Monday, June 24, 2019

People in the Summer Night: An Epic Suite by Frans Eemil Sillanpää

Rural Finnish montage
Frans Eemil Sillanpää
Finnish author Frans Eemil Sillanpää won the 1939 Nobel Prize in Literature and is the only writer from his nation so far to have done so. As a result, he is quite beloved in his home country and even has an asteroid named after him. His work is little known among English-language readers, however, as translations are hard to come by. One work of Sillanpää’s that is available in English is his novel People in the Summer Night. Originally published in 1934, this work was published in English in 1966 by the University of Wisconsin Press as part of their Nordic Translation Series. Googling the series name will take you to the UW Libraries website, where all 11 books in the series, including this one, can be read online for free.

In People in the Summer Night, Sillanpää paints a vivid portrait of a community in rural Finland. A number of farms surround a lake, and the residents are equally apt to travel by boat, horse, or automobile. This picturesque landscape is populated by landowners, tenant farmers, and rafters floating timber to market. On summer weekends, city dwellers come to spend time with friends and family or simply to enjoy country life as tourists. During the summer months, Finland is far enough north that the sun never completely sets, and the strange midnight twilight lends a mysterious air to the goings-on in this region.

Sillanpää constructs the narrative in 48 short chapters. Despite the book’s relative brevity, it features a large ensemble cast of characters. The English edition begins with a list of characters, which is useful for telling everyone straight, particularly since Finnish names and their variations can be a bit confusing. The structure of the narrative is more of a montage than a linear story. Sillanpää frequently jumps back and forth between different characters, whose storylines sometimes intersect, like Balzac’s Comédie Humaine in miniature. It doesn’t always appear that the chapters are in chronological order either, as sometimes it seems one has to jump back in time an hour or two to pick up the thread of a story that was previously left hanging. This fragmentation of perspective brings a stylistic modernism to what is otherwise largely a naturalistic depiction of the environs and it inhabitants. Sillanpää’s prose shifts between beautifully poetic descriptions of nature and insightful glimpses into the psychology of his characters. The prose isn’t always easy to follow, but I suspect that may be due in part to the translation by Alan Blair.

The action of the novel takes place almost entirely within one summer night. Two young lovers from the city enjoy a burgeoning romance in the rural countryside. A pregnant woman goes into labor while her husband is absent from home. A marriage suffers from the brutish and abusive behavior of the husband. An artist rows the waters of the lake seeking inspiration. A stoic old charcoal burner plies his ancient craft. A farmer’s wife seeks solace in the company of another while her distant husband is away. A murder is foreshadowed. These are some of the intimate dramas that contribute to the collective history of this fictional rural community. Though the setting often seems idyllic, the plot rings true as authentic incidents of real life.

If People in the Summer Night is any indication, Sillanpää’s work deserves to be better known worldwide. As far as I know, only three of his books have been translated into English: Meek Heritage (1919, available at the Internet Archive), The Maid Silja (1931), and this one.

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