Birth of Literature in Finnish

Last Saturday, 10th of October, was Finnish Literature Day, set aside to commemorate Aleksis Kivi (born Alexis Stenvall) and the advent of literature in Finnish. Kivi (1834-1872) was the first modern author to write in Finnish. His best known novel, Seitsemän veljestä (Seven Brothers, published originally by the Finnish Literature Society in 1870) has become a classic of Finnish culture, and has been translated into several languages. Previously in the 19th century, local literary and scientific endeavor had communicated in Swedish: Finnish language and vocabulary did not yet support such activities. Educated members of the society would use Swedish (usually it was their first language), while the common Finnish-speaking population people would have been able to read but less frequently have been able to write. Kivi himself came from a poor rural ramily, but he had learnt Swedish and was able to study at university.

The development of a Finnish language was the key element for Finnish national culture and identity. Although there had been earlier efforts to write novels in Finnish, Kivi was the first Finn successfully to link the form of the novel to vivid descriptions of common Finnish life and language.

Although Kivi had won several prizes in the 1860s as a playwright, the early reception of his prose was notoriously harsh: August Ahlqvist, Professor of Finnish and a leading figure in the development of written Finnish at the time, condemned the novel, its language and its plot: for him, Kivi’s language was too rough and his description on Finnish peasants immoral.

Kivi had important supporters both at the university and at the Finnish Literature Society (SKS), but that support could not immediately dispel the accusations Ahlqvist had put forward. Furthermore, the unstable political situation of the early 1870s, along with SKS’s faltering publishing activities, which suffered from poor finance and nonexistent entrepreneurial drive, combined to withhold Kivi's work from its potential audience. The original edition was issued 500 copies: 134 sold immediately as a part of SKS’s novel series, while the rest languished for three years in storage before brought to any additional book market. In 1877-1878 SKS published Kivi’s Collected Works, but the book series was impossibly expensive for most Finns. A truncated version for young readers was published in 1891, but up to the very end of the century Seven Brothers was a rare sight in book stores.

In a climate of heavy criticism and with no public signs of support Kivi died, his already-weakened mental condition having been brought to a state of collapse. Initial condemnation of Seven Brothers and the low key of its early publishing history have lead scholars to believe that Kivi’s significance and his accomplishments were not understood until the late 19th or early 20th century: thereby creating the figure of a misunderstood genius rescued by future generations.

However, in his Impivaaran kaski. Aleksis Kivi kirjallisuutemme korvenraivaajana (The Burnt Clearing at Impivaara. Aleksis Kivi as Trailblazer of Finnish Literature. SKS, 2009), Esko Rahikainen turns away from the well-studied academic condemnation of Ahlqvist and instead conducts an inquiry into Kivi's popularity among the larger reading audience. Rahikainen begins by showing that Kivi was Finnish theatre's most successful playwright of the late 19th century - and that the audience of theater-goers most likely exceeded that of novel readers. Furthermore, Rahikainen details many of the dispersed examples that show peasants and other rural examples reading or listening Seven Brothers and other texts of Kivi.

Such sources could be used to dispute the earlier assumption of Kivi's neglect. Alternatively, they could be used to open a broader discussion into how popularity and success could be measured in the late 19th century Finland, in a context where the expensive novel in Finnish would be difficult to apprehend by a Swedish speaking bourgeoisie, and at the same time prove remote to Finnish-speaking peasants unused to fiction or even books. To do so, the rivalries and hesitations evident in the academy stand in contrast to the interest and often even enthusiasm of peasants.

It had seemed that after a century of studying early criticism and (dis)approval of Kivi, we already knew the opinions stated and actions taken. However, recent decades have opened up new contexts and viewpoints: what does popularity mean, and where should it be sought; should our concern be for Ahlqvist's revulsion or for the peasants’ admiration? The questions are not only relevant to studies on Kivi. They are also part of new approach in studying both late 19th-century Finnish cultural life and how the common people – the largest part of the society – began to take part in secular cultural activities and create its own visions, opinions and even works of art. Whose opinions and acts count – or indeed interest us?

Jyrki Hakapää


IFLA in Helsinki 2012

Jyrki Hakapää

I was already excited on the forthcoming SHARP conference in Helsinki, but now comes news that the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) has given the World Library and Information Congress: 78th IFLA General Conference and Assembly to Helsinki in 2012. Exact dates or theme are not yet given, but check IFLA's conference news for further information once the event approaches.

SHARP might be much smaller and probably more academic organization compared to IFLA. Nevertheless it feels great to remark - or even boast -, that the next decade will begin with Helsinki as an important centre of international book culture and history activities.