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No one could call reading – or writing, for that matter – a social activity. No matter how many reading, or writing, groups you may choose to join, the actual engagement with a book is something you do alone.
Music, theatre, cinema, dance – those really are social enterprises. You can go to them together; you can watch them together, at the same time; you can talk about the experience you’ve shared. Even computer games, which sometimes seem to their elders to be making solipsists of all our children, are social, even if the ‘friends’ they play with may be the other side of the world, and may not speak the same language.
You’re never alone with a good book, as the advertising slogan says. But you’re not exactly in company, either… except….
I’ve been struck, in editing Books from Finland over the past few months, by the multiplicity of voices that surround it.
There are the voices of the authors, of course, sharply differentiated and individual. But – particularly in preparing our newly digitised archive pieces for publication – I’ve been listening to the voices of the writers who have contributed introductions to the work we feature, or interviewed our authors.
Pekka Tarkka on the Pispala authors, for example, or Erkka Lehtola on Gösta Ågren, or David Barrett on Aleksis Kivi, or Daniel Katz on (ahem) Daniel Katz – all of them seem to me to play the role of co-readers, friendly and better-informed, offering a warm enthusiasm and understanding to lighten the loneliness of reading, particularly reading work from a culture that may be less than familiar.
I have to declare an interest here: I came to Books from Finland as a recent graduate, not in any literary discipline, but in mathematics. I was bilingual, yes, and a voracious reader (in fact it was reading in Finnish that began to teach me to read more slowly, more attentively), but I knew nothing of Finnish literature beyond the snatches of pre-war poetry that my mother and my aunt used to love to recite. In terms of literature, Books from Finland was my university; and, years before I was allowed anywhere near the great and good figures who sat on the Editorial Board, or encountered any of the writers in person, their friendly voices helped me to open the door to the world of Finnish writing.
Criticism, in Books from Finland, takes place behind the scenes – before publication, not in it: this isn’t so much a critical journal as a journal of recommendations. Criticism, analysis, is of course by no means barred from our pages; but it’s not the main point. The writing that accompanies the texts – with its analyses of character and plot, its expositions of historical background, its personal memories, its personal readings – performs a different role.
Back in 1995, in the introduction to a volume of new writing from Finland that I edited with Soila Lehtonen (On the Border, Carcanet), we wrote: ‘beyond the limits of literature written in English, but adjoining it, lies writing whose language structure, preoccupations and reality are different enough to reflect something new into the world called English literature’. This is the kind of writing we featured in On the Border, and it’s the kind of writing we run in Books from Finland. ‘In its closeness lies the possibility of understanding…; in its otherness lies the hope of enrichment, excitement, enlargement.’
Books from Finland rests on the generous support for the arts which has always formed part of Finnish government policy. Ever since the days of Jean Sibelius, Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Alvar Aalto, Finland has always traded on its artistic reputation, principally in music, art and architecture; Finnish literature, limited by its languages, has played a quieter role, although through the efforts of government-funded bodies such as the Finnish Literature Exchange in promoting the publication of work in translation, an increasingly important one.
As we noted in On the Border, it’s this tradition of artistic self-promotion that allows us, here at Books from Finland, to give our translators – who might otherwise have sought an easier and more lucrative language to work from – a place to publish, and to develop a conversation about Finland, in English but not English.
Enrichment, excitement, enlargement: none of these has changed over the past twenty years. They are still the primus motor, the values that continue to lie at the heart of the Books from Finland project. Good books, good translation, and explanation – the friendly voices of those fellow readers and fellow enthusiasts who can open the door, point out the most interesting features of the new literary landscape that lies within, explain its oddities, and suggest possible routes and interesting detours.
The post Friendly voices first appeared on Books from Finland.
In a recent ‘Saturday essay’ in the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper (9 August) journalist Oskari Onninen ponders the moral dilemma of pretending to be erudite. For example, who has the time to read books these days? ‘The Woolfs remain unread, Bergmans unwatched’, Onninen writes.
Our consumerist lifestyle forces us to follow the trends of ever-expanding, multiplying forms of entertainment. However, it is apparent that the need to know about culture in order to pass as a cultured, well-informed citizen still exists, to some extent at least.
According to Onninen, there is less and less time for unproductivity. ‘If one looks for measurable cost-benefit results from the reading of heavyweight fiction, the act of reading will certainly not always be worthwhile.’ Consuming art (reading books, going to art exhibitions, watching plays) requires time and effort, and how productive is that?
How many people have read all six of the autobiographical books by Karl Ove Knausgård (of contemporary fame) – or Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, for that matter? But, as Onninen points out, online access to virtual information makes superficial knowledge about anything easy to acquire. Then you are able to play the role of an intelligent connoisseur of culture. The title of Onninen’s essay is ‘I, a civilised hacker’.
This brings to mind a book I bought in London in 1976: Bluff Your Way in the Theatre (by Michael R. Turner). It was an entertaining little booklet providing the reader with useful hints on how to impress people with credible views about the Thespian art and contemporary theatre. To a drama literature student the idea seemed silly – but also worth checking out.
It’s unlikely that in those days even the faintest glimmer of the World Wide Web was present int he mind of Tim Berners-Lee, so the bluffing guide had to be a printed book. For the aspiring bluffer, or civilised hacker, there were other guides available – to art, wine and ballet, as well as to management and teaching, among others.
It turns out that bluffing is still going strong, though it has partly moved to the Internet. So if you’d like to bluff your way on beer, tennis, dictators, the Quantum universe, Twitter or Kate Bush, you can seek help. The printed books are still produced; Nick Yapp’s The Bluffer’s Guide to Poetry, for example, promises that after reading it you will ‘never again confuse an anapest with a distich, a panegyric with a polemical, or a haiku with someone clearing their throat.’
The concept of the Zeitgeist has often been attributed to the philosopher Hegel, but (as we easily learn from Wikipedia) he actually never used the term. According to him, though, ‘no man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit’. The desire to appear ‘cultured’ among one’s peers has probably always existed; troglodytes probably gathered round the fire to discuss the quality of the brushwork in the next cave gallery. Being ‘a successful phoney’ might be a human characteristic of any Zeitgeist.
Onninen points out that reading is a particularly personal experience, ‘solitary quality time inside one’s own head’, coming to the conclusion that the utilitarian viewpoint is equivalent to the downfall of art.
In our Letter from the Editors in 2012 we discussed this, quoting the dramatist and theatre director Esa Leskinen who argues that ‘art is radically other than the field of sense and utility in which our everyday world is located. There is no sense in art. Art is no use.’
