Friday, March 28, 2014

Book 146, Finland: "The Kalevala" by Elias Lönnrot

Aaaaaah!!!  The last week of classes is approaching! (Which does mean more time to do blogging and research and writing, I suppose. But also less discipline.) 

And I'm finally un-distracted enough to finish reading the great epic poem of Finland, forged together in the 19th century from bits of folksong and mythology collected all over the land on a journey of skis and horses, all in a mad bid to create a genuine national identity. 

But you know what? It worked! Today there's streets and paintings and people and even a whole national holiday in Finland named after the epic. It was a major influence for JRR Tolkien's Silmarillion, and even inspired an Estonian epic of the same ilk, The Kalevipoeg. And a Donald Duck comic, believe it or not.

And no wonder - this book is *nuts*. It starts off with the creation of the world from the shards of a duck egg and the weary, submerged, pregnant woman Ilmatar, and the birth of the hapless bard-hero Väinämöinen (it's pronounced "Viner-mer-nun", if this site's correct). Then we get cycle after cycle after cycle, showing how this hero's unable to woo a wife because he isn't good-looking, while the mage-smith Ilmarinen is beating out animals and miracles in his forge (even a genuine gold and silver Realdoll at one point) and Lemminkäinen drowns in a River of Death chasing a black swan only for his bits and pieces to be reanimated by his mother, because she can just DO THAT, and of course the mad blond super-strong boy Kullervo who does everything wrong, e.g. if you tell him to build a fence, he chops down a whole forest to make an unusable fence without doors that towers over the village, and if you give him a baby to sit he'll gouge out the baby's eye, and when he gets sold as a serf to Ilmarinen's wife she bakes him bread with a stone in it, and he's so mad when the stone breaks his father's knife that he drowns all her cattle, and turns a whole pack of wolves and bears into cattle, so that when she goes to milk her cattle for butter she finds them turning on her, ripping apart her beautiful face, pulling apart the sinews in her ankles, snapping her legs in two...

Yes, the story is quite graphic. This is all in strictly metrical poetry, by the way.

And presiding over everything is the dread Witch Queen of the Northland, Louhi, who has a number of beautiful daughters whom the heroes woo; who transforms herself into a bird and fights Väinämöinen for the magical artefact, the Sampo.  That's what's being portrayed in the painting on the book cover, by the way.

Strange to consider the position of women in this tale. Women hardly get a say in The Iliad, but pretty much every later epic lends them a voice. And here, while they're being married off or just stolen, they do wail and complain and even cheat on their would be husband-rapists and get turned into seagulls. So there's some proactivity going on.

And intriguingly, women begin and end the tale. Marjatta, like Ilmatar, is a mother. In Canto 50, she appears as a Virgin Mary figure who becomes mysteriously pregnant after eating a lingonberry (watch out, Ikea food-lovers!) and gives birth to the infant King of Karelia, who can speak at the age of two weeks, admonishing Väinämöinen for his lack of respect to his better. And Väinämöinen wanders off into exile, grumpily, signalling that the age of heroes is past.

Ah, but is it? This poem is a celebration of poets and poetry: the heroes *sing things into other things*, i.e. they can sing a man deeper into the ice to kill him, or sing a wolf into the shape of a cow. The power of words, of imagination. And though Väinämöinen rescues the sun and dispels the demons of illness with the invention of the sauna, his greatest achievement is the invention of the kantele, a zither-like instrument inspired by the bones of the pike.

If poets still live, then are the heroes dead?

Someone oughta gather all the urban ghost stories in Singapore and see if we can make an epic poem out of that.

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Representative quote:

The old man quickly christened
and briskly baptized the child
king of Karelia
guardian of all power. At that
Väinämöinen was angry -
he was angry and ashamed
and he stepped away
towards the shore of the sea
and there he started singing
sag for the last time -
sang a copper boat
a coppery covered craft
and he sits down in the stern
he cast off on the clear main
and eh uttered as he went
declared as he departed:
'Just let time pass
one day go, another come
and again I'll be needed
looked for and longed for
to fix a new Sampo, to
make a new music
convey a new moon
set free a new sun
when there's no moon, no daylight
and no earthly joy.'

Then the old Väinämöinen
goes full speed ahead
in the copper boat
in the coppery punt
to where mother earth rises
and heaven descends
and there he stopped with his craft
with his boat he paused; but he
left the kantele behind
the fine music for Finland
for the folk eternal joy
the great songs for his children.

Next book: Unt Mati's Things in the Night, from Estonia.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

On my Anglocentric education

Only about halfway through the Kalevala right now - can you believe the librarian thought the title was "The Colour Violet"? - so I'm going to use this eighth-day update to grumble about the ethnic biases of the UEA's education.

If you look at the syllabuses I've posted in the past, you'll notice that except in the cases of Contemporary World Theatre and Ludic Literature - both of which I'm only auditing - each class is drawing its reading list almost completely from the Anglosphere - that is, the US and the UK. (Not the Caribbean or even Canada, Australia and New Zealand, sadly.)

