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Henry Parland (1908-1930)


Finland-Swedish poet and cosmopolitan critic, whose career as a writer lasted only a few years  he died at the age of 22. Parland was among the rising stars of modernism in the 1920s, who introduced formalism and semiotic concepts to Finnish literature. Idealrealisation (1929) was the only book published during his life time. His brothers Oscar Parland and Ralf Parland also gained fame as novelists.

Kaffe eller te
(Hamlet sade det vackrare
- men jag är ingen Hamlet).
Han sade också mycket annat
- saken blir icke klarare därigenom
- saken blir icke heller klarare nu
vi kan ju väljä.

(written in Spring, 1928)

Henry Parland was born in Vyborg into a family with a distant English background. His father Oswald Parland was an engineer and bridge builder, who worked for the Russian civil service. His mother Ida Maria Parland came from a Baltic-German family, the Sesemanns, prominent in Vyborg's history. The family's home language was German and Russian. Parland spent his first years in Russia in Kiev and St. Petersburg. His early diary notes  he was about 10 years old at that time were written in Russian. In 1912 the family returned to Vyborg and then moved to Finland on the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. When the border was closed, the father was unable to join his family until 1920. Henry Parland's early years in his new surrounding in Helsinki were not happy  he felt lonesome, was bullied in a Finnish school, and eventually he was transferred to the Swedish school at Grankulla. According to Oscar Parland he never fully learned the new language, but wrote his books in Swedish. In 1927 Parland graduated from the Grankulla gymnasium, and started to study law at the University of Helsinki.

In 1928 Parland made his debut as a writer at the magazine Quosego as the youngest member of the modernist literary group. Parland was in the beginning more interested in fiction, but a meeting with Gunnar Björling  inspired him to try his hand at poetry. The results were seen in Parland's first collection on poems, Idealrealisation, a youthfully cynical visit to the jazz age. It remained Parland's only published book.

Parlan's Bohemian lifestyle worried his parents and in 1929 they decided to sent him to Kaunas (Kovno), the capital of Lithuania. There his uncle Wilhelm Seesemann was a professor of philosophy. In a letter to his parents which Parland wrote soon after arriving the city he complained of bad coffee and muddy roads. Parland ate daily at the home of his uncle's woman friend. While he was not spending his time in cafés, he worked as a secretary at the Swedish consulate and contributed to Lithuanian magazines. He wrote in German about Scandinavian literature and introduced new Russian and American films and Russian avant-garde to the Finland-Swedish public. For his disappointment Kaunas was a periphery of film art  Helsinki was New York compared to Kaunas, as he claimed.

In 1929 Parland participated in a literary contest arranged by the magazine Bonniers Veckotidningen with the short story 'Jag och min fars glasögon'. It was included in the anthology De 14 bästa studentnovellerna (1929). During the winter 1929-30 Parland started to work on his first novel, entitled Sönder, but he never finished it. Gunnar Björling read its early draft when Parland visited Helsinki in 1930 and considered it too sentimental and too much autobiographical. The novel, which resonates with Proust's Á la recherche du temps perdu and contemporary Russian literature theories, was partly based on actual events. Henry Rapp, the protagonist is, a businessman and a writer, who recalls his past and relationship to a woman, Amy. The book ends with the death of Amy, Henry's faithless beloved, who remains a mystery to him.

Jag är en stor Gud
och mitt pris är 3:40 litern
och människor slår ihjäl varandra
för min skull.

(from 'Bensin' in Hamlet sade det vackrare, 1964)

Capturing the atmosphere Baltic jazz age, Parland saw jazz as an expression of revolt against older culture. He was fond of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and wrote in his poem "The dictatorship of jazz  a new form of Catholicism, / I have seen a thousand trouser-creases flutter in rhythmic feeling." In Sönder Parland also referred to another idol: "Motto: this novel is perhaps a plagiarism of Marcel Proust". When 'The Singing Fool' (1928) premiered in Helsinki  it was the first full-length sound film seen in Finland  Parland greeted it with an enthusiastic poem.

Parland died of scarlet fever on Novembr 10, 1930, at the age of 22, in Kaunas, as suddenly as Amy in Sönder. He was buried in Kaunas, but his grave at the churchyard disappeared during World War II. In 1932 Rabbe Enckell edited a volume of his unpublished works, entitled Återsken. Unfinished Sönder appeared again in 1987. In this edition, Finland-Swedish words were changed into 'Rikssvenska', Swedish as spoken in Sweden. A new edition of Sönder,with commentaries by Per Stam,came out in 2005.

For further reading: 'Henry Parland ja elokuvataide' by Max Ryynänen in Filmihullu 3 (2001); Krapula. Henry Parland och romanprojektet Sönder by Per Stam (1998); A History of Finland's Literature, ed. by George C. Schoolfield (1998); Kunskap och inlevelse: essayer och minnen by Oscar Parland (1991); Suomalaisia kirjailijoita Jöns Buddesta Hannu Ahoon by Lasse Koskela (1990); Vasta-ajattelijoita: esseitä by Jan Blomstedt (1986) 'Henry Parland' by Agneta Ara in Författare om författare (1980) - See also 'Henry Parland semiotiikan edelläkävijänä Suomessa' by Henri Broms in Alkukuvien jäljillä (1984), Agneta Ara's article 'Henry Parland' in Författare om författare (1980); 'Avantgardet i öster - finlandssvensk modernism' by Clas Zilliacus, in Den Svenska Litteraturen, Vol. 5 (1989); Studier i Henry Parland by Betsey Robbins and Stefan Malmberg (1985)

Selected works:

  • Idealrealisation, 1929
  • Återsken, 1932 (with Sönder)
  • Hamlet sade det vackrare: samlade dikter, 1964 (edited by Oscar Parland)
    - Hamlet sanoi sen kauniimmin (translated by Brita Polttila, 1967)
  • Den stora dagenefter: samlad prosa 1, 1966 (edited by Oscar Parland) 
  • Säginteannat: samlad prosa 2, 1970 (edited by Oscar Parland) 
  • Sönder, 1987
    - Rikki: (velox-paperille vedostamisesta) (translated and afterword by Hannu Nieminen, 1996)
    - Sönder: (om framkallning av Veloxpapper) (edited by Per Stam, 2005) 
    - Déconstructions (translated by Elena Balzamo, 2006)
    - Vdrebezgi: roman; Stihotvoreniâ (translated by Olgi Mâèots, 2006)
    - Zerbrochen: (über das Entwickeln von Veloxpapier) (edited and translated by Renate Bleibtreu, 2007)
  • Khimaira, 2011 (edited and translated by Petri Salin)

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