Review: Compartment no. 6 by Rosa Liksom

compartment-no-6-cover

PAPERBACK; 182 P.
TRANS. LOLA ROGERS
SERPENT'S TAIL, 2014/2011
SOURCE: LIBRARY

A sad young Finnish woman boards a train in Moscow, in the waning years of the Soviet Union. Bound for Mongolia, she’s trying to put as much space as possible between her and a broken relationship. Wanting to be alone, she chooses an empty compartment—No. 6.—but her solitude is soon shattered by the arrival of a fellow passenger: Vadim Nikolayevich Ivanov, a grizzled, opinionated, foul-mouthed former soldier. Vadim fills the compartment with his long and colorful stories, recounting in lurid detail his sexual conquests and violent fights.

There is a hint of menace in the air, but initially the woman is not so much scared of or shocked by him as she is repulsed. She stands up to him, throwing a boot at his head. But though Vadim may be crude, he isn’t cruel, and he shares with her the sausage and black bread and tea he’s brought for the journey, coaxing the girl out of her silent gloom. As their train cuts slowly across thousands of miles of a wintry Russia, where “everything is in motion, snow, water, air, trees, clouds, wind, cities, villages, people and thoughts,” a grudging kind of companionship grows between the two inhabitants of Compartment No. 6. When they finally arrive in Ulan Bator, a series of starlit and sinister encounters bring this incantatory story about a ruined but beautiful country to its powerful conclusion.

Compartment no. 6 is a fantastic novel about travelling – the odd kinship formed between complete strangers – and about Soviet Russia. It begins with the boarding of the Trans-Siberian train, in which a young Finnish student finds herself sharing a train compartment with a boorish Russian construction worker. The girl is looking for an escape from her current situation, because she feels trapped and unable to make up her mind about her relationship with a young man she cares for. Hoping to enjoy the peace and quiet of the Siberian nature and to shut herself from the world, she is, however, forced to come into contact with the brazen, oversharing comrade.

The beauty of the novel lies in the way in which it describes movement. Liksom’s writing is so vivid and compelling that I could almost see the landscape flashing in the train window with my very own eyes – all from the comfort of my comfy couch and centrally heated apartment. I guess it is no wonder that Liksom chose to set the novel during the freezing winter season, as it emphasises the desperation to live and the yearning to die inherent in the nation. The apathy and passion, the poverty and garish luxury – the Soviet Union drawn in Compartment no. 6 is full of contradictions. Even the most despicable travel companion somehow becomes endearing in closed confinement.

Although the many of the details have faded away in the months after reading this novel, Compartment no. 6 is one that still occasionally comes back to haunt me. Although at first it might seem slightly underwhelming in action, the novel leaves a lasting impression. The rhythm of the narration, the pulse of the train on the tracks, feels alive, and the depiction of Soviet Russia as both abhorrent and intriguing is almost loving. There is much to despise in the swearing, uneducated, misogynic male character, but yet there is also the hint of honesty and raw humanity that’s been stripped back to its basest form. So what is the novel really about? In my opinion it’s about two people, two worlds coming together in a closed space; the contact is unavoidable, and though the situation feels occasionally very claustrophobic, there is also much to learn by listening and opening up to these discussions.

I very much enjoyed Compartment no. 6, and I’m glad that it has been translated into several languages and thus has found (and hopefully charmed) readers across the world. If you do ever come across a copy of this book, I urge you to pick it up and read it. For such a short novel it provides fascinating insight to human relationships. I’d especially recommend this to readers who are planning to or have travelled the Trans-Siberian railway or are interested in Soviet fiction in general. If you want more convincing, I suggest you read also Sarah’s and Madame Bibi’s fantastic reviews.

4/5

An unknown Russia frozen in ice opens up ahead, the train speeds onward, shining stars etched against a tired sky, the train plunging into nature, into oppressive darkness lit by a cloudy, starless sky. Everything is in motion: snow, water, air, trees, clouds, wind, cities, villages, people, thoughts.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (Outlander #1)

outlander

EBOOK; 864 P.
DELL PUBLISHING CO., 1991
SOURCE: PURCHASED

The year is 1945. Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is just back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon when she walks through a standing stone in one of the ancient circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach—an “outlander”—in a Scotland torn by war and raiding border clans in the year of Our Lord…1743.

Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire is catapulted into the intrigues of lairds and spies that may threaten her life, and shatter her heart. For here James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, shows her a love so absolute that Claire becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire—and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.

TV and film adaptations truly have the power to pick-up backlist books and make the bestsellers again. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series has been enthralling readers since 1991, but I think it was only after the release of the trailer for the TV adaptation that the younger generation of readers became aware of it. In fact, Outlander is one in a long series of stories to take on new mediums of storytelling – The Song of Ice and Fire, The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, The Martian, Room. Although book lovers generally prefer to read the book before seeing the adaptation, it must be admitted that these films and TV series often encourage non-readers or casual readers to return to the realm of reading. And yes, I confess that I probably wouldn’t have read Outlander if I hadn’t watched the pilot episode and got invested in the story.

Outlander is a historical fiction novel that begins in 1945 when the protagonist of the novel, Claire, travels to the Scottish highlands with her husband Frank from whom she has long been separated due to war. The trip to Scotland ties together with Frank’s upcoming post as a history professor and his interest in tracking down his heritage. Claire, however, is using the trip to reacquaint herself with her husband and think about her future now that the war is over. Fate, however, has other plans for Claire: visiting one of the many historical sites, she touches a stone and falls 200 years back in time only to run into Frank’s great-great-great-great-great grandfather and there after taken by Scottish countrymen who are planning to rebel against the English rule. Lost in time, Claire tries to adapt herself into her new surroundings whilst looking for a way to return, but finds herself attached to a young Scottish stable lad.

Sounds like your everyday time-travel historical romance novel? Think again. Outlander is a confusing, surprising and conflicting book. The beginning of the story introduces the characters, the time period and the surroundings, and in my opinion it was the point in the story that I enjoyed the most; I can definitely see why so many people have fallen in love with this book. I gobbled several hundred pages in just a few days. However, after the excitement of the new situation started to wear off, the book began to fall apart. The main focus suddenly shifts to the sexual tension between the two main characters which escalates in a span of few chapters, and almost as a counterbalance to all the romance, the book get violent – assault, rape, murder, torture, trauma, you name it. Violence itself doesn’t turn me off a book, per se, except when it’s used for no apparent reason than just adding more pages to the story. I mean if you thought Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life was torture-porn, steer clear of Outlander!

Aside from the violence, what confused me in Outlander was the lack of an overarching storyline. Usually books have several storylines, but there tends to be always one that is stronger, more emphasised, and that carries throughout the novel. In Outlander, however, none of the storylines seem to stand out; it’s more like a series of storylines that sometimes overlap, but mostly stay separated from each other. Having grown used to the overarching type of stories, reading this book was both distracting and fresh. I found the story hard to grasp at times, and especially towards the end the book started to drag on and on without any indication of coming to an end.

All this being said, what I loved about Outlander was its take on heros and heroines. The book steers clear of some of the most common tropes of the genre and doesn’t shy away from the cultural clashes between gender roles in different time periods. The book also takes acknowledges the aspects of both physical as well as psychological healing. Overall, I’m sad to say that Outlander wasn’t my cup of tea, and I don’t think I’ll be continuing on with the series. However, if you’re interested in historical fiction, Scotland and don’t mind violence or descriptions of sex, you might want to give this a try. I wouldn’t recommend this to younger readers, though, as it is rather graphic.

3/5

Seen without the suddenness of surprise, there was nothing frightening about the dead man; there never is. No matter how ugly the manner in which a man dies, it’s only the presence of a suffering human soul that is horrifying; once gone, what is left is only an object.

Have you read Outlander or watched the TV series, and if yes, what did you think of it? I’d love to hear other opinions on this book.

Review: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (Cormoran Strike #2)

EBOOK; 455 P.
SPHERE, 2014
SOURCE: PURCHASED

When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, she just thinks he has gone off by himself for a few days – as he has done before – and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home.

But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine’s disappearance than his wife realises. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were published it would ruin lives – so there are a lot of people who might want to silence him.

