Thursday, October 24, 2013


I read a short story by Haruki Murakami called Samsa in Love that appeared in the New Yorker yesterday. It tells the story of Gregor Samsa who wakes up one morning and finds to his surprise that he has turned into a human. Everything feels odd to him. His body has become soft, he finds it difficult to walk with only two legs, and dressing up is impossible because he doesn’t know how to use his hands. He has no idea how he has got that way – the house is empty, abandoned in the middle of breakfast, so he can’t ask anyone. He isn’t completely ignorant. He understands that he is human and he rues that he hasn’t been turned into a fish or a sunflower. He is afraid of birds. All these worries he will put behind, though, when a locksmith arrives in the form of a hunchbacked girl and, as the title suggests, Gregor falls in love. The end is very hopeful, even though there is a hint of a war brewing.

Kafka: Metamorphosis
It’s a wonderful story and a great homage to Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1915). That, of course, tells the opposite story. Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman, wakes up one morning to find that he has turned into a giant insect. He doesn’t question how it could have happened, nor is any explanation given. He is abhorrent to his family who doesn’t understand that he has retained some of his humanity despite his looks. Little by little, though, he begins to deteriorate and becomes more insect-like. Eventually, the family can’t take it any longer and – dutifully – Gregor dies. The end is very hopeful in this story too; his parents and sister who had relied solely on Gregor’s income have learned to take care of themselves, and it’s possible that Gregor’s sister, Greta, might see herself married one day.

I’ve had to read Metamorphosis twice before; first at school and the second time at the university. On both times, it was important to learn how to analyse a novel, to identify its climax and turning point, and its motives and themes. Thus pressured, it was difficult to simply read and enjoy the story. Not much of it had remained with me either.

Inspired by Samsa in Love, I read Metamorphosis today and enjoyed it very much. I didn’t give a thought for novel analysis. Instead, I tried to identify some of the details Murakami had used in his story. Gregor’s family send for a locksmith at the beginning of Kafka’s story that then isn’t needed; that the locksmith arrives in Samsa in Love could suggest it takes place right after Gregor has first turned to an insect. Maybe the family has abandoned the house in horror having discovered the transformation that is then reversed in their absence.

Samsa in Love could take place after Gregor’s death too. At the end of Kafka’s story, the family leaves the house for a day of fun, ignoring their cleaning lady’s amused announcement that the creature has been taken care of. Maybe she had noticed that Gregor had turned back to human. Gregor in Murakami’s story seems used to being an insect so perhaps he had been that way for a long time already.

Both stories are great. Murakami’s language is fresher and his expressions are more forward, but Kafka’s story isn’t in any way hampered with the old-fashioned tone. Both are worth reading. Kafka has endured for almost a century already; only time will tell if Murakami’s homage has similar staying power.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Girlhood classic

I’ve shared quite a few memories of my favourite girlhood books, but I’m not nearly done yet. Today’s post is inspired by my visit to a book fair a couple of weeks ago. As I wrote earlier, I like to hunt for treasures in the used books' hall there. I found a few wonderful books this time, too, that I didn’t even know I wanted until they were there.

One great find was a 1950 edition of An Old-fashioned Girl by Louisa M. Alcott (1869). It doesn’t have a cover image – it has perhaps had a dust jacket at some point, now gone – and the gilded letters on its red spine have worn off, but that doesn’t matter. It looks and smells just like an old book should. I instantly knew I had to have it so I bought it. And unlike so many impulse buys on fairs, I haven’t regretted buying it and I know I won’t.

An Old-fashioned Girl tells the story of fourteen-year-old Polly Milton, a country girl who comes to visit her cousin Fanny Shaw in town. I’m not entirely sure where; the town is not named, but I think it’s somewhere on the US east coast. Boston, perhaps. The first part of the story consists mostly of incidents where Polly’s country manners clash with those more fashionable of Fanny and her friends. Polly is often tempted to have what they have, but whenever she succumbs she usually learns a lesson on the virtue of simpler lifestyle; many times she teaches that lesson to others too. The latter part of the book returns Polly to the same town as an adult. The Shaw family loses their fortune and Polly has a chance to help them to live a simpler, happier life. She finds her love, too, in the form of Tom Shaw, Fanny’s brother, a former wild boy who has grown into a decent man.

I loved the book and read it many times. When I was younger, I was moved by Polly’s struggles among the mean rich girls. I was particularly taken with the story of bronze shoes the peer pressure makes her buy but then can’t enjoy because she can’t afford to buy Christmas presents for her family. When I was older, it was the romance that I enjoyed most, the misunderstandings and broken hearts.

An Old-fashioned Girl is one of those books that teach you without being preachy. I learned that it was better to be poor and good than rich and mean, and that a suitable suitor needs more than good looks and addresses. They’re not exactly life lessons I’ve needed to live by, but they have stayed with me all these years.

