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by Bamber Gascoigne

Alex (Alexander) Matson (1888-1972) - pseudonyms: Aaro Evä, Aleksi Valkeakylä


Finnish novelist, essayist, critic, artist, and bilingual translator, who spent his youth in England. Alex Matson's major work on literature theory, Romaanitaide (1947, The Art of the Novel), became a very influential source for modernist writers. Matson was among the first who advocated of New criticism in Finland, emphasizing the self-contained nature of the text.

"Eihän toki kriitikon ole etsittävä taiteesta perusideaa. Mutta onkohan hänen taideteoksessakaan etsittävä 'ideaa'? Mikä on Sibeliuksen V sinfonian perusidea tai johtoajatus? Tai Cézannen hiljaiselon? Ja jos halutaan väittää että musiikki ja kuvataiteet ovat eri asia, mitä ne eivät ole, niin mitkä ovat 'Rouva Bovaryn', ja 'Odysseuksen', 'Putkinotkon' ja 'Seitsemän veljeksen' perusideat?" (from Mielikuvituksen todellisuus, 1969)

Alexander Matson was born in Koivisto, the son of Matias Matinpoika Tiltti (later he changed his name to Matias Matson), a seaman and merchant, and Judith Torckel. The Matsons moved soon to Hull, England, where first years were hard for the family. Due to malnutrition, Matson suffered from rickets. At the age of 14, Matson finished his school and started to help his father, who had bought a tailor's shop. After contracting tuberculosis, he spent some time in Germany at the Görbersdorf sanatorium, and returned then to Hull.

Matson worked at Paul Wahl & Co, an export firm in Uuraa. He also studied art in Hull and Helsinki, and participated in exhibitions. Matson's watercolors sold well. Especially he admired Turner, and pre-Raphaelites, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Burne Jones.

To find his calling in life, was not easy for Matson, who wavered between two choices, making a career as a writer or an artist. He visited regularly bookstores and libraries, read Socialist literature, poetry, Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman. Matson's first great love in Finland, Kaisa, found another suitor and Matson himself sought consolation in Heine's poetry. In 1919 he had a private exhibition at Strindberg's Salon in Helsinki. 

For a period Matson abandoned his art studies, and worked as an interpreted on a ship bound to Montreal. In its toilet, among obscenities, he found a poem: "It makes one think to see such wit / that Shakespeare's ghost came here to shit. / Or Byron with his flowery tongue / had dropped in here to drop his dung." By reading Upton Sinclair's writing on fasting, he recovered with its help from a depression.

During the Finnish Civil war (1917-18) Matson earned some extra income as an art teacher in Taideteollinen keskuskoulu. Matson's first novel was Maata paossa (1920, Fleeing the Land), in which the cover picture was drawn by the author himself. Aaro Hellaakoski praised its elegance in his review in Karjalan Aamulehti. The book was based on Matson's experiences as a seafarer. "I thank art that my life has been worth living," he confessed in Muistiinpanoja (1959, Notes), a collection of observations and notes on literature and art.

"Taide on tehnyt elämän todelliseksi minulle ja todellisuuden konkreettiseksi. Se on laajentanut ja syventänyt elämysteni piiriä. Taide on herättänyt minussa vastuuntuntoa. Se on saanut minut tajuamaan, ettei mikään ole olemassa erillisenä, kaikki on yhtä, jokaisella teolla on seuraamuksensa. Kuinka tämän nähtyäni voisin olla tuntematta vastuuta teoistani ja tulevaisuudestani? Taide on saanut minut uskomaan tahdon ehdolliseen vapauteen." (from Muistiinpanoja)

In 1922 Matson married the writer and playwright Kersti Bergroth (1886-1975), who began writing in Swedish but changed to Finnish. Bergroth's works include the play Anu ja Mikko, juvenile books, memoirs, essays, and novels.

After spending some time in London, where Matson was employed at the Embassy of Finland in London, they bought a house in Tyrisevä in the Karelian Isthmus. Matson encouraged Bergroth to establish the short-lived literary magazine Sininen kirja (1927-1930), which introduced British culture to Finnish readers and underlined the importance of spiritual values. Interested in the thought of Rudolf Steiner, Bergroth was a member of Anthropolosophical Society in Finland. From 1950 she lived in Rome.

Matson participated in literary discussion in the mid-1930s with the argument that critics were too soft. The writer Lauri Viljanen answered that Finnish literature should not be viewed from London's horizon. Matson and Bergroth separated when he met Kerttu Kaila, a nurse; they married in 1929. It was a happy marriage. Kerttu was the sister of the philosopher Eino Kaila, her father Erkki Kaila was appointed archbishop of Finland in 1935. Working in a regular job – later as a librarian in Tampere – she brought financial security in the family and was the breadwinner, when her husband's earnings dropped to zero.

