By Saskia Vogel
Finland’s Philip Teir is a culture editor, anthologist and author who we hope to be reading in English soon. Teir’s much anticipated debut novel The Winter War: A Novel about Marriage, published today, is a tense, funny depiction of family, globalization and life’s little disappointments during a long, cold winter Helsinki winter when everyone, as Teir says, is drinking a little too much, freezing cold, and their moral compasses are drifting. We caught up on bilingual publishing in Finland, a global-minded middle class and a Kafka-esque attempt to write about fishing gear.
PP: You’ve edited anthologies, written short stories and poetry and you are the head of culture at Hufvudstadsbladet, as well as a critic. Have you always wanted to write literature, or were you a critic and journalist first?
Philip Teir: As a teenager, I had two big idols: Franz Kafka and Tove Jansson. In a way, they are each other’s opposites. The one writes absurd, small stories in claustrophobic milieus, without larger gallery of characters, the other writes about families, children and adults, about nature. When I had a summer job at a local newspaper after high school I was sent out to report on a new store that sold fishing equipment. I tried to write the article like a Kafka story. I didn’t know anything about journalism. Today, I see myself as a journalist first. Fiction is a significantly slower practice. But journalism is a good way to uncover the society that I, ultimately, also write about in fiction.
Is this multi-stranded literary and cultural engagement typical of authors in Finland?
Yes and no. It’s down to personality a bit, isn’t it? The journalistic approach is to do a little multi-tasking, do lots of things at the same time, to the let the subject determine which form the text takes. It could be fantastic to be an author full time, but I’d probably miss culture journalism, being part of that ongoing conversation. It’s also about supporting one’s self, to pay the rent. As part of the small Finland-Swedish minority, I feel it’s good to be active and set the bar high, to keep the cultural tradition going. I think one can compare Finland-Swedes with Icelanders. Many people engage in some form of cultural activity, many do more than one thing, and most of them know each other.
Finland is a bilingual country. Can you tell me a bit about the experience of being published in two languages in one country? And how you think your work differs in nuance, impact or meaning between the languages?
I haven’t seen the Finnish translation of my book yet, but it will be published at the same time as the Swedish edition in the autumn. This means that all the last-minute changes I do have to be sent to the Finnish translator simultaneously. My last book, a short story collection, was published in Finnish. I didn’t think it would feel that different to read it in Finnish, but it really was as if it were written by another author. But it was also a positive experience, to read your own book with fresh eyes, in a language you understand. It’s hard to say exactly what is different. Language affects the tone and mood, and that’s even more apparent in short stories. But some things actually work better in Finnish than in Swedish because, in spite of everything, the action takes place in Finland.
Does a bilingual publishing culture create a particular kind of reader? What do you see as the benefits and challenges of this publishing culture?
Not everyone in Finland reads in both languages. Finland-Swedes read Swedish language books, in general, and Finnish speakers read books in Finnish. Some people, especially Finland-Swedes, also like reading in the other native language, too. I think that the respective lingual cultures are apparent in the choice of subject matter and in style, in the social perspective. There’s a certain type of Finland-Swedish author who can’t seem to find their readers in Finnish, and vice versa, of course.
Tell me more about subject matter and style.
A certain kind of language-driven prose can naturally be difficult to translate to the other language. One of the last years’ Finlandia-winners, Mikko Rimminen, has been translated to Swedish but doesn’t seem to have found a big readership. Typically he is a very language-driven writer. Monika Fagerholm, one of the most prominent Finland-Swedish authors, has been well-received in Finnish but maybe not in the same sense that she has been praised in Sweden. It might have something to do with language, but also with subject matter — she has always written about girls’ lives, and it has resonated very well with the Swedish reading audience and with critics.
Looking at the anthology on masculinity that you edited and The Winter War, are gender and sexuality a key theme for you?
I’ve explored men’s roles in a few of my earlier books, also in my short stories, but this time I wanted to write about women. There are four main characters, and only one of them is a man. So, this time masculinity wasn’t a central theme. But I think it crept in there anyway. The main character, Max, lives in an academic world where feminism holds a pretty strong position, and so it begins to address questions of gender and sexuality…I don’t think you can write a book that is set today without asking if gender plays a role in some way. But it’s also a book about generations, about those who are born in the 1950s, and their children, who are born at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the ‘80s. How these two generations relate to their various roles in society and how they see the future.
