Sillanpää, Frans Eemil
Sillanpää, Frans Eemil 1888–1964
Sillanpää, a novelist, short story writer, editor, and poet, was one of Finland's greatest writers. The realism in his fiction has been attributed both to his peasant background and to his scientific studies at the University of Helsinki. While The Maid Silja is probably his best-known work, most critics agree that People in the Summer Night is his most highly developed novel. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1939. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vol. 93-96.)
Phillips D. Carelton
On a farm in Finland a maidservant [the central character of The Maid Silja] lies dying of consumption on a June morning…. [Sillanpaa] tries to trace back the delicate thread of her life to her father's father and find the obscure and hardly realized accidents or incidents that have led to this dismal end of a great family once prosperous. This invoking of the scientific method of examination is an excuse for a lucid and dispassionate style and not the preliminary to a case history….
The theme … is familiar—a young girl goes unprotected in a man's world, an object of assault and desire. But over this life lies a strange beauty. Like her father, the maid Silja lives serenely within a core of invulnerability, gazing with a sense of detachment at the world through which she moves. The growth of her personality seems as inevitable in its progress, as independent of its surroundings as some planet moving to the appointed stations of its orbit. The result is a queer reversal of values; as the story unfolds, the reality of the outside world grows thinner; the illusions of the girl grow firmer till both blend in death.
The success of the novel—and it is extraordinarily effective—lies in what must be a carefully devised technique and a beauty of style evident even through the medium of translation.
Phillips D. Carleton, "A Life in Reverse," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1933 by Saturday Review), Vol. X, No. 17, November 11, 1933, p. 251.
Sillanpää's first novel, Life and Sun, appeared in 1916; while it cannot be considered one of his most notable works, although indeed a remarkable first novel, it clearly revealed him as an original and gifted writer of whom greater literary achievements might surely be expected.
Those expectations were more than realized with the appearance of his second novel, Meek Heritage…. [It is a] graphic and compelling novel, which records the author's reactions to Finland's war for independence…. (p. 360)
Obviously, it requires both penetrating insight and sympathetic understanding of the human heart to invest … [the ordinary story of a peasant's involvement in a civil war] with literary greatness; but that is exactly what Sillanpää has succeeded in doing, and this is, of course, the very proof of his genius as a writer. In the hands of a mediocre author such a theme would have become commonplace and have been buried in trivialities; as treated by the great literary master, the story of the impoverished simple Finnish farm-hand becomes a moving drama of heroic dimensions. For it is in reality much more than his story, although he occupies the center of the stage; it is "a vivid picture of the history of Finland" and of the life of the rural people, whom the author describes sensitively and sympathetically with his inimitable lyric touch. His intimate knowledge of rural Finland and its farmfolk is clearly reflected on every page, yea, even in every line. (pp. 360-61)
Now followed in rapid succession two major novels from Sillanpää's pen. The first of these was A Man's Road, 1932. In a new garb it is the old story of a man torn between the choice of love or wealth…. A Man's Road is a gripping story, with the impressive background of cosmic forces masterfully entwined with the fate of the children of men.
The mystic and cosmic element is still more prominent in People in Summer Night, 1934, which might rightfully be characterized as a prose poem—such is its lyric quality—a hymn of praise to the enchanting light, northern summer night. (pp. 362-63)
Richard Beck, "Sillanpää—Finland's Winner of the Nobel Prize," in Poet Lore, Vol. 46, No. 4, Winter, 1940, pp. 358-63.
Life and Sun was an exceptional first novel…. [Nothing] like this had been seen before. The novel portrays the experiences of a young man and two young women through a summer. With sensitive instinct [Sillanpää] has followed the events as they rose out of the flaming summer in nature and in youthful hearts, which surrendered themselves passively to "receive the world as a sensation." The poet employs surprising facets of his imagination; he appears to be studying human life first from a cosmic altitude and then from abysmal depths. It almost seems as if in some poetic way he had lived the theory of relativity…. [In his depiction of] Finnish country working folk [Sillanpää] strives to draw forth that "elemental man" which lurks at the inmost roots of their instincts. In his finer chapters he seems to experience an "inner time": to a lesser degree he employs the same "memories of the soul" which we meet, for example, in Marcel Proust and James Joyce. He sometimes aspires to an atmosphere of entirety accumulated in the temporary community of mankind in a way that recalls the "unanimism" of Jules Romains. Sillanpää is the first great modernist in Finnish literature.
The tragic experiences connected with Finland's war for independence and her final victory in the spring of 1918 laid the spiritual foundation for the grim novel Meek Heritage…. In this philosophic, almost unbiased social study, the author tried to free himself from the anguish that had gripped him during the struggles of his people. The temperamental lyrist had become the stern, objective historian. In this Finnish biography Sillanpää depicts a representative of the country's lower class, a feckless crofter who is drawn into the Red revolt. The author shows how Juha Toivola, the slow-witted human being whose life seems so drab and worthless, is forced to make a decision too difficult for his mental powers. (pp. 50-1)
If Sillanpää's early works had been events in Northern literature, his great novel Silja, 1931, created a European furore. It is a biography of two...
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[Sillanpää creates a profound depth of feeling] as if he were writing with two pens simultaneously, one of them dipped in ink depicting the simple actuality of event or scene, and the other following the outline with inexorable exactitude—identical in form but dipped in an invisible essence, to be read only by the inward eye. This sense of spiritual awareness, of spiritual intensity and suspense, and above all, of immense and eternal spiritual significance, infuses Sillanpää's novels with an almost intolerable poignancy. "The Maid Silja," which appeared in England under the more expressive title "Fallen Asleep While Young," is his supreme achievement…. (pp. 296-97)
Around the exquisite central figure rise the elemental heats of nature, the raw commands of life, the sensations of the flesh, the smells of the earth which nourished that flesh. They rise and are diffused into ethereal vapor. They dissolve into the moonlight rays of a Finnish summer night and are distilled, in almost motionless quietude, into the resignation of a Finnish maiden's soul. (p. 297)
Agnes Rothery, "Three Novels from Finland," in The Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1940, by The Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia; copyright renewed © 1967 by The Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 16, No. 2 (Spring, 1940), pp. 296-99.∗
The Times Literary Supplement
There is a peculiar clarity, at once peaceful and unnerving, about the nights of high summer in Finland, and in [People in the Summer Night] their strange pattern is faithfully portrayed. The events of a single weekend at harvest-time in a remote village are shaped into a pastoral poem. The themes are tidily balanced, the birth of a crofter's child and the senseless killing of a drunken peasant, hopeful young love and disillusioned middle age; Sillanpää notices flowers and animals as accurately as D. H. Lawrence, his peasants are observed charitably but not idealized. This rural life, evoked in a carefully cadenced prose, seems often to belong to an earlier century.
"Other New Novels," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1966; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3348, April 28, 1966, p. 374.∗
Elämä ja aurinko ['Life and the Sun,' 1916] is very different from all works published in Finland before that time and demonstrates [Sillanpää's] considerable literary talent. The attention and praise it received are deserved but have resulted in the inaccurate picture that Sillanpää's art is totally unrelated to all that was written before it. Tuomas Anhava has called Sillanpää a romanticist, and, vague as the term is, it does help us to understand the nature of his art. He believed in mysterious forces that govern man's destiny against his will, saw in every human being something unique, considered the inner man, the soul, more important than the body, and asserted that this soul remains pure no...
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