I haven’t read the book in ages, and I’m not sure I’ll read it now that I have it on my shelf. But it’s a book that makes me happy to know that I have. Who knows, the mood might strike me for something sweet and good-natured. Something old-fashioned. Then I’ll know exactly what to read.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Honouring the national literature

October 10th is the Aleksis Kivi Day in Finland. Kivi (1834-1872) was the first Finnish novelist to write in Finnish, which earns him the title of the National Author. Until him, Finnish was regarded inferior and unsuitable language for literature; the cultural elite came from the Swedish-speaking minority so the earlier Finnish literature is written in Swedish.

Seven Brothers (1870, Seitsemän veljestä in Finnish), the book that transformed Finnish literature, is his only novel; the body of his work consists of plays and poems. It’s the only work of his that I’ve read too, and I didn’t read it voluntarily. It was part of the school curriculum and, like all schoolwork, felt like a chore. I didn’t think I needed to read it anyway, because I knew what the book was about, having had seen at least two stage productions and a TV-series based on it.

In the end, I’m glad that I didn’t take the easy way out, because it’s a good book. For such a momentous book in Finnish history, it’s easy to read too, both fun and poignant. As the name reveals, it tells a story of seven brothers who live simple life in their country village, farming their land, minding their business. However, the modern world disrupts their lives in the form of the church and its demand the brothers learn to read if they want to be part of the society – especially if they want to marry. It doesn’t go well and, thoroughly incised, the brothers flee in the middle of an untouched forest – there were a lot of those still left in Finland – to start a new life unharrassed by demands they couldn’t meet. Eventually, though, civilisation wins and the brothers return home and become well-respected members of their society.

It’s a story about the transformation of the society that happened in Finland during the 19th century. The brothers represent the old, rural world. Simpler world. That doesn’t mean the brothers are simple or that the book is. Each brother views the world in their unique way and watching it through their eyes offers a lot to a modern reader. Especially their views about nature and living in harmony with it would be understandable today too.

We had to pick a favourite brother and write a report on him. Mine was Lauri, a unique thinker and an artistic soul. He must have felt like a kindred spirit, an introvert like me. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what I wrote. I got a good grade, though, and we all know that’s what counts. Right?

I haven’t picked the book since, but I’ve seen some productions on TV and read a children’s picture book version of it quite a few times. None of these diminish the value of the original. They add to it. It is, quite simply, a well-loved piece of our literature and will mostly likely remain so too.

Seven Brothers is available in English, but I havent seen the translation and cant tell if its any good. However, I found this video of some summer theatre production of the play based on the book. Its in Finnish, but for some reason it manages to convey a lot about the spirit of the book, the wildness of the brothers especially. The scenes arent in any particular order, theyre just glimpses into the play.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Treasure hunting

The annual book fair is in town this weekend, a huge event I try to visit every year. Bookstores, various culture organisations, and many authors gather there in a wonderful chaos. In addition to new books, the fair always has one large hall that is dedicated to second hand books. Probably every single second hand book shop in the country brings their inventory there. It feels like that anyway.

Every year, I start from the used books hall. The books there are always more interesting than in the other halls where the chain bookstores bring the latest bestsellers – all of them the same ones. I find the atmosphere in that hall more suitable to my temperament too. But it’s an exhausting and overwhelming task to go through the thousands of books, hoping to find one or two that I like, even if I skip the wares of vendors who specialise in books that I’m not interested in. After a while, I’m unable to see the individual books, they just become a colourful blur of spines. 

So I’ve come up with a system. Before I start, I decide on a book that I will hunt. Searching for a special book makes the experience more fun and the task easier, on top of which comes the joy of success, should I happen to find what I want. Also, it prevents me from buying too many books on a whim. An important factor too.

For many years, I had the same book that I looked for, but never found: What Katy did at school by Susan Coolidge (1873). It’s the second book in Coolidge’s Katy series about the Carr family and especially the eldest daughter Katy, five books in all.

Susan Coolidge: What Katy did at school
I loved the series when I was a child and read the books over and over again. I lived through the ups and downs of Katy’s life – her severe injury followed by a miraculous recovery, her time at an all girls’ school, her trip to Europe where she eventually found her happily ever after, and the lives of her sisters as settlers in the Midwest. The books were slightly preachy; I could see that even as a child, but I didn’t care. 

I was past the age of reading the series when I began to collect it. I found the first book in a second hand shop, a 1948 translated edition. The rest I bought as a facsimile of that edition some years later. But the second book in the series was sold out. 

Curiously, the book turned out to be difficult to find, providing me with the excitement of the hunt for years. I occasionally ran into other books in the series, but never that one. It always puzzled me, because I didn’t think it was such a rare book. There had even been that facsimile edition.

Last year, my long hunt came to an end. I finally found the book. It was more expensive than I thought it would be – in general, the second hand books have become pricier at the fair – but I had hunted it for so long that I absolutely had to buy it. And it was a 1948 edition instead of the reprint so I decided it was worth it.

My exiting hunt was over. However, it means that for the first time in years, I don’t have a special book to look for when I go to the fair. I’ve decided to take it as a challenge. It might be fun too. I will keep my eyes open for something new, for different treasures. I’m sure I’ll find a nice book or two to rehome. Who knows, maybe I’ll find a beginning of a new collection there too, that will keep the hunt going for years.