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|Joel Lehtonen (1881-1934)|
Finnish short story writer and novelist, a colorful personality, who arose from a poor background to a world traveler. Joel Lehtonen was one of the most acclaimed Finnish authors of the 1910s and 1920s. He started as a Neoromantic writer but after the Finnish Civil War (1917-18), his works became disillusioned and melancholic. Eino Leino and later the scholar and literature critic Pekka Tarkka have compared Lehtonen to the Swedish writer August Strindberg. Lehtonen's most famous novel is Putkinotko (1920), a humorous story about a poor, lazy moonshiner and his idealistic landlord.
--But Judas continues to carry the sack, this time both because the girl has enraged him and because his speed is up. He wants to carry it to the other side of that forest meadow over there. He will rest at the fence, but not before... no, not even if his lungs would spurt out on the field! This makes him swear... he goes on swearing more and more.
Several of Joel Lehtonen's books were based on his own experiences. He was born at Sääminki, but he did not know who his father was and his mother, Karoliina Heikarainen, a country servant girl, suffered from mental illness. Having been abandoned by his mother soon after birth, he became an "auction child." At the age of four, he was sold in an auction to Augusta Wallenius, a clergyman's widow, who gave him the surname Lehtonen, and supported his education. Thus Lehtonen was given an opportunity to become a member of the established society but he had early developed a suspicion of bourgeois life style. He admired adventures and wanted to see the world.
At school Lehtonen established a secret society which adopted ideas from the anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921). Among his close friends was Rudolf Holsti (1881-1945), who made a distinguished career in politics and diplomacy. For some years, Lehtonen studied literature at the University of Helsinki, but eventually considered the life of a civil servant unsuitable to him. Moreover, after participating in 1902 at demonstrations against the Bobrikov regime and the Military Service Law, he was dismissed from the university.
During the studies he was already making career as a journalist, working for several newspapers and writing at the same time novels and poems. Between the years 1904 and 1905 Lehtonen published Perm (1904), composed in the Kalevala meter, and three novels, Paholaisen viulu (1904), Villi (1905), and Mataleena (1905), in which the author writes about meeting his mother and sees her as "a kind of Madonna of sin and decay." The reviews were positive Lehtonen was acclaimed as a young genius. Paholaisen viulu was written in the Neoromantic tradition. It condemned the pastoral dreams of the bourgeoisie and the inability of the peasantry to understand or even to imagine an improvement in their lot.
With his earnings Lehtonen bought in 1905 a cottage and a piece of land near his birth place, called Inha (later Putkinotko), where he spent many of his summers, but otherwise left it in the care of his half-brother Aleksander Muhonen, and his mother, who threatened to set house on fire. When his relatives threatened with a libel suit after the publication of Putkinotko, he sold the place and bought another from Sääksmäki, called Lintukoto, referring perhaps to a poem by Aleksis Kivi with that title.
In 1906 Lehtonen moved to Lahti to work for the newspaper Lahden Lehti, edited by his old friend Rudolf Holsti. In Lahti he met Sylvia Avellan, his great love who was married to a local politician and whose social position was for the writer a constant barrier. During the following 13 years Lehtonen wrote to her over three hundred letters. Sylvia's death in 1920, apparently by suicide, was a hard emotional shock for him. Sylvia Avellan became the model for Julia Oljemark in the novels Sorron lapset (1923) and Punainen mies (1925). The protagonist, Isidor Tistelberg, was Lehtonen's self-portrait of a land surveyor who falls in love with a doctor's wife. Lehtonen's letters to Sylvia Avellan, published in 1969, were exceptionally open. He wrote about his poor economic situation, details of his physical condition also mentioning the location of his boils literary projects, and disappointments. In a letter, written in Rome in 1908, he mentions his affair with a prostitute, who gave him fleas. Lehtonen's letters also reveal Sylvia's small gestures of caring she sends him during their correspondence, besides letters, Christamas presents, medicine, thread, pillows, oat grits, all kinds of needful things.
Lehtonen's sojourns in Switzerland and Italy (1907-08), France (1911-12), and North Africa and Italy again (1914) led to an admiration for French and Italian literature. During this period he wrote the travel stories of Myrtti ja alppiruusi (1911), and the prose poems, influenced by Baudelaire, of Punainen mylly (1913). This depressed work shows Lehtonen's disenchantment with Paris. He saw there the first organized group showing by Cubists and did not like the paintings. Two years later he traveled to Tunisia. Seeking relief from worsening rheumatism, he took mud baths. This trip produced a collection of poetry, Puolikuun alla, which was not published until 1919. He also began to write a play, entitled Satu, but never finished it.
Rakkaita muistoja (1911), a collection of poems, in which the author returned to his roots and Finnish themes, was followed by a sequel, Markkinoilta (1912). From 1912 to 1913 Lehtonen worked for the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat it was the longest hire he ever had. While staying in Helsinki, he had an affair with a modiste named Olga. At this time he contracted gonorrhea and an infestation of crabs. It has been assumed that his ill-health in later years was as a result of the veneral disease.
