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Finland-Swedish Wartime Modernists

Written by: Inga-Britt Wik |

Three female Finland-Swedish authors who are generally included among the second wave of modernists began writing in Helsinki during the 1930s: Solveig von Schoultz (1907-1996), Mirjam Tuominen (1913-1967), and Eva Wichman (1908–1975). All of them had children for whom they had primary responsibility during both the Winter War that began in autumn 1939 and the Continuation War in 1941-1945. And they all had to struggle to make their voices heard. The war sliced through their lives and rewrote the terms of their careers. Their writing took on a new intensity, a commitment to growth and existential questions as well as a strong focus on artistry. They explored new means of describing their experience, renewed the short story genre, and modified modernist poetry in various ways. After the war, they each struggled to establish a distinctive posture. Schoultz turned the spotlight on what she later called “society’s smallest cell, interpersonal relationships”, while Tuominen illumined the fundamental ethical issues of the age with the passion of Cassandra, and Wichman – whom the war radicalised – wrote political battle songs.

Jansson, Tove (born 1914): Illustration from a children’s book by Solveig von Schoultz, 1945. Drawing

Having started off with Petra och silverapan (1932; Petra and the Silver Monkey), a book for girls, Schoultz published Min timme (My Hour), her first book of poetry, in 1940. As she was to write in Längs vattenbrynet (1992; At the Water’s Edge), her memoirs, the shattering experience of the war spurred her debut as a poet. The grand themes of the book range from war and evacuation to the conflict between motherhood and the demands of art. De sju dagarna (1942; The Seven Days), a prose work, is a female creation story in which a mother and her children exist for each other – at first together with the father, then separated from him as they evacuate to Sweden after the war breaks out. The book is a kind of documentary in that it is based on the notes Schoultz took about living with her two young daughters.

Melanie Klein’s first book, The Psychoanalysis of Children (1932), was published a decade before Solveig von Schoultz’s De sju dagarna (1942; The Seven Days). Both authors used authentic material to capture the essence of children’s creativity. The two girls in Schoultz’s book speak a language of their own in the scenes and encounters that their mother’s psychological sensitivity allows her to recount. Decisive to the success of the writing is Schoultz’s ear for the way that the speech of children, like poetry, can get to the heart of a matter in only a few expressive words. “I’m particuarly fond of this book about the first seven years of motherhood; all three of us wrote it”, Schoultz explains in the introduction to the 1997 edition.

The war also plays a supporting role in Nalleresan (1944; The Teddy Bear Trip), a children’s book that she wrote for her daughters when they evacuated to Sweden during the last summer of the war. Tove Jansson’s illustrations highlight the adventures of the dolls and teddy bears on the way to join their mothers in Sweden. The book, which proceeds from the thesis that people can start a new life without severing all links to their native country, is integral to the canon about Finnish war children.

Inga-Britt Wik

A Close Observer of the Female Psyche

“The most important Finland-Swedish female poet since Edith Södergran,” Olof Lagercrantz wrote after Schoultz had published Eko av ett rop (1945; Echo of a Cry), her third book of poetry. But poetry was only one facet of her distinguished career.

Between the time that she brought out her first prose work in 1932 and Samtal med en fjäril (1994; Conversations with a Butterfly), her last poetry collection, the reading tastes of the general public changed many times over. Like most Finnish poets who began in the 1940s, she was most consumed by psychological themes, even during the 1960s and 1970s when political literature was all the rage. She never veered from her focus on inner experience and interpersonal relationships, always maintaining an exploratory approach. The protagonists – usually women, but not to the exclusion of men and children – of her short stories find themselves in familiar, everyday situations. The relatively uneventful plots often develop slowly. The emphasis is on illuminating the material of inner conflicts, unconscious processes like drawn bows behind the dialogue. That which remains unspoken in daily life and habitual perception suddenly has an outlet for expression. The tone is satirical; the author in a story is not identical with the author of the story. Trying to identify spokeswomen for Schoultz’s viewpoints among her characters is largely a futile gesture. The beam is constantly shining on them, but ‘light and shadow’ are always shifting.

