Saturday, May 17, 2008

A Reader from Kokemäki

At the bottom of her blog post reviewing Pentinpeijaiset, CatharinaL adds a comment (in Finnish, my translation): "The book is part of my permanent collection, but is out on loan to Komentoora." Komentoora (in Kokemäki, near where I spent my first summer in Finland), wrote on March 10 "I'm looking forward to what this book has to offer with great interest. Thanks for the book to CatharinaL." Then, today, Komentoora posts a brief review:

Pentinpeijaiset is Douglas Robinson's debut novel about the life and work over three decades of the great Finnish poet and translator Pentti Saarikoski. Fact and fiction blur in the book: the raven, the bear, the spirits, the dreams, the wives, and the landscapes.

When the book came out in the fall of 2007 my first thought was, could anything new be said about Pentti Saarikoski, so gnawed to the bone did the subject seem. But Pentinpeijaiset was in fact surprisingly intelligent and funny. The author has truly familiarized himself with Finnish culture and literature and done a lot of background work for the book.

An excellent addition to the books about Saarikoski.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Christmas Reader

CatharinaL at Catharina's Journal was given my novel for Christmas, and posted an intelligent review of it on Christmas day. Here's my English translation:

Shoot, Pentti! or, the Transformations

I got the book as a present and started reading it immediately on Christmas Eve.

Robinson (1954-) has worked at the Universities of Jyväskylä and Tampere and published numerous books on translation theory and literary history. A familiarity with Saarikoski, Finland, and Finnishness is evident in the text. Translation and Saarikoski's life in various languages is the novel's central theme.

The work, which blends magic realism and literary biography, follows Pentti Saarikoski's life for three decades. Among the strands of fact and fiction gleaned from various sources are also unique layers of fantasy. A raven and bear follow Pentti through the various stages of his life. They stress his imagos at various ages and the seer's role he adopted during his final years. It would, however, be difficult to justify adding fictional characters to the otherwise biographical tale.

As a whole the book is very readable but problematic. The problematic aspects of the work would appear to be conscious creative choices. There are jeux d'esprit hidden in the details, in the shifting narrative voices and "spirit guides" and "adages for translators." On another level constant attention is given to problems of language and translation. Pentti's role as translator is emphasized at the expense of his poetry. The genre the author has chosen is nevertheless lightly chronological throughout. In the same way the themes of Saarikoski's works appear as passing flashes, elements of the fictional narrative. The life of this enfant terrible, who lived a legend, finally becomes a superficial legend in this novel.

The novel's form is collage-like. The edges and seams of quotations and fiction are not concealed. Thus the work contains both the basic legend and many quoted anecdotes. Saarikoski's life is recounted pretty much purely on the basis of biographies and memoirs. The reader who knows these sources well will recognize most of the novel. The forms of the chapters, for their part, vary with the big translations Saarikoski was working on, his wives, and his drinking. The canny Joyce chapter, for example, delves into the unfinished translation in Finnish and English. The technique the author uses does not so much deepen the characterization of Saarikoski as it does present transformations: the life of this media golden boy becomes text, pages, literary history. Thus the work constantly plays allusively with itself and its own genre.

The book was published by Avain; the cover was designed by Jussi Jääskeläinen. Minus visual points for the book's photographic tearsheet-like appearance and the imprecise text. There are some errors in the pages, too. On the famous trip to Greece the "metafora" text painted on the side of a truck has been typeset as 9+I!M?XA.

This fall was the 70th anniversary of Saarikoski's (1937-1983) birth.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Aamulehti Review

A review by Saara Kesävuori appeared in Aamulehti on Monday, December 10. It's not up on the Aamulehti website yet; I'll post the link here when it is. In the meantime, here it is in my English translation:

Saarikoski's Home was the Finnish Language

An author is faithful only to his or her mother tongue. Especially when he is Pentti Saarikoski.

Douglas Robinson’s (b. 1954) Pentinpeijaiset is an exhilarating biographical novel, because it avoids belaboring the obvious. The story, which runs from the fifties to the eighties, is based on actual events and Saarikoski’s own works, but Robinson throws in invented material from Agricola, Frank Zappa, and Heraclitus for spice.

Saarikoski’s internal interlocutors include Bear and Hipponax.

One of the novel’s narrators is Raven, who scrutinizes Saarikoski’s life from a distance. The meaning of that life consists of a love for language.

Over the years the wives change and the number of kids increases, but Saarikoski’s reality is not ordinary life but poetry.

The Translator as Bloodhound

Robinson’s mother tongue is English, but he has lived in Finland and translated Eeva-Liisa Manner and others into English.

Saarikoski’s work as a translator is interestingly illuminated against the backdrop of Robinson’s own work as a translator.