In the 1930s Matson was asked to translate James Joyce's novel Ulysses, but he refused, saying that without damaging the original work, it was an impossible task. Eventually the poet Pentti Saarikoski took up the challenge in the 1960s and made a superb translation. From 1930 to 1934 Matson wrote for the Finnish Trade Review and contributed to such papers as Aamulehti, Näköala, Suomalainen Suomi, Parnasso.

Matson's first translation from Finnish into English was Aino Kallas's collection of Estonian tales, The White Ship, foreword by John Galsworthy. Matson knew Aino Kallas personally. Before leaving London, she met him and he offered to translate her short fiction to English. In Eros the Slayer Kallas's behind-the-scenes editor was Brian Rhys; she considered Matson's work to some degree wooden. Matson also translated Kallas's Pyhän joen kosto (The Revenge of the Holy River) and Löytöretkillä Lontoossa (Explorations in London) but they were not published.

During the Continuation War (1941-1944), Matson served at the State Information Centre in Helsinki. He translated official speeches and news for broadcasts in English, and helped foreign correspondents.

After the war Matson translated into Finnish such authors as John Steinbeck, James Joyce, and William Faulkner, and into English Aleksis Kivi and F.E. Sillanpää, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1939. In a letter to his publisher he said that the latter writer was his "only change to make fast easy money." Under the pseudonym Aaro Evä he focused on popular writers, Ottwell Binns, Ruth Rewald, and John Hersey.  Matson was also a reader for the publishing company Tammi. He turned down Saul Bellow's early novel, The Victim from 1947. According to Matson, its protagonist, Asa Leventhal, was not interesting enough. He also did not recommed to Tammi Norman Mailer's novel The Naked and the Dead (1948, Alastomat ja kuolleet), which was eventually translated by Jorma Partanen for Gummerus.

Simo Rekola has called Matson the most important translator of Anglo-American literature in the 1940s, but Hannu Riikonen has decribed his translation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in general terms as "defective" (The Duet Between the Author and the Translator: An Analysis of Style through Shifts in Literary Translation by Hilkka Pekkanen, pp. 56-57, 2010). A general view is that Matson was a good translator into Finnish and a weak translator into English.

Matson was well aware that both Kivi and Väinö Linna are difficult to render into other languages. Moreover, Sillanpää's British and American publishers lost their interest in the writings of the Finnish Nobel laureate during the war years. Matson's work on Väinö Linna's war novel The Unknown Soldier was heavily edited and as a result Matson refused to allow his name to appear in the book. Linna sued the publisher of the American edition and it was taken off the market.

Matson's essay Romaanitaide was compared to Rafael Koskimies' academic study Theorie des Romans, which had appeared in Germany in 1925. Matson challenged literature's one-to-one correspondence to reality. The key concepts were form and structure, especially exeplified in Joyce's representation of reality in Ulysses. Matson saw that the text is an object with its own inherent structure, and a writer can express much by the structure of the book, and arranging scenes and changing points of view. After the publication of the essay, Matson planned of making an English version of it, but he had to give up the work: "the language keeps throwing stumbling blocks on my path," he said. (Translation and the Problem of Sway by Douglas Robinson, 2011, p. 62) He no more wrote original works in English.

Matson moved in 1954 with his wife from Hauho to Kangasala near Tampere, and then in 1959 to Tampere, on the Sammonkatu, where they had a two-room apartment. Matson was a central figure of the so-called Mäkelän piiri, a literature group, which had its meetings at the Tampere City Library. Among its members were Linna, Lauri Viita, Harri Kaasalainen, Viljo Paula, Reino Mantere, and Mirkka Rekola. (See also Kalle Päätalo, who lived from the 1950s in Tampere.)

As a critic, Matson used close reading of particular text instead of explaining it by biographical details. In the 1950s Matson criticized in several articles academic literature research. When Aatos Ojala tried to analyze in Kohtalon toteuttaminen (1959) F.E. Sillanpää's philosophy through his characters or the author's statements, Matson declared that the "thought is found in form."

In his review of Kaarlo Marjanen's book Näkökulmia (1958), Matson again stressed that essential in the work of art is its form. "Ei ole muotoa ilman materiaa taiteessakaan. Teos ei kuitenkaan ole taidetta materiaalinsa vaan muotonsa ansiosta. Muodon muuttuessa mutta materiaalin pysyessä samana teos voi lakata olemasta taidetta. Olennaisinta siis on muoto" (from 'Muoto ja materiaali' in Parnasso 6/1959). Form, not content or style, makes a text a novel; basically form was the organic principle dominating a work of art. Matson also emphasizes the importance of intuition in understanding art, and showed some influence of Marxist literature theory, especially Lukács.