I think many of us look to Scandinavia as a model of gender equality. Where does that debate stand in Finland? What are the key issues and do these come up in your novel?
Feminism is still a bit of a controversial word in Finland, compared to Sweden. I think we are getting there, and I think the differences aren’t actually very big. Finland is still more of a macho-country, which has to do with history. I actually wanted to call a book about marriage The Winter War because growing up I was sick of hearing Finnish wartime stories about manhood and bravery.
One of the themes you address in the novel explores the relationship between the Finland-Swedish and the Finns. What captures your imagination about the relationship between these two language/cultural groups? Or is it simply part of setting a novel in Helsinki?
Yes, it’s quite natural for a book set in Helsinki, which is a bilingual environment. But I also have a bilingual background, my mother speaks Finnish. So that’s the environment I know, an environment where both languages are present all the time. You might speak Finnish at work and Swedish at home. My book is written in Swedish, but in reality part of the dialogue is in Finnish. It sounds schizophrenic, but it’s not strange when you’re used to it.
Your references to the impact of globalization on health care, the Occupy movement and the difficulty of the youngest daughter Eva in getting her life started feel very current, as does your main character’s engagement with love and marriage. What are you responding to in this book? And did you set out to write a book that captured the zeitgeist?
I knew I wanted to write a novel that takes place in Finland around 2010. Funnily enough, books about the zeitgeist aren’t that common in Finland. I also wanted it to be a global novel to a degree, because I think the sort of family I’m writing about isn’t particularly rooted in their national identity, they are part of a kind of global upper middle class. They have children who study abroad who are used to moving in foreign contexts, who might come home one day and say that they’re getting married to a Belgian stockbroker…or something. Our generation takes this kind of rootlessness for granted, but it can also lead to it being unclear in which context they should anchor their identity. The risk is that one becomes a little cog in a global market economy.
The Winter War reads like a novel for a global, connected society that is still trying to find a common language. Its locations span Helsinki, rural Finland, London, Manila…and the narratives in each place feel equally keenly observed and one feels at home in each place even when the characters notice their outsider status. Many of the Swedes I went to school with in Sweden ended up in London for university, so Eva’s narrative feels like a common narrative among Swedish/Scandinavian young adults, similarly the narrative strand about Katriina’s task to recruit staff in Manila for her hospital in Finland. What informs this encompassing world view? How did you come to these narratives?
These kinds of experiences are around us all the time. But I don’t think they’re depicted in Finnish literature that often. With Katriina and her work with Filipina nurses, it was expressly the desire to write about a non-literary job that was appealing. On the whole, I was interested in describing modern, bureaucratic workplaces, also through the older daughter Helen and her work as a high school teacher.
I am again and again enthralled by concise prose and storytelling, by a similar turn, The Winter War is an expansive, Jonathan Franzen-like, multi-stranded narrative about a family, its joys and discontents. How did you come to write this story in this style?
I have read Franzen and I like his books. I think he has found a functioning formula for how to write broad, entertaining prose that also is deeply engaged with society. He is also good with families, describing family dynamics. On the whole, I’ve read alot of Anglo-Saxon contemporary literature, and could maybe mention Siri Hustvedt and her novel What I Loved, because the art world is a red thread that runs through my novel. But at the same time it’s foremost a depiction of Helsinki. A depiction of a special kind of long, heavy winter like we’ve had in recent years. A time when the Finns drink a little more than usual, when the moral compass loses its direction a bit because everyone is freezing cold all the time and feeling lonely.
Could you say a bit about how your work as a journalist and poet has influenced your writing?
It might be more the other way around. Writing fiction hopefully makes me a better journalist. On the other hand, one of the nice things about being a journalist is getting the opportunity to see a lot of society.
After The Winter War is published in Finland this August, what are you working on next?
I don’t know yet. The Winter War was born suddenly one day when I came up with the full title – “The Winter War: A Novel of Marriage.” So I started writing a story around that name. Maybe I need to have a similar aha-moment. Right now I just have loose images in my head, but nothing that resembles a real story.
The Winter War is published by Natur och Kultur (Swedish-language edition, Sweden), Schildts&Söderströms (Swedish-language edition, Finland) and Otava (Finnish-language edition, Finland) today, August 16. He is also featured in Granta Finland’s debut issue, themed Food, published this summer.
Saskia Vogel is a publicist, a writer and translator from Swedish.