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Volter Kilpi (1874-1939) - surname until 1886 Ericsson


Essayist and novelist, pioneer of Finnish modernist literature. Kilpi's major novel is Alastalon salissa (2 vols, 1933), a long and nostalgic book compared to the works of Proust and Joyce. Kilpi's family name was really Ericsson, but he and his two brothers adopted the Finnish surname.

"Elävät ihmiset täällä siten toistensa likistyksissä, että ihmisyys on kulunut ihmisten väliltä, ja että ihmisestä ihmiseen täällä menetellään samalla asiallisuudella, jolla puuseppä käsittelee työkaluaan?" (from Gulliverin matka Fantomimian mantereelle, 1944)

Kilpi was born in Kustavi on the coast north of Turku. His father, David Ericsson, was a sea captain, and his childhood's milieu, a stable peasant life with shipbuilders and connections to exotic countries, also influenced his choice of literary subjects. One of Kilpi's three brothers followed the family tradition and became a captain.

Kilpi studied in Turku and entered in 1895 the University of Helsinki, receiving his M.A. in 1900. In the same year appeared his first book, Batsheba, in which the central theme was the difficulty of human communication. The novel consisted of first-person fragments in prose-poem style, colored with strong biblical tone and changes of moods from the ecstasy of love to guilt and Weltschmerz. While writing the work, Kilpi was in love with another man's wife. The third book of his youth was Parsifal (1902), in which the Grail is the symbol of Beauty. The impressionistic Antinous  (1903) was a deeply pessimistic story, in which the protagonist contemplates on suicide, not at all unlike Goethe's Young Werther. Kilpi's translation of this famous novel appeared in 1904; he had read the book while still at school, first in Swedish and then in German.

Kilpi's early novels were influenced by Oscar Wilde, Pre-Raphaelites, Nietzsche's works, and 19th-century New Romantics. For a period, Kilpi also had the thick Nietzschean moustache. Kilpi's aesthetic focus on man's inner life, the beauty of life, and art, did not gain wider understanding. Ihmisestä ja elämästä (1902), a collection of essays, resented his thesis about art and morality. Kilpi stated that "art is only the awakening of the inner man." Only through and with the help of art can life be experienced to the full and valued.

After graduation, Kilpi took up a career as a librarian. In 1907 he married Hilja Vanhakartano, the daughter of a prosperous farmer. She had 16 siblings. Kilpi had met her in 1904-05 while she studied medicine in Helsinki. Vanhakartano's parents objected their marriage.

From 1912 to 1918 Kilpi worked at the Public Library of Helsinki, then from 1921 to 1939 at the University Library of Turku. At the time of the Finnish Civil War (1917-18), Kilpi broke his silence and published two books, advocating monarchy as the best form of government for Finland. With the pamphlets Kansallista itsetutkiskelua (1917) and Tulevaisuuden edessä (1918) Kilpi participated in debates about cultural questions, criticizing the polarization of Finnish- and Swedish-speaking groups. Kilpi claimed that the Swedish speaking elite wish to freely despise the Finnish people and at the same time enjoy all their rights and privileges. Plans to import a king from Germany failed and Kilpi found himself more alienated, especially from the young and progressive leftist cultural movements.

Kilpi stopped publishing fiction in 1903 for fourteen years, although he made translations and articles for encyclopedias. In 1919 he began to plan his major work: the depiction of islanders' life on the Western Coast of Finland. Kilpi left his neo-romantic beginnings far behind and associated himself with the tradition of detailed realism, but in a highly complex style. His giant work Alastalon salissa appeared in two volumes in 1933. It described the peasant sea captains of the southwestern coastal community of Kustavi, and the integration of their common interest. Kilpi tried to capture, almost minute by minute, the doings of the ship-owners, captains, fishermen, and farmers who had been his forebears. The varied life of the community is unveiled primarily through interior monologue.

