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Alex (Alexander) Matson (1888-1972) - pseudonyms: Aaro Evä, Aleksi Valkeakylä


Finnish novelist, essayist, critic, artist, and bilingual translator, who spent his youth in England. Alex Matson's major work on literature theory, Romaanitaide (The Art of the Novel), appeared in 1947. It became a very influential source for modernist writers, and was compared to Rafael Koskimies' academic study Theorie des Romans. Matson was among the first who advocated of New criticism in Finland, emphasizing the self-contained nature of the text. He used close reading of particular text instead of explaining it by biographical details. Matson saw that the text is an object with its own inherent structure, and a writer can express much by the structure of the book, and arranging scenes and changing points of view.

"Eihän toki kriitikon ole etsittävä taiteesta perusideaa. Mutta onkohan hänen taideteoksessakaan etsittävä 'ideaa'? Mikä on Sibeliuksen V sinfonian perusidea tai johtoajatus? Tai Cézannen hiljaiselon? Ja jos halutaan väittää että musiikki ja kuvataiteet ovat eri asia, mitä ne eivät ole, niin mitkä ovat 'Rouva Bovaryn', ja 'Odysseuksen', 'Putkinotkon' ja 'Seitsemän veljeksen' perusideat?" (from Mielikuvituksen todellisuus, 1969)

Alexander Matson was born in Koivisto, the son of Matias Matson, a seaman and merchant, and Judit Torckel. The Matsons moved soon to England, where first years were hard for the family. Due to malnutrition, Matson suffered from rickets. At the age of 14, Matson finished his school and started to help his father, who had bought a tailor's shop in Hull. After contracting tuberculosis, he spent some time in Germany in a sanatorium, and returned then to Finland.

From 1905 to 1909 Matson worked at an export firm. In Viipuri, where Matson planned a career as a writer or an artist, he visited regularly bookstores and libraries, reading Socialist literature, poetry, Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman. During this period he began to draw, made some watercolors and went to study art in Hull. Especially he admired Turner, and pre-Raphaelites, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Burne Jones. Meanwhile Matson's first great love in Finland, Kaisa, had found another suitor and Matson himself sought consolation in Heine's poetry.

At the age of 21 Matson read Upton Sinclair's writing on fasting, and recovered with its help from a depression. For a period Matson abandoned his art studies, and worked as an interpreted on a ship bound to Montreal. In its toilet, among obscenities, he found a poem: "It makes one think to see such wit / that Shakespeare's ghost came here to shit. / Or Byron with his flowery tongue / had dropped in here to drop his dung."

Matson had his first exhibition in Helsinki and subsequently he participated to several joint exhibitions. From 1914 he worked as an artist. During the Finnish Civil war (1917-18) he was an art teacher. Matson's first novel was Maata paossa (1920, Fleeing the Land), in which the cover picture was drawn by the author himself. The book was based on his experiences as a seafarer. "I thank art that my life has been worth living," he confessed in Muistiinpanoja (1959, Notes), a collection of observations and notes on literature and art.

"Taide on tehnyt elämän todelliseksi minulle ja todellisuuden konkreettiseksi. Se on laajentanut ja syventänyt elämysteni piiriä. Taide on herättänyt minussa vastuuntuntoa. Se on saanut minut tajuamaan, ettei mikään ole olemassa erillisenä, kaikki on yhtä, jokaisella teolla on seuraamuksensa. Kuinka tämän nähtyäni voisin olla tuntematta vastuuta teoistani ja tulevaisuudestani? Taide on saanut minut uskomaan tahdon ehdolliseen vapauteen." (from Muistiinpanoja)

In 1922 Matson married the writer and playwright Kersti Bergroth (1886-1975), who began writing in Swedish but changed to Finnish. Bergroth's works include the play Anu ja Mikko, juvenile books, memoirs, essays, and novels. After spending some time in London, where Matson was employed at the Embassy of Finland in London, they bought a house in Tyrisevä in the Karelian Isthmus. Matson encouraged Bergroth to establish the short-lived literary magazine Sininen kirja (1927-1930), which introduced British culture to Finnish readers and underlined the importance of spiritual values. When Matson participated in literary discussion in the mid-1930s, saying that critics were too soft, the writer Lauri Viljanen answered that Finnish literature should not be viewed from London's horizon. Matson and Bergroth separated in 1930. Interested in the thought of Rudolf Steiner, she was a member of Anthropolosophical Society in Finland. From 1950 Bergroth lived in Rome.

