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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.
--What slavery. He mumbles:
--"Slavery... for a poor man... perhaps the councillor tricked me... He promised the flour at half-price and what can a poor fellow do... what Mauno Kypenäinen's newspaper says about the gentry is true, every word of it! But this sack will be carried out sheer defiance! It was heavier than I thought. They foolded me into taking it." (from Putkinotko, 1920; translated by Helen af Enehjelm)

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 1918–1934 by Pekka Tarkka (2012)  

Selected works:

  • Paholaisen viulu, 1904
  • Perm: syysyön unelma, 1904
  • Villi: kuvitteluja, 1905
  • Mataleena: laulu synnyinseudulle, 1905
  • Tarulinna; Suomen kansan satuja Suomen lapsille, 1906 (illustrtaed by Venny Soldan-Brofeldt)
    - doll film: Näkymätön käsi (1962) from the fairy tale Luodetuuli ja Kuolema, based also partly on the fairy tale Iänkaikkisen elämän luotoa (pub. in Suomalaiset kansansadut I osa), dir. by Veronica Leo, Anelma Vuorio, music by Jean Sibelius
  • Iivolan juttuja, 1910
  • Myrtti ja alppiruusu, 1911
  • Nuoruus: runoja, 1911
  • Rakkaita muistoja, 1911
  • Markkinoilta: ("Rakkaitten muistojen" sarjaa) , 1912
  • Punainen mylly, 1913
  • Munkki-kammio: runoja, 1914
  • Homo Novus tai ei mitään uutta auringon alla, 1917
  • Kerran kesällä, 1917
  • Kuolleet omenapuut, mutta terveitä ihmisiä s.o. moukkia ja moukkaherroja suloisessa rauhassa, myös hiukan sodassa, Muttisen Aapelin ympärillä; runollista proosaa vuonna 1918, 1918
  • Puolikuun alla: matka- ja mielikuvia murjaanien maasta, 1919
  • Putkinotkon metsäläiset: kuvaus laiskasta viinarokarista ja hänen ahkerasta akastaan, 1919
  • Putkinotkon harrastelijat: lisiä herra Aapeli Muttisesta ja hänen rakkaistaan, 1920
  • Putkinotko: kuvaus laiskasta viinarokarista ja tuhmasta herrasta, 1920
    - Ödemarkens barn (övers. av Bertel Gripenberg, 1935) / Putkinotko: berättelsen om en lat spritlangare och en dum herreman (övers. av N.-B.Stormbom, 1973)
    - Combe aux mauvaises herbes ou l'Histoire du philantrope naïf et du bouilleur de cru paresseux (trad. du finnois par Jaakko Ahokas, 1962)
    - films: 1954, dir. by Roland af Hällström, starring Elvi Saarnio, Matti Lehtelä, Lassi Pöysti; television film 1998, prod. Yleisradio (YLE), dir. by Reima Kekäläinen, starring Vesa-Matti Loiri, Eija Vilpas
  • Tähtimantteli: sikermä, 1920
  • Kevättä ja kesää: valikoima kirjailijan suorasanaisesta tuotannosta , 1921 (edited by Aukusti Simelius)
  • Rakastunut rampa eli Sakris Kukkelman, köyhä polseviikki: romaani , 1922
    - film 1975, prod. Filmisyndikaatti Ilkka Lehtonen, dir. by Esko Faven, Tarja Laine, starring Vesa-Matti Loiri, Leena Uotila, Ritva Valkama, Heikki Nousiainen
  • Korppi ja puutarha, 1923
  • Sorron lapset: romaani, 1923
  • Teokset I-II, 1923-24  
  • Onnen poika:vähäisiä muistokuvia, 1925
  • Punainen mies: romaani, 1925
  • Rai Jakkerintytär: romaani uskollisesta, 1927
  • Sirkus ja pyhimys: romaani vanhaan tyyliin, 1927
  • Lintukoto: muutamia päiväkirjan lehtiä, 1929 (decorations by Viljo Kojo)
  • Kootut teokset I-VIII, 1931-35
  • Henkien taistelu: kertomus tunnetuista kansalaisistamme, 1933
  • Hyvästijättö Lintukodolle: runoja, 1934
  • Valikoima kertomuksia, 1934 (edited by Eino Cederberg)
  • Valitut teokset, 1954 (introduction by Vilho Suomi)
  • Keuruulainen impromptu: jälkeenjääneitä runoja, 1961
  • Metsän ukko eli Kolmen kaartilaisen seikkailu, 1968 (illustrated by Erkki Tanttu)
  • Putkinotkon herra: kirjeitä 1907-1920, 1969 (toim. Pekka Tarkka)
  • Valitut teokset, 1970 (illustrated by Erkki Tanttu)
  • Valitut teokset, 1975 (foreword by Juhani Niemi)
  • Kanojen Kukkelman ja muita eläintarinoita, 1978 (illustrated by Hannu Taina)
  • Valitut teokset I-IV, 1981-82 (edited by Pekka Tarkka)
  • Kirjeitä, 1983 (toim. Pekka Tarkka)
  • Runot, 1984
  • Kodin suuret klassikot: Joel Lehtonen, 1986 (edited by Pekka Tarkka)
  • Ruiskukka: valikoima novelleja, 1986
  • Lintukoto: muutamia päiväkirjan lehtiä; Hyvästijättö Lintukodolle: runoja, 2001
  • Muttisen Aapeli sodassa, eli, Lapsettoman Mannun kosto, 2010 


