This is Fredrik Hertzberg's introduction to his translation of Gunnar Björling: You go the words (Action Books, 2007). Björling in English. Björling in Finland-Swedish.
Fredrik Hertzberg is a literary scholar and critic living in Finland. He has two doctoral degrees, one from the Poetics program of SUNY-Buffalo (2000) and one from Åbo Akademi University, Finland (2003). His dissertation was published as Moving Materialities – On Poetic Materiality and Translation, with Special Reference to Gunnar Björling's Poetry. He is currently editing a dictionary of national biography, as well as writing reviews for Hufvudstadsbladet (Finland) and Svenska Dagbladet (Sweden).
Finland-Swedish literary Modernism had an earlier and more drastic breakthrough than its counterparts in the other Nordic countries. Its acute energy is perhaps best understood against the backdrop of turbulent historical events: In December 1917, in the midst of the turmoil after the Russian revolution, Finland declared and gained its independence from Russia. Finland had belonged to Sweden until 1809, after which it had become a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire. A month after its independence, in January 1918, a civil war broke out in Finland between 'Reds' (Bolsheviks) and 'Whites' (anti-Bolsheviks); the Whites won the Civil War within a few months. Suddenly intellectuals and artists formerly engaged in either nationalist activism or socialism were left without compass. According to Olof Enckell, the modernist generation spent its youth "with the hopeless task of sorting out a bankruptcy estate" – an incentive perhaps for taking an entirely different route, for finding new alternatives to the "bankrupt" ways of writing, perceiving, experiencing.
'Finland-Swedish' is the most commonly used term for the Swedish term finlandssvensk. Historically, it is not a neutral term. Swedish had been the language of education and government in Finland until the Finnish nationalist awakening from the mid–19th century onward. The initiative of this awakening was to a large extent taken by Swedish-speaking intellectuals who began to Fennicize their names and identities. The Swedish speaking people of the 19th century had regarded themselves simply as Finns. The term 'Finland-Swedish' is contemporaneous with the rise of Finland-Swedish Modernism; Finnish-speaking and Swedish-speaking Finns became politically distinct from each other in the 1910s and 1920s.
Although the Finland-Swedish modernists published their books in Swedish, in an important sense, Finland-Swedish Modernism was not narrowly 'Finland-Swedish' as much as a multicultural, internationalist hybrid. Edith Södergran's Dikter (Poems), the first modernist poetry collection to emerge in Finland, was published in 1916. But Södergran was born and bred in St Petersburg, where she had gone to a German-language school. She began to write poetry in German, inspired by German pre-Expressionist poets, as well as in Swedish, Russian and French. Poet Elmer Diktonius was bilingual and could choose freely between writing in Swedish and writing in Finnish. Regardless of which language he used, the other language would be present as a foreignizing influence, and the two would cross-fertilize each other. For Hagar Olsson the choice between Swedish and Finnish was one aspect of a radically internationalist program. Russian-born Henry Parland spoke mainly German at home and received his education in Finnish. Although he initially had great difficulties learning Swedish, he chose to write in it (apparently much to the benefit of his poetry).
Gunnar Björling, unlike Södergran, Diktonius, Olsson, and Parland, wrote exclusively in Swedish. That he was the most monolingual poet of the group seems ironic considering that he was the one whose Swedish appeared most 'un-Swedish' to readers of his time – incidentally even to internationalist Hagar Olsson, who wrote: "Björling doesn't write Swedish, far from it, he simply writes Björlingian." Novelist Eirik Hornborg put it even more memorably: "[Björling's works] are not written in Swedish – even if they use mainly Swedish words – and moreover not in any language in the fixed sense of the word."
Gunnar Björling was born in Helsinki (Helsingfors in Swedish) in 1887. He was somewhat older than the other Finland-Swedish modernists, the most significant of whom were Edith Södergran (1892–1923), Hagar Olsson (1893–1978), Elmer Diktonius (1896–1961), Rabbe Enckell (1903–1974), and Henry Parland (1908–1930). At 35, when he made his debut with Vilande dag (Resting Day, 1922), he did not think of himself as a Modernist, though he introduced a quite innovative language and form. Within a few years, however, he had aligned himself with the other Modernists, and began to publish in the Modernist journal Quosego.
Björling's father had fought in the Russian-Turkish war and left his career as an army officer behind him when he was appointed postmaster in Vyborg in 1890. Six years later, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, was partially paralysed and lost his faculty of speech. Björling was 9 years old at the time. In a posthumously published manuscript, Björling writes: "Father, I call out/ you/ you the only/ you with goodness'/ eye/ you petrified/ of all/ you father/ I call out/ you shall see my/ eye."