And when Quine is found brutally murdered in bizarre circumstances, it becomes a race against time to understand the motivation of a ruthless killer, a killer unlike any he has encountered before…

I read the first book in the Cormoran Strike series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, two years ago during summer holidays. Although the book didn’t altogether blow my mind – with JK Rowling the expectations run higher than usual –, it turned out to be an exciting and fun summer read. However, continuing the series was pushed back as I was soon after slightly spoiled about the events in The Silkworm and needed some time to erase the information from my memory. In the end summer arrived once again with a short vacation at the summer cottage and upon choosing the books to take with me, I decided to purchase The Silkworm for my Kindle and see where the story would go (and whether it would improve).

Whereas The Cuckoo’s Calling centered around fame and celebrity culture, The Silkworm focuses on the publishing circles of London. Like many other readers I, too, am fascinated by stories – fiction or non-fiction – set in the world of books, which is why I was super intrigued to see how the story and the plot would plan out. The story begins when private detective Cormoran Strike is alerted about a missing author Owen Quine. Right before his disappearance Quine had sent several people a copy of his manuscript that throws strong accusations about several leading figures in the publishing world. The circumstances around the authors disappearance are murky and it seems no one has a nice word to say about the missing author.

The Silkworm is an enjoyable detective novel. It’s great in the sense that it makes you want to read until the end to find out who did it – a perfect read that will keep you entertained for a day or two – and it doesn’t give clues too easily. However, looking back at the reading experience it’s apparent that the book failed to leave a lasting impression – I had to look up several things while writing this blog post. The most exciting thing about this novel was the publishing world setting, but other than that, I found my interest slipping. I guess it might be just me, but I found neither the plot nor the characters particularly gripping. Aside from the mystery itself, the novel focuses a lot on Cormoran Strike’s assistant Robin and her struggles in balancing work and relationship. This could have been interesting in itself, but in the end it felt that the two plotlines of The Silkworm didn’t connect with each other – they were like two incomplete parts of two different books that had been sown together.

I don’t mean to say that The Silkworm is particularly bad novel, but it’s not exceptional either. All in all, the book left me a bit disappointed in the series as a whole. JK Rowling knows how to write and to craft realistic characters, so it’s always a pleasure to read her books, but I just don’t think she writes crime well. As a concept the Cormoran Strike series is an interesting one, but it just doesn’t seem like the one for me. Lucy from the Hard Book Habit struggled also with the first two books in the series, but based on her review things get more interesting in the third book. Hence I might try to read The Career of Evil over the summer (and continue to read the next books in the series for the sake of pop culture references). However, I’ll definitely stick to checking them out from the library instead of buying my own copies.

3/5

Review: Aniara by Harry Martinson

PAPERBACK; 188 P.
ALBERT BONNIERS FÖRLAG, 2004/1956
SOURCE: FROM THE LIBRARY

The great Swedish writer Harry Martinson published his masterpiece, Aniara, during the height of the Cold War – right after the Soviet Union announced that it had exploded the hydrogen bomb. Aniara is the story of a luxurious space ship, loaded with 8,000 evacuees, fleeing an Earth made uninhabitable by Man’s technological arrogance. A malfunction knocks the craft off course, taking these would-be Mars colonists on an irreversible journey into deep space. Aniara is a book of prophecy, a panoramic view of humanity’s possible fate. It has been translated into seven languages and adapted into a popular avant-garde opera.

Once upon a time, in a far far corner of a nice Irish pub I asked my reader friend to recommend me a good science fiction book (he’s an expert, you see). The response was immediate – Aniara by Harry Martinson –, so much so that at first I thought he making a joke. However, the name stuck in my mind and about a month later I checked the book out from the library. The only copy available in my local library was in Swedish, but I decided that it would have to do. I mean, how hard can it be to read about space travel in Swedish? (Answer: Hard, but so bloody worth it.)

Aniara begins with the launch of one of the gigantic ships that are transporting people from the no longer inhabitable Earth to Mars to begin a new life there. Unfortunately the evacuation flight gets pushed off track by a collision with an asteroid, and due to a technical error it can’t return back to its original course: the ship is lost in space, floating around with no hope of ever reaching its target. However, the technology of the ship allows its 8,000 passengers to continue to live luxuriously for several decades within the spacecraft. With no immediate danger, the people try to return to their normal lives by building their own society within the spaceship. Aniara is an exploration of the psychological side of life in a closed community: the ship’s inhabitants form their own microcosm of class divisions, religion and morality.

