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|Frans Emil Sillanpää (1888-1964)|
Finnish writer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1939. Sillanpää saw human beings as a small but integral part of the universe. Influenced by the German scientist Ernst Haeckel and Wilhelm Ostwald, and their theories about the unity of all nature in terms of physical laws, Sillanpää portrayed rural people living united with the land and dependent on the energy of the sun, the source of all life. Although Sillanpää based his work on knowledge of evolution theory and genetics, his picture of the agrarian society was rather idealized.
"The sun had risen some time after three and climbed gradually to overlook hundreds and thousands of yards and windows, pats and porches, and even to peer into rooms where human beings slept in their beds. It looked also into birds' nests, in which to be sure there was no atmosphere of Sunday, for in them every morning, especially the sunny one, is equally holy." (from The Maid Silja, 1931, translated by Alex Matson)
Frans Emil Sillanpää was born into a peasant family in
Hämeenkyrö, at Myllykolu Croft in Kierikkala Village in southwest Finland. His father, Frans Henrik Koskinen, was an impoverished day-laborer. Loviisa Vilhelmina Mäkelä, his mother, was a servant, who returned to home to give birth to an illegitimate child. She married Frans Henrik at the age of 34. Although poor, the family
saved money to send Sillanpää to Tampere grammar school.
Sillanpää lived in the working-class Amuri district and later moved to the home of his benefactor, the manufacturer Henrik Liljeroos. "Ei minua siis ahdista köyhyys aikä kallis aika, joten voitte minun suhteeni olla huoletta," he wrote home (I'm not haunted by poverty and these times do not depress me, you don't have to worry about me.) At school, Sillanpää was a good student and Liljeroos helped him to enter the University of Helsinki in 1908 to study medicine. Through a fellow student, Heikki Järnefelt, his acquaintances included the painter Eero Järnefelt. He also moved in the cultural circles of Jean Sibelius, Juhani Aho, and Pekka Halonen.
During these years Sillanpää learned to drink heavily. He adopted the ideas of the so-called Young Finland movement, which was essentially nationalistic, romantic, and anti-Swedish. At that time, Finland was part of Russia but Swedish-speaking classes had still influence in cultural matters and Finno-Swedish literature had dominated before the times of Aleksis Kivi (1834-72). However, Sillanpää spoke Swedish and admired the work of August Strindberg. He was deeply affected by the biological theories of Ernst Haeckel, the symbolist poet Maurice Maeterlinck, and the writings of the Norwegian Knut Hamsun. He once said, that "my life has been an impossible collection of disconnected whims, and now I live by seeing sights – other people pay for being able to see them conveniently under my guidance." Later Sillanpää read the works of Osvald Spengler, especially his Decline of the West, and embraced Spengler's idea that the civilizations have life cycles like plants. Tolstoy's ideas became important to him through the influence of Arvid Järnfelt.
In 1913 Sillanpää withdrew from the university and returned to home to Töllinmäki, devoting himself to farming and writing. In 1914 he traveled in Sweden and Denmark and wrote articles for the newspaper Uusi Suometar. For a time he even planned to become a journalist. Sillanpää's first novel, Elämä ja aurinko (1916, Life and Sun) was a triangle drama, in which a young man, Elias, loves two different girls, Olga and Lyyli, throughout a single summer. Like in the novels of D.H. Lawrence, love and sex are the driving forces of nature and human activity, but compared to the English novelist, Sillanpää's love scenes were more discreet and romantic. At the background of the story was the war raging on the Continent, but the young characters enjoy their summer. The novel was a critical success. O.A Kallio from the newspaper Aamulehti compared it to Aleksis Kivi's novel Seitsemän veljestä, but Mikko W. Erich from Turun Sanomat saw that the book came close to pornography. Life and Sun was followed next year by Ihmislapsia elämän saatossa (Children of Mankind in the Procession of Life), a collection of short stories, in which the central character is a student of modest origin. The work was actually was composed some years earlier. In 1916 he married Sigrid Maria Salomäki, an 18-year old domestic servant; they had eight children. They had met in 1914 and at the time of the marriage she was already pregnant.