One can read about books, but reading books obliterates the fear of pretence; it may result in the real thing, cultural sophistication. What is more important though, is that reading at its best is an activity that cannot be measured in terms of ’achievement’: it is a joy of private interest.The post Instant erudition, or, who are you kidding? first appeared on Books from Finland.
A precise translation of the word non-fiction doesn’t exist in the Finnish language. Fiction is kaunokirjallisuus (a word invented by two diligent scholars, D.E.D. Europaeus and A. Varelius in mid-19th century for their Swedish-Finnish dictionary) – and a pretty word it is: kauno- is derived from the word kaunis, beautiful, beauteous. Non-fiction translates as tietokirjallisuus: literally, ‘literature of knowledge’.
Recently the status of Finnish non-fiction has been discussed in various media. Authors of non-fiction, as well as a number of readers, have been worried about diminishing sales, a decline in interest among both the general public and publishers, a lack of professional publishers’ editors. In a small-language area producing and profitable publishing ‘literature of knowledge’ is financially hard.
Concern about the withering of civilisation in the civilised state of Finland has also been expressed. Kansansivistys, popular education, was the method with which illiteracy was conquered in the 19th century. Now literacy prevails, but the trend seems to be that people buy and read less books, fiction or non-fiction.
Here in Books from Finland we are delighted by the vast spectrum of non-fiction books published recently. We have featured manyof them – on biography, photography, art, history, design, travel, music, nature, architecture…. Among them is, for example, a book containing the correspondence of a classical music expert and a rock music aficionado in which they exchange enthusiastic, irritated, amused and passionate views of music. A professor of space astronomy takes the reader on a brief tour of the universe, claiming his book is ‘a handbook of everything’ – in just two hundred pages. An artist builds a house that architects wouldn’t: not in the shape of a rectangle, in which we all live, but a leaf. He commits the crime of ornamenting his house, and he is a happy criminal. Are these not books that make you curious? They must!
There are times when highly original new fiction, literary art not dependent on trends, is hard to find (the kind that makes you want to read a novel for the second, perhaps a third time), but it just is not possible NOT to find an interesting non-fiction book – if you begin looking for them. Besides, 90 per cents of books published by Finnish writers are non-fiction books, so there is plenty to choose from.
It’s not likely that the desire of reading good books is seriously on the wane, though. We may watch a lot of television – Amusing Ourselves to Death, as Neil Postman’s book on TV culture (1985) put it – but even amusement comes in many guises, and certainly doesn’t exclude reading good non-fiction. However, bringing out quality non-fiction for a small readership is admittedly far from being an easy task.
What to do? Think positive? For our part, we can go on featuring enticing samples of Finnish non-fiction, thus spreading the good word…
The author of novels and plays Juha Hurme has a new book Nyljetyt ajatukset (‘Flayed thoughts’) – which could be called philosophical autobiographical fictional non-fiction. It’s about two guys, Köpi (Hurme’s alter ego?) and Aimo, rowing a boat 700 kilometres on the sea from south to north along the west coast of Finland, and it emphasises the infinite significance of reading. Hurme puts the following words into Aimo’s mouth. (Hurme is known as an unashamedly relentless man of letters.)
‘…I’d shout to people: people, read books! Read outside, read inside, read by heart, read aloud, read in sorrow and in joy, for comfort for sorrow and for calming down in elation. Read at home, en route, sideways and crossways…. The more you read, the less you suppose. The less you suppose, the more you know. The more you know, the less you suffer. The less you suffer, the more you’ll have time to read.’
We think this chain of thoughts is irresistibly positive.The post Beautiful books first appeared on Books from Finland.
It’s been five years since Books from Finland went online, and we’re celebrating with a little bit of good news.
In the past year, the number of visits to the Books from Finland website has grown by 11 per cent. The number of US and UK readers grew by 29 per cent, while the number of readers in Germany – stimulated perhaps by the publicity Finnish literature is attracting as a result of its Guest Country status at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair – increased by an astonishing 59 per cent.
We’re chuffed, to put it mildly – and very thankful to you, dear readers, old and new.
And we reflect how things have changed – in the old days, when Books from Finland was a print journal, we had no real way of knowing who our readers were, or even how many of them we had. Our rule-of-thumb way of estimating reader numbers was to multiply the number of copies we printed by three, which we happily did, imagining the magazine being passed eagerly from hand to hand, and keeping to ourselves the dark possibility that many of them may have ended up in the waste paper bin.
Our typical reader, we supposed from the correspondence and magazine orders we received, was a granny from Connecticut with Finnish family connections. Now, our online analysis suggests you’re slightly more likely to be a woman than a man, probably between 18 and 34, and marginally more likely to be a native English-speaker than anything else. Oh, and you probably either have a smartphone or tablet, or are thinking of getting one.
So what else is new in the world of Finnish literature, and how is it making its way in the world?
‘The export of literature, it could be argued, is not Finland’s strong suit.’ This is how we started an editorial way back in 2001. Little did we know that the export of literature was about, in its small way, to take off. Back then, we noted that Finland had no Ibsen, Strindberg or Blixen, although on the other hand we did have the Kalevala, Mika Waltari and Arto Paasilinna.
Taking a look at the figures from 2009 to 2013 of the most translated Finnish authors, we now have, for example, Sofi Oksanen (33 languages, 48 translations), Mauri Kunnas (18 languages, 35 translations), Leena Lehtolainen (17 languages, 28 translations), Riikka Pulkkinen (14 languages, 22 translations), or Rosa Liksom (10 languages, 10 translations).
There are many more Finnish authors who have been discovered by foreign publishers; it wouldn’t be fair any more so say that exporting literature isn’t Finland’s forte.
Oh –and of course we also have Tove Jansson: we have always had, then and now; both her Moomin books and her fiction for adults have been featured on our pages since the 1980s, and are constantly being reissued in translation. (There’s a mini-boom in Great Britain, for example, in her fiction for adults, and a growing interest in her as a person; Boel Westin’s biography has just been published, and a new one, by Tuula Karjalainen, will be later this year.)
Slowly and steadily Jansson’s name has become better known around the world – between 2009 and 2013 she was translated into 29 languages with 74 books. As 2014 is her centenary year, she will be celebrated in many ways – on these pages too! (This picture: see Moomin food)
When we launched Books from Finland, we were very concerned that going online shouldn’t mean dumbing ourselves down. In designing the website, we wanted it to be a place for reading and reflection, not just a screen to click through on the way to somewhere else.