The father's disability rendered the Björling family quite poor. Björling, however, received a scholarship to a military boarding school in Fredrikshamn. But because of the widespread bullying of the younger pupils occurred there, Björling returned to Helsinki after a year. During his subsequent schooling in Helsinki, Björling turned into an free-thinking atheist and became actively engaged in the struggle against increasing Russianization. He also became a passionate socialist, joining the socialist workers' union. He participated in several minor operations, allegedly at times carrying a revolver like a true revolutionary.
After leaving school, Björling studied philosophy at the University of Helsinki. One of his teachers was the internationally renowned sociologist Edward Westermarck, whose lectures on ethical relativism were a great influence on Björling's thinking. In 1915 Björling finished his pro gradu thesis (equivalent to an M.A. thesis), on the nature of conscience. This thesis, along with most of his other manuscripts, was destroyed when the basement Björling later came to live in was bombarded by Russian airplanes during the Continuation War in 1944. "A life lost, the decades' fight destroyed/and the base of my occupation/my fight that just my life/my inner's life/awaypulled."
After taking his degree, Björling worked for a short time as a teacher, but soon decided to write full-time. He prepared for his literary debut as early as 1916, intending to publish mainly sonnets, aphorisms, and some short prose pieces written under the influence of Edgar Allan Poe. The Civil War, however, delayed his plans. Björling became engaged on the White side, among other things hiding a telegraphist working for the White side in his basement.
Two publishers rejected Vilande dag before it was published by the newly started small publishing firm Daimon, where Hagar Olsson worked as editor. The book was in part the result of his aspiration to put down, in his own words, "as far as possible in poetic form a philosophy of life based on free thought and giving an expression to human life in its entirety." It consists of prose poems and aphorisms, some of them one-liners, such as "Oskuld – en tystnad, ej gripbar" (“Innocence – a silence, not graspable”).
Three years later Björling's second book, Korset och löftet (The Cross and the Promise) arrived, more bizarre and burlesque than Vilande dag, ending with a long essay, "Vardas kraft: vila" ("Becoming's Force: Rest"), in which Björling discusses his relation to ethics, religion and aesthetics. "God is the heart: the form, the fate, and is longing (the will): the rhythm. God is claim and bound; God is an unbounded, growing, not exhausted: content." The religious element was largely ignored by the contemporary cultural establishment, dazed by the form of the writing rather than its content. Björling himself wrote, commenting on this: "I know that if I lifted a red flag before the statue of Alexander, they would ask why I'm wearing a green scarf."
After Korset och löftet, Björling found himself without a publisher. But the chief editor of the new journal Quosego saw him as a radical verbal innovator and provided him with ample space for aphorisms, poems and essays. Björling's input came to represent what the general public thought so offensive about the journal, and about the modernists. His long poem "4711: Universalist Dada-Individualism," published in 1928, begins, provocatively: "Uru ru-ru!/tritsch-tritsch-tritsch!/hump hump hump tiriri/ri!/hump!" As he explained later, his Dadaist stance was motivated by "the acquired insight that words had no effect."
Björling was called "The Prophet", as well as "Europe's last Dadaist." Perhaps he was something in between. In his fourth book, Solgrönt (Sungreen, 1933), there was however a hint of something new:
en dag, och jag väntar
och hela dagen
dagen ler du
(Day goes/a day, and I wait/meet,/and the whole day/day you smile/with me/away.) In the first section of Solgrönt Björling introduced something more lyrical, a love poetry particularly celebrating the body, incorporating what seemed like expressive exclusions and omissions: "Dina ögon/vackra, om/de –?/öron eller näsan/mun, din läpp, din/hand/dina ögons –, och ej annorlunda!" (Your eyes/ beautiful, if/they –?/ears or the nose/mouth, your lip, your/hand/your eyes' –, and not different!) The love poetry was resumed, even more forcefully, in Där jag vet att du (Where I know that you, 1938).
Some have thought that Björling's omissions were motivated by a desire to conceal his homosexuality, or more neutrally, as enabling a kind of general, sexless love poetry. Psychoanalyst and essayist Mikael Enckell made the following analysis of Björling’s sexuality: "It is not enough that he apparently was rather exclusively homosexual in a time and in a generation when this was socially stigmatizing in a way we can imagine only with difficulty. He himself hardly wholeheartedly affirmed his homosexuality, it was connected with notions of deep shame, moral inferiority and deviation." Björling's erotic relations were often troublesome. One of his lengthiest relationships was with Georg Lagus, who would often exploit the penniless poet. After Lagus was released from a two-year imprisonment, during which Björling provided him with money that he himself borrowed, he moved into Björling's small basement, bringing along his wife and children. The Swedish scholar Anders Olsson describes the effect of reading Björling's correspondence with Lagus as "entering a Dostoyevsky novel, at once filled with human degradation and inner strength."
