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||Valentin (1896 - 1977) - real name Henrik Ensio Rislakki, surname until 1934 Svanberg - pseudonym Henrik Vaanila|
Finnish writer and journalist, famous for his little parodies, in which the humor arose mainly from his pessimistic view of the world. Several of Rislakki's works were adapted into screen or television dramas, among them the highly popular film Ruma Elsa (1949), directed by Edvin Laine. Under the pseudonym of Valentin, Rislakki laughed at the superficial style of popular magazines, pomposity of diplomatic circles, naivety of romantic stories and enthusiasm of radio reporters about trivial matters. "Elämä on life. Elämä on das Leben. Elämä on la vie. Elämä on kenkkumaista." (from 'Kreivi della Sabatellin salaisuus' in Parhaat parodiat, 1956) Especially he attacked on shallowness, folly, and bad taste in whatever form it appeared.
"Toimittaja oli siihen aikaan ja vielä paljon myöhemminkin jonkinlainen rappio-olio, kumma kyllä, sillä olivathan jo Snellman ja hänen arvoisensa miehet havainneet, että sanomalehti oli kansanvalistustyön tekijä – ja jonkun sitäkin piti toimittaa." (from Narriko vain, 1968)
Ensio Rislakki was born Henrik Ensio Ezechiel Svanberg in Hausjärvi, the son of Ludvig Hjalmar Svanberg, a priest, and Aline Hildéen. After graduating from a high school in 1916, he studied economics and esthetics at the University of Helsinki in 1916-17 without taking a degree. He had already decided to become a journalist and was employed by the newspaper Tampereen Sanomat to get practical experience. He continued in Porvoo as the subeditor of Uusimaa. During the Civil War 1917-18 Rislakki served in the Civil Guard. After the war he worked in Kotka for Etelä-Suomi. During this period Rislakki started to use the pseudonym "Valentin," which referred to the day he was born, Valentin's name day. In 1923 he married Anna Sofia Pehrsson; they had two children.
A portrait of Ensio Rislakki by Tauno Miesmaa (1920s). Oil on canvas.
Courtesy of Timo Rislakki.
In 1920-21 Rislakki studied at the university of Leipzig – his brother and a cousin also studied in Germany. When international traveling was still a slow process and a privilege, too, Rislakki made in the 1920s trips to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and France. Long journeys in the 1930s led him to Canada, the United States, England, and South-America, where he went again in the 1940s, describing his experiences in Mazamora (1948). Though Rislakki viewed the world with an open mind, his prejudices – not far from racism – rose to the surfice in the note that in Brazil all the low-paid works are done blacks, but Americans, Englishmen, Italians, Japanese and other nationalities keep the wheels rolling. In Buenos Aires, according to Rislakki, the best restaurant was "La Pulga" – the word means "a flea", owned by a Hungarian, Madame Rosekardos-Lukacs. Tau-wow (1950) was about a journey in Canada, where he noted that Finland is a generation ahead of the country in book publishing: in 1947-48 English publishers gave out only 30 novels and 13 collections of poems, and the French publishers gave out some 60 books.
Ensio Rislakki visiting the Nbele people in Pretoria, South Africa, April 6th, 1951.
Courtesy of Timo Rislakki
Tuolla puolen Limpopon (1952) was an account of Rislakki's travels in South Africa. Already on the plane from Brazzaville to Johannesburg Rislakki witnessed signs of racial hatred. A Swiss man with his black wife was received coldly by the other passengers, and annoyed by this Rislakki went to greet them. In Krüger park Rislakki met the American writer Helen Keller – shaking hands with her Rislakki considered the best idea he has ever had.
Rislakki started his career as a journalist at the newspaper Uusi Suomi (1922-27) under the editor Kaarlo Koskimies. "Koskimies yritti olla ankara päätoimittaja. Hänellä oli virkamiehen suhtautuminen alaisiinsa, mutta vähitellen hän havaitsi ettei niille mitään voi. Kerran hän jopa pyysi koko toimituksen Hotelli Torniin krapuja syömään. Se oli meille kaikille juhlahetki." (from Narriko vain). Rislakki then worked for the magazines Suomen Kuvalehti (1927-32), Elokuva-Aitta (1932-34), Seura (1934-40), and the publishing company Yhtyneet Kuvalehdet (1941-42). In the middle of the Continution War (1941-44), Rislakki edited a collection of humorous short stories, entitled Hymyjen kirja (1942).
From 1952 to 1960 Rislakki was the editor of Suomen Kuvalehti, following the writer Ilmari Turja, who left after conflicts with the publisher. Rislakki's first autobiographical book, Pappilan häijy poika, came out in 1961. In Narriko vain (1968) Rislakki continued his memoirs, focusing on his career as a journalist. Rislakki died in Helsinki on January 30, 1977.
Ensio Rislakki photographed in front of the Finnish Parliament House, Helsinki (1960s).
