A Quixotic Lifetime of Reading Becomes Global Archive of Author Bios
by Petri Liukkonen
the Kentucky Rough, the Likes of Diamonds
by Paul McDonald
A Quixotic Lifetime of Reading Becomes Global Archive of Author Bios
by Petri Liukkonen
[Finn, Petri Liukkonen, went live with his "Books and Authors" web site (www.kirjasto.sci.fi/indeksi.htm) in the Spring of this year. Offering short but thorough bios and bibliographies (average word count: 1500) on thousands of the world's writers, those famous in small places, obscure in large--and vice versa--the compendium has already drawn nearly 1.5 million hits.--Ed.]
If I am what I have read, then Pegasos is my self-portrait, one which has evolved like Dorian Gray's according to my habits, a continuous image from earliest childhood to, say, just last week.
It is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. -- Graham Greene
I don't doubt but what Greene's statement is broadly true. Words on the page can make an imprint on the psyche, forming it, sometimes freeing it. But for me, license came in the shape of F.E. Sillanpää. [Frans Emil, (1908-1964), Nobel Prize for Literature, 1939. Chief work: People in the Summer Night (1934). Bio below.--Ed.] A Finn, he lived close by, and once a year he visited our school.
Sillanpää was a legendary drinker. We used to lay bets on how many times he would fall down in the school yard. So, he recited to us in his harsh, deep voice over the school p.a. system, as we sat, mutually out of view, in our classrooms. It was always the highlight of the year when Sillanpää started to bellow, cough and wheeze. He often got so excited he spat on the microphone. I guess he usually read his Christmas stories, though we could hardly follow them what with all the laughter. When our teachers, otherwise strict, encountered him staggering through the corridors, they ignored the stench of liquor and cigar smoke he emitted, and accorded him the utmost deference and respect. Now, this made a lasting impression. I realized that writers are above the rules.
It took some doing for me to reconcile that lesson with another, the one learned from my peers: Tough guys don't read books. Yet, everybody in my family read a lot. If tough guys didn't read, then my father was an exception. I knew I could never be as tough as he, a weightlifter. One of my earliest childhood memories was the heavy clang his barbells made when he let them hit the floor upstairs. Now over seventy, he still trains--in the basement--and bangs less.
Before the age of 12, I had devoured the short stories of Kafka and Maupassant, along with science fiction, Tolstoy and the other Russian classics, Melville, Simenon's mysteries, Leon Uris, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Prescott's The Conquest of Mexico, Tarzan books, comics, and all kinds of popular junk. Perhaps it was a mistake to read so widely: I never developed as a proper snob with the taste for sophisticated literature only. At this moment, my desk holds Jari Ehrnrooth's long essay on Dante (Intiaaniunta), the Nebula Awards Showcase for 2000, and Amin Maalouf's novel, The First Century After Beatrice.
My mother was fond of Swedish detective novels; my grandmother recited Pushkin; the covers were all but disintegrated on my grandfather's much-read copy of Mika Waltari's Sinuhe (The Egyptian, 1945), a beautiful, historical novel which was filmed and subsequently disgraced in Hollywood in the 1950's. I never had a chance to tell my grandfather about the time I met Waltari in a hospital (my summer job), just a week before he died (1908-1979). Waltari had always looked sturdy and jovial in public, but by then, his clothes hung about his shrunken body. I left his mail on the table, but dared not speak to him.
Most of the writers whose bios appear in the Pegasos compendium have been extremely important to me, to my relatives, or to somebody else close to me. There are reminiscences from my parents' library, philosophers who inspired me at university, great misfits with whom I have always sympathized, some Western writers, such as Louis L'Amour, who had a passion for the classics, and a number of new acquaintances suggested by readers from all over the world.
I think it was Sacha Guitry who once said: "The little I know, I owe to my ignorance." I knew almost nothing about the wonderful American poet Stanley Kunitz [appointed U.S. Poet Laureate, 1999] before the editors of Big City Lit™ noticed his absence from Pegasos and suggested I write an entry. I live in a small Finnish town, near the Arctic Circle and the border to Russia. However, I immediately drove down to Helsinki to get a collection of Kunitz's poetry. Failing that, I did find a Norton Anthology which contained a few of his poems. These lines moved me deeply: "Darling, do you remember / the man you married? Touch me, / remind me who I am."