Björling's "leaving out parts of sentences", or "breaking up the syntax", as it was sometimes negatively referred to, was to become characteristic of all his poetry. In the eyes of the cultural establishment, it was thought of as a mechanically applied method. The author Ralf Parland, Henry Parland's younger brother, describes its application in an anecdote:
During the last two decades of his life, Björling was very preoccupied with re-editing his earlier collections of poetry. And as far as I could see, he still loved that special cut-out technique which he used already in the '30s. He often demanded that I help him with cutting down units of poetry that he didn't consider smooth enough. If I showed him some of my own work, he would growlingly scan it through and comment upon seventeen out of eighteen lines, after which he reached for a pen and crossed them out, muttering that the single remaining line would do well on its own, even if the rhythm and form were thus abolished 100 percent. As regards his own poetry he was almost as radical, but the method was different: he decomposed his lines by cutting out the nouns or other elements. I was very delighted with this responsible game, and learned to cut out much more ruthlessly in his manuscripts, and sometimes when I had cut out almost all the words from a Björling poem, and left only a small leftover to mark that there had been a line, then Gunnar would inspect the remaining chicken bones with a delighted look in his eyes, and exclaim:
“Well, I'll be damned! You don't say?”
This way I probably have several irretrievable Björling originals on my conscience. But strictly I had no choice. Because the maestro, who had a whole laundry basket full of manuscripts that he wanted to revise, abruptly demanded:
“Cut it out! What are you waiting for?”
The literary critic Bengt Holmqvist, in his 1949 introduction to Björling's poetry, puts it in a less tongue-in-cheek manner: "On the whole, it seems as if Björling's sensitivity for words is mainly of a different kind than that which leads to a style based on effects created by images. He has realized this himself, when over the years he has increasingly rationed his images and instead directed all his efforts at liberating the syntax itself from the schemes of everyday language. In this lies his great and innovative achievement".
To consider literary style in terms of deviations from a norm – as "everyday language" – is common in linguistically informed criticism. But poetry is as poetry does, whereas the linguistic perspective focuses on what poetry is not doing. As Björling himself put it in a letter to a young Swedish poet and critic: "And what is the empty phrase that I'm 'breaking apart' the grammar and logic of language? Of course I'm using both language and logic (the latter more than many." Perhaps the poetic vision is that grammar and logic are inherent in language, rather than outside of it. "It is with our life and our searching's frailties, with the whole unfinished torso that our life and work including our thought is, that we shall bear witness to this our one-millionth of immediateness and strive for relative unboundedness in our life-bounds."
The everyday and everyday language are at the center of Björling's later poetry. Anders Olsson, in his study Att skriva dagen (To Write the Day, 1995), singles out a few characteristic elements of the language of Björling's later poetry. The first is desacralization. Though Björling was influenced by the language and forms of Biblical hymns, psalms, and gospels, he increasingly turned these into profane, earthly eulogies. Then there is the reduction of the 'I' – still central in his earlier, prophetically expressive poetry – absorbing itself in "being", as Olsson puts it, with a Heideggerian accent. Or as Björling himself wrote, in a programmatic poem published in 1938: "Cut out, cut/you, your word/cut out your/contour, that you cannot/explain.//Be what you are/be that music/be you, your self/like a word concert/be you, as one hidden in world's muteness/a dreamt concert." Thirdly, there is the reduction of images, as in the Holmqvist quote above. The concepts and philosophical "apparatus" are stripped away, leading to an ever increasing reduction and simplification of words and of vocabulary. Small words are placed center stage – words such as if, and, as, that, like, you, the, it, every and though reveal the fabric of language. They carry little obvious meaning, but they are full of propulsion, expectation, hesitation, affirmation. Along with the reduction of the 'I', of images, concepts, words, there is an increased concentration of expression. As Olsson says, "it is not the word which is the primary unit of Björling's poetry but the point, the dash, the tone of every word." Finally, there is an increasing use of interruptions, incongruences, limits. "I thought I spoke so simply that the birds held their breath. I said all that I was in one word's sound. It was said, I kill man. That was my intention."
