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Bo Carpelan (1926-2011)


Prolific Finnish poet, novelist, dramatist, literary critic, and translator, whose career spanned over six decades. Bo Carpelan wrote in Swedish. He won the prestigious Finlandia Prize twice – in 1993 for Urwind (Alkutuuli), about the memories and mysterious visions of an antiquarian bookseller, and in 2005 for the novel Berg (Kesän varjot). However, Carpelan always considered poetry to be his "true homeland".

It is not time that alters us,
it is space: the forest that was low as a dark ribbon
round the evening when we were children.
And the water that came up to our feet.

(from In Dark, in Light Rooms, 1976, trans. by Keith Bosley)

Bo Carpelan was born in Helsinki, the son of Bertel Gustaf Carpelan and Ebba Adele Lindahl. Carpelan's father had resigned in 1916 from a job as a chemical engineer and worked as a bank employee, with lesser prospect of success. During the depression in the 1930s, the family's economic situation was precarious, but otherwise Carpelan's memories of this time are mostly happy ones. His boyhood in the cramped apartment house in the Kruunuhaka district, where his family lived, Carpelan has recalled in Gården (1969, The Courtyard), one of his most widely read collections of poems. "Future was seldom mentioned," Carpelan wrote, "The day was enough."

At an early age, Carpelan discovered the word of literature and started to read voraciously books from the city library on Richardinkatu. "Reading is one of life's greatest pleasures," Carpelan once said. After completing his studies at Svenska normallyceum, Helsinki's oldest Swedish-language boys's school, Carpelan entered the University of Helsinki, where he studied literature. Carpelan received his M.A. in 1948. He also studied in France, England, and the United States. In 1954 Carpelan married Barbro Eriksson; they had two children.

In 1960 Carpelan finished his doctoral dissertation, Studier i Gunnar Björlings diktning 1922-1933. From 1946 to 1980 Carpelan worked at the Helsinki City Library, eventually becoming the assistant chief librarian. Between 1949 and 1964 Carpelan was a reviewer for the leading Finland-Swedish language newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet. In 1980 he was appointed professor artium by President Urho Kekkonen.

Carpelan made his literary debut with Som en dunkel värme (1946), a collection of poems, which was dominated by images of darkness, sorrow and stillness. Carpelan's early works showed the influence of Swedish modernism, French existentialism, and such writers as Björling, Paul Éluard and Georg Trakl. Some of his images recall the dream landscapes of Ingmar Bergman films. In his later collections, such as Marginalia till grekisk och romersk diktning (1984) and Gramina: marginalia till Horatius, Vergilius och Dante (2010) Carpelan had drawn great inspiration and motivation from the classics of Greece and Rome. Carpelan himself said that he first achieved his own personal poetic voice in Den svala dagen (1961). It begins with his most famous poems, the melancholic 'Höstvandring' (Autumn Walk), in which a direct, laconic observation of the external world opens doors to an experience of existence and human fate in general: "A man walks through the wood / one day of shifting light. / Encounters few people, / stops, considers the autumn sky. / He is making for the graveyard / and no one is following him." In spite of the death motif, the poem can be also read as an enlightened walk in the landscape of poetry, where trees are trees and graveyards are graveyards.

Carpelan's first prose works, Anders på ön (1959, Anders saaressa) and Anders i stan (1962), were children's books. As a novelist Carpelan made his international breakthrough with Axel (1986). In this fictional diary the title character is Carpelan's great-uncle, a violinist and a devoted friend Jean Sibelius, whom the composer dedicated his Second Symphony (1902). A failed musician, Axel was constantly broke, he suffered from a mysterious illness, but he also supported Sibelius economically. After the death of his most responsive critic, Sibelius wrote in his diary on March 19, 1919: "Now Axel is being lowered into the earth's cold arms. It feels so deeply, deeply tragic! For whom will I compose now!" Carpelan came across the name of his great-uncle for the first time in his childhood, but the real stimulus toward writing the novel came from Erik Tawaststjerna's magnificent biography of Sibelius. Axel has been published also in French translation by Gallimard.

