Reviewed by Edith LaGraziana
Since times immemorial Midsummer has been an important date in the solar calendar with many traditions linked to it, especially in Scandinavia, but not only as proves the fact that William Shakespeare wrote a play entitled A Midsummer Night’s Dream. However, my literary rambles take me to the Finnish countryside this week. Due to luminous and warm nights summer there almost necessarily invites to stay up like the protagonists of the classical novel People in the Summer Night by Frans Eemil Sillanpää do for very different reasons. People give birth, people fall in love, people crave for sleep, people stroll around observing and musing, and people die in this novel of the Finnish Nobel laureate revolving around the human condition in all its diversity.
Frans Eemil Sillanpää was born Frans Eemil Koskinen in Hämeenkyrö, Finland, in September 1888. His parents were crofters who made great sacrifices to send him to high school in Tampere. As from 1908 he studied Natural Sciences (Biology) at the University of Helsinki, but never took any exams, presumably due to anxiety disorder. Five years later he returned to his parents and, in an attempt to earn money, he wrote his first short stories which were bought by a newspaper in Helsinki and made a publisher offer him a contract for his first book. This debut novel was Life and Sun (Elämä ja aurinko: 1916) which was an immediate success like also his second entitled Meek Heritage (Hurskas kurjuus: 1919), while his novellas, short story and essay collections of the 1920s weren’t received too favourably. In the 1930s the author’s career gathered momentum again thanks to the novels The Maid Silja (Nuorena nukkunut: 1931), A Man’s Way (Miehen tie: 1932) and People in the Summer Night (Ihmiset suviyössä: 1934) which together with his early work earned him the 1939 Nobel Prize in Literature. In his later years, grieving over the death of his first wife and suffering from alcoholism, the author wrote only two more novels – The Month of August (Elokuu: 1941) and Life’s Beauty and Misery (Ihmiselon ihanuus ja kurjuus: 1945) –, but he had a popular show on Finnish radio from after World War II through 1956 which he made into three collections of autobiographical essays. Frans Eemil Sillanpää died in Helsinki, Finland, in June 1964.
It’s a first Saturday of July in the early 1930s and the People in the Summer Night of Teliranta, a farm house in the wider area of Tampere, hardly get any sleep because at this time of year
“[t]here is almost no summer night in the north; only a lingering evening, darkening slightly as it lingers, but even this darkening has its ineffable clarity. It’s the approaching presentiment of the summer morning. …”But in this particular Nordic summer night people remain sleepless also for other reasons. There are the daughter of the master of Teliranta called Selma and her cousin Helka, for instance, who go to town for an engagement party with the violinist Arvid and his friend Hannu come by in their cars for a surprise visit. The two couples talk and dance and enjoy themselves away from the critical eyes of Selma’s parents and grandmother until long into the small hours of Sunday. Meanwhile their neighbour Syrjämäki-Hilja goes into labour with her fourth child and sends her husband Jalmari to fetch the midwife, but the crofter is a slowpoke and in addition things don’t go like clockwork. So in the end it’s Martta, the wife of the master of Teliranta across the lake, who assists the woman giving birth, while Jalmari rides in search of the midwife and then the doctor in vain. At the same time the young raftsmen Yrjö Salonen called Nokia and Matti Puolamäki get themselves into trouble with Mettälä-Jukka who is dead-drunk once more and rough as always. This time, however, his bullying words throw Nokia, who has had a sip or two of Mettälä’s liquor too, into blind fury
“[a]nd there among the cow parsley, which was turning to seed, and the meadowsweet, which was just about to bloom, lay Mettälä, head partly in the rye, in the gray serge clothes and patched, high-legged rafting boots. He lay with his eyes half open; they seemed to stare unblinkingly at the moon, which by then was setting. At this time of the year the full moon does not stay long above the horizon. …”There’s nothing the doctor can do. He is late to save Mettälä and he is late to bring Hilja’s and Jalmari’s baby into the world. All the while the old mistress of Taliranta, the grandmother of Selma and Helka, is wide awake and longing for sleep without being able to find it because her mind is working relentlessly. And also the artist is out all night rowing his boat on the lake, strolling around the land and observing his surroundings.
People in the Summer Night is no usual novel with a main plot and several more or less relevant story lines to give it substance and width, but rather it’s a series of alternating scenes or vignettes from the life of a rural neighbourhood in times long before the Internet. The stories are only loosely interconnected by the fact that they are set in the same area at the same time which entails that also the people (directly or indirectly) involved are often the same. Despite the crime story that is included it’s a very quiet and contemplative novel focusing above all on feelings and atmosphere instead of outward action. Consequently it is full of picturesque images of a typical summer night in the Finnish countryside that serves at the same time as background and mirror of the great, yet usual events of life, i.e. birth, love and death. At the same time the author gives a comprehensive picture of Finnish society in the 1930s showing the good sides as well as the bad. The detached third-person narrator tells each of the alternating scenes from the point of view of the respective protagonist which results in an extraordinarily large number of different voices ranging from young to old, from rich to poor and from uncultured to well-bred. The author’s language is precise, concise and highly poetic as becomes evident already in the very first paragraph of the slim novel. Even in translation the beauty of expression is impressing and I was under its spell right away.
As you can see, reading People in the Summer Night by Frans Eemil Sillanpää has been a very pleasurable experience for me. It’s a pity that outside his country this author, Finland’s only winner of the Nobel Prize so far, is rather forgotten today. Only few of his books seem to be available in translation and some of them are quite hard to find as it turned out. However, if you can lay hands on a copy of this one, don’t let it go! It’s an excellent book that I warmly recommend to you.
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