Friday, August 7, 2009

Aleksis Kivi

One of Finland's best loved authors. According to a biography, courtesy of Petri Liukkonen:
...Aleksis Kivi was born at Nurmijärvi in southern Finland, some twenty miles north of Helsinki. He came from a poor background. His mother was Annastiina (Hamberg) Stenvall, the daughter of a smith, who was five years older than her husband. Eerik Johan Stenvall, Kivi's father, was a tailor, who could read and write. Eerik had learnt Swedish, the language every educated Finnish spoke, before a Finnish-language culture fully developed. Kivi also acquired a complete mastery of Swedish. However, in the wake of national awakening Kivi translated his surname (Stenvall, 'stone-bank') into Finnish (Kivi, 'stone').

In 1846, at the age of twelve, Kivi left for school in Helsinki, where he found lodgings at the home of a prison warder. For a year his teacher was A.J. Cranberg, an old sailor, and at his small cottage Kivi studied among others Swedish. While living at the home of a master tailor, named Albin Palmqvist, he read widely in his library. With Palmqvist's daughter, Albina, who was five years his senior, he discussed of such writers as Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Byron. Kivi fell in love with Albina, and according to some sources, he proposed marriage. Albina went in 1853 to Denmark, where she started to use morphin for her neuralgia. During the following years, Albina spent much time abroad, but when she visited Finland, she met Kivi several times. Kivi never married and Albina also remained single. However, Albina possibly influenced a number of Kivi's female characters in his plays, including Liisa in YÖ JA PÄIVÄ (1866), Elma in KARKURIT (1866), Lea in LEA (1868), Marianne in CANZIO (1868).

Kivi managed to finish in 1857 secondary school, although he occasionally neglected his studies, partly because he suffered from hunger. In 1859 Kivi managed to enter the University of Helsinki, where he read the classics of world literature and became interested in the theater. At the Swedish teatter of Helsinki, he saw plays by Molière and Schiller and he was familiar with the Danish dramatist Ludvig Holberg. Kivi's first play, KULLERVO (1859), was based on the Kalevala and showed the influence of Shakespeare in its dramatic technique. In Helsinki Kivi made friends with J.V. Snellman, the famous philosopher, journalist and politician, who helped him economically. Among his friends were also such Finnish-speaking intellectuals as Fredrik Cygnaeus, Elias Lönnrot, Julius Krohn, and Emil Nervander.

At university Kivi studied sporadically. He was more interested in writing and intended to become a celebrated poet like Runeberg. Kullervo won a competition held by the Finnish Literature Society. With the prize money Kivi could continue his literary career. In Nurmijärvi and Siuntio he was helped by Charlotta Lönnqvist, a self-sacrificing benefactress, and perhaps also by the Adlercreutz family. From 1863 Kivi devoted himself to his calling. He published 12 plays, collection of poems and Seven Brothers, which he wrote for ten years. The work was crushed by the influential critic August Ahlqvist, who opposed its realism. Ahlqvist's hostile criticism became later a symbol of oppression of artistic freedom. "It is a ridiculous work and a blot on the name of Finnish literature," Ahlqvist wrote in the newspaper Finlands Allmäna Tidningen.

Seven Brothers is a humorous novel depicting orphan brothers, which first appeared in four volumes in 1870. To evade the Lutheran Church's requirement, that they learn to read and write before confirmation, the brothers flee to the wilderness. After encountering all kinds of disasters, they return to society – matured and ready to take responsibilities. Kivi's individualism and his unconventional approach won him many enemies among the Fennoman movement, which emphasized agrarian and conservative values. Kivi also challenged taboos concerning what was considered decent. His independent country boys were considered too wild – they were not modelled on an idealized picture of the people, but revealed their ignorance, laziness, tendency to heavy drinking, and 'Roussean' resistance to bourgeois values. Moreover, Kivi's mixture of comical, mythological, and tragic was not understood. Nowadays Seven Brothers has been interpreted at many levels. -

--JUHANI: On one corner of the earth a day of peace still gleams for us. Ilvesjärvi lake yonder, below Impivaara, is the harbour to which we can sail away from the storm. Now my mind is made up.
--LAURI: Mine was made up last year already.
--EERO: I'll follow you even into the deepest cave on Impivaara, where it is said the Old Man of the Mountains boils pitch, with a helmet made of a hundred sheepskins on his head.
--TUOMAS: We'll all move there from here.
--JUHANI: Thither we'll move and built a new world.

(from Seven Brothers)

In 1865 Kivi won the State Prize for his play NUMMISUUTARIT (The Heath Cobblers). He lived in Siuntio from 1864, reading, writing, visiting Helsinki – and when he could afford it, occasionally drinking in taverns. Kivi also wrote a play about a beer outing at Schleusingen, OLVIRETKI SCHLEUSINGENISSÄ (1866), which was not published during his lifetime, and a brisk drinking song: "Hail, brown barley juice, / Hail strong foaming cheer! / Let it all go down / So long as it's beer." (transl. by Keith Bosley) While in Nurmijärvi, Kivi liked to swim, fish and roam the wild forests with his rifle on his shoulder.

Although Kivi had influential supporters, among them Kaarlo Bergbom, who established the Finnish Theatre, he was deeply depressed by the attacks of Ahlqvist and other critics. In the late 1860s Charlotta Lönnqvist could not support the author any more. All of Kivi's money, which he earned from his writings, went to debts. His last years were shadowed by economical worries, and a physical and mental breakdown. However, most of his life Kivi had been healthy.

Suffering from schizophrenia, he was in a mental hospital in Lapinlahti. After nine months, on May 1872, his brother Albert brought him from Lapinlahti to Tuusula, where he spent his last months in a small rented cottage. Kivi died on the same year on December 31. According to the popular legend his last words were: "Minä elän!" (I am alive!)...

Among Aleksis Kivi's most famous poems is 'Sydämeni laulu' (Grove of Tuoni, grove of night / Song of my Heart) – a dark and very moving work, in which a woman seems to wish her baby dead. The poem was basis for Jean Sibelius song (Op. 18 No. 6) with the same title from 1898. In the poem a mother sits alone with her child and asks: "Tell me, my child, my summerbright, tell me: wouldst thou not sail away from here to a haven of everlasting peace while the white pennant of childhood still flies clean? On the shore of a misty, tideless lake stands the dark manor of Tuoni; there in the heart of a shadowy grove, in the bosom of a dewy thicket a cradle is prepared for thee with snowy linen and wrappings. Hear therefore my song; it wafts thee to the land of the Prince of Tuoni." ('Grove of Tuoni' can be translated as 'Grove of Death'. Keith's Bosley's translation in Aleksis Kivi: Odes from 1994 uses more modern language than Alex Matson in his work.) Although none of the brothers die in Seven Brothers, death is also one of themes in the book. Usually literary critics have emphasized humorous aspects of the story.

Grove of Tuoni, grove of night!
There thy bed of sand is light.
Thither my baby I lead.
Mirth and joy each long hour yields
In the Prince of Tuoni's fields
Tending the Tuonela cattle.
Mirth and joy my babe will know,
Lulled to sleep at evening glow
By the pale Tuonela maiden.
Surely joy hours will hold,
Lying in thy cot of gold,
Hearing the nightjar singing.
Grove of Tuoni, grove of peace!
There all strife and passion cease.
Distant the treacherous world."

(Translated by Alex Matson)

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