Since we went online, though, the length of the translated extracts from the novels we feature has gone down slightly. We’re not sure why we’re doing this – after all, since we no longer have to pay for paper, printing or postage, we can run pieces to whatever length we like. Maybe we’re responding to the general pace of the internet – as well as to the editorial process of a journal publishing posts every week – but, in a spirit of positive self-criticism, it’s a tendency we promise to keep an eye on in future.
But the pace and ease of internet publishing has had some purely positive results, too. We’re in the middle of a big project to publish all our archive material – we’re currently in the year 2000, volume XXIV – which by the time we finish will make all the fiction we’ve published since 1976 available online.
The great news, for us, is that you, out there in the rest of the world, are finding your way to us in ever increasing numbers. Perhaps that’s what links our increasing visitor numbers with the growing number of translations of Finnish literature. The internet has indeed made the world a smaller place – and the literatures of small and far-flung countries like Finland easier to find.
Books from Finland was founded back in 1967 with a mission to breach the language wall between Finnish literature and the rest of the world. Thanks to new technology, that wall is lower now than it has ever been, giving a new twist to Johann von Goethe’s idea of world literature. On our birthday, we renew our commitment to slow literature, to local literature, to literature without frontiers.
We wish you many happy returns to Books from Finland’s pages!The post Happy birthday to us! first appeared on Books from Finland.
More and more new Finnish fiction is seeing the light of day. Does quantity equal quality?
Fewer and fewer critical evaluations of those fiction books are published in the traditional print media. Is criticism needed any more?
At the Helsinki Book Fair in late October the latest issue of the weekly magazine Suomen Kuvalehti was removed from the stand of its publisher, Otavamedia, by the chief executive officer of Otava Publishing Company Ltd. Both belong to the same Otava Group.
The cover featured a drawing of a book in the form of a toilet roll, referring to an article entitled ‘The ailing novel’, by Riitta Kylänpää, in which new Finnish fiction and literary life were discussed, with a critical tone at places. CEO Pasi Vainio said he made the decision out of respect for the work of Finnish authors.
His action was consequently assessed by the author Elina Hirvonen who, in her column in the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, criticised the decision. ‘The attempt to conceal the article was incomprehensible. Authors are not children. The Finnish novel is not doing so badly that it collapses if somebody criticises it. Even a rambling reflection is better for literature than the same old articles about the same old writers’ personal lives.’
‘The ailing novel’ takes a look at new Finnish fiction and at the decline of literary criticism in the media – where there seems to be little space for ‘unfavourable’ criticism. (Why indeed annoy readers, authors and publishers with derogatory comments? Besides, an ‘unfavourable’ critical judgment always requires lots of words, more print space, in order to be balanced and well-validated.)
But isn’t it the duty of the news media to present the readers with, well, news about what is happening in the world? This includes works of art that appear in public, and shouldn’t newspaper arts page be dealing with both their quantity and their quality, and not just those that are assumed to please the readers?
In his blog Turmio ja perikato (‘Downfall and ruin’; in Finnish), Putte Wilhelmsson, writer and critic, analyses the attempts of the Finnish newspapers to attract more readers to their cultural pages, as it is the quantity of consumers that matters to publishers: the contents have begun to be aimed at those readers who don’t read the cultural pages. ‘This results in segmented reviewing directed at the focus groups used in market research,’ he says. ‘The economic management of the newspapers guides editorial work either from above or by forcing the producers of the cultural pages to be part of the economic decision making process in a way that was unknown a couple of decades ago.’
The number of fiction titles published in Finland has recently grown rapidly, the number of publishers’ editors has not. The status of an author is considered very media sexy, and the media are more than willing to feature new writers – making no separations between their work and their personal lives.
It seems things are no better in the neighbouring Sweden either. The critic Åsa Beckman complained in an article in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper (30 October) that the talk about literary value of works – language, tone, form, conceptualisation, dialogue, narrative – is very much avoided in contemporary literary life. However, literary criticism which is able to assess the aesthetic and formal quality is absolutely vital.
Writer and blogger Tommi Melender quotes Beckman in a blog post (in Finnish) entitled ‘The slow death of newspaper criticism?’. He argues that writing in novels often resembles scripts for television: short scenes, limited surroundings, lack of the wider perspective. Novels are critically discussed on the level of subject and theme only: authors are seen as specialists on any subject they have been writing about – burnout, various relationships, alcoholism etc. – so they become people who are able to generate potential public interest and thus help fill newspaper pages and broadcast schedules.
The fact is that a small country just cannot produce a great number of masterpieces. When the number of books published grows, this will result in a greater number of less carefully and skilfully edited, mediocre works.
Bad criticism, for its part, shrinks to short summaries of plots and themes – of books that the cultural editors think might be ‘good’ enough to be reviewed, because it is not economic to publish reviews of books that either are (in advance) considered ‘bad’ or ‘uninteresting’ or too ‘difficult’ for the ‘average’ reader.
’Average’ novels, for ‘average’ readers? Never. Literature is an art, and there are no limitations to what art can do. Criticism, for its part, is able to rise above the average when it is not limited. Literature and criticism are like Siamese twins, as Åsa Beckman puts it; they share a common bloodstream.
Readers need books, books need reviews – and of course debate is needed by both. Good writing happens all the time, despite doubts and debates.And so does good reading.The post Truth or hype: good books or bad reviews? first appeared on Books from Finland.
The old phrase ‘art for art’s sake’ has begun to sound like an appeal instead of an bohemian creed, without any negative ambiguity. Please let art be created for art’s sake!
In our times of neo-liberal ideologies, the criteria for assessing art include its capacity to generate profits to creative industries, to have export value, to be of assistance to business in general. But art, in essence, serves no ideology.
Technology now allows us to be more entertained than ever before, if we so choose. Art and entertainment alike come to us by the use of various devices. What has often been called ‘elitist’ art – opera, modern music, ballet – can be enjoyed lying on the sofa in the home. Money is not an obstacle.
Art, too needs money, of course: orchestras, theatres, training of artists and artists themselves need subsidies from society. Entertainment is by nature profitable business, as it attracts and involves large paying audiences. Smaller audiences want to listen to classical music, read books and see films that are not made solely in order to bring in as much money as possible. But why should these forms of art be called ‘elitist’?
As the American filmmaker David Cronenberg puts it: ‘Entertainment wants to give you what you want. Art wants to give you what you don’t know you want.’ Art awakens the desire to experience something new, to step outside one’s comfort zone.