The epic of Aniara consist of 103 songs describing mostly the life and thoughts of an engineer running a machine called Mima that relieves the homesickness of the passengers by showing old images of the Earth. As Earth is the only main connection between the huge mass of people in the spacecraft, the machine is thought have mystic powers and its rooms in the ship come to serve as a church of some sort. Aniara show the human need to control fate as well as the horrors born from conflicts between different groups. As the flight of the ship progresses, the reader learns more about the reasons behind the destruction of Earth as well as the horrifying secrets behind the evacuation plan. Aniara is a tragedy and the heartbreakingly beautiful songs give the story a true feeling of a tale passed on from generation to generation.

I fell in love with Aniara from page one. Although the language made me jump through some hoops with the dictionary, the end result was fantastic and mind-blowing. The book’s themes of humanity, societies and international politics tick all the boxes for me and combined with the stunning poetry, it was clear that the book would become one of my favourite reads. Martinson won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1974 “for writings that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos” – although there were some controversy surrounding the process – and in my opinion he has definitely earned it. Unfortunately copies of the English translation are currently almost nonexistent (so I’m told). Some e-copies can, however, be found online, and then there’s always the library. I highly recommend this if you enjoy beautiful and tragic writing about societal issues and human psyche.

5/5

Protesting we were innocent, we sought
to reason without learned reference
and in the language most of them were taught
propound the barest modicum of sense.

But this same language, meant to clear up all,
grew murky for us too, a rigmarole
of words avoiding words and playing blind
amid the clarity of cosmic soul.

(trans. Stephen Klass & Leif Sjöberg)

Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

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EBOOK; 563 P.
ECCO, 2014
SOURCE: PURCHASED

”There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed . . .“

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office—leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella’s world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist—an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .

Johannes’ gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand—and fear—the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?

Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.

The Miniaturist was on everyone’s lips last year. It was the Waterstones’ Book of the Year and almost every book blogger under the sun read it – most of them also giving positive reviews. For me the year 2015 has been a real feast of historical fiction which means that a novel set in the 17th century Amsterdam with abundance of historically accurate details seemed like a right book to be read during the Christmas holidays. Moreover, I’ve been curious as to why this book, which has been called an international success, has not yet reached the shores of Finland. Usually these types of bestsellers appear in translation within year or so, but I haven’t yet heard that any of the Finnish publishers would have grabbed The Miniaturist. Perhaps it is “too Dutch”?

The story follows the 18-year-old Petronella (Nella for short) who has been married off to a wealthy Amsterdam merchant almost twice her age. Nella’s rosy notions of married life crash with the harsh reality as she finds herself stranded in her town house, accompanied only by her husband’s spinsterly sister, a gossiping maid named Cornelia and the mysterious dark-skinned manservant Otto. Instead of freedom and power, Nella feels trapped in her new home whose inhabitants seem to carry more that just a few chose secrets. Her husband appears to almost avoid his home, the sister is bundle of contradictions, and there’re steps and whispers in the corridors at night. The mystery of her new family is, however, heightened by the constant arrival of unsolicited parcels from the miniaturist Nella has commissioned to furnish her miniature house – these pieces are both surprisingly accurate and hauntingly foretelling.

Due to all the hype and positive reviews, I had high expectations going into this novel and, to be honest, they were not fully met. The narrative style of The Miniaturist is quite elusive, not so much navigating the murky waters of the mysterious household as simply giving a sense of the environment. Jessie Burton is a master in writing descriptions and many have praised her expertise in pulling the reader into the story. If you enjoy sensory writing, this is the book for you. I, unfortunately, never felt truly dazzled by the story’s magic. I could appreciate the writing, but in general I prefer well-structured and complex plots over fantastical writing. The plot of The Miniaturist is still a fascinating one, and once I got into the story, it was a very entertaining read with plenty of twists and turns. Overall, the book is a strong debut novel and I look forward to reading more of Burton’s work in the future. I would recommend the book to historical fiction lovers as well as readers who enjoy the Gothic side of mystery. However, if you don’t enjoy open-ended stories, you might want to give this one a miss.

3.5/5

Amsterdam: Where the pendulum swings from God to a guilder.