In the beginning of the 1900s several Finnish writers started to translate world classics into Finnish. Eino Leino chose Dante's Divina Commedia, Otto Manninen focused on Homeros and Joel Lehtonen, inspired by Renaissance, decided to take up Boccaccio's Decamerone. Although the work was never totally completed Lehtonen published in 1914 a selection of Boccaccio's stories his intensive reading of world classics sharpened his own literary tastes. Lehtonen also translated into Finnish works from such authors as Knut Hamsun, August Strindberg, Edward Westermack, Stendhal, Alexandre Dumas, Henrik Ibsen, Romain Rolland, Anatole France, and Jules Verne.
Lehtonen's most creative period started in 1917 with novel Kerran kesällä, a story about a depressed composer, Lauri Falk, who returns to his home country from abroad. Lehtonen continued with Kuolleet omenapuut (1918), a collection of masterful short stories, and the classic Putkinotko, a naturalistic story of the clash between two worlds primitive and "civilized." The events take place between morning and sunset on a hot August day. The time is the prohibition period. Aapeli Muttinen, a fat book-dealer, has put part of his estate idealistically into the care of Juutas Käkriäinen, an ignorant tenant farmer, who is trying to survive by illicit distilling. Juutas himself is compared with a savage, Judas. He harbours a secret hatred towards his landlord, partly a caricature of the author himself. A gunshot ends the novel, prefiguring the Civil War. Nothing remarkable is done during the day, but in the hopeless misery of Käkriäinen the sun smiles and man, animals, and nature are united in a close friendship. Lehtonen's half-brother Aleksander Muhonen served as a model for the character. In Korppi ja puutarha (1923), a collection of short stories, Lehtonen reveals, that Juutas was killed in the war.
The independence proclamation on December 6, 1917, and the following bloody Civil War, which ended in May 1918 to the victory of White Army and the defeat of the Reds, left deep marks on Lehtonen's mind. In a letter to Sylvia Avellan he condemned both sides: "This country is disgusting, with its white and red monsters." The traumatic division of the nation troubled Lehtonen, and shadowed his later works. Among them is Rakastunut rampa (1922), a pessimistic story of Sakris Kukkelman, a cripple who admires Nietzsche and is plagued by pains. After two prostitutes swindle Kukkelman out of his money, he hangs himself. Of all of Lehtonen's characters, Kullelman is the most grotesque. As in expressionist painting, everything in the novel is distorted. In Henkien taistelu (1933), a devil conducts the hero on a tour of the scenes of Finnish corruption, to prove to God that he can force a pious man to lose his faith. The story ends in Helsinki.
In 1920 Lehtonen married Lydia Thomasson, a masseuse, whom he had met in the mid-1910s and who later worked as her husband's secretary. In 1915 she had had an illegitimate child. Lydia appeared in Putkinotko as Lyygia, and in Sorron lapset and Punainen mies as Klara Merve. At the cafe Brondin Lehtonen became in 1920 in contact with the radical young painters Sallinen and Ruokokoski of the November Group, sharing their critical views on the conservative establishment. Other artist and writers who frequented the cafe included Anton Lindforss, who painted a portrait of Lydia, Ilmari Aalto, Ragnar Ekelund, Viljo Kojo, Larin Kyösti, and Alex Matson.
Several illnesses made Lehtonen in the 1930s occasionally unable to move or to write. To escape his his 50th birthday celebrations, Lehtonen went with Lydia to Italy. While in Florence, he met by accident in Buca San Giovanni the young art student Pietro Annigoni, who sketched his portrait.
The solitary life, melancholy, sufferings from rheumatism and insomnia, ended in 1934 when Lehtonen committed suicide by hanging himself with a rope, that had been used to wrap up a parcel of books. "The triumph of death" also name for a collection of poems Lehtonen wrote in 1933 was evident in his last letters to Otto Manninen, Rafael Koskimies, Anna-Maria Tallgren, and Kaapo Wirtanen. In the posthumously published collection, Hyvästijättö Lintukodolle (1935), the title referred to a farewell to his haven of peace, or the "Island of the Blessed."
For further reading: Joel Lehtonen by Eino Palola (1927); Joel Lehtosen Putkinotko by Magnus Björkenheim (1955); Joel Lehtonen runoilijana by Unto Kupiainen (1956); A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas (1973); 'Putkinotkon tausta' by Pekka Tarkka, in Joel Lehtonen I. Kodin suuret klassikot (1977 ); 'Joel Lehtonen and Putkinotko' by Pekka Tarkka, in Books from Finland, 11, pp. 239-45 (1977); Kirjailijatar ja hänen miehensä by Eila Pennanen (1982); Ääneen kirjoitettu by Auli Viikari (1987); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Talo ilmassa: Joel Lehtosen Putkinotko by Aarne Kinnunen (2005); Löytötavaraa by Markku Turunen (2007); Joel Lehtonen I: vuodet 1881-1917 by Pekka Tarkka (2009); Joel Lehtonen II: vuodet 19181934 by Pekka Tarkka (2012)
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