There are a few exceptions - for example, from in Crime Writing we had Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall's Roseanna, from Sweden:

In Historical Fiction we have Laurent Binet's HHhH, from France:

But there's barely any acknowledgment that the "Third World" - Asia, Africa or Latin America - ever produced any literature of interest.

And this is odd, for a few reasons. Our classes are focussed on the 20th and 21st centuries, so there's no dearth of international fiction. There isn't really a pale male focus going on, either - there's actually a good mix of male and female writers in our reading lists.  Instead, there's a sense of wariness about doing works that have been translated - as if we can't learn good prose from Jay Rubin's version of Haruki Murakami, or Gregory Rabassa's version of Gabriel García Márquez. 

Things weren't like this at Columbia. I'm pretty sure we read non-Anglophone stuff in our creative writing classes - a copy of Rimbaud's "The Drunken Boat" was distributed, if I recall correctly -  and in the wider English and Comparative Literature Department, I was kind of astounded at the diversity of texts we were being exposed to - Dostoevsky and Cervantes and Akutagawa and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, not to mention all the Greek and Roman and Italian Renaissance folks who laid down the tenets of Western civilisation to begin with.

Meanwhile, Singapore's education system was pretty Anglocentric, but teachers felt a need to ally ourselves with the rest of the postcolonial Commonwealth, so we read Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country from South Africa as well as Shakespeare and Austen. Other years did Achebe's Things Fall Apart or RK Narayan's Malgudi Days, and kids now are finally getting copies of local lit to study - last I heard, it's Jean Tay's Everything But the Brain.

In comparison, even though UEA's known for having a pretty strong English and American Literature Department, kids here don't seem to be getting as full a sense of the World Lit as they should.

I'm not sure if this is a UK-wide phenomenon. I was chuffed as hell when I visited York and discovered that Alfian Sa'at's "Singapore You Are Not My Country" is being studied by first-years in the English and Related Literatures Department. But the same hip young globalised crusaders who pushed for that poem's inclusion had no idea that the first psychological novel was written by Murasaki Shikibu in the 11th century - they thought it was Daniel Defoe with Robinson Crusoe in 1719. Christ.

But back to the issue of the syllabuses at UEA's Creative Writing MA in Prose Fiction. This is in fact a damn good course, and we're told that a lot of that comes out of the quality of the students who apply, inspired by its reputation - a positive feedback loop if there ever was one.

A lot of us in the course are international students in some way. We're from five continents: the US, Ireland, Singapore, the Philippines, Australia, Nigeria, South Africa. And a lot of us are aware that our writing's going to be pigeonholed as "World Literature" if we finally get our stuff published on the international market.

So shouldn't we be looking at examples of World Literature as part of our education? It won't just help us - it'll inspire the British students, too. I've noticed that the UK students tend to write really beautifully, but also somewhat conventionally - there's a clear sense of what a good prose style is. Many of us outsiders are still experimenting in our prose, and we come up with good stuff because of that. Sometimes it's a plus not to know what you're doing.

Anyhow, the Filipina in my Novel History class and I are lobbying for a non-western writer to be included in the course next year. Rushdie? García Márquez? Too mainstream, perhaps. Maybe Chimamande Ngozi Adiche's Half of a Yellow Sun:

It's not just about being PC, you see - it's about different perspectives, and new ways to write. Same reason I'm doing this 80 Books project, I suppose.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

More Syllabi!

I've just come back from a trip in York, and this week I have *all* my deadlines due. So instead of posting what I've read of the Kalevala (not much), I'll give you my reading lists from my courses:

1. CREATIVE WRITING WORKSHOP with Trezza Azzopardi

Basically, we've gotta read and critique what everyone else writes.

2. NOVEL HISTORY (actually historical fiction) with Rebecca Stott

Oh man. Some of these are 700 pages long. Good course though.

Walter Scott's Waverley
Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall
Graham Swift's Waterland
W.G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn. 
Rose Tremain, Music and Silence
Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost
Toni Morrison, Beloved
Laurent Binet, HHhH 

3. LUDIC LITERATURE with Thomas Karshan

I'm auditing this one, but I've missed - and will miss - a lot of classes and readings. Square brackets around the books I haven't read and probably won't read very soon.

Lewis Carroll's Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass
Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style
Nikolai Gogol's Diary of a Madman
Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground and The Double
Vladimir Nabokov's Despair
Franz Kafka's The Great Wall of China, and other short works
Jorge Luis Borges's Labyrinths
[John Ashbery's Collected Poems 1956-1987]
Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire
[Georges Perec's Life, a User’s Manual]
Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities
[Raymond Queneau's 100,000 billion poems
Italo Calvino's If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller
Roland Barthes's S/Z
Paul Muldoon's Poems 1968-1998
Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber
Robert Coover's Pricksongs and Descants
Donald Barthelme's 60 Stories]


I'm also auditing this! And I had to miss a whole bunch of courses because James Lasdun came in to do Tuesday morning workshops, but it's a teeny-tiny class with just two or three of us taking it and we get really good discussions going. Also everything's online so we don't have to buy extra books, which is awesome.