An article entitled ‘Elitist, yuck?!’, published by the music magazine Finnish Music Quarterly (FMQ), discussed the ‘elitism’ of contemporary serious (here, as opposed to pop) music.
Kaija Saariaho, one of Finland’s leading contemporary composers, was 60 last October. In honour of the occasion, the leading Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat commissioned an article by one of its editors, Ilkka Malmberg – whose work, incidentally, has featured here at Books from Finland – describing his experience of Saariaho’s oratorio La Passion de Simone. He wanted to see whether the uninitiated could ‘understand’ Saariaho’s music.
Malmberg conscientiously listened to the oratorio, and read a biography of the leading character, Simone Weil. His conclusion, he said, was as follows: he did not understand Saariaho’s music.
The article, FMQ reports, led to a public correspondence between Saariaho and Malmberg. ’Malmberg had found Saariaho’s music difficult – the sort that maybe does not appeal to a young audience. He wrote: “The younger generation in Finland no longer has this upward yen for high culture. It has a thousand scenes of its own; it’s perfectly happy for everyone to do whatever appeals. Without having to struggle.” The fact that a musical genre is not immediately accessible to all does not, however, make it elitist. It is absurd to call the people who enjoy the music of Kaija Saariaho elitist any more than it is the youngsters who feel at home in their own scenes.
‘Saariaho tried, in her reply, to draw her music closer to the public at large. She asked Malmberg: “What exactly did you expect of the concert? Why did you feel the need to prepare for it? Because from the listener’s point of view, a concert is a spontaneous situation; you just sit there and let the music flow over you! You don’t, to my mind, need to understand it; it’s an abstract empirical world that reaches each listener in a different way.” ‘
Relax, in other words. Chill out. Go with the flow. What is there to ‘understand’ about Saariaho’s music? Why not just experience it? How is one to ‘understand’ the painting with the black square by Malevich?
Besides, without having to struggle nothing new is ever gained. Art isn’t easy; neither is learning. But do we really want life to stay the same for ever, without any challenges, intellectual or artistic? No, of course not.
In a report for the Irish Arts Council, ‘The Case for Elitism’ (2007) the journalist Emer O’Kelly concludes: ‘If art is too difficult, too puzzling, too different, for the majority of people, then we insist on lowering standards of appreciation for fear of making anybody feel inadequate. The god of “access for all” has become a satanic destroyer of the imaginative leap.’
Isaac Asimov once said: ‘Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge” (italics ours).
In this time and age when culture and art have expanded to hitherto unknown spheres, multiplied and diversified into innumerable varieties, it is ridiculous to label anything that’s intellectually attainable as ‘elitist’.
Art is for all, access is limited only by choice: the refusal to take an imaginative leap outside one’s comfort zone.
Looking art – in all its glorious, multifarious range – straight in the eye will show me something that I didn’t know I wanted. Exciting! It’s curiosity, not contentment, that paves the way for our future.The post Elitist versus pop? first appeared on Books from Finland.
Finnish is spoken mostly in Finland, whereas English is spoken everywhere. A Finnish writer, however, doesn’t necessarily write in any of Finland’s three national languages (Finnish, Swedish and Sámi).
What is a Finnish book, then – and (something of particular interest to us here at the Books from Finland offices) is it the same thing as a book from Finland? Let’s take a look at a few examples of how languages – and fatherlands – fluctuate.
Hannu Rajaniemi has Finnish as his mother tongue, but has written two sci-fi novels in English, which were published in England. A Doctor in Physics specialising in string theory, Rajaniemi works at Edinburgh University and lives in Scotland. His books have been translated into Finnish; the second one, The Fractal Prince / Fraktaaliruhtinas (2012) was in March 2013 on fifth place on the list of the best-selling books in Finland. (Here, a sample from his first book, The Quantum Thief, 2011, Gollancz.)
Emmi Itäranta, a Finn who lives in Canterbury, England, published her first novel, Teemestarin tarina (‘The tea master’s book’, Teos, 2012), in Finland. She rewrote it in English and it will be published as Memory of Water in England, the United States and Australia (HarperCollins Voyager) in 2014. Translations into six other languages will follow.
These, however, are relatively simple cases; a more complicated one is Hassan Blasim, an Iraqi scriptwriter, producer and author who fled from Iraq due to the controversial views expressed in his work. Blasim moved to Finland in 2004; his two collections of short stories, written in his native Arabic, were translated into English and published in the UK. The Guardian newspaper’s reviewer called him ‘the best writer of Iraqi fiction’, and his latest book, The Iraqi Christ, won him British PEN’s Writers in Translation prize last year. His collection of short stories, The Madman of Freedom Square, was published in Finnish last year (translated from Arabic by Sampsa Peltonen).
In Finland, Blasim is currently regarded as in some sense a ‘Finnish author’; he was one of 47 authors who were awarded a novel-writing grant by the Finnish National Council for Literature in 2013.
Various private institutions and foundations also grant funds for promoting ‘Finnish cultural life’; one of the wealthiest is Svenska kulturfonden (Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland, est. 1908) whose mission is ‘to support and strengthen the culture and education of the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland’, for which it contributes around 33 million euros annually. Suomen Kulttuurirahasto (the Finnish Cultural Foundation, est. 1937) gave 21,3 million euros this year.
The foundations don’t seem to bother sorting applicants according to language or nationality: what interests them, in principle, is the potential impact of the project on ‘Finnish cultural life’, as well as the merits of the applicant.
According to its rules, the Union of Finnish Writers, Suomen kirjailijaliitto, accepts as members writers who have published two original works of fiction written in Finnish, and the same principle is applied in the Swedish-language association, Finlands Svenska Författareförening. For these guardians of the privileges of the Finnish authors, no other tool is acceptable for a ‘Finnish writer’ to work with than Finnish or Swedish.
So Finland finds itself addressing the same question that has long confronted the big languages – English and Spanish in particular – whose literature exceeds that written by natives in their native languages. It would be hard to argue that those cultures were not enriched by the work of, for example, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Khaled Hosseini and Javier Marías or Roberto Bolaño.
On the subject of which nationality or which language any given author writes in, it’s time to relax, read, and enjoy.The post Fatherlands, mother tongues? first appeared on Books from Finland.