Review: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

PAPERBACK; 368 P.
PENGUIN BOOKS, 2013/1949
SOURCE: PURCHASED

Hidden away in the Record Department of the sprawling Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith skilfully rewrites the past to suit the needs of the Party. Yet he inwardly rebels against the totalitarian world he lives in, which demands absolute obedience and controls him through the all-seeing telescreens and the watchful eye of Big Brother, symbolic head of the Party. In his longing for truth and liberty, Smith begins a secret love affair with a fellow-worker Julia, but soon discovers the true price of freedom is betrayal.

George Orwell became one of my favourite authors of last year as I read and absolutely loved Animal Farm. Sharing my love of Orwell, I quickly received several recommendations to read 1984 – the book that notoriously launched the concept of Big Brother. Despite my interest in reading more Orwell, it took me some time get around reading 1984. I bought my copy – the cleverly designed Penguin paperback – in January, read the first 50 pages in March before putting the book down, and eventually picked it up five months later. The book is not a particularly chunky or dull one, but in order to fully enjoy it’s complexity, it definitely requires time and concentration – neither of which I had back in March.

The story of 1984 centers around a young-ish man, Winston Smith, who works in the Ministry of Truth revising the history records to match the current ideology. The political system in power is called English Socialism – IngSoc in Newspeak– and it’s run by the omnious, never-seen-but-always-present Big Brother. The society at large controls every action of the lives of its members from exercising to family planning, focusing on eliminating all actions that go against the current regime. Even expressing wrong kinds of thoughts is considered a crime. Winston just is a plain cog in the system, but he nevertheless feels nerved by the constant controlling. His nightmares consist of distant memories, but he doesn’t understand how things came to be as they are.

1984 is utterly brilliant, cynical, astonishing and truly mind-boggling. If you have the energy to let your imagination run wild with the concepts that Orwell presents in this book, the end results are both rewarding and frightening. Orwell’s dystopia is poignant even today, which is quite a feat considering how much the world has changed since 1940s. I am in awe of George Orwell for creating such a meticulous but yet completely comprehensible system of government, and the way with which he constructed this novel. It is a classic for a reason. Although the novel’s central themes are censorship and restricting individuality, my favourite part of the novel were the passages from “The Book” – but maybe that’s just the Political Studies student in me. As a language student, the linguistic aspect of the story was also fascinating; how controlling the language that we use can also shift how we think and act. Also, to which point can you simplify language?

The story of 1984 is not among the most action-packed ones, but the slow build-up truly packs a punch in the end. It’s a thought-provoking noveI like no other. I think I can now confidently say that Orwell is one of my favourite authors of all time. However, I must admit that I still prefer Animal Farm over 1984. I highly recommended 1984 to all citizens of the planet Earth, especially those who enjoy dystopian literature.

5/5

War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.

Review: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

PAPERBACK; 367 P.
PENGUIN CLASSICS, 1994/1859
SOURCE: PURCHASED

From Goodreads:

It was the time of the French Revolution — a time of great change and great danger. It was a time when injustice was met by a lust for vengeance, and rarely was a distinction made between the innocent and the guilty. Against this tumultuous historical backdrop, Dickens’ great story of unsurpassed adventure and courage unfolds.
Unjustly imprisoned for 18 years in the Bastille, Dr. Alexandre Manette is reunited with his daughter, Lucie, and safely transported from France to England. It would seem that they could take up the threads of their lives in peace. As fate would have it though, the pair are summoned to the Old Bailey to testify against a young Frenchman — Charles Darnay — falsely accused of treason. Strangely enough, Darnay bears an uncanny resemblance to another man in the courtroom, the dissolute lawyer’s clerk Sydney Carton. It is a coincidence that plays a vital role as the story unfolds. Brilliantly plotted, A Tale of Two Cities is rich in drama, romance, and heroics that culminate in a daring prison escape in the shadow of the guillotine.

Aside from Jane Austen’s Pride and PrejudiceA Tale of Two Cities has one of the most quoted first sentences:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

And if you’ve read the book, you know that the ending is no less memorable. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves! Charles Dickens is one of my favourite authors and before starting this book blog, I had read Little Dorrit, Nicholas Nickelby and Bleak House. I try to read at least one of his novel a year and last year it was A Christmas Carol. A Tale of Two Cities might not be considered as Dickens’ most renowned novel, but it’s definitely one of the most popular ones. The combination of history, excitement, and beautiful prose also make it very readable.