Courtesy of Timo Rislakki.
Rislakki's first book, Aikaihmisten kuvakirja (1927), was followed by several collections of causeries and juvenile adventure stories. The nucleus of Uninen mutta onnellinen (1928), a collection of short stories, Rislakki produced while he was still working for Uusi Suomi. After leaving the magazine, he posted the manuscript to the publishing company Gummerus. He translated one of its pieces, 'Kreivi Castromillet' into English and sent it to the Canadian short story writer, essayist and political economist Stephen Leacock (1869-1944), whom he considered his model. "I have been reading, with great pleasure and appreciation, your Count Castromillet," answered Leacock. "I am sending you, as a humble mark of appreciation, a copy of my latest book." This encouragement Rislakki considered crucial for his career as a humorist. Rislakki never met Leacock but when he traveled in Canada, he spent in Montreal a moment on the stairs of the author's house – Leacock himself was away, having a holiday. His best humorous sketches, which appeared in newspapers and magazines, Rislakki collected in 55 parasta (1945), Ah tuskaa (1953), Parhaat parodiat (1956), Lyhyesti (1963), and Valentinin pakinoita (1965).
"Koska minun nyt täytyy puhua itsestäni, olen sitä mieltä, että ns. humoristinen kirjailija tai kirjailija, joka kirjoittaa huumoria, on ilman muuta vakava, ylen vakava... Kaikissa elämänilmiöissä näen niiden humoristisen puolen; valtaosa ihmisistä taas näkee niiden vakavamman puolen tai yleensä ainakin hymyilemättömän puolen. Humoristi siis suhtautuu kaikkee eri tavalla kuin suurin osa ihmisistä. Hän on hyvin yksinäinen; hän piilottaa hymynsä, koska hän muuten nöyttäisi aika kummalliselta. Ollakseen siis toisten kaltainen hän on oppinut näyttämääm vakavaa naamaa, puhumaan vakavasti, nauramaankin vakavasti." (Valentin in his autobiographical text in Uuno Kailaasta Aila Meriluotoon, ed. by Toivo Pekkanen and Reino Rauanheimo, 1947)
Rislakki wrote several plays and an operetta libretto. Comedies were his audience's favorites but his pessimistic play Musta Saara (1957), an axamination of the relations between Africans and European, represented the author's serious side. This work was connected with the account of his African journey, Tuolla puolen Limpopon. Rislakki's final play, Elias (1968), depicting Elias Lönnrot's life in Kajaani, was rejected by the National Theatre, but successfully produced at the Tampere Theatre.
Rislakki's novels include Sankarimatkailija (1930), an imaginary journey around the world, Ei pidä ajatella (1934), depicting six days in a lumberjack camp, Tuskat ja tunteet (1938) focusing on the love affairs of a young Master of Laws, and Kuuden elämän saari (1944), in which a middle-aged man asks himself "Am I happy?" and "Why do I exist?" Eventually he finds a new start for his life from a small island, inhabited only by six persons. The story ends optimistically: "I start to live," I answered. "That is the main thing. Everything else will turn out well in the end."
Ruma Elsa gained a huge success as a play. It was performed in 1947 at the National Theatre nearly a hundred times. Edvin Laine's film adoption, made two years later, was considered among the best comedies produced after the war. The central character, Elsa, studies chemistry. She is wild, outspoken, independent, and wears trousers. When Elsa changes her appearance with a beautiful dress and make-up, she is not recognized. The suitor of her widowed mother, an old professor, starts to chase her. Elsa rejects him but accepts her childhood friend Pertti, who loves her as she is.
Rislakki's most famous screen character was Lapatossu, a jovial rogue and lazybones, who was advertised as "Finland's Chaplin." Lapatossu, played by Aku Korhonen, appeared in three films, Lapatossu (1937), Lapatossu ja Vinski olympiakuumeessa (1939), and Tavaratalo Lapatossu ja Vinski (1940).
Ensio Rislakki in his later years at his summer residence in Lohja (1970s).
Courtesy of Timo Rislakki.
For further reading: Aleksis Kivestä Saima Harmajaan: suomalaisten kirjailijain elämäkertoja, ed. by Albin Ahonen, Martti Haavio, V.I. Mikkonen (1943); Meistä tuli kirjailijoita: 44 kirjailijaa kertoo kirjallisista ensiaskeleistaan, ed. by K. Sorjonen & V. Rekola (1947); Ett skrattretande (för)fall: teatraliskt metaspråk, förströelselitteratur och den bildade klassen i Finland på 1910- och 1920-talen by Kristina Malmio (2005); Suomen kansallisbiografia 8, ed. by Matti Klinge et al. (2006) - Other Finnish masters of humorous columns and informal essays: Eino Leino, Gustaf Mattsson, Olli, Ilmari Turja, Tiitus, Hj. Nortamo, Pentti Saarikoski (under the pen name Nenä), Origo, Bisquit (Seppo Ahti)