Saturday, December 24, 2005

Finished Product

After a year's hard work, how wonderful it is to be able to hold the finished product in my hands! This selection of Finnish fantasy literature (perhaps 'speculative fiction' would be a better term) offers a broad cross-section of writing both new and old, and demonstrates that elements of the fantastical have always existed, even in a body of literature as young as that in Finland.

Dedalus Books publishes an entire series of anthologies of fantasy literature in translation. A friend recently asked me whether there is a market for this kind of book in the UK. Perhaps an anthology of this kind will cross the boundaries between the fantasy / sci-fi readership, and the readership for all things Scandinavian.

My personal favourite is perhaps Pentti Holappa's 'Boman': the story of a talking, literate dog who through sheer power of will grows herself a pair of wings. Holappa's career has been long and varied, and in 1998 he won the Finlandia Prize for his novel 'Ystävän muotokuva' (Portrait of a Friend), a moving depiction of the relationship between two men in the post-war years in Helsinki. 'Boman' dates from 1959, but still I think there is a queer reading to be had. The more I read this text throughout the translation process the more this idea began to make sense to me. I'll read this text again and formulate a more coherent argument over the holidays.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


The art of poetry translation is - like Sudoku (to which I am utterly hooked) - thoroughly mind-boggling. The ability to fit the full meaning and sense of a poem from one language into another, whilst retaining the feel and intensity of the original, is almost a holy grail in the world of translation. The aphorostic work of the Finnish poet Eila Kivikk'aho offers the translator a particular challenge: a vast body of her poems are written in haiku or tanka form, allowing only a given number of syllables per line (5-7-5 or 5-7-5-7-7 respectively). Here is one I translated several years ago, perhaps this will encourage me to have a go at some others.


En ole enää
sirpaleitten varassa.
Sain ehjän onnen.
Mitä kätken sen maljaan?
-Vanhan ruukun kappaleet.

(Eila Kivikk'aho)


No longer shall I
stand amidst the shards. I have
received pristine joy.
What shall I hide within it?
-The pieces of my old vase.

(trans. DH)

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Much Ado About Nothing?

Another year, another Finlandia Prize, another furore. This competition always sparks controversy, and given this year’s shortlist Paavo Lipponen’s decision was bound to awaken strong feelings whichever way the prize finally went. The decision this year to award the prize to Bo Carpelan, an author who has already won the prize once before, for his novel Berg (‘Mountain’), together with the fact that the shortlist included another previous winner, has prompted a much-needed debate on the nature of the prize in general. Many of the arguments presented could equally apply to competitions of any kind.

I was somewhat surprised to read articles, notably in Aamulehti, condemning the prize, the recipient and this year’s ‘dictator’. The idea that an author should not be allowed to win the same competition twice – for two separate works – seems absurd, but far more absurd is the notion that the point of the prize is that every author will eventually has his / her turn at winning. If everybody takes it in turns to win the prize, winning itself has no value or meaning.

Aamulehti’s esteemed literature critic Matti Mäkelä claims that the credibility of the Finlandia Prize is now irreparably damaged by virtue of its being awarded to the same author twice. Perhaps he should consider the fact that, whether we like it or not, the outcome of the prize IS subjective, the final decision is left to a single reader. On the contrary, the credibility of this institution in very much intact, as Antti Majander pointed out in today’s HS, the winner should represent ‘the best, not the most appropriate’ work of Finnish literature. If a writer is consistently excellent, should that go unnoticed simply because s/he has been acknowledged once before?

Last month, on the day the Finlandia shortlist was announced, I happened to bump into a nameless publisher in the Academic Book Shop. The said publisher was shocked and outraged that none of their books were to be found on the list. I couldn’t help wondering whether it had ever crossed said publisher’s mind that perhaps none of their books that year were worthy of a place on the shortlist amongst the crème of new Finnish literature this year.

Time and again it occurs to me that publishers are entirely blind to anything outside the ‘business’ of the book world. It seems that selling copies of a book is more important than rejoicing at the quality of that book. Similarly, the ability to assess objectively the quality of one’s own publications seems sadly lacking: not all books are great works of literature, no matter how much one publicly lauds them to anyone who will listen or dismisses the opinions of anyone who cannot see the emperor’s new clothing. In the tiny Finnish book market, winning the Finlandia or similar prizes ensures increased sales figures (naturally, the winner is always announced in the run-up to Christmas…) and continuing publicity for both novel and author. For the publisher, it seems that of primary importance is having the kudos of being able to say that ‘our book’ won the prize; ‘our book’ was shortlisted.