Although Carpelan did not deal explicitly with social issues or ideological beliefs, his characters, outsiders and solitary observers, are people have rejected the world of material appearance, business, and collectivist thinking. Central elements in Carpelan's lyrical, nostalgic prose are memories, dreams, and visions, which often are foreboding or hallucinatory, as in the poem 'Städerna' (The Cities) from Källan (1973): "The cities stand with open walls / ... / Doves and sea gulls are dead along the docks / and gutters. // And the people, / where are the people?"

The sense of emptiness and doom was present in Carpelan's work from the beginning, but in 1971 he focused on the theme of apocalyptic catastrophe in Voices at the Late Hour, originally written as a radio play. Set in Helsinki and the Åland Islands after a nuclear devastation, the consists of isolated voices, the last thoughts of ordinary people, powerless bystanders of history, who are wiped out by a tidal wave at the end.

Urwind begins with the surrealistic image of a lonely man burning in a deserted parking lot, and Axel with a man bending over the body of a dead woman, who lies in the snow. "My writing has the picture as its starting point," Carpelan explained. "I see everything as pictures, even my memories." While writing Axel Carpelan even studied old photographs to immerse himself in the past.

A highly versatile author, Carpelan also published dramas, essays, the libretto to Erik Bergman's opera Det sjungande trädet (1986-88, The Singing Tree), and a detective story, Vandrande skugga (1977), which played with the conventions of the classical English mystery novel. Din gestalt bakom dörren (1975) was a psychological thriller, a Jekyll and Hyde story, in which the protagonist is harassed by a dobbelgänger. Carpelan's translations include Greek classics, works by Sándor Csoóri, Osip Mandelstam, and Marina Tsvetayeva, and such Finnish writers as Paavo Haavikko, Lassi Nummi, Edith Södergran, and Sirkka Turkka.

Carpelan won several times the Finnish State Literature Prize, the literature prize of the Nordic Council in 1977 for I de mörka rummen, i de ljusa (1976), the Nordic Prize of the Academy of Sweden in 1997, and the French Prix Européen de Littérature (2006). After winning again the Finlandia Prize, Carpelan joked, "I plan to buy a castle in France and an oil tanker. They will help me get rich." (Helsingin Sanomat, December 9, 2005) Carpelan's Kesän varjot was chosen as the winner from six finalists by the Speaker of the Finnish Parliament, Paavo Lipponen, who read both the Swedish and Finnish versions of the book. Bo Carpelan died of cancer on February 11, 2011, in Espoo.

For further reading: 'Two Poets of Finland. Paavo Haavikko and Bo Carpelan' by Jaakko A. Ahokas, in Books Abroad (Norman, Oklahoma) 46:1 (1972); Miten kirjani ovat syntyneet 2, ed. Ritva Haavikko (1980); 'Carpelan yön puutarhassa', in Sanat sanoista by Pekka Tarkka (1984); 'Introduction' by Goerge C. Schoolfield, in Voices at the Late Hour by Bo Carpelan (1988); 'Carpelan, Bo' by David McDuff, in Contemporary World Writers, ed. Tracy Chevalier (1993); Skating on the Sea: Poetry from Finland, edited and translated by Keith Bosley (1997); A History of Finland's Literature, ed. George C.Schoolfield (1998); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 1, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); Suomalaisia nykykirjailijoita by Pekka Tarkka (2000); Ei kattoa, ei seiniä: näkökulmia Bo Carpelanin kirjallisuuskäsitykseen by Anna Hollsten (2004)

Selected works:

  • Som en dunkel värme, 1946
  • Du mörka överlevande, 1947
  • Variationer, 1950
  • Minus sju, 1952
  • Nicodemus, 19 år, 1952
  • Moln, 1954
  • Object för ord, 1954
  • translator: Mord för öppen mikrofon by Einer Schibbye, 1954
  • Ballad, 1957
  • translator: Den brinnande ön by Iris Uurto, 1957
  • Landskapets förvandlingar, 1957
  • Sex tal ur samtiden, 1958
  • Anders på ön, 1959 - Anders saaressa (suom. Helena Anhava, Tuomas Anhava, 1965)
  • Din gestalt bakom dörren, 1960 - Oma hahmosi oven takana, in Suomalaisia kuunnelmia 1952-63 (tr. Helena Anhava, ed. Jyrki Mäntylä, 1964)
  • translator: Ny finsk lyrik, 1960 (ed. Eino S. Repo and N.B. Storbom)
  • Studier i Gunnar Björlings diktning 1922-1933, 1960
  • Den svala dagen, 1961
  • Anders i stan, 1962 - Anders kaupungissa (suom. Pirkko Talvio, 1967)
  • 100 inhemska år, 1964
  • translator: Beskrivning av en tågresa by Antti Hyry, 1964
  • En gammal mans dag, 1966
  • En och/ja Erkki, 1966
  • Krokodilen, 1966 - Kaikki illat ovat samanlaisia eli krokotiili kylpyammeessa (suom. Pertti Nieminen)
  • 73 dikter, 1966
  • ed. and trans.: Finlandssvenska lyrikboken, 1967
  • translator: Åren by Paavo Haavikko, 1967
  • Kuka teki murhan?, 1967 (suom. Irmeli Niemi)
  • Bågen, 1968 - Kaari (suom. Helena Anhava, 1970) - Bow Island: The Story of a Summer That Was Different / The Wide Wings of Summer (tr. Sheila LaFarge, 1972)
  • Rösterna i den sena timmen, 1968 - Myöhäiset äänet (suom. Tuomas Anhava)
  • Bonny och Clyde på Åland, 1969
  • Gården, 1969 - Piha (suom. Tuomas Anhava, 1984) - The Courtyard (tr. Samuel Charters)
  • Paavo, 1969
  • André i människans lustgårdar, 1971
  • Rösterna i den sena timmen. Roman, 1971 - Myöhäiset äänet (suom. Kyllikki Härkäpää, 1974) - Voices at the Late Hour (tr. Irma Margareta Martin, 1988)
  • Paluu nuoruuteen, 1971
  • Källan, 1973
  • Paradiset, 1973 - Paratiisi (suom. Eila Kivikkaho, 1973) - Dolphins in the City (tr. Sheila La Farge)
  • Rum vi engång levde i, 1974 - Huone jossa me kerran elimme (suom. Helena Anhava)
  • Din gestalt bakom dörren, 1975 - Ovella kohtaat itsesi (suom. Kyllikki Villa, 1988)
  • ed.: Den stora enkla dag: dikter och prosa by Gunnar Björling, 1975
  • I de mörka rummen, i de ljusa, 1976
  • Tre enhörningar dricker ur barndomens källä, 1976
  • Andvingen, 1987 (radio play) - Linnunsiipi: lastenkuunnelma (suom. Eila Kivikk’aho, 1987)
  • Vandrande skugga, 1977 - Kulkeva varjo (suom. Kyllikki Villa, 1978)
  • translator: Dikter by Paavo Haavikko, 1977
  • Det är kväll, det är mycket sent, 1978 (radio play) - On ilta, on hyvin myöhä: kaksikymmentäyhdeksän dialogia pikkukaupungista kahdeksalle äänelle (suom. Helena Anhava, 1981)
  • Slaktmånad, 1978
  • Helsingfors, 1979 (with Matti A. Pitkänen) - Helsinki (suom. 1979) - Helsinki (English transl. by Michael Webster, 1979)
  • Jag minns att jag drömde, 1979 - Muistan, uneksin (suom. Kyllikki Härkäpää, 1980)
  • Elämä jota elät. Valikoima runoja vuosilta 1964-1973, 1974 (suom. Tuomas Anhava)
