Creativity cannot be quantified, says Finlandia Prize-winner Bo Carpelan
By Irma Stenbäck
"I don't belong to anybody, and I belong to everybody. You were here before you stepped in, and you will stay here even when you have gone."
The quotation is from the front pages of Bo Carpelan's novel Berg ("Mountain"), which is translated into Finnish under the title Kesän varjot ("Shadows of Summer").
Carpelan, for his part, borrowed the sentences from the French Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot who wrote them in his 1773 comic novel Jaques le fataliste.
The main character of the novel is an incurable fatalist.
Carpelan, 79, is currently the best-known Swedish-language writer in Finland, and really does belong to everyone. There is surely no other Finnish writer who has won so much praise, whose career has lasted six decades, and whose creativity keeps moving on.
"Writing, telling stories, must be a joy. If it is, it can be a joy for the reader as well", Carpelan points out.
The double-Finlandia Prize winner can well be compared with the radical Diderot, an encyclopedist, who had a command of the entire general knowledge of the time, in addition to his writings in philosophy, criticism of art, drama, and novels.
Brought up in a culturally conscious Swedish-language home, Carpelan says that he discovered the world of books when he was nine years old. "I marched into the library on Rikhardinkatu and I am still on that trip. One grows to become a writer by reading books written by colleagues."
Before becoming a free-lance writer, the bookworm and Helsinki intellectual studied literature, philosophy, history, and psychology. His first collection of poems, Som en dunkel värme ("Like a Dim Heat") was published in 1946, in the same year that Carpelan began his library career with a job putting books on shelves.
After his first collection, books started coming out almost every year: poetry, prose, children's books, young people's novels, collections of stories, translations, criticism. As a man of music, Carpelan also wrote the libretto to Erik Bergman's opera Det sjungande trädet ("The Singing Tree").
From his first job stocking shelves at the Rikhardinkatu library, Carpelan advanced to become deputy director of the Helsinki City Library, a position that he held until 1980. In addition to his work, his writing, and setting up a family, Carpelan wrote his doctoral thesis in 1960 on the poetry of Gunnar Björling.
Well! It is not possible to avoid mentioning Carpelan's unique ability to win one prize after another. He has won more than 20 awards. The Finnish State Literature Prize has come in 1967, 1972, 1978, and 1989. He won the literature prize of the Nordic Council in 1977, the State Translator's Prize in 1985, the Nordic Prize of the Academy of Sweden in 1997, and now, he has won his second Finlandia Prize.
Carpelan is fully bilingual, and an ideal interviewee. He is never at a loss for words, or patience, even though the man has been interviewed hundreds of times. He has praised the Rikhardinkatu library hundreds of times: without that institution, this discussion would not have taken place.
"Reading is one of life's greatest pleasures. Nowadays, I only read good books!"
Carpelan finds good books especially among the Russian classics: Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. "When I was young I liked the profound Dostoevsky, but no longer. His texts are stale, dark, and the doors are closed. I prefer Tolstoy, who has a wide perspective. The novels of Chekhov are insuperable."
A critical reader, Carpelan enjoys re-reading James Joyce's Ulysses and Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks.
Age weighs on Carpelan's enthusiasm to read. He would like to read more modern prose, but he has to save some strength for other aspects of his life.
"I do not want to mention names of my colleagues, but Finnish literature is going through a period of splendour. We have some very good prose writers. Sweden has nothing comparable."
Carpelan has his own views on the so-called detective novel boom of Sweden and the Nordic Countries. "It seems to be enough to appear on television, to be a 25-year-old blonde, and to write detective stories."
Well, Carpelan himself has also written on detective story, Vandrande skugga ("Wandering Shadow") in 1978.
Although writing remains a joy for Carpelan, the joy does not come for free.
His latest novel, the prize-winning Berg, was written five times. His self-criticism has grown with age. In Carpelan's theory of art, the image has always been very important. "My writing has the picture as its starting point. I see everything as pictures, even my memories."
Literature critic Pekka Tarkka saw in Carpelan's novel Urwind as "camera shots of an author's soul", and in Berg, he said "Carpelan's pen is his camera".
What about now? How does it feel to have a second Finlandia Prize?
"It is a heavy burden. Again, the same Finlandia carousel. Creativity cannot be measured. I tell everyone, that with the prize money I plan to buy a castle in France and an oil tanker. They will help me get rich."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 9.12.2005
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Previously in HS International Edition:
Bo Carpelan first to win Finlandia Literature Prize twice (9.12.2005)
IRMA STENBÄCK / Helsingin Sanomat