The outbreak of Finland's civil war, and its horrors, formed the basis for Sillanpää's first important work, Hurskas kurjuus (1919, Meek Heritage). It reflected the writer's ambivalent views about the Finnish Civil War – Sillanpää had supported General Mannerheim's German-backed White Army, but saw that the victory had caused bloody consequences. The novel depicted the fate of a poor sharecropper, Juha Toivola, who is executed by the representantives of the victorious Whites for a murder he did not commit. Sillanpää refused to take sides and to glorify the war. "Even the dead arise and wonder why they have been buried like this, in separate graves, for they cannot possibly remember what that was supposed to mean." Readers are made to identify with the protagonist, a miserable character. Sillanpää's attacks on the reprisals of the Whites were removed from the novel. These part were first published in the leftist newspaper Kansan Tahto in 1929 and later, after World War II, in another magazines. "Minua tympäisee se jatkuva naivi jankutus, että vielä julmempia punaiset olivat. Mitä se tähän kuuluu? Tässähän on eurooppalainen valtio harjoittamassa laillista kylmää oikeutta rikollisia kohtaan eikä tiemmä ottamassa osviittaa huligaanikoplien menettelytavoista." (from a letter, in F.E. Sillanpää vuosina 1888-1923 by Panu Rajala, 1983) Among the few critics, who praised the book, was Juhani Aho. Meek Heritage was translated into Swedish and Sillanpää's name was mentioned in Nobel candidate speculations.
After the war Sillanpää participated in the activities of the General Mannerheim League for Child Welfare, founded to take care of the orphans left from the conflict. In the 1920s Sillanpää published several short story collections, among them Hiltu ja Ragnar (1923), which arose moral indignation due to its sexual subject matter – a love story between a young man from a well-to-do family and a servant girl. Ragnar seduces Hiltu, the daughter of Juha Toivola. Hiltu's ignorance and fear of being left alone drives her into suicide.
The Villa Saavutus (achievement), which Sillanpää built in Hämeenkyrö, and growing family, kept him in debt. By 1923, he himself had four children. His publisher, WSOY at that time, offered him a regular income as a publishing clerk, but the author's financial and mental crisis drove him to the brink of suicide. Sillanpää moved to Helsinki with his family, and started to write his first novel in ten years. He also changed in 1929 his publisher from WSOY to Otava.
International fame Sillanpää gained in 1931, when Nuorena nukkunut (The Maid Silja/Fallen Asleep While Young) was translated into English, and was published in the United States and in the United Kingdom. The Dutch and Italian critics predicted a Nobel Prize for Sillanpää. The story depicts the loss of a farm and the extinction of a family, culminating in the death of the farmer's daughter, Silja Salmelus. After losing her home, she is forced to take work as a servant girl. Silja's sexual intercourse with Armas, her beloved, is the turning point of the story. Armas leaves her, and she dies of tuberculosis at the height of a sunny summer.
Miehen tie (1932, The Way of a Man) was a story of an ideal hero, Paavo Ahrola, who goes through a period of youthful quests and mistakes. In the end, after spending his time on the way of a bum, he marries Alma, the woman he desired; they were actually predestinated to each other. Paavo's drinking was censored in the German translation – it did not fit in the ideal portrait of an Aryan peasant. In 1934 appeared Sillanpää's most important work, Ihmiset suviyössä (People in the Summer Night), about a group of people, whose lives and fates are connected on a summer weekend. In the little book the narrator presents the many happenings – new life is born, old life dies, man is slain in his prime, and the murdered man's wife continues her life. "There is almost no summer night in the north; only a lingering evening, darkening slightly as it lingers, but even this darkening has its ineffable clarity. It is the approaching presentiment of the summer morning. When the music of late evening has sunk to a violet, dusky pianissimo, so delicate that it lenghtens into a brief rest, then the first violin awakens with a soft, high cadence in which the cello soon joins, and this inwardly perceived tone picture is supported outwardly by a thousand-tongued accompaniment twittering from a myriad of branches and from the heights of the air. It is already morning, yet a moment ago it was still evening." (from People in the Summer Night, translated by Alan Blair)
Sillanpää's intellectual and emotional crisis deepened in 1939 with the outbreak of World War II. He had become a voice of cultural liberalism and was mocked by the right-wing activist circles and viewed with suspicion by leftist intellectuals. Among his close friends were Martti Haavio, Sakari Pälsi, and Kustaa Vilkuna, who were ethnologists and folk-lore scholars, and whose books had made their own field of science popular to the great public.When Sillanpää published his 'Christmas letter to the dictators' – Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini – his German translations were removed from sale. His wife died in 1939, and Sillanpää had a short and unhappy marriage with Anna Armia von Herzen, his secretary. During the Winter War, Sillanpää wrote his only patriotic poem, 'Marssilaulu' (Matching Song). It was set to music by Aimo Mustonen, an advertising director; the song was a huge hit.
