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That Was Not Reality

Written by: Tuva Korsström |

Will I always remain
a drop of blood in the air
without the right to live?

A March 1932 diary entry by Kerstin Söderholm (1897-1943) began with the above lines. At her express request, the diary was published after her death under the title Endast med mig själv: Dagboksanteckningar 1913-1943 (1943; Only with Myself: Diary Entries 1913-1943). Although she also published poems, short stories, and literary criticism, she regarded the journal intime that she had kept since childhood as her lifework.

Kerstin Söderholm was born in Helsinki in 1897, the only child of a well-to-do upper middle-class family. As a sensitive and sickly child, she never received the academic training that would otherwise have been available to her. Like modernists Rabbe Enckell and Barbro Mörne, she published her first book of poetry in 1923, the year Edith Södergran died. Gunnar Björling and Elmer Diktonius had started off two years earlier.

Karin Allardt Ekelund, her friend and a literary scholar, did the editing. Ekelund asserts in her foreword that Söderholm, like Virginia Woolf and Karin Boye, was an indirect victim of the war, which “tried her delicate sensibilities to the utmost”.

A number of Söderholm’s traits qualify her as a Finland-Swedish counterpart to Boye and Woolf: the privilege of working at the core of avant-gardism, as well as vulnerability, failing physical and mental health, and a death wish that eventually led to suicide.

Her first book, a poetry collection entitled Röster ur tingen (1923; Voices from Things), was succeeded by Mot ljuset på berget (1926; Towards the Light on the Mountains) and Rödgula vägar (1928; Red-Yellow Ways), as well as a short story collection entitled Det var icke verklighet (1930; That Was Not Reality). Ord i natten (1933; Words in the Night), acclaimed as her best book of poetry, was followed by Porten (1937; The Gate) and Mörkret och människan (1941; The Darkness and the Human Being). Dikter i urval (1944; Collected Poems) was published posthumously.

Werner Holmberg, 1830-1860: Motiv från Toriseva, 1859. Signe och Ane Gyllenbergs stiftelse, Helsinki

Like many other Finland-Swedish modernists, Söderholm wrote poetry that largely centred on nature themes. The reader can hear strains of Edith Södergran in the way that her first collection merges the self and the natural surroudnings:

I am a sinuous herb.
I cannot see, I cannot understand,
I cannot raise myself from the earth.
I can enter into myself,
I can fearfully perceive and be moved.
I am a closed world
– at rest, in expectant vigilance.

Poetry is her way of defining a tentative self and an evasive, inaccessible other. The characterisation of human beings in her final book also goes by way of nature:

People are pine needles, leaves,
the moss, the gravel, that we tread on,
the fan that breathes life into the air,
and the starlight of distant constellations.
But they are also something more,
something that the herb cannot grasp.

The volume also contains her most concrete images, called forth by the destitution and hunger of the Winter War. Det var icke verklighet, the title of her only short story collection, reflects her most fundamental theme as well as the biggest issue that she confronted in her life and art.

Her best stories and poems chronicle dreamlike states rather than events of the external world. But the inability to establish contact with reality that remains constant through thirty years of diary entries in Endast med mig själv often makes for a frustrating reading experience.

As might be expected, the diary is all about the person who kept it. As a young woman, Söderholm reproaches herself for her egocentricity and lack of “goodness”; she writes of her illness, fatigue, shyness, and longing for love. The reader catches glimpses of the age she lived in: civil war, modernist circles, the Society of Swedish Authors in Finland to which she devoted eight years as secretary, and the ill-fated Winter War and Continuation War. But the theme of the self and its isolation eclipses all else.

A review of Söderholm’s diaries by Mirjam Tuominen, who was somewhat younger, captures the essence of her basic predicament. Stadier (1949; Stages): “Her diary throbs with a supplication, a constant entreaty to expose and forget herself in order to find out who she really is.” Tuominen reminds us that now and then Söderholm also experiences the secret joy, the inner strength that hypersensitivity at its best can offer. She quotes from the diary: “Despite everything, life is marvellous – never more so than at its limits, when you can defy all prejudice and need for control and go your own way – with a semiconscious assurance that death is at your side […] Life’s song of songs, so harrowing because it contains the certitude of mortality.”

Translated by Ken Schubert