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Sillanpää, Frans Eemil, 1888-1964 / People in the summer night; an epic suite (1966)

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  [p. vii]  


In 1888, when Frans Eemil Sillanpää was born, the industrialization of Finland had scarcely begun; and thirty years ago, when People in the Summer Night was written, Finland was still largely an agrarian country. Even today not more than forty per cent of the Finns live in cities or towns, and as a matter of fact nearly every one of them maintains some connection with the countryside. Most town dwellers do not dream of clustering together at resorts on their vacations nor do they choose to remain in their city homes; they do their utmost to spend some time "in the country," by a lake or by the sea, in a summer house, rented or owned, or at least in a boarding house situated somewhere well away from urban civilization.

To such an audience the works of Sillanpää are an embodiment and apotheosis of the spirit in which they themselves regard the landscape and its inhabitants. His Finnish readers are close enough to the life of the countryside to understand the arts of agriculture and husbandry, and indeed they often pride themselves on being versed in the performance of various country chores. How to make hay, how to row a boat and lay a fish net, how to cut firewood, and how to heat a sauna for the indispensable Saturday steam bath, these are as natural a part of their lives as   [p. viii]   reading and writing. Their concept of the ideal existence is very tangible.

Despite his love of the countryside, the urban Finn remains only a guest and an amateur in the pastoral life. But this is not true of Sillanpää. Sillanpää was born and bred in a country cottage, and because he possessed the refined sensibilities of the artist, he was able to express his understanding of the rural life in his art. He cherishes the landscape; he is familiar with its every form of life; and he is sympathetic to its people. He is attuned to their thoughts and reactions and seems to perceive what is uppermost in their minds in any given situation and what is concealed behind their cautiously constructed façades. If Robert Frost had ever written novels, they might have had a pensiveness, a tender care of nuances, and also a shrewdness and bluntness not unlike Sillanpää's.

Young Frans Eemil, the son of a crofter and farm hand, lived his early years under a very modest roof. Still, poverty in the flourishing countryside of Sillanpää's native Hämeenkyrö parish in southwestern Finland, whose land has been cultivated since the early Middle Ages, is quite different from poverty in an urban slum, as Sillanpää soon learned. In order to acquire a secondary education, Sillanpää was sent to the industrial town of Tampere, where his living conditions were far meaner than any he had known before. In spite of overcrowded quarters and meager fare, he achieved the high marks which permitted him to matriculate at Helsinki University.

During his four or five years at the university, Sillanpää was assisted financially by friends whose intent was to educate a future doctor or biology teacher; but his friends were rewarded even more richly by having helped a potential great writer expand his horizons and aspirations and   [p. ix]   formulate his view of life. Although Sillanpäa earned no academic degree during his sojourn at the university, his studies of biology, evolution, and the physical sciences changed his thinking and revealed new ideas which influenced his whole outlook. In 1908 the ideas of Darwin, Haeckel, and Ostwald still carried the impact of new and challenging truth, and to Sillanpää they confirmed and explained what experience and instinct had already suggested to him: that man exists only within the framework of the biological laws that govern all species, filling his niche in nature just as any other species must.

From such views as these which do not deify but merely categorize man, and from Sillanpää's humble origins and years of crude, almost squalid living, one might expect Sillanpää's writing to reflect harshness, coarseness, or brutality. On the contrary, he has a keen eye for the subtlest of changes, not only in the visible manifestations but in the moods and the sentiments, both of nature and of man, and his language adjusts with equal sensitivity to transmit what his eye beholds. Indeed, Sillanpää's prose is remarkable in itself. Finnish is a very fluid language which admits free and novel uses, shades of meaning, and variations of word pattern. Sillanpää masterfully exploits these possibilities, yet balances his often long and flowing sentences with the utmost precision. His words sometimes seem to jostle each other along amid a sort of jovial crowding until each one of them falls into its exact place. The final effect is one of full-bodied prose, with a richness of taste and almost a palpability to the touch; in fact, in attempting to describe his prose, one seems unavoidably to use words that denote physical and sensual qualities.

The idea of becoming an author was not new to Sillanpää at the time he began his writing as a serious career. Even in   [p. x]   primary school he had written some stories which were published in a children's magazine. Much later, after his inauspicious undergraduate venture, when he had returned home to his parents with a deep sense of failure, he began to write short stories in earnest. In 1915 he sent these stories to the editor of the daily paper Uusi Suometar and, somewhat to his surprise, found them eagerly accepted for publication. Thus his career was decided upon, not only by himself, but also by a foresighted publisher, Jalmari Jäntti, who had read the stories and immediately requested publication rights for a collection of them. Since Sillanpää had by then begun a novel, he was set up in comfortable quarters and told to complete the book at the publisher's own expense. Thus relieved, for a time at least, of financial cares, Sillanpää finished his first book, Elämä ja aurinko (The Life and the Sun), in 1916 and found himself quite suddenly established as a very promising writer. In this same year he married Sigrid Maria Salomäki, a girl from his home parish, who was to bear him four children and remain his devoted companion until her death in 1939, a few months before she would have shared his joy in the crowning distinction of the Nobel Prize.