The present book, Gunnar Björling's last collection, Du går de ord, is from one perspective a kind of leave-taking of language and poetry. It can be grouped together with three earlier collections, Ett blyertsstreck (A pencilstroke, 1951), Som alla dar (As all days, 1953) and Att i sitt öga (1954, That in one's eye). While Björling's early books tend to be filled with poems, aphorisms, shorter prose pieces and mini essays, these last four books consist almost solely of poetry. Du går de ord literally translates into You go the words, a phrase taken from the third poem, a poem which plays upon the intersection between self, body and language:
You go the
were you, it was
I know not and
that to your ear
and with eye
just with finger
The words are a 'you', going; the words themselves enter corporally into human life, and then leave.
Gunnar Björling died in Helsinki in 1960. Among his manuscripts there is a draft of his directions for his funeral, meant for his uncle's widow, Lily Björling. It expresses a characteristic lack of sentimentality and a particular modesty, exemplifying the combination of ethics and aesthetics which also permeates his life and work:
When I am dead
I hope to be carried in silence in the simplest possible casket (if possible unpainted boards or just about so, in paper sheets), laid in this as I am, dressed so and so and unshaved. If I, against expectation, should wear a new suit, it can be taken off and given to someone, if there is a potential recipient [...] No ceremony or gathering on the journey, or at the casket or urn. No music, speech, flowers (no wreath), no blessings(!) – in the presence of a couple of friends and Mrs Lily Björling, if she is still alive and available.
Since Björling's poetry thrives on the above mentioned reductions, as well as on stoppages, incongruities, intensities; since it resists a smooth syntax and constructs its music through such resistance; I have chosen to bring out this angular, material aspect of the text, thereby at times perhaps exaggerating its "foreignness". What appears strange in the Swedish original may thus appear even stranger in English. This should be seen as an opportunity rather than a drawback. Philip Lewis, in coining the term "abusive fidelity", advocates a fidelity to the abuse of the original text, that is, to its abuse of conventional forms and language (to put it negatively). Amplifying the foreign aspects of the original serves I hope to refresh and refract its material opacity. What has guided me here is that this is done in the spirit – to the letter – of Björling. Björling 'unshaved', as it were. The primary guidelines have been to retain something of the syntax, and something of the rhythm – in that order.
1 "Under Damoklessvärdet," Quosego: Tidskrift för ny generation (1928).
2 "Dikt, mystik och dadaistisk rebus." Svenska Pressen, 16 May 1925.
3 Quoted in Olof Mustelin's Forskning och vitterhet: Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland 1885-1985, Vol 2 (Helsingfors, Printaco 1986), 177.
4 Jag viskar dig jord. Dikter 1956-1960 (Ed. Michel Ekman, Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1992), 100.
5 O finns en dag (Helsingfors: Söderström, 1944), 8.
6 "Min skrift - lyrik?", originally published in Poeter om poesi (Eds. Johannes Edfelt and Olof Lagercrantz, Stockholm: Bonniers, 1947) 31.
7 Vilande dag (Helsingfors: Daimon AB, 1922) 87.
8 Korset och löftet (Helsingfors: Söderströms, 1925), 206.
9 Quoted in Mikael Enckell, "Liv och Dikt hos den tidige Björling" (Björlingstudier, Helsingfors: Svenska Literatursällskapet i Finland, 1993) 58.
10 "4711", published in Quosego, 73.
11 “Min Skrift – Lyrik?”, 33.
12 Solgrönt (Helsingfors: Söderströms, 1933), 11.
13 Mikael Enckell, Till saknadens lov (Helsingfors, Söderströms, 1988), 60.
14 Anders Olsson, "Ett porträtt", from Skrifter (Fifth volume, Norrköping: Erikssons Förlag, 1995), 54.
15 "Ordens extatiker", Ord & Bild 5 (1961), 386.
16 Kritiska ögonblick (Stockholm: Bonniers, 1987), 133.
17 Björling, letter to Per Rydén, published in Artes 6 (1985), 19.
18 Poeter om poesi, 40.
19 Där jag vet att du (Helsingfors: Söderströms, 1938), 114.
20 Att skriva dagen (Stockholm: Bonniers, 1995), 179.
21 Fågel badar snart i vattnen (Helsingfors: Akademiska Bokhandeln, 1934), 73.
22 Quoted in Olsson, "Ett porträtt", 52.
23 “The Measure of Translation Effects,” in J. Graham (ed.) Difference in Translation, (Ithaca, NY: Cornel UP, 1985).