Sunday, July 10, 2011

Matti Suurpää: Parnasso 1951-2011 (a book)

Matti Suurpää: Parnasso 1951-2011. Kirjallisuuslehden kuusi vuosikymmentä [Parnasso 1951-2011. Six Decades of a Literary Magazine]. 559 pages. Helsinki: Otava 2011.

Parnasso, Finland's leading literary magazine, established in 1951, soon became a vehicle for young post-war modernist generations who wanted to distance themselves from the pre-war literary establishment. Edited by Kaarlo Marjanen (1951-1954), Lauri Viljanen (1954-1956), Aatos Ojala (1957-1958), Kai Laitinen (1958-1966), Tuomas Anhava (1966-1979), Juhani Salokannel (1980-1986), Jarkko Laine (1987-2002),  Juhana Rossi (2003-2004), and Jarmo Papinniemi (2005- ) it has been a forum for much of the best Finnish poetry, prose, and essay-writing.

Parnasso belonged to my personal favourite reading in the 1960s and the 1970s as soon as I was old enough to understand, and I studied also the back catalogue of the magazine avidly and time and again. Many of the volumes have lasting value. That was the time of the serious discovery of Japanese and Chinese literature in the Finnish language, among other things. Tuomas Anhava was probably the best editor ever in our land. The decades from the 1950s till the 1970s were ones of great discoveries in modern art and world culture. Since then, structures of the mass university have drained much of the best literary talent into the academic world, little known among the general culturally oriented audience.

The model of Parnasso was the great Swedish Bonniers Litterära Magasin (BLM) (1932-2004) which was discontinued because of lack of demand, but Parnasso is going strong with a circulation of some 7000, high by any international standard for an uncompromisingly serious cultural magazine.

The chronicle of Parnasso is an occasion to study profoundly Finnish and world cultural history in a turbulent age - the Cold War, the fall of the Wall, and the new age. Matti Suurpää rises to the occasion in the sturdy volume, which is also a page-turner. There are long lists and summaries, but they are never boring, and Suurpää never loses the big picture. In an age of extremes, Parnasso has represented a cool, sober, modernistic approach, while also serving as a forum for other approaches, also letting prominent cultural figures make big fools of themselves without editorial comment.

"Parody has become impossible: they do it themselves" is a famous quote from the poet Paavo Haavikko, and "They do it themselves" was for a while the headline for a section of juicy quotes in the magazine.

Parnasso has focused on literature, and the human condition has been confronted on a general level, as a concern of our way of living like there is no tomorrow.

Parnasso took cinema seriously from the beginning. Jerker A. Eriksson started to write about films for Parnasso in 1954, followed by Jouko Tyyri, Jaakko Ahokas, Risto Hannula, Matti Salo, Peter von Bagh, Olli Alho, Reijo Lehtonen, and Antti Selkokari. There had been good writing about the cinema from day 0 (the first press screening in Finland by the Lumière company in 1896) but in the 1950s cinema was finally consistently being studied with the same level of ambition as any other art.

Matti Suurpää explores many aspects of the success of Parnasso. I would like to add one more keyword: love - the love of good writing, of which Suurpää's book itself is a splendid example. I predict it will be a strong contender for the best Finnish non-fiction book of the year (the Tieto-Finlandia Award).

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