Lots of essays and screenings for this, but I'll just list the entire plays we read/had to read:

Mark Anthony Rolo's What’s an Indian Woman to Do 
David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly
[Wole Soyinka's Death and the King’s Horseman
Athol Fugard's Sizwe Banzi is Dead]
Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden
Derek Walcott's Dream on Monkey Mountain
Vaclav Havel's Redevelopment 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Book 145, Åland: "Katrina" by Sally Salminen

I’m writing this from Colchester, where I’m staying at the home of Suzanne Pemberton. She teaches English as a Second Language at the University of Essex here, and she had me visit her classes on as a guest. Turns out that Kazakh and Iraqi students are ridiculously smart and motivated. Citizens of BRICS and MINT countries, you’d better watch out.

Ah, but why am I at U of E? Because I had to track down a book at the Albert Sloman Library (via SCONUL Access), hailing from one of the most obscure is-it-a-country-or-not-a-country geopolitical entities. I’m talking of course about Åland (pronounced AW-land), the autonomous Swedish-speaking islands to the west of Finland, home to fewer than 30,000 people and the 1936 runaway hit novel Katrina – which was, believe it or not, translated into twenty different languages in its time.

And although the copy of the book I’ve got hasn’t been checked out since forever, I can see why it was popular – hell, I had little tears jerking out of my eyes by the end.

The eponymous Katrina starts off the story as a proud, beautiful 23 year-old farmer’s daughter in northern Österbotten (a region of Finland now called Ostrobothnia). She’s seduced by a young Ålander called Johan, who lures her into marriage with the promise to take her to his mansion on his island, where they grow exotic, luxurious things like wheat and apples. (Seriously.)

Of course, once she arrives she discovers that he’s been lying his ass off, that in fact he’s the town liar and his home is just a rented shack with only nettles in his garden (wheat and apples do grow on other people’s property, though), and he has to sail off that very night, because that’s what sailors do, don’t they, and meanwhile the powerful landlords Captain Nordkvist and Captain Svensson expect her to do indentured labour on the farms for them, paid in kind, not cash. Slavery, she thinks in despair, lying desolate in her cot, exhausting from her days in the field with a psyche or on the mudflats pulling up rushes.

And you figure maybe you know what’s coming: she’s gonna liberate herself, pack up and leave behind this good-for-nothing trickster, maybe with the baby in her belly, because she’s strong and spirited and can even beat down Svensson with her fists when he comes knocking on her door for sex.

And yet she doesn’t. I suppose we’re going into spoiler territory here, but this 381-page book isn’t the tale of a young woman but the tale of a woman – it follows her all the way to her death, the years rolling by quickly, child after child, famine and flu, tragedy and triumph, even learning to love her childlike, fabulist, happy-go-lucky husband on the way. And so it goes, till the time she’s an old woman with her children dead or scattered in Australia or Marienhamn, and the islands now separate from Finland after World War One (which means the bulk of the story must have taken place in the nineteenth century), her descendants actually living bourgeois lives with servants and fine china in the city while she scrimps by in her hut, immobile, too stubborn to move to get out of the cold, only one apple tree she planted herself left in the yard upright and unwithered.

It’s kind of instructive when you think of it in terms of novel-length writing, because it doesn’t consist of overarching quests so much as how a woman copes with all the challenges facing her, how she reacts or rebels or falls into depression but is above all strong, despite the faithlessness and follies of her husband and sons. She’ll face down the landlords to get money for her husband’s medicine, bully her kids into going back to school, drown her son’s dog, take in her son’s retarded baby momma, climb out of the broken ice, chew ferns as she sits stranded on an islnad, anything to survive, even when her own children curse her for her Österbotten accent.

And in the end, she’s just a poor country woman on the doorstep of her son’s house, whose own grandchildren can’t even recognize her. This is a woman’s epic, told from the viewpoint of the one who stays at home, holding it all together while the men board ships and disappear into the distance. A Penelopiad, if you will.

Honestly, it’s like the Scandinavians wrote great developing-nation novels before we even thought of the term “developing nation”. Cf. The Kingdomof the Earth, cf. Independent People.

Most of Katrina actually takes place in a village called Västerby on an island called Torsö, but I can't seem to track them down. Wonder if Salminen cooked them up, or the names of the places just changed?

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Representative quote:
They both kept their courage, though the effort was great. Once outside, Gustav slung his bag on his back, and waved from right to left at the little cabins as he went whistling down the hillside. Katrina stood by the window and watched him disappear.

He was so like Johan – so unsteady and reeling in his walk, and already he held his body bent forward. An infinite sadness filled Katrina. Years seemed to have rolled backwards, and she herself was a young woman, standing there saying good-bye to her husband. It had been good-bye, good-bye while life endured.

Next book: The Kalevala, from Finland.