Matson's translation of Seven Brothers, in which he insisted on using archaic speech constructions, is considered as problematic already from the start: too old-fashioned to capture the spirit of the novel. "It seemed to me not only stylistically akward but consistently infelicitous in its choice of word and phrase, with howlers on every page," Douglas Robinson described his first impression. (Translation and the Problem of Sway  by Douglas Robinson, 2011, p. 43)

There are different views, too. In his review of the 1952 reprint, J.A. Hollo called it "the best we've seen in this field." "I know several other translations done into other languages," Hollo said, "and it would appear to me as if not one can compare with Matson, especially what it comes to strict fidelity to the original text." (ibid., p 57) Yrjö Varpio noted that "one of the best features of Matson's translations is their reliability, which extends deep into the sublest textual nuances." (ibid., p. 57) In the 1973 edition, the translation was revieved by Irma Rantavaara. Matson had finished his own first version in 1925, but it took four years before the book was published by Coward-McCann. Ernestine Evans, an American journalist and editor at the publishing house, became a close family friend of the Matsons.

Following his disappointment with his translation of Linna's The Unknown Soldier, and various cuts made by publisher, Matson stopped translating fiction. His last years Matson devoted to reading and writing. Appointments with him had to be made in advance. Matson died on November 29, 1972. His ashes were buried in the Kalevankangas Cemetery (Kalevankankaan hautausmaa). Kerttu Matson died in 1982.

Muistelen (1971, I Reminisce), Matson's book of memoir, depicted his childhood in England, youth in Finland, and early art studies. Matson focuses on his own experiences and development, never mentioning the name of his father or mother. Crucial for his childhood was his inner revolt against his father, whom Matson characterized as a hypocrite. Noteworthy, Matson's dichotomy between inner thoughts and formal behavior – form and content – also marked his approach to literature. Throughout his life, he retained a certain British formality in social interactions and spoke Finnish with a slightly foreign accent.

In Parnasso, Finland's most influential literary magazine, Jouko Tyyri criticized Matson's view that a work of art is aesthetically autonomous. Tyyri writes that art is language, expression, and no language can be born without a system of agreements. "Taide on kieltä, ilmaisua, eikä mitään kieltä saada syntymään ilman sopimuksien järjestelmää. Matson tahtoisi aloittaa sopimuksettomasta alkutilasta, joka on romanttinen myytti. Taide tapahtuu sosiaalisessa ja psykologisessa kentässä, ja tuohon kenttään kuuluu paljon historiaa" (Parnasso 4/1960).

Although Matson had been interested in Socialism and argued that "a writer cannot criticize the society too much," he considered all ideologies a burden to a writer. Pentti Haanpää's great fault was according to Matson the author's commitment to Marxism or cultural radicalism. Haanpää was too weak to break out of the materialistic determinism. Matson himself advocated the romantic idea, that hard living conditions and low wages are not the basic problem but spiritual poverty.

This narrow methodological approach is especially evident in his essay on The Unknown Soldier. He compares it to such works as Aleksis Kivi's Seven Brothers and Tolstoy's War and Peace, and sees it basically as an universal depiction of man and war, never mentioning that the Finnish soldiers were fighting against the Soviet Union during the Continuation war (1941-44). Moreover, The Unknown Soldier focused on the experience of ordinary soldiers, but was set in a clear historical context with references to world politics, and with outspoken criticism towards military orders.

Linna and Lauri Viita have acknowledged the impact of Matson's theories on their views of the novel. According to Matson, the content dictates the form in Here Beneath the North Star, Linna's three-volume historical novel. The central theme is the conflict between Akseli, a tenant farmer, and the minister who owns the land. They are symbols of the great antagonism between tenants and farm-owners.

For further reading: Muistelen by Alex Matson (1971); 'Alex Matson,' in Delfiini ja muita esseitä by Pekka Suhonen (1973); Mäkelän piiri by Yrjö Varpio (1975); Unessa ja elämässä by Arvi Kivimaa, pp. 148-49, 153-154 (1983); Lukemisen alkeet ja muita kertomuksia kustantajan elämästä by Jarl Hellemann (1996); 'Romaanitaide. Erään muodonteon esittelyä,' in Todenkaltaisuudesta: kirjoituksia vuosilta 1948-1979 by Tuomas Anhava, edited by Helena and Martti Anhava (2002); 'Kääntäminen toisen maailmansodan aikana ja heti sen jälkeen' by Simo Rekola, in Suomennoskirjallisuuden historia I, edited by Hannu K. Riikonen (2007); The Duet Between the Author and the Translator: An Analysis of Style through Shifts in Literary Translation by Hilkka Pekkanen (2010); 'The case of Alex. Matson,' in Translation and the Problem of Sway by Douglas Robinson (2011); Elää, kokea, ymmärtää: Alex Matsonin elämä by Yrjö Varpio (2023)

