The Maid Silja. By F. E. Sillanpaii. Translated by Alexander Matson. New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.50. Meek Heritage. By F. E. Sillanpaa. Translated by Alexander Matson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50. Sun and Storm. By Unto Seppanen. Translated by Kenneth C. Kaufman. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company. $2.50.
The year 1939, in which Finland by her military prowess won the admiration of the civilized world, saw also her recognition in the field of letters. Her greatest writer, F. E. Sillanpaa, won the Nobel Prize.
It is peculiarly fitting that Sillanpaa’s novels should be brought before the English reading public at this time. For although newspapers and radio give the passage of events in that wild, lake-torn, tree-shadowed country, the history of the land and the temperament of its inhabitants are not gathered through such breathless daily commentaries. It is gathered only by sinking—slowly, soundlessly—into that profound depth of feeling which it is Sillanpaa’s unique genius to create. He creates it as if he were writing with two pens simultaneously, one of them dipped in ink depicting the simple actuality of event or scene, and the other following the outline with inexorable exactitude—identical in form but dipped in an invisible essence, to be read only by the inward eye. This sense of spiritual awareness, of spiritual intensity and suspense, and above all, of immense and eternal spiritual significance, infuses Sillanpaa’s novels with an almost intolerable poignancy. “The Maid Silja,” which appeared in England under the more expressive title “Fallen Asleep While Young,” is his supreme achievement, although “Meek Heritage,” which has appeared more recently, partakes of the same rapt and solemn quality.
Silja is merely a peasant child, growing into a peasant maiden, dying while still young at a moment when “the speechless delights of her surroundings were at their tender-est and strongest.” Around the exquisite central figure rise the elemental heats of nature, the raw commands of life, the sensations of the flesh, the smells of the earth which nourished that flesh. They rise and are diffused into ethereal vapor. They dissolve into the moonlight rays of a Finnish summer night and are distilled, in almost motionless quietude, into the resignation of a Finnish maiden’s soul. “From its secret timeless beginning onward, the whole of her being, as life went by, had grown harmoniously together. A pure unbroken skin held it with elastic bonds in its own dark fastnesses, whence, to the close-held ear of a lover had carried the beating of a heart, and his seeking eye caught a reflected glance. During her life she had not had time to be much more than a human being who smilingly fulfilled her fate. All that concerns Silja, now lying dead in the Eierikka bathhouse, is for the most part ravishingly insignificant. . . . The extinction of such breeds of small fame is indeed observed of none: yet in the process are repeated the same melancholy main features as in cases of greater consequence.”
It is with similar compassion that Sillanpaii carries Jussi, the filthy ignoble old fellow, to the conclusion of his “Meek Heritage”: with the same wise smile of sorrow and humor that he tumbles the bewildered rebel into a grave dug by rebels and already half filled with their corpses. Even with halfwitted Jussi “an individual human soul can attain to a moment when the eye no longer, even by an effort of will, halts at the inessential surface, at the physical exertions, the dirt, the hunger and cruelties, but penetrates irresistibly deeper, where all are as though petrified and still in their various attitudes. There no one is nobler or more justified than another, for through the agency of the warring parties circumstances have clashed of which the fighters have no inkling,”
Sillanpaa’s genius has long been recognized in Finland where, since he published his first novel in 1916, he has received a number of government prizes and, according to the custom of that enlightened land which respects its artists as much as it does its generals and statesmen, a government pension for life.
One of the best novels ever to come out of Finland, and one of the most powerful to appear anywhere during the past year, is Unto Seppanen’s “Sun and Storm,” published last October. Its plot has an agonizing timeliness, for it deals with the century-long struggle of Finland against her tyrant, Russia, which culminated in the downfall of the Czar’s government, the stamping out of Communism in a bloody civil war, and final complete independence assured by the Treaty of Dorpat in 1920, from which time the Finnish nation has developed into an orderly and democratic republic that has won the respect of all civilized peoples.
The Finns, who fight with such sustained and virile passion in these pages, are the same Finns who are fighting in our contemporary newspapers. The lakes, the forests, the cruel cold of 1920—these are the lakes and the forests and the winter of today. The heroic women of incredible physical and moral strength, the silent little boys who, in one moment, are transformed into stern-faced and resourceful men, the ambitious self-seekers, the idealists, the fanatical Nationalists— these are the three-dimensional prototypes of those whose features flash for a moment across the screens in our moving picture houses. The vast and richly colored mural is a gallery of true portraits. The story—brutal and delicate, epic and lyric—is a rushing narrative.
Sillanpaa’s characters, although too vividly delineated to be shadowy, are clad in the white light of immortal robes. Seppanen’s men and women, for all their emotional intensity, are flesh and blood humanity. Through these two interpreters, Finland and the Finnish people are nobly represented to us in America.