Saturday, April 14, 2012

Second second thoughts

A very esoteric subject to use the English language for, concerning very un-English things. Kalle Päätalo, a self-learned Finnish author, was in his time a hugely popular writer bringing back the rapidly vanished rural Finland to the couple of generations that still had a living connection with it. His most loved creation was his exhaustive Ii River series in which he (in mindboggling detail) describes his dramatic life story from great poverty and hard forestry work in really only semi-civilized North Eastern Finland through the WW2 to a relatively comfortable urban life and the beginning of his writing career. He truly was revered by his many readers and hugely patronized by university educated, sophisticated literary circles.

I was quite snobbish too in my teens and early 20's about his plodding, clumsy, incredibly slow moving style. My first reconsideration concerned the historical value of the story and its internal dramas: it really is amazing social historical description, a treasure of forgotten things, forgotten attitudes, and his brutal honesty about his own failures and repeated humiliations is actually a good, interesting story. I only gave up when the action moved away from the dramatic and interesting war years (he served for five years), and when the regular 500 - 600 pages for half or full year concentrated on endless fights with his intolerable first wife in more familiar urban circumstances. It just did not seem worth the effort, especially with the knowledge that there will be a divorce, one only prayed that he would just have gone with it and divorced the bloody woman...

Now, 20 years later I'm re-reading the series and having second second thoughts. Yes, the style feels plodding, clumsy, incredibly slow - but I think there might actually be quite a huge amount of thought and sophistication behind it. He might actually be a good, even great writer. Of course, as social history, as an exceptional historical experience it still is an amazing treasure, a storage of very rare things, but now, with more perspective, I sense a steely, majestic purpose there, a very intelligent and almost obsessively well hidden subtext, and feel somewhat chastened by this realization. One is maybe not as sophisticated as one thinks... It is awfully deceptive, awfully devious stuff, hugely interesting.

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