Soon came 1918, an ominous year in Finland. The short but bloody civil war, with its long aftermath of retaliation and hatred, won Finland her independence but nearly rent her in two. Sillanpää took no part in the war. Many crofters and farm laborers fought on the Red side, people of the class to which Sillanpää himself belonged by birth. However, by education and profession he too had become absorbed into the social stratum that comprised the Whites. From his deep sympathy with both sides and his understanding of their human motives, he created one of his great novels, Hurskas kurjuus, published in 1919: It is the   [p. xi]   story of a crofter who loses his life in the rebellion, a bewildered and miserable, unloved and unlovely hero, but one who, by the magic of his creator, becomes a symbol of a common humanity, of the dignity and worth of man.

Sillanpää next wrote and published several books of short stories and essays, ranging from fiction to rambling, chatty semi-autobiographical sketches. In these, as well as in most of his novels, he does not pretend to stand aside from his themes and create detached works of art. Often he talks directly to the reader without disguising his narrator's voice or suppressing opinions. He visibly directs the stream of his prose, channeling it, smoothing the way for it, widening or narrowing it, and sometimes himself remarking on its flow. This could be tedious, were it not for his ability to qualify and clarify what he has to say.

This need to explain himself, considered in the light of several biographical details, would seem to be a neurotic trait of Sillanpää's, a self-consciousness and insecurity. By contrast his outward aspect was that of a strongly built, massive, almost fleshy man, with a sure tread, a resonant voice, and a love of public appearances. This must surely have been not a mask, but a shield for his insecurity. These two traits — a self-confidence and a shyness — appear side by side in his works, often with a singular effect: The broad, jocular, even boisterous asides and the majestically flowing, precise language express not only subtle detail but a deep understanding of the weak, the blithe, the fragile, and the shy elements in life. This contrast is Sillanpää's hallmark.

In his best-known novel, Nuorena nukkunut, these characteristics of his style suit the theme particularly well. Silja is an orphan, the last of her family, who lives through a brief yet radiant youth, but, deserted by her lover, fades and dies, "smilingly completing her destiny." Her figure and   [p. xii]   her fate reflect the mild, pervasive summer-night light in which she moves at the height of her destiny — the same light that bathes the action of the present book. Sillanpää's portraits of women and girls are always painted with a rare understanding and usually with admiration. It is the biologist appreciating woman's role as a sustainer and preserver of the human species and looking with pleasure upon the continuation of her role; it is also, perhaps, the aging man longing for the time when he himself had a more secure existence — in the care of a mother. Thus, in Miehen tie, published the year after Nuorena nukkunut, we meet a young farmer searching for a place in life and finding it with the aid of a strong and purposeful woman.

The next of Sillanpää's great novels is the present one, People in the Summer Night, a kind of summer-night symphony where voices and themes appear and disappear, weaving a tapestry which might be said to reveal his whole outlook on life and his insights into the remarkably varied human beings directed by the laws of life. Here Sillanpää depicts both the great events of life — birth, love, death — and the tangential petty frustrations and small joys. Here he examines the innermost thoughts of the neurotic, the stable, the weary aged, the young, the simple, the complex, the uncouth, and the cultured. His diversely contrasting figures interact and intertwine into a coherent and unified portrayal of reality, under the illuminating canopy of a personified summer night. And carefully emphasizing the ecology of the human beings — the way each fulfills a fundamental natural role — is a parallel ecological study of nature's other forms.

People in the Summer Night was published in 1934 and was to remain Sillanpää's last work of undiminished strength. When the Nobel Prize was awarded to him in   [p. xiii]   1939, on the eve of the Winter War, the keen edge of his creative powers was dulled, and he knew it himself. He was able to complete several works begun earlier, filling in outlines and continuing themes, but the results were only fair. His creative capacity had left him.

He still had one resource to draw upon, and he did so very successfully. In the years succeeding World War II Sillanpää chatted informally and almost intimately over the radio to tens of thousands of Finnish families and became the more beloved by those not only of his generation but also of the new generation. He talked about his childhood memories, of the ups and downs of his life, and of many things dear to his audience. From these spoken essays emerged three autobiographical books, the last of which was published in 1956.

Thereafter Sillanpää grew silent, retreating deeper into the role of an old man as he progressed into his late sixties, until his death in 1964 at the age of 75. It is in this last role that his fellow countrymen are inclined to remember him today: a kind of Finland's own taata — a venerable grandfather — genially stroking a billowing gray beard or dandling one of his treasured grandchildren on his knee, with words of sly wisdom and truth on his lips. This role, too, was yet another manifestation of his love of life and reverence for the phenomenon of life that had marked his bygone creative days.

  [p. xiv]  

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