Her poems often deal with the same themes, terser and more austere as time goes by, as her short stories. Objective reflection that both reveals and embodies her empathetic qualities is a distinctive feature of her poetry. “Pelikanen” (The Pelican) in Sänk ditt ljus (1963; Turn Down your Light) is one of the many small allegories taken from nature and wildlife that typify the latter part of her career.

Eyes averted, in the corner of the nest
she arranges the thin down.
Why should her chicks care
about the bloody stripes
on her breast?

The allegory illustrates the theme of mother-child psychology that Schoultz’s poetry and short stories brought to Finland-Swedish modernism. Joy, wonder, and conflict, as well as renunciation and self-sacrifice that lead to forgetfulness and loss of identity, are among the various aspects of motherhood that she examines. Characteristic of her poetry are portraits of older women, exhausted from having raised children under harsh conditions, but strong and tenacious, nurturing a dream of youth deep within.

The “old woman” in Nätet (1956; The Net) lends a psychoanalytical ingredient to her perspective. The strong superego, the ‘head’, has tyrannised the body and its natural instincts. The insight that irrational, repressed, and uncontrollable desires can subvert a worldview grew throughout her writing career.

Schoultz was born in Borgå in 1907, the youngest of the eight Segerstråle children. Hanna Frosterus-Segerstråle was an artist who had been trained in Paris; Albert Segerstråle was a pastor and a senior master at the Borgå secondary school. Schoultz, who was trained as a teacher, worked as an educator and journalist in addition to her writing career.

Schoultz’s exploration of motherhood as social responsibility, an aspect of the female psyche that often incarnates in wartime and post-war literature, is an important contribution to women’s history. Her characters vary in terms of both form and historical circumstances. “Urmodern” (the Primeval Mother), a wartime version of the theme, in Den bortvända glädjen (1943; Joy Turned Aside) codifies responsibility for the earth and existence in the person of a poverty-stricken woman who lunges for the “flesh market of the streets” out of anxiety and desperation.

Ansa och samvetet (1954; Ansa and Her Conscience), a camouflaged autobiography, is a fictionalised account of Schoultz’s childhood experiences, as is Där står du (1973; There You Stand), which deals with the female psyche and socialisation of girls. Porträtt av Hanna (1978; Portrait of Hanna), a biography of her mother, has a similar flavour. The rather detached depiction of artist Hanna Frosterus-Segerstråle suggests a model for Schoultz’s active, creative life. The book transforms the conflict between biological and spiritual creativity, so difficult for twentieth century women to resolve – and so powerful a theme in her poetry – into productive energy.

“Gammal kvinna” (Old Woman):

The head was itself:
on a wizened neck
it raised its tower of
The roof of attenuated grey
crowned the weather-beaten
watery corners
from networks of worry
small elephant-grey rocks
hardened by wisdom.
The head was its own age.
The head: a tyrant.

The body: a subjugated country
of dry, white flesh
the shoulders shamefully young.
The body, detained in dreams
of water lilies and blood.


Sigrid Bø Grønstøl

The Cassandra of Existentialism

“I would only be able to describe anxiety and ecstasy”, Mirjam Tuominen (1913-1967) confided to her diary in January 1939. She had recently started off her career with a collection of short stories entitled Tidig tvekan (1938; Early Hesitation). Hagar Olsson called it “a remarkable first book”.

From the very beginning, Tuominen sought what she called “the ultimate expression” and approached her art with an intensity and determination that was never to leave her. She was always experimenting with new forms and devices. Her early stories stick to psychological narrative, but focus on young people and eccentrics as well as their search for identity and the crucial decisions they face. Irina is a young girl who emerges from the “glass ball” she has been living in during a life-threatening illness. Anna Sten, the unattractive and isolated protagonist of Murar (1939; Walls), opens her heart to an inner reality that enables her to receive other people into her life.

Mirjam Tuominen rejected Nazism early on. After watching a newsreel of Hitler invading Poland, she wrote in her diary on 17 September 1939:

“All night I saw in my mind’s eye ‘the inscrutable smile’ with which you observed the weeping Polish women, children, and men, and with which you frightened and astonished your own soldiers.”

