Thursday, December 3, 2009

Drunken genius, exposed.

36. Kilpikonna ja Olkimarsalkka by Tuula-Liina Varis ("The Turtle and the Straw Marshall")

First in the line of many books on the Finnish poet and national drunk treasure, Pentti Saarikoski, this time from the point of view of his ex-wife. One of them, that is.

I admit it: I have never read anything by Pentti Saarikoski, except by randomly encountering his poems or witty columns. I always see his name involved in translations of Greek classics, or modern American novels (such as The Catcher in the Rye).

Saarikoski was this romantic, bohemian hobo-like alcoholic who enjoyed an immense popularity in the Finnish writing scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Many myths of his alcoholism, womanizing and writing processes were created, and partly this book corresponds to them. Tuula-Liina Varis, Saarikoski's 2nd wife, writes a raw account of their 8 year relationship, which seems doomed from the beginning onward, mostly because of Saarikoski's narcissistic ways. The motivation for writing this book for Varis is thus cathartic: she has a chance to clear some issues and myths up, analyze her own behavior and reasons for being so infatuated with Saarikoski and tolerating his antics that would often seek to shame her (such as him appearing in a restaurant breakfast table from a hotel room, shoving a finger under Varis's nose and asking, "Can you smell cunt?"). Although their story is one that could really gorge on the alcoholism, the women, the shaming, and bring Saarikoski down as a terrible, terrible human being, somehow Varis manages to still create an image of Saarikoski that can be understood and even sympathized with. At the end, where Saarikoski comes to visit Varis and her husband in Finland, and dies during that trip, one can't but feel sorry for how a single person's life can go so wrong. There seemed to be nothing anyone could do. None of the wives turned out to be that Special Person who could cure Saarikoski from his alcoholism. Nobody could cure his narcissism but himself--and he flatly refused.
Reading the book gave me an image of Saarikoski which corresponds powerfully to a cliché, that of a light that burns bright for a moment, bringing meaning to many people's lives, and then burning out. I am now more interested in his poems than before, especially as Varis reveals that hardly any of them are metaphorical--usually they would just describe something in detail that they witnessed, but people thought the poems were deeper than what they actually were. Somehow this makes those poems even more interesting to me; his courage in writing what he actually sees instead of trying to hide it in layers of language.

37. Veljeni Pentti by Sirkka Garam ("My Brother Pentti")
Continuing in the realm of social porn…

So everyone wanted to write a book about Pentti Saarikoski, once he was gone. There was a lot to say about an abusive, supposedly genius man. So, his sister did not want to be left behind and published a book about how Pentti was before he became famous. Sirkka details the oddities of their family, such as the curious family publication which the family wrote as if it was a "real" newspaper, but which mainly talked about how the kids are doing in school. Pentti's literary talents became obvious in this endevour, as he began to mock his father and other family members in a fairly snooty manner on the pages of the family paper. Was a more passive-aggressive family communication method ever invented?
As for reading the book… I felt sorry for Sirkka. She keeps on bringing up how her brother told her to become an author as well, and she does not forget to remind the reader of this every now and then (while humbly saying that she was not quite as good as Pentti…), but just somehow life didn't play its cards that way for her... So the aftertaste of the book was similar to that of Salinger's daughter: the book was written by someone who tries to desperately get approval from a now-gone family member by trying their hand at the same art form.

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