Media circuses like the Finlandia Prize or, say, the recent Sibelius Violin Competition, are becoming increasingly detached from what ought to be their fundamental raison d’être: to celebrate art, creativity, flair, genius. One need only read a single column in Helsingin Sanomat dealing with the Violin Competition to realise that what is most important is not musicality, but which of the automatons on stage can perform a Paganini caprice without making a technical mistake. Or one could listen to Madonna’s latest travesty to good taste and realise that what sells records is not creative genius (the woman’s sheer lack of originality never fails to astound me) but good marketing and pilfering the right pieces of music from real artists. No wonder Sony delayed the release of Fiona Apple’s marvellous third album for so many years: after all, if it’s not going to be a commercial success, what’s the point?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

A Haunting, Haunted Memory

This morning I spent two hours rehearsing Alfred Schnittke’s String Trio (1985). It’s an enthralling work, at once taut and ridden with anxiety, yet at the same time highly emotional and very moving. Schnittke is a composer who has always commanded great fascination for me, and it has been both a pleasure and an honour to work in such detail on this piece. These rehearsals coincided with a series of lectures I have been attending on formal elements of sonata form, focussing largely on the first movement of Schubert’s String Quartet in A minor op. 29, the Rosamunde. It was only later, upon reading Richard Whitehouse’s introduction to the Schnittke Trio in the inlay cover of my CD (an excellent Naxos release of Schnittke’s chamber music for strings and piano) that the idea of a kinship between the formal approaches of the two composers became clearer.

It was interesting to learn that Schnittke wrote his String Trio in response to a commission from the Alban Berg Society of Vienna, and the idea of Vienna itself, almost as a mythical entity, ‘a haunting, haunted memory’, seems to be present throughout the work. Whitehouse talks of a ‘sensation of creative amnesia’ about the work, and it is this which makes me think most strongly of the Rosamunde. “The proceeding Adagio does not develop or especially intensify the material already heard, as prolong the sensation of creative amnesia; the composer striving for some semblance of formal logic, against overwhelming creative and emotional odds” (Whitehouse 1999).

The idea of striving towards formal logic – indeed, the very inevitability of formal logic – recalls for me the transition of the development back into the recapitulation in the first movement of the Rosamunde. The development reaches its climax at the massive diminished chord in bar 140. As far as the parameters of sonata form are concerned, Schubert has by this point already created a number of obstacles for himself, the minor / major tension of the first theme being perhaps the most obvious, and now finds himself at the end of the development on a vii°7 chord of A, being the dominant of D minor, not A minor in which the recapitulation must begin. In a discussion of this potential structural problem in the piece, the lecturer brought our attention to the idea of ‘hope denied’, something which by the late Romantic era had become a cliché, but which for Schubert perhaps represented genuine frustration, if you will, at the constraints of the form. No matter how far one develops thematic material and no matter how many tonal regions the development explores, it has to return to the tonic for a resigned recapitulation of the first theme.

The idea of ‘hope denied’ runs through Schnittke’s String Trio just as much. Tonality in the broadest sense was as much a feature of Schnittke’s idiom as it was of Schubert’s. The major third descending into the minor (seen, for instance, in the first theme of the Rosamunde and more specifically during the transition back to the A minor recapitulation) is also in play in Schnittke’s work, though in perhaps a more gestural way, by contrasting sections of music that allude to major and minor sensibilities. In rehearsing the piece we spent some time discussing a recurring section of the second (final) movement: cello harmonics (later in the viola), in a melodic fragment formed from a major triad, appear out of nowhere, a sunbeam momentarily perforates the greyness. What does it mean? Perhaps this is what Whitehouse means by the idea of composing ‘against overwhelming creative and emotional odds’. The harmonics offer us a glimmer of hope, of something that might have been or might be, but that hope is dashed three times (the number three holds particular formal and numerological significance throughout this piece). For me, this is the same glimmer of hope offered by Schubert in bar 140. Could the recapitulation really occur in D minor? Could it? But this, of course, is hope against hope, and after extensive searching for a tonic, the recapitulation arrives back in A minor after all, just as Schnittke’s faint sunbeam is quickly extinguished with ferocious, unrelenting minor ninths and tritones. “Muss es sein? Es muss sein.”