With Färden till Kvarnbäcken ('Trip to Kvarnbäcken'), a selection of short stories translated into Swedish, Sillanpää again arose the interest of the Nobel Committee, and in the voting in 1939 he beat Hermann Hesse and Johan Huizinga. After the Winter War (1939-40) broke out, the prize was seen as a support to Finland's struggle against the Societ aggression. To receive the prize and to collect money for his country, Sillanpää went to Sweden and stayed there most of the war. In 1940 Sillanpää was confined to a hospital, where he remained until 1943.
In the 1940s Sillanpää published Elokuu (1941, August), and Ihmiselon ihanuus ja kurjuus (The Beauty and Misery of Human Life, 1945), both expressing disappointment with life and nostalgia for lost youth and ideals. After WW II Sillanpää found a new media, the radio, for his text, but fell otherwise silent as a writer of fiction. His white bearded appearance, smelling many times alcohol, brought him nickname "Taata" (Grandad) – children confused him for Santa Claus (as I did with a loud voice at the age of 5, and everybody was embarrassed. Petri Liukkonen, editor of Authors' Calendar).
With his Christmans messages on the radio Sillanpää became a highly popular figure, but in spite of his fame and the Nobel Prize, he was not elected to the Finnish Academy, where V.A. Koskenniemi represented literature. Sillanpää's final works were his memoirs: Poika eli elämäänsä (1953, The Boy Lived His Life), Kerron ja kuvailen (1955, Words and Pictures), and Päivä korkeimmillaan (1956, Day at Its Highest). He died on June 3, 1964, in Helsinki. His works have been translated into some thirty languages. Alan Blair's translation of People in the Summer Night is excellent, although its has been claimed that Finnish, a non-Indo-European language, is all but impossible to translate, especially into English. Alex Matson's translation of The Maid Silja has been criticized.
Several of Sillanpää's books have been filmed, starting from The Maid Silja. It was directed by Teuvo Tulio in 1937, starring Regina Linnanheimo as the young Silja. When papers made a great fuss about a scene, in which a farmer peeps Silja who is taking a bath, it was cut from the film. The sauna scene was not shortened in Young Love (1955), based on Sillanpää's Elämä ja aurinko. With the sauna and Tea Ista's performance – she swam naked – the film was sold successfully among others to South American countries. The latest adaptation from 1988, Ihmiselon ihanuus ja kurjuus, directed by Matti Kassila, won a prize in France at the Rouen Film Festival.
For further information: F. E. Sillanpää: elämä ja teokset by T. Vaaskivi (1937); F. E.Sillanpää: eräitä peruspiirteitä by Edwin Linkomies (1948); F. E. Sillanpää: muotokuva by Rafael Koskimies (1948); F. E. Sillanpää vuosina 1888-1958 by Aarne Laurila (1958); Kohtalon toteuttaminen: essee F. E. Sillanpäästä by Aatos Ojala (1959); F. E. Sillanpään puhetta: Kaksi keskustelua Sillanpään kanssa ja havaintoja hänen puheestaan by Pertti Virtaranta (1967); A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas (1973); Sosiaalisia linjoja ja sosiaalisten suhteiden tiivistymiä F. E. Sillanpään tuotannossa by Pekka Mattila (1978); F. E. Sillanpään romaanitaide kirjailijan asenteiden ja kertojan aseman kannalta by Aarne Laurila (1979); 'The Nobel Pursuit' by Pekka Tarkka, in Books from Finland, 14 (1980); A History of Scandinavian Literature, 1870-1980 (1982); F.E. Sillanpää vuosina 1888-1923 by Panu Rajala (1983); Sillanpään Hämeenkyrö: Kulttuurikuvia kesämatkaajalle by Panu Rajala (1986); Nobel Prize Winners, ed. by Tyler Wasson (1987); Katkotut sormet ja enkelten suru: näkökulma F. E. Sillanpään tuotantoon by Lasse Koskela (1988); Siljan synty by Panu Rajala (1988); Korkea päivä ja ehtoo by Panu Rajala (1993); World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 4. ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 4, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); 'Frans Emil Sillanpää (1888-1964)' by Panu Rajala in 100 Faces From Finland, ed. by Ulpu Marjomaa (2000); Finnen ja Sillanpään lumoa: kulttuuritarinaa Tampereen tienoilta by Hannu Syväoja (2011) - Huom.: Sillanpää on myös tehnyt suomennoksia, ja kääntänyt mm. Maurice Maeterlinckin Köyhäin aarteet (Le trésor des humbles), 1918.