Selected works:

  • Maata paossa, 1920 [Fleeing the Land]
  • Knuuttilan turvissa, 1921 [Under Knuuttila's Protection]
  • translator: Aino Kallas, The White Ship. Estonian Tales, 1924 (foreword by John Galsworthy)
  • translator: Aino Kallas, Eros the Slayer. Two Estonian Tales, 1927
  • translator: Aleksis Kivi, Seven Brothers, 1929 (published by Coward-McCann; reprinted by Tammi in 1952, illustrated by Akseli Gallen-Kallela)
  • translator (with Bryan Rhys): Aino Kallas, The Wolf's Bride. A Tale from Estonia, 1930
  • translator: F.E. Sillanpää, The Maid Silja. The History of the Last Offshoot of an Old Family Tree, 1933 (GB title: Fallen A Sleep While Young)
  • translator (with Valfrid Hedman): Northern Lights. A Collection of Short Stories by Larin-Kyösti, 1937
  • translator: F.E. Sillanpää, Meek Heritage, 1938
  • Lunnaat, 1938 (as Aleksi Valkeakylä) [Ransom]
  • translator: 1938 in Europe: Finland, 1938 (pp.  965-996, in 1938 in Europe. Vol. II)
  • translator (as Aaro Evä): Ottwell Binns, Vihreä jalokiviristi, 1944
  • translator: John Steinbeck, Vihan hedelmät, 1944 (original title: The Grapes of Wrath)
  • translator (as Aaro Evä): Ruth Rewald, Luokan intiaani, 1945
  • translator: James Joyce, Taiteilijan omakuva nuoruuden vuosilta, 1946  (original title: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)
  • Romaanitaide, 1947 (The Art of the Novel)
  • translator (as Aaro Evä): John Hersey, Hiroshima, 1947  (original title: Hiroshima)
  • translator: William Faulkner, Villipalmut, 1947  (original title: The Wild Palms)
  • John Steinbeck: kirjailijakuvan luonnos, 1948 [John Steinbeck: A Sketch for a Portrait]
  • translator: John Steinbeck, Oikutteleva bussi, 1948  (original title: The Wayward Bus)
  • translator: John Steinbeck, Helmi, 1949 (original title: The Pearl)
  • translator: Willa Cather, Professorin talo, 1950  (original title: The Professor's House)
  • Kaksi mestaria, 1950 [Two Masters]
  • translator: William Faulkner, Kun tein kuolemaa, 1952  (original title: As I Lay Dying)
  • translator: Social legislation and work in Finland, 1953 (published by the Ministry of Social Affairs, edited by Niilo Salomaa) 
  • translator: Margaret Kennedy, Melissan ystävätär, 1953  (original title: Lucy Carmichael)
  • translator: Esko Aaltonen, Consumer Co-Operation in Finland, 1954 (abbreviated ed.)
  • translator: Viidennettoista olympiakisat / The Official Report of the Orgnizing Committee for the Games of The XV Olympiad, 1955 (edited by Sulo Kolkka)
  • translator (uncredited): Väinö Linna, Tuntematon sotilas, 1957
  • translator (uncredited): Erik Tavaststjerna, The Pianoforte Compositions of Sibelius, 1957 (from Sibeliuksen pianosävellykset ja muita esseitä by Erik Tavaststjerna, 1955)
  • Muistiinpanoja, 1959 [Notes]
  • Mielikuvituksen todellisuus: esseitä ja arvosteluja 1951-1963, 1969 [The Reality of Imagination: Essays and Reviews 1951-1963]
  • Muistelen: ensimmäinen kirja, 1971 [I Reminisce: First Book]
    - "Matsonin kirjan nimi ei ole 'Muistelmia' vaan nimenomaan 'Muistelen'. Äkkinäinen voisi sen perusteella olettaa, että jossain kansien välissä olisi myöskin tämä muistelija. Mutta eipäs ole. Siellä on vain poikasen ja nuorukaisen kehittyvä muotokuva, elämyksen ja tuntemuksien muodostelu, eteneminen elämässä." ( 'Alex Matson' by Pekka Suhonen, in Delfiini ja muita esseitä, 1973)
  • translator: Aino Kallas, Three Novels, 1975 (contains Barbara von Tiesenhusen, The rector of Reigi, The Wolf's Bride)

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