FransEemil Sillanpää Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Frans Eemil Sillanpää (SIHL-ahn-pah), winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1939, began life as a peasant’s son in the Finnish town of Hämeenkyrö, September 16, 1888. As a child he displayed a great aptitude for science; consequently he was sent to the Imperial Alexander University at Helsingfors. There he found more excitement in the company of writers, artists, and musicians (including the composer Jean Sibelius) than he did in the laboratory. As a result of this new interest, he faced a great emotional crisis. Having decided that his vocation was writing, he left the university without taking his examinations for a degree and returned home on Christmas Eve of 1913. After that time his interests followed no other course.

He published his first novel in 1916 and in that same year married a servant girl with whom he would have seven children. His second novel, Meek Heritage, concerned with the clash of the Reds and the Whites in the Finnish Revolution, won him fame in his country and a government pension for life. Translated into a number of languages, the novel also helped to establish his international reputation. The Maid Silja, published in 1931, was equally popular at home and abroad. In 1936 Sillanpää was made an honorary doctor of philosophy by the Finnish government. Three years later he became the first Finn to be awarded a Nobel Prize.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The son of a crofter and farmhand, Frans Eemil Sillanpää spent only a few years in grade school before he entered the Gymnasium (college-preparatory secondary school) of Tampere, from which he graduated in 1908. During his last years at the Gymnasium, while supporting himself through private tutoring, he read at the public library the works of Knut Hamsun, Selma Lagerlöf, and the great Russian writers Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevski. At the University of Helsinki, Sillanpää studied natural sciences, particularly biology, for four years, and he was influenced by the philosophical theories of Ernst Haeckel and Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald. Financial problems and failing health, however, forced him to give up his studies and return to his family home. During these years, August Strindberg and Maurice Maeterlinck became his favorite writers; later, Swedish neo-Romanticist Erik Axel Karlfeldt had the greatest artistic influence on him.

During the summer of 1914, Sillanpää visited the Baltic Exhibition in the Swedish city of Malmö, and from there he went to Copenhagen, Denmark. From both cities he sent travel letters home to the Finnish newspaper Uusi Suometar, together with some short stories written while he had attended the Gymnasium of Tampere, his first published works. After marrying Sigrid Maria Salomäki in 1916, Sillanpää moved to Helsinki. Gradually he came to be regarded as the grand old man of Finnish literature, but his life was disrupted by the death of his wife in 1939. A short and unhappy second marriage was one of the causes of his mental collapse in 1940, which forced him to spend three years in a hospital. In 1939, Sillanpää was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.