Kilpi's stream of consciousness novel was among the first of its kind in the Finnish language, and he himself compared it to such landmarks of European modernism as James Joyce's Ulyssess (1922) and Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (1913-27). Although the novel had similarities with those of Proust and Joyce – long sentences, odd syntax, neologism – Kilpi went further in creating a text that is a world in itself. On publication, Kilpi's modernist experiment met with incomprehension, and it never became a favorite of the reading public. Later Kilpi's tour de force has been accepted among the greatest classics of Finnish literature. However, the slow tempo of the narration has limited the popularity of the novel.

"Kun voita levitetään kakun viipaleelle paksulti ja läämäkaupalla ja niin että silmäkin mittaa palasen maistuvaksi vehnäseksi, niin alkaa ravittuakin vatsaa uskoa suunsa näkevän nälkää ja tuntea haukkaamisen kutia ikenissään, ja kun oikein mojooviltaan ja täydeltä suun sarvelta mäjätään muhkean uhkua korviin, minkä kehua sulloomilta kuuloläppiin mahtuu, niin alkaa laiskakin veri virkistyä ja paatumukset sulata sellaisenkin lahnan suomuilta, joka ei vuosimuistoihin enää ole purston loiskille viskautunut ja viilettäminen liukuille viitsinyt! " (from Pitäjän pienempiä, 1934)

The novel, set in the 1860s, depicts in some 900 pages a six hour long event, when some ship-owners decide on the building of a new bark. The discussion takes place in the house of Captain Mattsson. One of the men in attendance is Pukkila, his resentful rival. Another memorable chararter is Härkäniemi, a philosophical bachelor. Near the end of the 1920s, Kilpi wrote short stories, which were collected in Pitäjän pienempiä (1934, The Humbler People of the Parish). Its first story, 'Ylistalon tuvassa,' told what sailors were doing while captains were gathered at Alastalo; the names are also parallel: Ylistalo (upper farm) and Alastalo (lower farm). One especially effective story is 'Merimiehenleski,' written in the form of a sequence of meditations of an old woman, whose prayers turn into imprecations against an indifferent God.

Kirkolle (1937, On the Way to the Church) is centered on a Sunday morning service at midsummer, the gathering of the congregation, the journey to the church, and the arrivals at the service. Although Kilpi analyzed the churchgoers' feelings, his attitude towards religion was almost agnostic in nature. He also portrayed in the story his parents and himself under the name Albert.

During the writing process of Alastalon salissa, Kilpi suffered a personal loss – his wife died in 1927 – and he began to feel himself more or less misunderstood. In 1935 he married Gunborg Grönroos, who had been working for him as a home helper. Over his lifetime Kilpi's hearing became progressively worse; his language was called a "deaf's language." His last works were Suljetuilla porteilla (1938), religious meditations, and the unfinished Gulliverin matka Fantomimian mantereelle (1944, Gulliver's Journey to the Continent of Fantomimia), a mild satire on the future, in which Gulliver sails to the Arctic Ocean and is transported through a gian maelstrom into the modern world, where all the fuss makes him uncomfortable. "Where is the border between illusion and reality," he asks himself.  Kilpi portrays Gulliver more of an ignoramus, who is scared of technology, than a snobbish and experienced traveller. This story was written in a relatively simple and straightforward style. Kilpi died on June 13, 1939 in Turku. His letters to Anto Jansson (surname later Säynäslahti) between the years 1899 and 1918 reveal that the author did not comment much on current political and social events but dreamed about an idyllic, peaceful life enlightened by the company of the great writers of world literature. A volume of Kilpi's letters to his publisher, edited by Pekka Tarkka, came out in 1990.