Each time I revisit the work of a
writer, discovered early or late in my reading life, I am reminded of who
I was, and understand a little better my course of becoming.
[Sample Pegasos entry:]
Frans Emil Sillanpää
Finnish writer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1939. 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 saw man as a small but integral part of the universe. In his work Sillanpää idealized rural life and agrarian society, in which the frail humans live united with the land and dependent on the sun, the source of all energy.
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, transl. by Alex Matson)
Sillanpää was born into a peasant family in Hämeenkyrö, in southwest Finland, as the son of an impoverished day-laborer. Although poor, the family saved money to send Sillanpää to secondary school. He was a good student and later had a benefactor, who helped him to enter the University of Helsinki in 1908 to study biology.
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. 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 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. 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.
In 1913 Sillanpää withdrew from the university and returned to home, devoting himself to writing. His first novel, ELÄMÄ JA AURINKO (1916, Life and Sun) was a story about a young man, who loves two different girls throughout a single summer. It was followed next year by IHMISLAPSIA ELÄMÄN SAATOSSA (Children of Mankind in the Procession of Life).
The outbreak of Finland's civil war, and its horrors, formed the basis for Sillanpää's first important work, HURSKAS KURJUUS (Meek Heritage, 1919). 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 it culminated in the fate of the protagonist, Jussi Toivola, a poor sharecropper, who is involved in a Red Army plot and is executed for a murder he did not commit. The boldness of the work lies in its refusal to take sides and to glorify the victorious Whites. Reader is made to identify and empathize the very essence of humanity, that is hidden under the ugliness of events.
In the 1920s Sillanpää published several short story collections, among them HILTU JA RAGNAR (1923), ENKELTEN SUOJATIT (1923), MAAN TASALTA (1924), TÖLLINMÄKI (1925), and RIPPI (1928).
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 story depicts the loss of a farm and the extinction of a family, culminating in the death of the farmer's daughter, who dies young at the height of a sunny summer. MIEHEN TIE (1932, The Way of a Man) was a story of an ideal hero, who goes through a period of youthful quests and mistakes, and in the end marries the woman he desired. In 1934 appeared Sillanpää's most important work, IHMISET SUVIYÖSSÄ (People in the Summer Night). In the novel the narrator presents the many happenings of a summer weekend - new life is born, old life dies, man is slain in his prime.
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, transl. by Thomas Warburton)
Sillanpää's intellectual and emotional crisis deepened in 1939 with the outbreak of World War II. His wife Sigrid Maria Salomäki, whom he had married in 1916, died, and Sillanpää had a short and unhappy marriage with Anna Armia von Herzen. He was confined to a hospital in 1940, where he remained until 1943.
In the 1940s Sillanpää published ELOKUU (August, 1941), and IHMISELON IHANUUS JA KURJUUS (The Beauty and Misery of Human Life, 1945). 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" (Grandpa), but children confused him for Santa Claus (as I did with a loud voice at the age of 5, and everybody was embarrassed.)
Sillanpää's final works were his memoirs: POIKA ELI ELÄMÄÄNSÄ (1953), KERRON JA KUVAILEN (1955), and PÄIVÄ KORKEIMMILLAAN (1956). He died on June 3, 1964, in Helsinki. His works have been translated into some twenty languages.
For further information: A History
of Finnish Literature by J. Ahokas (1973); The Nobel Pursuit by Pekka Tarkka
(1980, in Books from Finland, 14); A History of Scandinavian Literature,
1870-1980 (1982); F.E. Sillanpää vuosina 1888-1923 by Panu Rajala
(1983); Nobel Prize Winners, ed. by Tyler Wasson (1987); Siljan synty by
Panu Rajala (1988); Korkea päivä ja ehtoo by Panu Rajala (1993);
World Authors 1900-1950, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens
(1996); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, ed. by Steven
R. Serafin (1999, vol. 4) - See also: F.E. Sillanpään Seura.
the Kentucky Rough, the Likes of Diamonds
by Paul McDonald
In November, when the first annual 17-venue New York Underground Music and Poetry Festival took place in the East Village, participants included a sizable contingent from Kentucky. Now, since the state has a reputation for basketball, bourbon and cock-fighting, that may seem improbable. But for several decades, itís also been a breeding ground for the likes of Thomas Merton, Robert Penn Warren, Wendell Berry, and Hunter S. Thompson. Throughout the Twentieth Century, hundreds of writers throughout the state have struggled to live up to these examples--often with impressive, though under-publicized, success. It's always good for any unknown poet to have a sense of heritage, but it takes someone willing to twist an arm and a leg to get that poet's work showcased in The Big City.