The translator sniffs out words in search of the best.

Both Robinson and Saarikoski have good noses.

In the sixties Saarikoski translated Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. In Pentinpeijaiset the chaotic translation process inspires carnal orgies.

Life and art merge. In addition to the translation, the result is a stay in a mental hospital.

Stylish Mixture

Saarikoski’s restless life is not glossed over in the novel, but Robinson refuses to build around Saarikoski’s alcoholism an inevitable poetic fate.

The work is a stylish mixture of the low and the high.

Especially noteworthy is the absence from the novel of an artificial closeness.

A fictional biography that tries to delve too deeply into its subject’s head begins to stink.

Pentinpeijaiset is a novel that spins out intellectual associations and trusts its reader’s understanding, and that despite its autobiographical nature shifts meaning from author to text.

Saara Kesävuori


The buzz over the book at the Helsinki Book Fair was pretty exciting. It was not just that it was a novel about Pentti Saarikoski; it was also that the novel had been written by an American, who was there and spoke fluent Finnish. I was interviewed for every major Finnish daily, including the Helsinki student paper, where Pentti first made a name for himself as the author of the "Nose" column. Here are some of the articles that resulted:

Johanna Vehkoo, Aamulehti
Antti Majander, Helsingin Sanomat
Sanni Purhonen, Ylioppilaslehti

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Kirjan kannet kiinni

This is close to the final cover for the novel:

Happy 70th Birthday, Pentti Saarikoski!

Pentti Saarikoski was born 70 years ago today in Impilahti, Finland--and died just over 24 years ago, on August 24, 1983. The novel (now titled Pentinpeijaiset) comes out this month--not today, as originally planned, but at least in the same month as his birthday. Problems with the translation made us miss the big day. We'll be maybe three weeks late.

Jarmo Papinniemi will be hosting a session at the Helsinki Book Fair on debut novelists--and I won't be included. See his blog post for discussion. I will however be one of the featured authors there, and will be one of the panelists, along with Saarikoski scholar Hannu Riikonen and Saarikoski's Estonian translator Piret Saluri, on a panel devoted to his work this fall of his 70th birthday.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Another translation

The novel is now being translated by Kimmo Lilja, who has rendered that first paragraph like this:

Kuljepa hetki hänen kanssaan, tämän Pentti Saarikosken, joka talsii Helsingin talvisia katuja parikymppisenä ja levottomana, kengänpohjat narsk narsk narskahdellen kovaksipakkautuneella, hiekantöhrimällä lumella, nenäkarvat ritiratisten pakkasilmassa, aamun kylmyys harteillaan kuin painovoima. Mikäli hän kuulee siipieni lepatuksen, hän ei näytä sitä eleelläkään. Hän on kävellyt kuudesta saakka, nyt kellon täytyy olla puoli kahdeksan, mutta päivästä ei tietoakaan. Hänen kummallakin puolellaan kohoavat kolmi- ja nelikerroksiset talot näyttävät kallistuvan kadulle päin ja kurkottelevan solan ylle katulaput johtokäsissään, ja lamput ryöpyttävät valokuvionsa harmaille ja ruskeille rapatuille seinille, ruskealaikkuisille kivijaloille ja portaikkoihin, joissa varjot lymyävät kuin salaliittolaiset vallankumousta juonimassa. Hän kulkee mieluummin sivukaduilla kuin valtaväylillä, ympärillään valaistuja asuinkerroksia ja niiden alapuolella vielä suljettujen kauppojen näyteikkunoita, joku satunnainen auto jyskyttämässä lumisilla nupukivillä, siellä täällä kuormuri, Sisu tai Scania, puoliksi jalkakäytävällä purkamassa lastiaan.

I love this guy's style! At first I wasn't sure about "Kuljepa hetki hänen kanssaan, tämän Pentti Saarikosken"--it seemed a bit precious--but it keeps growing on me. It's rhythmically better than "Kuljepa hetki Pentti Saarikosken kanssa," and it seems to have the effect of making "hän" upper-case, kulje HÄNEN kanssaan, as if he were some sort of deity. I also like "talsii" (Anne and I had no verb there at all), "narsk narsk narskahdellen," and "ritiratisten." I was worried that the translation would be too timid! Clearly that isn't going to be a problem with Kimmo Lilja ...

Also note that I said in my previous post that Finnish can't do the long paratactic lists of gerunds, but here is Kimmo Lilja doing exactly what I thought Finnish couldn't: "kengänpohjat narsk narsk narskahdellen kovaksipakkautuneella, hiekantöhrimällä lumella, nenäkarvat ritiratisten pakkasilmassa, aamun kylmyys harteillaan kuin painovoima." This is exactly what I was hoping for!