In the 1930s Matson was asked to translate James Joyce's Ulysses, but he refused, saying that without damaging the original work, it was an impossible task. Eventually the poet Pentti Saarikoski took up the challenge in the 1960s and made a superb translation. From 1930 to 1934 Matson wrote for the Finnish Trade Review and contributed to such papers as Aamulehti, Näköala, Suomalainen Suomi, Parnasso.

Matson's first translation from Finnish into English was Aino Kallas's collection of Estonian tales, The White Ship, foreword by John Galsworthy. Matson knew Aino Kallas personally. Before leaving London, she met him and he offered to translate her short fiction to English. In Eros the Slayer Kallas's behind-the-scenes editor was Brian Rhys; she considered Matson's work to some degree wooden. Matson also translated Kallas's Pyhän joen kosto (The Revenge of the Holy River) and Löytöretkillä Lontoossa (Explorations in London) but they were not published.

After the war Matson translated into Finnish such authors as John Steinbeck, James Joyce, and William Faulkner, and into English works by Aleksis Kivi', and F.E. Sillanpää in a letter to his publisher he said that the latter was his "only change to make fast easy money." Under the pseudonym Aaro Evä he focused on popular writers, Ottwell Binns, Ruth Rewald, and John Hersey.

Simo Rekola has called Matson the most important translator of Anglo-American literature in the 1940s, but Hannu Riikonen has decribed his translation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in general terms as "defective" (The Duet Between the Author and the Translator: An Analysis of Style through Shifts in Literary Translation by Hilkka Pekkanen, pp. 56-57, 2010). Matson was also a reader for the publishing company Tammi. He turned down Saul Bellow's early novel, The Victim from 1947. According to Matson, its protagonist, Asa Leventhal, was not interesting enough.

Matson's translation of Kivi's Seven Brothers and of Sillanpää, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1939, has been severely criticized. Both Kivi and Linna are difficult to render into other languages. Moreover, Sillanpää's British and American publishers lost their interest in the writings of the Finnish Nobel laureate during the war years. Matson's work on Väinö Linna's war novel The Unknown Soldier was heavily edited and as a result Matson refused to allow his name to appear as the book's translator. Linna sued the publisher of the American edition and it was taken off the market.

Matson lived long periods of his life in Tampere, where he became the central figure of the so-called Mäkelän piiri, a literature group, which had its meetings at the library. Among its members were Lauri Viita, Väinö Linna, Harri Kaasalainen, Viljo Paula, Reino Mantere and Mirkka Rekola (see also Kalle Päätalo, who lived from the 1950s in Tampere City). In the 1950s Matson criticized in several essays academic literature research. When Aatos Ojala tried to analyze in Kohtalon toteuttaminen (1959) F.E. Sillanpää's philosophy through his characters or the author's statements, Matson declared that the "thought is found in form." In his review of Kaarlo Marjanen's book Näkökulmia (1958) Matson wrote that essential in the work of art is its form. "Ei ole muotoa ilman materiaa taiteessakaan. Teos ei kuitenkaan ole taidetta materiaalinsa vaan muotonsa ansiosta. Muodon muuttuessa mutta materiaalin pysyessä samana teos voi lakata olemasta taidetta. Olennaisinta siis on muoto" (from 'Muoto ja materiaali' in Parnasso 6/1959). Form, not content or style, makes a text a novel; basically form was the organic principle dominating a work of art. Matson also emphasizes the importance of intuition in understanding art, and showed some influence of Marxist literature theory, especially Lukács.