For further reading:  Nuori Volter Kilpi by Vilho Suomi (1952); A History of Finnish Literature by J. Ahokas (1973); MacMillan Guide to Modern World Literature by Martin Seymour-Smith (1986); Kirjailija ja hänen kustantajansa, ed. Pekka Tarkka (1990); Mielen meri, elämän pidon. Volter Kilven Alastalon salissa by Pirjo Lyytikäinen (1992); Vieras minä olen kaikille. Volter Kilven ja Vilho Suomen kirjeenvaihto 1937-1939 ja muita kirjeitä by Pirjo Lyytikäinen (1993); Varmuuden vuoksi. Modernin representaatio Volter Kilven Saaristo-sarjassa by Lea Rojola (1995); A History of Finland's Literature, ed. by George C. Schoolfield (1998); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, vol. 2, ed. by Steven Serafin (1999); Hetkessä on iäisyys: Volter Kilven filosofia  by Juhani Pietarinen (2002); Nationalism, intolerans, språkstrid: om konsten att läras avsky ett språk och dess bärare by Reinhold Enqvist (2011) - Note: David Barrett tried translating Kilpi into English, but gave up the work. However, Thomas Warburton succeeded in translation of Alastalon salissa into Swedish.

Selected works:

  • Bathsheba: Davidin puheluja itsensä kanssa, 1900
  • Ihmisestä ja elämästä: kirjoitelmia, 1902
  • Parsifal: kertomus Graalin ritarista, 1902
  • (translator) Gustav Frenssen: Jörn Uhl, 1903 (original title: Jörn Uhl)
  • Antinous, 1903
  • (translator) Gustav Frenssen: Kolme toverusta, 1904 (original title: Die drei Getreuen)
  • (translator) J.W. von Goethe: Nuoren Wertherin kärsimykset, 1904 (original title: Die Leiden des jungen Werthers)
  • (translator) Gustav Frenssen: Hilligenlei: (Pyhä maa), 1906 (original title: Hilligenlei)
  • (translator) Paul Wernle: Jeesuksen elämän lähdekirjat, 1907 (original title: Die Quellen des Lebens Jesu)
  • (translator) Ralph Waldo Emerson: Ihmiskunnan edustajia, 1909 (original title: Representative Men)
  • Kansallista itsetutkiskelua: suomalaisia kulttuuri-ääriviivoja, 1917
    - Nationell självprövning: konturer ur finskt kulturliv (translated into Swedish by Henning Söderhjelm, 1917)
  • Kansallista itsetutkiskelua. II. Tulevaisuuden edessä: poliittisia ja yhteiskunta-eetillisiä ääriviivoja, 1918
  • Suomenkielisen kirjallisuuden varhaispainokset vuoteen 1642, 1924
  • Alastalon salissa: kuvaus saaristosta. I-II, 1933
    - I salen på Alastalo: en skärgårdsskildring. 1-2 (translated into Swedish by Thomas Warburton, 1997)
  • Nerouden ihmeestä: ajatuksia Aleksis Kiven päivänä, 1934
  • Pitäjän pienempiä: saaristoväkeä arkisillaan, 1934
    - I stugan på Ylistalo (partial translation, by Thomas Warburton, 1976)
  • Kirkolle: kuvaus saaristosta, 1937
  • Suljetuilla porteille, 1938
  • Gulliverin matka Fantomimian mantereelle , 1944 (foreword by Vilho Suomi)
  • Valitut teokset, 1954 (introduction by Vilho Suomi)
  • Albatrossin tarina: kolmastoista luku romaanista Alastalon salissa, 1965 (illustrated by Erkki Tanttu)
    - "Albatrossi" lugu (translated into Estonian by Harald Lepik, 1968)
    - Historien om Albatross (translated into Swedish by Th. Warburton, 1970)
  • Kirjailija ja hänen kustantajansa, 1990 (ed. Pekka Tarkka)
  • Varhaiset kertomukset, 1990
  • Vieras, vieras minä olen kaikille: Volter Kilven ja Vilho Suomen kirjeenvaihto 1937-1939 ja muita kirjeitä, 1993 (edited by Pirjo Lyytikäinen)
  • Vaan väkevää olemista: Volter Kilven kirjeet Anto Säynäslahdelle, 1999 (edited by Dietrich Assmann, Eeva-Liisa Assmann)
  • Volter ja Hilja. "Ovat sanasi niinkuin valoa minulle". Volter Kilven ja Hilja Vanhakartanon kirjeenvaihtoa, 2013 (edited by Laura Kokko)

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