Rista, Eeva: Women stokers shovelling coal during the Second World War. Photograph

Tuominen’s grand theme is existential vulnerability; she searches for a paradoxical form of freedom and explores the soul’s boundaries, as well as the personal dynamics of power, violence, and war. She was an outspoken critic of violence and oppression during World War II, while advocating for children, spirituality, nature, and “a genuine new humanism”. Visshet (1942; Certainty) uses a mystical narrative to describe the world she saw all around her. “Jan och Marietta” (Jan and Marietta) tries to capture “a confusing array of voices”. The young lovers are destroyed; the witch who is allied with nature’s healing powers is burned at the stake. She is an iconoclast and condemned by society. Even more scathing is a satire entitled “Det outgrundliga leendet” (The Inscrutable Smile), a vision of a world ruled by a male cult of death and war. The story is a response to Pär Lagerkvist’s “Det eviga leendet” (Eng. tr. The Eternal Smile), in which people meet God and find a creed to help them live. The few human beings left in Tuominen’s war-torn world submissively follow the great leader, who finally turns his hatred on the opposite sex: “As long as women exist, we are not unequivocal and equal, but equivocal and unequal – women must be eliminated.” Now the leader faces God. All he knows how to do is accuse: “You alone are guilty. Guilty”. And he dies. A couple who have refused to surrender to conformity and violence make their way out of the inferno.

The war was not only a time of painful insights into the issue of violence, but an intense experience of marriage and family. She spent most of it with her two young daughters all alone in the small provincial town of Nykarleby. Her husband was a senior master at the upper secondary school, but had been called up. The short story “Två” (Two) depicts the relationship between a woman and a daughter, whose first steps towards adulthood and independence are described both tenderly and incisively.

During the war, Tuominen searched for fresh forms of expression. “Ny gryning” (New Dawn) in Mörka gudar (1944; Dark Gods) uses highly charged prose to follow a young woman named Chérie Kloster through a psychological crisis, her only means of self-realisation. The hospital staff urges her to write down her medical history. In doing so, she is able to emerge from her vegetative state. Her story, which she calls “The Girl Who Turned into a Plant”, starts off:

“Why are you talking to me? she would ask. You’re bothering me; it’s as though my stem wanted to break.”

Chérie embodies some of Tuominen’s own traumatic experiences. Her writing often refers to the early death of her father. Chérie’s longing for intimacy flips over to fear of losing her boundaries. She leaves the man who loves her: “Closer than close, so close that we couldn’t see each other”. Tuominen had plans to write more about Chérie’s life but decided that she would be trespassing on Cora Sandel’s books about Alberte. She subsequently published a brilliant essay about Sandel in Stadier (1949; Stages).

Executioner and Victim

Besk brygd (1947; Bitter Brew), a collection of essays and confessions, is the most important compendium of Tuominen’s experiences during the war.

“You who are shrugging your shoulders at this very moment, closing my book and putting it aside to return to your newspaper – don’t do it, for I am writing to you alone – you are the one for whom all this is meant. You have an executioner inside you, just as I do, and if your executioner is not threatening you, so much the worse perhaps.”

Besk brygd (1947; Bitter Brew)

Writing in first person, she uses condensed, unadorned prose to analyse the bloodthirstiness of her age, feeling as though she is “appealing to everyone in the world”. The war was over; photographs of Hitler’s victims had been made public. She starts off with the image of a German soldier throwing the body of a Jewish boy into a cesspool. Besk brygd aroused a controversy. “What reason does a writer have to be optimistic anymore; what reason does he have not to feel culpable?” is just as pressing a question now as it was then. “My story is no longer a story, it is the tearing-apart of a story. ‘Every poem shall be the tearing-apart of a poem,’” Tuominen wrote in her diary in spring 1949, quoting Edith Södergran’s poem “Beslut” (Decision). Both Södergran and Paul Valéry (1871-1945) were her gurus. “In absurdum” (Ad Absurdum) in Bliva ingen (1949; Become No One) reflects her new focus on condensation and lyrical simplicity. The protagonist has been compared with the dancer in Valéry’s L’Áme et la Danse (1925; Eng. tr. Dance and the Soul). As opposed to Valéry’s figure, the dancer in “In absurdum” falls and hurts herself. Her struggle for perfection leads to hubris, but she experiences wholeness and liberation on her deathbed.