A Tale of Two Cities begins with an journey from London to Paris where an old man, Dr. Manette, is reunited with his daughter Lucie. This reunion is arranged by Mr. Lorry, a gentleman of the Bank, but during their return to London the group becomes unknowingly involved in the fate of a young Frenchman, Charles Darnay. As the father and daughter are set to testify against the treason accusation against Mr. Darnay, the connection is once again refreshed and gradually develops into friendship. However, a deeper, hidden connection lies between the old man’s unjust imprisonment and the young man. In the meanwhile, the air of Paris is simmering with discontent as the poor are grow hungry. The spark of a revolution is relatively easy to ignite, but like fire, it cannot always be contained.

First of all, I have to gush about the way Dickens manipulates language in A Tale of Two Cities. It is amazing, wonderful, sublime, enticing, comforting, harrowing and riotous. I’ve usually considered Dickens to be more of a plot- and character-based writer whose forte is characterisation. However, this time I was almost instantly enthralled by the language of the novel. I don’t know if it’s a specific aspect of A Tale of Two Cities or if I’ve just grown more attune to beautiful writing, but the way the sentences flow and the imagery is presented just stunned me. The story itself is also fascinating as it gave me new insight to the French Revolution, and I think Dickens’ intention was partly to remind people that despite the beautiful ideals behind the Revolution – Liberté, égalité, fraternité –, the revolution itself involved lots of violence and cruelty from both sides. A Tale of Two Cities is said to be one of Dickens’ more depressing novels, and its portrayal of cruelty is oddly juxtaposed by the stunning use of language; similar juxtaposing is present in the first sentence of the novel. This balance – or should I say imbalance – only occurred to me only after I had finished the book, but it’s made me view the novel in a new light.

I believe A Tale of Two Cities is/has been mandatory reading for many, but if you haven’t read it, I’d highly suggest you do so. It’s also one of Dickens’ most accessible novels, making it a great place to start with him (another one being A Christmas Carol). Also recommended to people who want to know more about the French Revolution. A Tale of Two Cities has beautiful language, historical interest, and a mixture of mystery, romance, and comedy à la Charles Dickens. It’s now one of my favourites.

5/5 

Waste forces within him, and a desert all around, this man stood still on his way across a silent terrace, and saw for a moment, lying in the wilderness before him, a mirage of honourable ambition, self-denial, and perseverance. In the fair city of this vision, there were airy galleries from which the loves and graces looked upon him, gardens in which the fruits of life hung ripening, waters of Hope that sparkled in his sight. A moment, and it was gone.

What Edith Södergran taught me about reading poetry

PAPERBACK; 361 P.
SLS, 2014/1990
SOURCE: PURCHASED

I was contemplating on following my typical format of book reviews for this bind-up of all Edith Södergran’s works until I realised that I had no idea what to write. I cannot summarise the plot, for there are too many; I cannot compare Södergran to other poets, for I haven’t read many; and I most certainly cannot pretend to understand what the poems are “really about”. Instead I offer you my scrambled thoughts on reading – or at least trying to read – Edith Södergran’s poetry.

Edith Södergran (1892–1923) is considered to be one of the greatest poets of Finland. Similarly to the creator of Moomin series Tove Jansson, Edith Södergran was Finnish-Swedish and wrote all of her poems in Swedish. However, Södergran was educated in a German school and read both German and French, which gave her access to the literature of the time and partly contributed to Södergran being one of the first modernist poets in Finland – as a movement, modernism became more prevalent in Finnish literature in 1950s. Especially remembered from her post-humous collection Landet som icke är (‘The Land that Does Not Exist’), Södergran is a name often referenced in the Finnish literary scene. My first encounter with Södergran’s poetry was the title poem of Landet som icke är printed in my high school textbook, which sparked an interest to read more of her works. Fast-forwarding several years to the end of last year, I came to realise that despite the fact that I was reading a variety of different genres, I didn’t really read different forms – and should give poetry a honest try. Thus when I came across this beautiful paperback bind-up of all Edith Södergran’s published and unpublished works (in Swedish, might I add), I knew where I wanted to start.

