Of the literature from all the Nordic countries, Finland may be the region that English-language readers tend to know the least about. To be sure, most readers in the U.S. have encountered (or at least have heard about) the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle series and Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Even Icelandic Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness gained popularity here in the 1950s and 1960s, with first editions of his 1934 novel Independent People now highly collectible. And don’t get us started on the global fame of Danish fiction writers such as Hans Christian Andersen and Isak Dinesen. But what about writers and novels from Finland? We have a couple of recommendations to get you started.
Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book (1972)
If you’ve heard of Tove Jansson, it’s probably because of the Moomin books. What are the Moomins? You might remember them as a series of comic strip characters that live in a fictional, fantasy Moomin world and sort of look like hippopotamuses. Jansson created the characters largely for children, and there’s even a theme park in Naantali, Finland—Moomin World—dedicated to them. But Tove Jansson also wrote books for adult readers. Our favorite of the 10 novels she wrote is The Summer Book (Sommarboken, 1972).
Jansson was born in Helsinki, Finland in 1914 and the literary rumor is that she lived much of her life “alone on a small island in the Gulf of Finland, where most of her books were written,” according to an article* in The Guardian. In actuality, the article explains, Jansson lived much of her adult life with her “lifelong partner, the artist and professor Tuulikki Pietilä,” and many of their early winters were spent back in Helsinki. The Summer Book isn’t a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it’s a series of chapters that read largely as fragmentary vignettes. As The Guardian described the text, “Jansson’s brilliance is to create a narrative that seems, at least, to have no forward motion, to exist in lit moments, gleaming dark moments, like lights on a string, each chapter its own beautifully constructed, random-seeming, complete story.”
If you’re interested in picking up a copy of The Summer Book, it was recently re-released by New York Review Books.
Väinö Linna’s Unknown Soldiers (1954)
If you’re interested in a World War II novel that brings you into Finland, this is your book. Väinö Linna’s Unknown Soldiers [Tuntematon sotilas] (1954) traces a large cast of characters, many of whom previously fought in the Winter War from 1939-1940. The novel is violent and brutal, depicting the ferocity of war on a large scale. At the same time, however, it feels local and comfortingly small at moments. For instance, the first character we’re introduced to, Mäkinen, “was a bit hesitant, at first” to fight. The narrative goes on:
“What was his relationship to the great tides of world history, ripples of which had reached his ears one way or another? Adolf was raising a ruckus. That much he knew. And he knew what a ruckus would mean, too. It had already happened, at the dances, that some ‘chest-beater’ would climb up onto a chair, yank the lamps from the ceiling, and roar, ‘Everybody out, goddamn it!’ Finns are fierce—and we didn’t start this. It’s our right. That was just what Mäkinen thought as well.”
Since its original publication in Finland in 1954, the novel has sold more than 700,000 copies, according to an article** in The Herald. The most recent translation was published just last year, with a new translation by Liesl Yamaguchi.
There are many more books on Finland that are well worth exploring, but we can’t fit them all into one short article. If you’re looking for more, we recommend moving onto Juhani Aho’s works, one of which was adapted for the screen by Finnish filmmaking sensation Aki Kaurismäki. And if you still haven’t had enough, you might just need to become a translator yourself—many works of Finnish literature have yet to be translated into English. Happy reading!