  • Dikter från trettio år, 1980
  • translator: Sök dig själv hos tystnaden by Helena Anhava, 1980 (with H.A.)
  • Kesäkuu, 1981
  • Julafton: interiör med nio röster, 1982 (radio play) - Jouluaatto: kuunnelma: sisäkuva yhdeksälle äänelle (suom. Pirkko Kallio, 1989)
  • Julius Blom - ett huvud för sig, 1982 - Julius 11 vuotta (suom. Eila Kivikkaho, 1982)
  • Trösklar = Kynnyksiä, 1982 (suom. Gunilla Sjövall)
  • Poesi...Poeså... Dikter för stora och små, 1982 - Taivaan maalari: runoja pienille ja suurille (suom. Kaarina Helakisa, 1990)
  • translator: Framför lampor och nävar by Sándor Csoóri, 1982
  • Dagen vänder, 1983
  • Elämä jota elät. Valitut runot 1946-1983, 1983 (suom. Tuomas Anhava)
  • editor. and translator: Modern finsk lyrik, 1984
  • translator: Dubbelbild by Lassi Nummi, 1985
  • translator: Herra Hu by Hannu Mäkelä, 1985
  • Marginalia till grekisk och romersk diktning, 1984 - Marginalia (suom. Tuomas Anhava, 1986)
  • Axel, 1986 - Axel (suom. Kyllikki Villa, 1987) - Axel (tr. David McDuff, 1988)
  • Armbandsuret, 1986 - Rannekello (suom. Anneli Juhokas, 1994)
  • ed. and transl.: Modern finlandssvenska lyrik, 1986 (with Claes Andersson)
  • Blixtljus / Bert, 1986
  • translator: Livet är ett vind vacklande hus by Sirkka Turkka, 1987
  • Valda dikter 1946-1983, 1987 (ed. Rolando Pieraccini)
  • Room Without Walls: Selected Poems, 1987 (tr. Anne Born)
  • Måla himlen, 1988
  • ed. and transl.: Dikter by Tuomas Anhava, 1988
  • ed. and transl.: Den svarta måsen, 1989 (with Johan Bargum)
  • libretto: Erik Bergman's opera Det sjungande trädet 1986-88 - Laulava puu (suom.)
  • translator: Prospero: försök till självporträtt by Paavo Haavikko, 1989
  • År som löv, 1989 - Vuodet kuin lehdet (suom. Tuomas Anhava, 1989)
  • Marvins bok, 1990
  • Urwind, 1993 - Alkutuuli (suom. Kyllikki Härkäpää, 1992) - Urwind (tr. David McDuff, 1996)
  • Homecoming, 1993 (tr. David McDuff)
  • I det sedda, 1995
  • Novembercredo. Dikter i urval 1946-96, 1996
  • Benjamins bok, 1997 - Benjamin (suom. Kyllikki Härkäpää, 1998)
  • Namnet på tavlan Klee målade, 1999 - Kleen taulun nimi (suom. Jaakko Anhava, 1999)
  • Ögonblickets tusen årstider: dikter, fragment, marginalia, 2001
  • Gården, 2001 (illustrated by Hannu Taina)
  • Taivas avoin sinussa: valitut runot 1984-2001, 2001 (suom. Tuomas Anhava et al.)
  • Diktamina, 2003 - Diktamina: runoja (suom. Pentti Saaritsa, 2004)
  • Berg, 2005 - Kesän varjot (suom. Oili Suominen, 2005)
  • Staden Kaupunki, 2006 (with Pentti Sammallahti)
  • Nya dikter, 2007 - Uudet runot (suom. Caj Westerberg)
  • Barndom, 2008 - Lapsuus (suom. Caj Westerberg, 2008)
  • Gramina: marginalia till Horatius, Vergilius och Dante, 2010 - Gramina: reunamerkintöjä Horatiuksen, Vergiliuksen ja Danten runouteen (suom. Caj Westerberg, 2010)
  • Ur höstens arkiv, 2011 - Lehtiä syksyn arkistosta (suom. Caj Westerberg, 2011)

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