Now, some of you who are more seasoned poetry readers might be shaking your heads at this. Typical beginner’s mistake: I knew next to nothing about Edith Södergran, I wasn’t fluent in Swedish, and I didn’t realise that tackling a 350+ paged poetry collection wouldn’t be as easy as reading a novel of the same length. However, I was motivated to give it my best try and everything was working fine – for the first month or so. I started reading the bind-up in March and read the first two collections in few weeks –  often in bouts. My process would begin by reading the first ten poems with full-on concentration, re-reading the poems again and again until I got some sense out of them. Then, having spent a lot of energy on a few poems, I often ended up skim reading the next twenty or so until I found something that really spoke to me and hit me so hard I had to stop reading just to think about them. I savoured those poems, committing long passages into memory, and they also gave me the sense of gratification – I finally understood poetry! However, as March transitioned into April and then into May, I noticed that I didn’t look forward to the moments that I dedicated for poetry. Although I enjoyed most of the actual reading of the poetry, taking the steps to do so felt taxing.

Edith Södergran was one of the first poets that embraced modernism, aside from T.S. Eliot, and according to Tavern Books, her poetry shows influences also from French symbolism, German expressionism and Russian futurism. Except in her earlier poems, Södergran rarely uses rhyme schemes or other traditional poetry formats in her poems. Her poems move in the realms of fantasy, myths, and nature, and the latter is particularly prominent in all of her collections. Gosh, we Finns really do love to write about nature. Many have described Södergran’s poems as lovely daydreams, but for me, her best poems were those that dealt with our relationship with ourselves as well as how that self interacts with other people. It’s simply stunning. But confession time: most of the time I honestly didn’t know whether Södergran was really talking out flowers, or if it was just a metaphor. And that’s what hard about poetry – sometimes you really don’t know. With novels you often have several hundred pages of text from which you can try to deduce the intention of the writer, but with poetry you often have only one page. It’s seems that more than anything, poetry is about reading between the lines.

As I mentioned above, I read Södergran’s poems in the language that they were written, namely Swedish. This was because 1) the bind-up was only available in Swedish and because 2) I’ve been actively trying to read more fiction in Swedish in order to improve my skills in said language. However, I was wholly unprepared to the change in language that has happened between Swedish in 1920s and in today – the language of the twenties was almost greek to me. There were many times that I had to read a single poem again and again and hope to find a lead that would pull me in. Sometimes I found it, and sometimes I didn’t. All in all, it was a rather tiring process and reading in small bouts, it took me from March to mid-July to read through the entire bind-up. The few poems that completely won me over, however, made the struggle worth it and reaching the end of the book made me feel at least a tiny bit accomplished. And what did I learn from this? Don’t read poetry in a language that you don’t fully master, unless you’re intentionally studying it – the sense of enjoyment will diminish every time you reach for the dictionary.

I hope I haven’t scared all of you off by now, because despite my struggles with poetry, I still think that Edith Södergran was on to something great. If you’re interested in modernism, feminist poetry, or Finnish authors, here are few places where you can read Södergran in English. For starters, Edith Södergran has her own Poetry Foundation page, which features five of her poems. Translator David McDuff has translated two books of Södergran’s poetry – her debut collection Poems (1916) and an edition called Complete Poems – but you can also read some of his translations online at http://englishings.com/nvinprint/sodergran-poems-1916.html. From Goodreads I spotted Stina Katchadourian’s translation Love and Solitude: Selected Poems, 1916–1923 and On Foot I Wandered Trough the Solar Systems, translated by Malena Morling and Jonas Ellenstrom. The most recent collection is We Women, which is translated by Samuel Charters and was published by Tavern Books in 2015.

As for the future of my poetry reading, I will continue to persevere for those small ‘heureka’ moments and hopefully one day I can return to Södergran with much more understanding of the language that she speaks.

Vierge Moderne (tr. David McDuff)
I am not a woman. I am a neuter.
I am a child, a page and a bold resolve,
I am a laughing stripe of a scarlet sun…
I am a net for all greedy fish,
I am a toast to the glory of all women,
I am a step towards hazard and ruin,
I am a leap into freedom and self …
I am the whisper of blood in the ear of the man,
I am the soul’s ague, the longing and refusal of the flesh,
I am an entrance sign to new paradises.
I am a flame, searching and brazen,
I am water, deep but daring up to the knee,
I am fire and water in free and loyal union …