  • Conrad Ferdinand Meyer: Pescara: novelli, 1906 (original title: Die Versuchung des Pescara)
  • Knut Hamsun: Pan, 1907 (original title: Pan)
  • August Strindberg: Avioelämää, 1907 (original title: Giftas)
  •  Bernt Lie: Musta Kotka: tarinoita pojista, 1907 (original title: Sorte ørn)
  • Jeremias Gotthelf: Miten Uli-renki tulee onnelliseksi: romaani, 1908
  • Bernt Lie: Myrskypääsky, 1909
  • Gustav Frenssen: Klaus Hinrich Baas: romaani, 1910 (original title: Klaus Hinrich Baas)
  • Thomas P. Krag: Gunvor Kjeld: papin tytär, 1911 (original title: Gunvor Kjeld. Præstens datter)
  • Selma Lagerlöf: Kootut teokset. 1, Gösta Berlingin taru, 1912 (translation revised by Joel Lehtonen; original title: Gösta Berlings saga)
  • Fritz Reuter: Maamiesajoiltani. 1-2, 1913-14 (illustrated by Gerda Tirén)
  • Edward Westermack: Tapojen historiaa: kuusi akadeemista esitelmää: pidetty Turussa syksyllä 1911, 1913 (original title: Ur sedernas historia)
  • Giovanni Boccaccio, Novelleja Giovanni Boccaccion Decameronesta, 1914 (foreword by Werner Söderhjelm; original title: Decamerone)
  • Gustaf Mattsson: Suomen mies meni Zanzibariin, 1915 (original title: En herre for till Zanzibar)
  • Alexandre Dumas: Mestari Aadam Kalabrialainen: kertomus Italian rosvoelämästä, 1916
  • Alexandre Dumas: Kirjekyyhkynen, 1916 (original title: La colombe)
  • Alexandre Dumas: Historialliset romaanit. 2. Josef Balsamo:  historiallinen romaani Ludvig XV:n hovista, 1916
  • Henrik Ibsen: Yhteiskunnan pylväät: nelinäytöksinen näytelmä, 1916
  • Alexandre Dumas:  Historialliset romaanit. 1. Lääkärin muistelmia: historiallinen romaani Ludvig XV:n hovista, 1917
  • Fritz Reuter: Kun setä Bräsig oli pehtorina, 1917
  • Romain Rolland: Jean-Christophe 1: Sarastus, 1917 (original title: L'Aube)
  • Romain Rolland: Jean-Christophe 2: Aamu, 1917 (original title: Le Matin)
  • Romain Rolland: Jean-Christophe 3: Nuorukainen, 1917 (original title: L'Adolescent)
  • Romain Rolland: Jean-Christophe 4: Kapinoitsija, 1917 (original title: La Revolte)
  • Romain Rolland: Jean-Christophe 6: Antoinette, 1918  (original title: Antoinette)
  • Romain Rolland: Jean-Christophe 7: Saman katon alla, 1918 (original title: Dans la maison)
  • Henrik Ibsen: Rakentaja Solness: kolminäytöksinen murhenäytelmä, 1918
  • Henrik Ibsen: Inger, Östråtin rouva: viisinäytöksinen murhenäytelmä, 1919 (original title: Fru Inger til Østråt)
  • Romain Rolland: Jean-Christophe 8: Ystävättäriä, 1919 (original title: Les amies)
  • Romain Rolland: Jean-Christophe 9: Palava pensas, 1919 (original title: Le buisson ardent)
  • Romain Rolland: Jean-Christophe 10: Uusi työpäivä, 1919 (original title:  La nouvelle journée)
  • Benito Pérez-Galdós: Marianela: romaani, 1921 (original title: Marianela)
  • Gunnar Castrén: Juhani Aho. 1-2, 1922-23
  • Max Eyth: Rahaa ja kokemusta: kertomus, 1924 (original title: Geld und Erfahrung)
  • Anatole France: Pingviinien saari, 1924 (original title: L'Île des Pingouins)
  • Anatole France: Enkelien kapina, 1925 (original title: Le révolte des anges)
  • Ernest Pérochon: Pellon orjat: romaani, 1926
  • Fredrik Böök: Kesäinen leikki: romaani, 1927 (original title: Sommarleken)
  • Johan Bojer: Uusi temppeli: romaani, 1928 (original title: Det nye tempel)
  • Stendhal: Punaista ja mustaa: kronikka 1830-luvulta, 1929-30 (original title: Le rouge et le noir)
  • Ronald Fangen: Nuoria ihmisiä: romaani, 1930 (original title: Nogen unge mennesker)
  • Vicki Baum: Naisylioppilas: romaani, 1930 (original title: Stud. chem. Helene Willfüer)
  • Louis Sparre: Kalevalan kansaa katsomassa: muistiinpanoja Kauko-Karjalan-retkeltä v. 1892, 1930
  • Viktor Rydberg: Valitut teokset. 1, Vaeltavat teinit; Singoalla, 1930 
  • Edmond ja Jules de Goncourt:  Sairas sydän, 1934 (original title: Renée Mauperin)
  • Eduard Estaunié: Salaperäinen rouva : romaani, 1934 (original title: Madame Clapain)
  • Verne: Pohjoista kohti: seikkailuromaani Jäämereltä, 1935 (transl. with V.E. Hämeen-Anttila; original title: Les Anglais au pôle nord)

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