Tema med variationer (1952; Theme with Variations) marks Tuominen’s transition to prose poetry. The theme of the variations is life that “longs to be liberated for independent creativity”. She still writes expressively, at times with unsurpassed psychological realism. Tema med variationer and the prose studies in Bliva ingen are central works of Finland-Swedish modernism.

Under jorden sjönk (1954; Under the Earth Sank) marks Tuominen’s complete transition to poetry. In her quest for a state of equilibrium between life and death, she strikes a fervid, unembellished note. The poems are often suggestive of prayer and incantation. “Gör mig ren” (Make Me Pure) pleads: “Not thesis / not antithesis / but synthesis. / May life and death hold each other in balance.” Many of the poems are first-rate portraits of other writers, including Marcel Proust, Simone Weil, and Finland-Swedish poet Gunnar Björling.

The last poem in Under jorden sjönk (Under Earth Sank) encapsulates the gentle and intimate tendency of Tuominen’s poetry:

What I write is seen in the dog’s eyes
in the cat’s paw
it shimmers in the wings of the lonely fly
it runs in the back of the foal
it flies in the path of the birds
it flees
it sinks
into the earth under the root
it smiles in the eyes of infants
it grows in the eyes of children
it wonders in young eyes
it yearns in the eyes of humanity.

Tuominen uses poetry to “tear apart” traditional form as well. In the 1950s, her poems grew longer and turned into a first-person documentary of life, written in an intentionally non-literary style that strongly resembled a diary and was unique for its time. She wrote of existential vulnerability and the harsh realities of life: “Work, poverty illness / that is the Trinity / life.” She reacts to violence, oppression, and war with anguished sensitivity. Her unifying idea is the helplessness of children: “Atom bomb / no atom bomb / oh that atom bomb / when it fell into our children’s souls” – Dikter III (1956; Poems III). Women, who betray their “maternal instincts”, are just as much to blame as men. The poem’s “torn-apart” lines convey the power of the accusation. Most important is the intense, beseeching tone. Tuominen takes Cassandra as an ally in her crusade against violence. Her rhythm is sustained by the same “clear-sighted tremor” that she sees in the prophetess.

Tuominen translated Rainer Maria Rilke’s letters and poems. She published the first Swedish version of his Die Sonette an Orpheus (Eng. tr. Sonnets to Orpheus). In wrestling with existential questions, she plumbed the depths of spiritual experience by way of mysticism. Towards the end of her life, she was consumed by the life and works of Friedrich Hölderlin. Her biography of him was empathetic to the point of identification.

The spiritual experiences that followed a vision of Christ set the stage for Tuominen’s book of meditations, Gud är närvarande (1961; God Is Present). Margit Abenius, a Karin Boye scholar, found something new and liberating, “not only in the maternal commitment, which Tuominen has always had, but in the sense of elevation.”

Tuominen converted to Roman Catholicism in 1963 and devoted her final years to religious poetry. However, the two books that she completed, Ave Maria and Jesus Kristus lyra (Jesus Christ’s Lyre), were both turned down. She was so insulted that she stopped writing. Her distinctive, artistically superior works attracted fresh attention in the late 1980s. A selection of her prose and poetry was brought out in three volumes, Ny gryning (New Dawn), Det outgrundliga leendet (The Inscrutable Smile), Förstumning och inristning (Silence and Inscription), in 1989-1992. The abstract ‘non-paintings’ that she created during a crisis in her life won her renown as the first Finnish informalist.

Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, was granted the gift of prophecy by Apollo. But when she refused to return his love, he laid a curse on her such that nobody would believe her predictions. Her fate has often been interpreted symbolically, emphasising either her gift or her tragic plight.