Following his failure with The Unknown Soldier, Matson never translated literature again. However, his weakest work was Seven Brothers, in which he insisted on using archaic speech constructions. "It seemed to me not only stylistically akward but consistently infelicitous in its choice of word and phrase, with howlers on every page," Douglas Robinson said of his first impression in Translation and the Problem of Sway  (p.  43, 2011).  There are dufferent views too: the translator J.A. Hollo appreciated Matson's strict fidelity to the original text (ibid: 57). In the 1973 edition, the translation had been revieved by Irma Rantavaara. Matson had finished his first version in 1925, but it took four years before the book was published by Coward-McCann. Ernestine Evans, an American journalist and editor at the publishing house, became a close family friend of the Matsons.

Matson died on November 29, 1972. His book of memoir, Muistelen (1971, I Reminisce), depicted his childhood in England, youth in Finland and early art studies. Matson focuses on his own experiences and development, never mentioning the name of his father or mother. Crucial for his childhood was his inner revolt against his father, whom Matson characterized as a hypocrite. Noteworthy, Matson's dichotomy between inner thoughts and formal behavior form and content also marked his approach to literature. Throughout his life, he retained a certain British formality in social interactions and spoke Finnish with a slightly foreign accent.

In Parnasso, Finland's most influential literary magazine, Jouko Tyyri criticized Matson's view that a work of art is aesthetically autonomous. Tyyri writes that art is language, expression, and no language can be born without a system of agreements. "Taide on kieltä, ilmaisua, eikä mitään kieltä saada syntymään ilman sopimuksien järjestelmää. Matson tahtoisi aloittaa sopimuksettomasta alkutilasta, joka on romanttinen myytti. Taide tapahtuu sosiaalisessa ja psykologisessa kentässä, ja tuohon kenttään kuuluu paljon historiaa" (Parnasso 4/1960).

Although Matson had been interested in Socialism and argued that "a writer cannot criticize the society too much," he considered all ideologies a burden to a writer. Pentti Haanpää's great fault was according to Matson the author's commitment to Marxism or cultural radicalism. Haanpää was too weak to break out of the materialistic determinism. Matson himself advocated the romantic idea, that hard living conditions and low wages are not the basic problem but spiritual poverty. This narrow methodological approach is especially evident in his essay on Väinä Linna's war novel The Unknown Soldier. He compares it to such works as Aleksis Kivi's Seven Brothers and Tolstoy's War and Peace, and sees it basically as an universal depiction of man and war, never mentioning that the Finnish soldiers were fighting against the Soviet Union during the Continuation war (1941-44). The Unknown Soldier focused on the experience of ordinary soldiers, but was set in a clear historical context with references to world politics and with outspoken criticism towards military orders. However, Linna and Lauri Viita have admitted that Matson's theories influenced their views of the novel. According to Matson, the content dictates the form in Here Beneath the North Star, Linna's three-volume historical novel. The central theme is the conflict between Akseli, a tenant farmer, and the minister who owns the land. They are symbols of the great antagonism between tenants and farm-owners.

For further reading: Muistelen by Alex Matson (1971); 'Alex Matson' in Delfiini ja muita esseitä by Pekka Suhonen (1973); Mäkelän piiri by Yrjö Varpio (1975); Unessa ja elämässä by Arvi Kivimaa, pp. 148-49, 153-154 (1983); Lukemisen alkeet ja muita kertomuksia kustantajan elämästä by Jarl Hellemann (1996); 'Kääntäminen toisen maailmansodan aikana ja heti sen jälkeen' by Simo Rekola, in Suomennoskirjallisuuden historia I, ed. by Hannu K. Riikonen (2007); The Duet Between the Author and the Translator: An Analysis of Style through Shifts in Literary Translation by Hilkka Pekkanen (2010); 'The case of Alex. Matson,' in Translation and the Problem of Sway by Douglas Robinson (2011) 

Selected works:

  • Maata paossa, 1920 [Fleeing the Land]
  • Knuuttilan turvissa, 1921 [Under Knuuttila's Protection]
  • translator: Aino Kallas, The White Ship. Estonian Tales, 1924 (foreword by John Galsworthy)
  • translator: Aino Kallas, Eros the Slayer. Two Estonian Tales, 1927
  • translator: Aleksis Kivi, Seven Brothers, 1929 (published by Coward-McCann; reprinted by Tammi in 1952, illustrated by Akseli Gallen-Kallela)
  • translator (with Bryan Rhys): Aino Kallas, The Wolf's Bride. A Tale from Estonia, 1930
  • translator: F.E. Sillanpää, The Maid Silja. The History of the Last Offshoot of an Old Family Tree, 1933 (GB title: Fallen A Sleep While Young)
  • translator (with Valfrid Hedman): Northern Lights. A Collection of Short Stories by Larin-Kyösti, 1937
  • translator: F.E. Sillanpää, Meek Heritage, 1938
  • Lunnaat, 1938 (as Aleksi Valkeakylä) [Ransom]
  • translator: 1938 in Europe: Finland, 1938 (pp.  965-996, in 1938 in Europe. Vol. II)
  • translator (as Aaro Evä): Ottwell Binns, Vihreä jalokiviristi, 1944
  • translator: John Steinbeck, Vihan hedelmät, 1944 (original title: The Grapes of Wrath)
  • translator (as Aaro Evä): Ruth Rewald, Luokan intiaani, 1945
  • translator: James Joyce, Taiteilijan omakuva nuoruuden vuosilta, 1946  (original title: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)
  • Romaanitaide, 1947 (The Art of the Novel)
  • translator (as Aaro Evä): John Hersey, Hiroshima, 1947  (original title: Hiroshima)
  • translator: William Faulkner, Villipalmut, 1947  (original title: The Wild Palms)
  • John Steinbeck: kirjailijakuvan luonnos, 1948 [John Steinbeck: A Sketch for a Portrait]
  • translator: John Steinbeck, Oikutteleva bussi, 1948  (original title: The Wayward Bus)
  • translator: John Steinbeck, Helmi, 1949 (original title: The Pearl)
  • translator: Willa Cather, Professorin talo, 1950  (original title: The Professor's House)
  • Kaksi mestaria, 1950 [Two Masters]
  • translator: Viidennettoista olympiakisat / The Official Report of the Organizing Committee for the Games of The XV Olympiad Helsinki 1952
  • translator: William Faulkner, Kun tein kuolemaa, 1952  (original title: As I Lay Dying)
  • translator: Social legislation and work in Finland, 1953 (published by the Ministry of Social Affairs, edited by Niilo Salomaa) 
  • translator: Margaret Kennedy, Melissan ystävätär, 1953  (original title: Lucy Carmichael)
  • translator: Esko Aaltonen, Consumer Co-Operation in Finland, 1954 (abbreviated ed.)
  • translator (uncredited): Väinö Linna, Tuntematon sotilas, 1957
  • Muistiinpanoja, 1959 [Notes]
  • Mielikuvituksen todellisuus: esseitä ja arvosteluja 1951-1963, 1969 [The Reality of Imagination: Essays and Reviews 1951-1963]
  • Muistelen: ensimmäinen kirja, 1971 [I Reminisce: First Book]
    - "Matsonin kirjan nimi ei ole 'Muistelmia' vaan nimenomaan 'Muistelen'. Äkkinäinen voisi sen perusteella olettaa, että jossain kansien välissä olisi myöskin tämä muistelija. Mutta eipäs ole. Siellä on vain poikasen ja nuorukaisen kehittyvä muotokuva, elämyksen ja tuntemuksien muodostelu, eteneminen elämässä." ( 'Alex Matson' by Pekka Suhonen in Delfiini ja muita esseitä, 1973)
  • translator: Aino Kallas, Three Novels, 1975 (contains Barbara von Tiesenhusen, The rector of Reigi, The Wolf's Bride)

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