As the days grow shorter, here in the far north, and we celebrate the midwinter solstice, Christmas and the New Year, everything begins to wind down. Even here in Helsinki, the sun barely seems to struggle over the horizon; and the raw cold of the viima wind from the Baltic makes our thoughts turn inward, to cosy evenings at home, engaging in the traditional activities of baking, making handicrafts, reading, lying on the sofa and eating to excess.
It is a time to turn to the inner self, to feed the imagination, to turn one’s back on the world of effort and achievement. To light a candle and perhaps do absolutely nothing – which can in itself be a form of meditation.
That’s what we at Books from Finland will be trying to do, anyway. Support in our endeavour comes from an unlikely quarter. In 1932 the British philosopher Bertrand Russell published an essay entitled ‘In Praise of Idleness’, in which he argued cogently for a four-hour working day. ‘I think that there is far too much work done in the world,’ he wrote; ‘that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous’.
Russell was no slouch, as his list of publications alone shows. But his argument was a serious one, and we mean to put it into practice, at least over the twelve days of Christmas. ‘The road to happiness and prosperity,’ he wrote, ‘lies in an organised diminution of work.’
Less work, more play, and no time better to put it into practice than at Christmas in Finland when, happily, one is even free of the obligation to go out and have fun. Let’s feed the inner us instead.
So what will we be offering to feed the imagination over the festive season? What will be our literary equivalents of the baked ham, the carrot and swede and potato casseroles, the pickled herring, the baked goodies of all sorts, the rice pudding, the clandestine, midnight visits to the fridge?
The ‘official’ pick of the 2012 literary harvest has just been selected in the form of the winners of the Finlandia Literature prizes. We’ve recently been featuring some of our favourites on our pages – such as the delicious, classic child story by Teuvo Pakkala, ‘Mahtisana’ (‘The mighty word’), or the story of the house that the artist built in the shape of a leaf. Or Juha Seppälä’s latest novel, Mr. Smith, laced with full-bodied satire, about the power of money. Now could be a good time to catch up…
Then, soon after New Year (but still within the twelve days of Christmas!), we’ll publish our traditional annual goodie-bag of children’s books. An old Christmas song claims that ‘vanhakin nyt nuortuu / kuin lapsi leikkimään…’ (‘even the old grow young / and play like children’): we’ll definitely be reading children’s books over the break – simply because the best ones are such fun, and remind us of the importance of play.
See, for example, these pictures about a very strange but good-natured creature named Koi-koi: adopted by a family, it just keeps eating and growing, and even though cabbage and onions are omitted from its diet, Koi-Koi’s farts send the family running – laughing at this is not the privilege of kids under twelve only.
‘Play is not just joyful and energising – it’s deeply involved with human development and intelligence’; take a look at a fascinating speech entitled ‘Play is more than fun’ by Dr Stuart Brown, who holds the delicious title of researcher of play (tough job, but someone’s got to do it!) at the National Institute for Play.
So perhaps we might simply try reading what we think is plain, unadulterated fun over the holidays – whatever that means, to each and every one?The post In praise of idleness (and fun) first appeared on Books from Finland.
In our last Letter, ‘Art for art’s sake’, we pondered how the efforts of making art (or design) profitable and exportable result, in public discourse, in the expectation that art (or design) should aid the development of business.
Not a lot is talked about how business can help art.
Art of course, is in essence ‘no use’, art doesn’t exist in order to increase the GDP (although nothing prevents it from doing so, of course).
The Finnish poet-author-translator Pentti Saarikoski (1937–1983) argued that art needs no apologies whatsoever: ‘What’s wrong with “Art for art’s sake”? – any more than bread for bread’s sake?
‘Art is art and bread is bread, and people need both if they are to have a balanced diet.’
Defining what is entertainment is and what is art is not always significant or necessary. The boundaries can be artificial, or superficial. But occasionally one wonders where the makers of ‘entertainment’ think it’s going. Entertainment for entertainment’s sake?
The Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) recently announced a new radio play series. It is, it said, a series that differs stylistically from traditional radio plays; it seeks a new and younger audience. The news item was headlined: ‘The new radio play drips with sex, violence and horror.’ In a television interview the director said that the radio dramaturge who had commissioned the series had described what the (new, younger) listeners should experience: ‘They should feel thrilled and horny all the time.’
Without venturing to comment on the quality of the manuscript or the broadcast, it seems preposterous that a publicly funded media should attempt to attract new (young) listeners by competing with the most ‘saleable’ tricks of the commercial trade, peddling entertainment. What’s worst, the assumption here is that what ‘all’ young people require from entertainment is sex, violence and horror. How pathetic is that?
Entertainment is created for the majority. But it is a poor interpretation of democracy that aims to meet only the ‘needs’ of the majority.
And what is the ‘majority’, what the supposed majority? If people interested in the arts are the minority, it must be noted that the number of people in this minority is not dwindling: there is no shortage of audiences for concerts, theatre, opera and art exhibitions, and more often than not they are interested in more than one art form.
What about literature and reading, then?
According to a new European Union report, one fifth of the 15-year old Europeans are unable to read or write properly: they do not have a functional understanding of what they read. Finland does well in this international comparison, but eight per cent of the young Finns tested showed weak reading skills. In the international PISA studies of learning (launched by the OECD in 1997; in these studies Finland has, until now at least, performed well) these young people scored level one or two on a scale of five. Twice as many of them were boys than girls.
What kind of future awaits these young people? The information society demands education and, again, the understanding of what is read. And what will be the future of literature like, if the ability to read dwindles?
In his new novel author Juha Seppälä’s protagonist, the slightly mysterious Mr Smith, bursts out into a long, darkly sarcastic monologue, directed at a writer he’s chosen to meet. In it he outlines the means of succeeding in ‘commercial writing’: ‘If there is no crime, at least there has to be a plot. Preferably both. – Otherwise the reader won’t know what he’s reading….’ and remains ‘in a state of uncertainty and helplessness, of non-satisfaction.’ Repeat. Readers learn to expect the same things again.’
‘Be for sale. If not, you’ll end up on the blacklist.’
The marketing of literature also trusts in part that a reader expects the same things again. The word ‘thriller’ seems to have a soothing effect on publishers and readers alike. Well, you know what to expect, there will be no serious disappointments resulting from your investment, what you buy is safe. (Sex, violence and horror maybe?)
But why do we have to know beforehand what we will experience in, say, reading a work of fiction? Are we afraid of finding out what we might like, or not like?
Isn’t that just the exciting prospect – finding out?The post Sex, violence and horror, anyone? first appeared on Books from Finland.