For Kentucky aspirants, that someone is Ron Whitehead. An author, poet and publisher from Louisville, Whitehead has organized and produced over 300 music and poetry events throughout the world. At the New York University Beat Generation Conference in 1994, Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo introduced Whitehead to Underground Festival organizer Casey Cyr, and thereafter the two kept in touch about their ongoing projects and about the poetry world in general. This past June, when Whitehead gave a reading in New York, Cyr enlisted his expertise in organizing the festival, and he, Cyr and co-organizer Nora Edison spent a week brainstorming in Edison's upstate New York home. From the beginning, Whitehead advocated opening the festival to artists outside of New York, and to Kentuckians in particular. "The work coming out of Kentucky stands eyeball to eyeball with, and in some cases taller than, most of the work all over the world," says Whitehead. "This creativity is now, and will be in the future, a major force to be reckoned with."
After an exhaustive selection process, those chosen from Kentucky included W. Loran Smith, a creative writing instructor at the University of Louisville and author of the critically acclaimed Night Train, Louisville advertising executive and spoken word artist Charlie Newman, mystery novelist Dave Baker, high school poets Dylan Whitehead and Ryan Hollon, and Jefferson Community College Adjunct Professor Kent Fielding.
Fielding has co-produced a number of events with Whitehead and both run The Literary Renaissance, a not-for-profit publishing house specializing in first-run chapbooks and posters. In addition to his teaching activities, Fielding is currently organizing a 48-hour non-stop poetry festival in Louisville (http://www. insomniacathon.com) set for February 2001. Fielding says that Kentucky's unique place in literary history has influenced far more writers throughout the world than most people realize. "You look at our tradition and you find so many major writers, such as Wendell Berry, Leon Driskell, Gurney Norman, Ed McClanahan, and Jesse Stuart, who have gone on to encourage younger writers. It's a legacy that inspired the Literary Renaissance."
A lot of prominent New Yorkers have Kentucky roots, not the least of whom is Bob Holman, whom the Village Voice has dubbed the New York Poetry Czar. Holman is a Harlan County boy, where, he says, "My mama married the only Jew in town." (Actually, Papa Benny had three brothers . . . ) His Ukrainian parents went from selling pots and pans door-to-door to owning a department store. "So, not only do I get the benefit of the Scotch-Irish tenacity of the tale, the talking banjo, the twang, but also Makovsky's muscle."
Holman co-produced the 1996 PBS Series "The United States of Poetry," which featured Kentucky Poets James Still and George Ella Lyon. "The Kentucky poets I know are smart, proud, and know damn well how to tell a story; listening to George Ella Lyon recount the old phone numbers in Harlan is like seeing the phone book come to life." Holman says. "It's great to hear the Kentucky voice weighing in on the new spoken word scene. Ron Whitehead, Troy Teegarden, these poet activists drive the connections. Jonathan Greene and Guy Davenport, they bust it open. Wendell Berry, Ed McClanahan, James Baker Hall, James Still, the Afrilachian poets (a group of African-American poets from the Appalachian Mountains). . . . Stop me before I move back!"
Festival Chairman and composer David Amram feels that no matter how distinctive a Kentucky voice is, each carries something earthy and ancient. "There's a back-porch storytelling quality all Kentucky writers and poets have," says Amram. "It's an indigenous characteristic that's as common to Abraham Lincoln as it is to Hunter Thompson."
No one is more passionate about the work coming out of Kentucky than Ron Whitehead. "There's an energy here that gives birth to new shapes, new thoughts, and new expressions. Kentucky is a place where diamonds are created."