Electrified by Life

Wichman, Eva (born 1907): Postcard to her friend Sven Grönvall. 1948. Drawing. Svenska Litteratursällskapet i Finland, Helsinki

Eva Wichman (1908-1975) started off her career in 1937 with Mania, a collection of stories that use bold imagery and offer high-spirited satire of civilisation’s mechanistic trends. Bitar av livet, belysta (Pieces of Life, Illuminated), her posthumous prose work, characterises her as “born to remain a child”. She incorporated nature, fairy tales, dreams, and a wilful imagination into her writing, never truly abandoning them although she devoted long periods of her life and artistic career to other causes, particularly political activism during the Cold War of the 1950s. She and her young son were evacuees in Sweden during World War II. Bitar av livet, belysta documents her struggle to write. “I’m writing. Maybe it will turn into a novel. The bombs just fell.” (Diary entry in January 1944) Although she did not depict the war directly, the tone of her writing grew darker. Molnet såg mig (1942; The Cloud Saw Me) creates a special type of fable and exploits a prose style suffused with the dynamics of nature to express her sense of defencelessness and vulnerability.

Wichman started off as an artist and designer – her wooden toys won gold medals in Milan and Paris. Her early writings revolved around the artist’s condition and inner motivations. She married the writer Ralf Parland in 1938 and got to know Gunnar Björling, Elmer Diktonius, and other older modernists. She and Solveig von Schoultz were cousins on her mother’s side; they had known each other from childhood.

Ohörbart vattenfall (1944; Inaudible Waterfall) chronicles the experiences of her alter ego, a young artist in 1930s Helsinki. The book examines female creativity and a self that is in harmony with “the indestructible fluid of life”: “The world flows through me; I am electrified by life, right now.” But she is not talking about passive absorption into existence; her focal point is independence.

Her poems of the 1940s, Ormöga (1946; The Snake’s Eye) and Den andra tonen (1948; The Second Tone), give birth to a lyrical mother that conveys both lightness and a surge of vitality. “As an ecstatic poet, Wichman most resembles Edith Södergran”, writes Rabbe Enckell, the leading scholar of Finland-Swedish modernism. The poems in Den andra tonen suggest that a shift is under way. Wichman had been radicalised by the war. She was ready to break free of her entrenchments: “The only way to battle is / to crawl out of yourself / out of the cages and thickets / you set up / (‘for protection’ and ‘for beauty’) / – for yourself. / But the roses bloom for everybody.”

“Don’t explore yourself for your own sake – only in the service of writing. Don’t do anything other than write.”

(Diary, 1944)

The prose work Där vi går (1949; There We Go) was a watershed in her career. The book combines her own brand of nature-inspired narrative with expressive social commentary on post-war Helsinki. Her compassion goes to the worst victims – disabled soldiers and social outcasts cowering in bomb shelters. The sense of belonging that she had previously found in the flow of life now comes from her interaction with humanity. Her words sizzle with ridicule of callousness and middle-class respectability. The tempo rises when she mingles in working-class neighbourhoods: “Here we go. Arduously swaying, dejectedly toiling […]”. The poetry she wrote in the 1950s cannot maintain the same pace.

Dikt i dag (1951; Poetry Today) marks a transition from the modernist idiom to an attempt at compelling political verse, falling back on old stylistic devices that tend to be solemn and overly declamatory. Wichman joined the Communist Party, but left it in the early 1960s to continue her quest under the influence of such artistic and spiritual guides as Carl Jung, Gunnar Ekelöf, and the Bhagavadgita.

Det sker med ens (1964; It Happens at Once) leaves all propagandistic predilections behind for a new type of social indignation, as in the masterly “Kranbergsgatan”. She also reacquaints herself with nature and communicates a sense of affectionate humanity in her portraits of various figures.

Disabled by a lung disease, Wichman lived in seclusion for the last few years of her life and was rarely published. She remained unacknowledged by the literary establishment. Dikter nu (1975; Poems Now), her last book of poetry, returns to the feeling of immediacy at the moment of creation.

“Mer verkliga nu” (More Real Now) in Dikter nu illuminates the profound insights that Wichman had assimilated:

Amidst the din
the silence grows larger.
Even I see the birds now.
Small, like commandments. Big
like visions. Mighty
like clouds
or feathers.

And sometimes
feathers of “the real”.
More real now.

Inga-Britt Wik

Translated by Ken Schubert