It is the necessity, or the obsession, of the present age to measure everything in monetary terms: to know as exactly as possible how much money something is capable of making for the owner of its ‘rights’.
This also applies to various fields of art: for example, a play is expected to make profit for its producers – today also in the case of ‘uncommercial’ institutions such as National Theatres. Seats must be sold; bringing in busloads of people is a must.
But the purpose of creating art is not to increase the GDP. Art is not useful, as theatre director and playwright Esa Leskinen argues in a recent essay (in Finnish only): ‘Art doesn’t aspire to anything. Art isn’t something that is consumed in order to gather the energy to go on working. The purpose of art is not to burnish the image of Finland or make people feel good. Art is radically other than the field of sense and utility in which our everyday world is located.
‘There is no sense in art. Art is no use.’
We agree. We also think that’s how it should be.
The following comment is from an internet discussion: ‘Who cares about art or literature? That’s entertainment for the elite. I want the Nobel Prize for the creators of the best video games!’
According to this commentator, there really is no sense, or use, in art: literature is out, video games in.
As for the concept of ‘entertainment’: filmmaker David Cronenberg has said: ‘Entertainment wants to give you what you want. Art wants to give you what you don’t know you want.’ How frightening is that?
We might argue that video games are just about trifling time away, whereas ‘art or literature’ have been a tad more significant feature in human history, and they’re not likely to vanish. Trying to define the differences between ‘art’ and ‘entertainment’ is, of course, like walking on thin ice, as these two concepts undoubtedly occasionally share the same ground. But, as Esa Leskinen claims, they are different: ‘art and the artistic view of the world are quintessential human activities. Along with dreams, myth and religion, it offers the only escape route from the apparent order of the human cortex, to the place where the unconscious mind dwells in all its immeasurability.’
In Finland, an organisation entitled Creative Industries Finland was launched in 2008 as a coordinator for the national Development Programme for Business Growth and Internationalisation of Creative Industries 2007–2013. Its internet pages talk about the creative economy, a national innovation strategy, business models, cultural entrepreunership, creative industries, significant export value, and it asks how art or design can aid the developent of business.
Fine. Good luck.
But the amateur of art who doesn’t think art is in essence elitist, fears the eventuality that the kind of art that cannot be milked of money at festivals or attract attention in the electronic media (measured, for example, by ‘liking’ on Facebook), which does not have a ‘sufficiently’ large audience, will increasingly be denied public attention and financial support. And worse: will there be an insidious belief that anything that does not sell by the million has no value?
For culture, this will mean formulaic, repetitive production, exploitation of trends, profits that chase cheap production costs, diminishing production times, increasing consumption.
Which is all very well for business.
Where is Books from Finland located?
In the old days, the answer was simple, although not unambiguous. Books came from its office in central Helsinki; it was written in various locations in Finland and abroad, and translated mainly in England and the United States; and it was published in the small town of Vammala, about 200 kilometres north of Helsinki.
It spread, in multiple paper copies, to readers throughout the world, to find its place on desks, on bedside tables, in briefcases and handbags, propping up table-legs or holding doors open – in London, England, Connecticut, New England, with a few in Paris, France, and Paris, Texas, maybe.
Nowadays, it’s different. It’s hard to say exactly where Books from Finland comes from. Our offices are still in central Helsinki, although now we can edit it with ease from wherever we happen to be; our writers and translators live and work where they have always lived and worked. Our readers – more and more of them now, through the open access of the internet – still hail from the world over. Books from Finland makes an appearance on your computer screen, or your smartphone. But Books itself exists, in the last analysis, on a server in some shuttered and air-conditioned room whose location is hotly disputed online but is probably somewhere in California.
But we, along with Books from Finland, are still small-town kids at heart. Small-country kids, too, of course. And – partly prompted by Helsinki’s new status, this year, as World Design Capital – we’ve been giving some thought to our home city and the part it plays in our lives and work.
Just over a decade ago, we edited a little book called Helsinki: A Literary Companion (Finnish Literature Society, 2000; still available, with some luck, from internet booksellers). It was an project that developed, as we said in our foreword, ‘over countless conversations as we walked through Helsinki’s streets to meetings with authors or designers, argued and discussed literature, the arts and politics… in the city’s cafés and bars, or, we admitted somewhat ruefully, ‘allowed ourselves a little post-deadline indulgence in its shops’. We charted its development from its foundation by the Swedish crown in 1650 and its transformation into the country’s capital after Finland was annexed by Russia in 1809, to the end of the 20th century.
From the beginning, then, Helsinki has been a planned city; there’s nothing organic about the way it’s grown. Nothing wrong with that, you may say, and the sheer beauty of its architecture – from Carl Ludvig Engel’s delicately monumental early 19th-century centre to the classics of the Finnish art nouveau movement that decorate its streets, and on to Alvar Aalto’s dreamy white Finlandia Hall and the most recent additions of Kiasma, the museum of contemporary art, and the new concert hall in the heart of the city – is a powerful argument for centralised planning.
Sometimes, though, it feels as if Helsinki has struggled to achieve the sheer diversity and spontaneity of more chaotic cities elsewhere. But in the twelve years since we published the Literary companion, much has changed. The street scene is more varied, with cafés, bars and restaurants for every pocket; the shops stay open late, and new areas of old industrial sites are being transformed for various purposes. What used sometimes to feel a little like a ghost city, beautiful but empty, is now thronged with people, day and night, and people-watching is a major sport.
One thing remains the same: as we noted back on the brink of the new millennium, Helsinki’s compactness gives it a focus, and an edge, that other cities sometimes lack. In a place where you can expect to see most of the people you might work with in the street, plans are built concretely on human relationships – real, not virtual – and where people get together, all sorts of things can happen.
In other words, however squeaky-clean the designers’ plans may sometimes have a way of sounding, things usually turn out a little differently, and not always for the worse. Human beings, and human nature, will always intervene to complicate them. Elämä on, as we say; life is, and it rarely goes according to plan. Happily so; for it is the vagaries of human life, and not its regularities, that give rise to our subject, literature.The post Life is first appeared on Books from Finland.
Why translate, asked the late Herbert Lomas thirty years ago in an issue of Books from Finland (1/82) – the pay’s absurd, one’s own writing suffers from lack of time, it’s very hard to please people. And public demand for translation from minor languages into English was almost non-existent.
But he also admitted that translating is generally a pleasurable experience: ‘You have the pleasure of writing without the agony of primary invention. It’s like reading, only more so. It’s like writing, only less so.’
