Delirium. The Story of a Dog), written by Stella Parland (b.1974) and illustrated by Linda Bondestam (b.1977). Just like Tove Jansson, Parland transgresses boundaries with her writing: she combines maturity and childishness, anti-war sentiment with good-natured fantasies, nonsense with linear narrative. Imagine a story like this: the Duchess Spiguletta Grod af Grenadin has sat down to write a novel about patience but is interrupted by the news that her dog Kenneth Smedlund has peed on the neighbour’s garden, where the worthy ambassador of a foreign power lives. The ambassador calls in his troops after declaring war on Kenneth the dog. The advance of the troops is however hampered by the chaos created by two competing flea circuses; amongst other things, the members of one of the circuses are far too interested in coffee and cakes. And so on, but in the end everything resolves itself like in few good novels these days. The war stops and someone falls happily in love. Did you know that such novels existed these days? Warm but disrespectful and complete thanks to illustrations which are at least as expressive and unexpected as the text. I want more illustrated novels – do you hear?!

Now and then Finland-Swedish literature glows in the sudden, clear light of absurdity. Ralf Parland’s science fiction stories and oriental fantasies of the 1950s, Tove Jansson, Anders Larsson and Stella Parland are all examples of literature beyond trends and realism. Above all: after reading these books, and all the other books which were published in the autumn of 2004, a blessed set of publications, I am a happier person and critic ;-)

But to return to the parallel with Iceland, which also has a lot of authors who delve beyond the safe frame of realism. Perhaps literature within small linguistic areas can better afford to play with conventions; the chances of making a fortune by writing an airport bestseller are pretty slim if your maximum number of potential readers is only 300,000 people, including children under school age. If you can’t get rich, perhaps you can afford to take a chance on madness and experimentation instead?

But, on the other hand: next year everyone may be writing realistic epic novels. Or poetry – that’s something Finland-Swedish writers do quite a lot. Trends change so fast…