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Jörn Donner, Diktonius - ett liv (Diktonius - A Life)

Schildts förlag,  2007. ISBN: 9789515016942

Reviewed by Eric Dickens in SBR 2008:1

Also published in Sweden by Alfabeta Bokförlag, ISBN 9789150108477

Jörn Donner, himself a significant Finland-Swedish author and film expert, has written a biography of one of the more important Modernists that Finland has known: Elmer Diktonius (1896-1961). In the main, Donner sticks to the traditional chronological approach, but interposes many useful asides, ones that put the poet in a political, social and historical context, plus the odd flashback chapter.

Diktonius originally wanted to become a composer and did indeed compose a few published works, but his poetry (plus some prose) is what makes him worthy of a detailed biography. His earliest poems appeared in 1921 and describe his childhood. After long trips abroad at about that time (including Berlin, Moscow and Cornwall!) Diktonius wrote Communist Sturm und Drang poems, a style initially sparked off by his encounter in around 1915 with the Finnish revolutionary (and later one of Stalin’s henchmen) Otto Ville Kuusinen. Diktonius was, for a while, Kuusinen’s music teacher, although the latter was several years older.

Later, Diktonius settled down to a more thoughtful style of poetry; his poetic career spanned some thirty years. During the 1920s, Diktonius was associated with two short-lived but important literary magazines: Ultra and Quosego. In the 1930s he even wrote prose: some stories plus his only novel Janne Kubik. After mocking the somewhat aristocratic anti-Modernist poet Bertel Gripenberg in reviews, Diktonius later made peace with him. But in his heart he remained a Modernist and a man of the Left.

Donner quotes quite a lot from his poetry, also from letters to wives, friends and, not least, to and from a number of Swedish authors with whom he corresponded and whom he met on occasions: Artur Lundkvist, Gunnar Ekelöf and especially Eyvind Johnson.

Diktonius was bilingual in Swedish and Finnish, and to make ends meet he wrote copious numbers of book reviews in the Finnish and Swedish press. In the 1930s, people even wondered if a new Finnish-language poet was in the making. Although he translated some of his own work into Finnish, his collections were to remain written in Swedish.

Ideologically, it is clear that the poet moved from an early emotionally driven keenness on Communism, to a period when he supported the White side in the devastating Finnish civil conflict between Reds and Whites around the time of Finnish Independence in 1918. But by the mid-1930s, he was again a socialist and harboured a deep suspicion of the Nazism that was growing apace in Germany. Diktonius was not naïve – he also saw the dangers of Soviet Russia.

Elmer Diktonius’s private life was chaotic. He appeared to stumble from wife to mistress. The diminutive Diktonius appeared to have the same type of charisma with the ladies as did Bertolt Brecht, whom he met in Helsinki in 1940.

Diktonius was always short of money. Donner suggests that he may at times have been funded by Moscow, but he was ably helped out financially by publisher Axel Åhlström throughout the 1920s. Born in Helsinki, he lived modestly with his parents, and afterwards, in various towns in southern Finland, but later in life moved out to the more genteel Helsinki suburb Grankulla.

The Second World War was spent in various parts of Finland and he also worked as a half-hearted propagandist for his country. He was ill on and off during the war. Over in Sweden, Eyvind Johnson could not look upon Diktonius’s twists and turns with any sympathy. Johnson was no proponent of "the Third Way" between the Soviet Union and the West, which Diktonius was hinting at.

By the 1950s, Elmer Diktonius was burnt out. He was only in his mid-fifties by the time his future biographer Jörn Donner briefly met him, but was already a sad little old man with round shoulders. He spent the last four years of his life in hospital, no longer writing.

The biography is illustrated with photographs, woodcuts and book covers, some in colour.

Eric Dickens

Also by Jörn Donner

Other reviews by Eric Dickens

Other reviews in SBR 2008:1

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