For Bertie Lomas, translating equalled putting on a mask and finding a self you didn’t know you might have: ‘In these solitary theatricals one actually does become creative: it’s not merely a job of transposition. It’s a job of invention: in each poem you have to invent a new personality.’
From time to time translators ponder their work in writing, and discussing translation of poetry seems to dive deepest. For example, as English (Teutonic syntax!) has a much larger vocabulary than Finnish (Finno-Ugrian syntax!), Lomas found that ‘crucial decisions are being made with every word’.
Tarja Roinila,who translates from Spanish, describes in a recent article a process of making a Spanish poem – with her co-translator Coral Bracho – out of Harri Nordell’s poem. The fact that Finnish is a synthetic and Spanish an analytic language makes Nordell’s inventive use of compounds particularly difficult to translate. What would valokupolikiihko (valo = light, kupoli = cupola, kiihko = fervour, passion, frenzy) be in Spanish (Romance syntax!) – what does the word mean? What’s the object of this passion or frenzy, is the cupola made of light or does it just reflect it? The final version, éxtasis-cúpola de luz, sounds rhytmically interesting, says Roinila, as the emphasis of the two first words is on the first syllable, which is rare in Spanish.
A translator has to abandon the letter of the original poem, and this destroys the poem. But it is the letter that the translator is able to work on. The translation of a poem is not possible or impossible – the task is to create a new poem.
The question of why poetry should be translated is cultural and political, Roinila concludes, and the answer must be cultural and political too. ‘Our language needs it, our literature needs it, it enrichens our ecosystem.’ Neither is translation some ‘extra task performed on the original work, but an organic part of its life. Translation, like reading, is part of poetry’s way of breathing.’
In his later life Herbert Lomas admitted that the situation has changed a little for the little better. The pay might still be absurd, and it’s still very hard to please people, but interest in reading translated poetry – which implies that there is interest among publishers bringing it about – has slowly grown, and not just in England.
For a poet, translation is like playing scales on the piano, he said; ‘it may extend one’s knowledge of what poetry can be.’ For non-poets, poetry extends one’s knowledge of what language and literature can be.
Here’s an example of Bertie Lomas’s rare skill of inventing a form: a poem by Kirsi Kunnas for children. Bertie has translated rhyme, fun and play – as well as the idea of the original (which will be particularly appreciated by those who can read Finnish).
Starfish, living on the ocean bed with tons of water on her head, said: 'I don't dread any load. I've pointy thumbs a plumb flat bum and lots of pressure-proof brats!'
Eli merenpohjassa Meritähti tuhat tonnia vettä yllä. - Minä jaksan kyllä, sanoi Meritähti. - On terävät sakarat, ja litteät pakarat ja paineenkestävät kakarat!The post A thankless task? first appeared on Books from Finland.
Might Tolstoy’s War and Peace be the epitome of a novel that qualifies for reading on a desert island? (Maybe along with Tristram Shandy or Finnegan’s Wake, and possibly The Gateless Gate (the Zen Buddhist kōans). After all, who’s got time or energy for some 1,500 pages of a wartime story from the Napoleonic era with too many characters (580, and so many of them called Pierre)?
We do tend to consume everything quickly: busy busy! We eat fast, we talk fast, we exercise fast, we fast-forward through movies. We devour books like fast food. Hurry hurry! On to the next one, whatever it is, don’t hang about!
In her book Carscapes, featured on these pages, photographer Merja Salo notes that the modern world is characterised by ever-increasing speed; invoking the French philosopher Paul Virilio’s term dromology (from the Greek dromos, ‘to race’; the science or logic of speed), Salo illustrates how cars embody this logic.
Occasionally we may start reading a novel that refuses to be devoured: our eyes hurry forward from page to page in our desire to find out quickly what it’s all about, but our mind can’t keep up – and the finer points of the work remain obscure to us. The book requires something more from us than we, in our perpetual restlessness, are prepared to give.
We’ve often discussed this phenomenon with people who read books for a living, working with translators and publishers in Finland and elsewhere. If a novel is a literary work of art, a tad more intellectually demanding perhaps than the average blockbuster, the method of galloping through it while munching a sandwich (occupational hazard) may fail totally. One has to seek out some peace and quiet, sit down, start over; only then will the pleasure of reading re-emerge.
In a newspaper review of the new novel by Kristina Carlson, William N:n päiväkirja (‘William N’s diary’) – translated extracts from which we’ll publish soon – one critic cautioned that ‘one should not reject this book at first sight, thinking, “who cares about a lichen researcher living in the 19th century?” ’ and that one should not ‘devour’ it either (as the novel ‘requires time, like an old bottle of Burgundy’).
Oh dear. Why on earth would a novel that features a scientist living in a time and a place remote from ours make us shy away from it? Are our own contemporaries (and their eternally failing relationships…) the only suitable subject matter to attract readers? Why the assumption that readers are looking first and foremost for something instantly recognisable?
It is, however, possible that some daring individual still might consider reading War and Peace, despite the fact that the novel features aristocrats in early 19th-century Russia.
The journalist and writer Anna-Lena Laurén, in her column (in Swedish only) published in the Helsinki newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet, quotes a friend who advised her to read just the bits about peace and skip the bits about war.
In Laurén’s opinion, Tolstoy never fails in making every single character, down to the lowest cynic, a complete human being. She developed a satisftying method of her own: ‘War and Peace must be read in long stretches…. It’s a book you have to throw yourself into and not let go of. If you’ve tried to swim the crawl you’ll know what I mean. Head above the water – down holding your breath – up to grab oxygen – down again, all the way to the end.’
Reading requires brains and effort; that’s all there is to it. And in our busy, busy lives it might be useful to bear in mind another of Paul Virilio’s dromological theses: ‘The more speed increases, the faster freedom decreases’.The post Slow down! first appeared on Books from Finland.
‘The worst of all is if the writer forgets writing and starts turning out books.’
This thought is from the poet Vilja-Tuulia Huotarinen’s introductory talk at the Lahti International Writers’ Reunion (LIWRE), which took place at Messilä Manor between 19 and 22 June. ‘There’s too much talk of the stunting of the book’s lifespan and the economic life of the publishers,’ she continues. A writer ‘must not forget that he or she is responsible to the work of art, nobody else, not even the readers.’
Today, book publishers are responsible to capital and productivity, and a work of literature resembles a product with an invisible best-before marker. Is its life a couple of months, like ice cream? Books delivered to the shop in September are already old-hat in February, and are best put on sale.
An article by Martti Linna in the Finnish Writers’ Union magazine (Kirjailija, 2/11) deals with the maculation that is mentioned in publishing agreements, or the destruction of copies of ‘old’ works. The unsold copies of one children’s book published in the autumn of 2008 were destroyed at the beginning of 2011. For the author, the destruction of a work is, of course, a cause of sadness; for the publisher it is merely the elimination of an item of expenditure. The development of print-on-demand services will perhaps put an end to both the storing of books in warehouses and the sadness of writers.
Faces sell the printed word. How old a new writer is, and what he or she looks like, is important. It is more difficult to sell an ‘old’ and ‘ugly’ writer to the media, both at home and abroad. (That is, if the ‘old and ugly’ writer is a woman – in the case of a man things may be different, we think, although good looks are of course an advantage to men too.)
We have also heard of writers being warned by their editors not to write ‘too intelligently’ in order not to hamper the marketing of the book. This is linked to a paradox that we just can’t get over: Finns are more highly educated than ever, so that there is no need to suppose any lack of intelligence or knowledge when what we might call products of the spirit are designed for publication. Playing safe may perhaps bring coins into the till, but it won’t result in art.
Youngish women with camera-friendly faces sell like hot cakes. As the Finnish author Pirkko Saisio said (in a feature entitled ‘Menestystarina’ – ‘Success story’ – by Pekka Hiltunen, published in Image journal 5/11), ‘I have heard that foreign agents always ask three things about Finnish writers: how many copies have they sold in Finland, how old are they and are they good-looking. These are very influential today. ‘Whether their work are the stuff of classics or reduced-calorie-ice-cream-human-relationship prose is, of course, irrelevant to the media, which need a constant supply of new interviewees. In a celebrity culture, writers are considered to be functioning members of the profession of publicity – which is pretty rich, considering that they actually practice their profession in solitude.
Underestimating the reader is always short-sighted and intellectually impoverished – whether it is done by the writer or the publisher. Being a writer may be a profession, but ‘writing cannot be performance,’ said Vilja-Tuulia Huotarinen.
In our job editing a literary journal, we often find ourselves leafing through texts which, you can somehow tell, have before publication been polished for years in creative writing schools, publishers’ offices and writers’ workshops in order to produce a publication. What is missing, though, is the convincing passion and skill, the certainty and self-confidence with which the writer takes the reader where he or she wishes.
It is the voice of original talent and intelligence, not to be found at writers’ workshops or publishers, but in solitude and in thought.The post Face, book first appeared on Books from Finland.
No one should ever start a piece with ‘already the ancient Greeks…’ , but here goes:
Already the ancient Greeks practised the noble arts of sport. The Romans extended the cultivation (their word!) of culture to leisure, amusing themselves by throwing Christians to the lions. Formula F1 came a couple of thousand years later, as did post-modern art, sitcoms and reality TV, whose presenters take the place of lions and whose celebrities are today’s Christians.
The Olympics, founded by the Greeks, were in full swing as early as the seventh century BCE, until the Christian Roman Caesar Theodocius I banned them as irretrievably pagan in the year 393. However, they were revived 1,500 years later.
In Europe, the various tribes organised themselves and began to form societies; the continent divided into nation states which, in addition to fields and sports, began to cultivate their own languages and, through them, science and art.
In his new non-fiction book, Urheilukirja (‘A book about sport’), novelist Tuomas Kyrö examines sport in Finland through history and his own experience. After an active early youth, Kyrö is now more of an armchair sportsman, but he seems pretty omnivorous in his tastes. According to him, sport is essential to the survival of nation states because of the constant competition for growth among nations. Of which, of course, the Olympics is the ultimate stage, or stadium.
In the Finnish nation state, sport and the arts are not merely juxtaposed but sometimes set against one another, certainly where state sponsorship is concerned. Fortunately, in addition to the niggardly hand of the government, the cultivation of matters of the spirit are funded via the lotto and the football pools, in other words directly from the generous (or greedy) hand of the people.
A new comparison has sparked debate in the Finnish media: the True Finns party, which is seeking power in April’s parliamentary elections – and, according to the polls, is likely to get it – has announced in its manifesto that ‘The fine paintings of Edelfelt and Gallen-Kallela and Sibelius’s world-famous symphonies are internationally recognised…. The True Finns feel that the preservation of the Finnish cultural heritage is of primary importance compared to supporting post-modern contemporary art. Government arts funding should be directed in such away that it strengthens Finnish identity. Faux-artistic post-modern experiments, on the other hand, should be left economically to individual sponsors and the free market.’
The party’s website also states: ‘Funding for excellence in world-class sport should be increased at the expense of the arts. It would, in the end, be a question of extremely small sums. To ensure the London (Olympics) project and one gold medal, all that would be needed would be around three million euros of extra funding for effective training…. For sport is the circus entertainment that interests the people more than the state-funded arts, which are also in a certain sense elitist…. Prowess in world-class sport and keep-fit for ordinary people always go hand in hand. Olympic sports have always played an important role in our national identity.’
So three million is the price of one Olympic gold medal? Of course, there is no guarantee of one, even with this sum. Prowess in world-class sport and keep-fit absolutely do not ‘go hand in hand’. Democracy does not mean that everyone has to be interested in the same cultural matters. Quantity is no guarantee of quality; what ‘the people’ like cannot be more ‘right’ per se than what interests the ‘elite’. Feeding Christians to the lions is not admirable in human terms, however much the people liked it.
There’s much to mock in this new admiration of the cultural heroes of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The ‘Finnish national’ artists Albert Edelfelt and Axel Gallén (later Akseli Gallen-Kallela) and the composer Jean Sibelius were also mondaine cosmopolitans seeking their training and a large part of their inspiration abroad (and their mother tongue was not Finnish, by the way, but Swedish).
Finnish identity and Finland’s national heritage were not born out of powers primordially ‘Finnish’. A return to an idealised past is not possible, not now, not ever. ‘National identity’ remains a notoriously debatable subject.
But aren’t sports and arts both such fun! Coming up on the Books from Finland site next are extracts from Tuomas Kyrö’s sports fan book, and in it, he also talks about the arts: ‘Competition, dance, theatre, rally-driving, literature, ball-games, individual sports, video installations. What they are is play. Immaterial and pointless activity. But, to their makers and participants, perfectly meaningful…. Completely pointless, and damned important.’The post Homo ludens, vita brevis first appeared on Books from Finland.