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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Katri Vala (1901-1944) - Karin Alice Heikel


Finnish poet, critic, school teacher, central member of the literary group  Tulenkantajat (The Fire Bearers) with Olavi Paavolainen, Elina Vaara, Lauri Viljanen, Ilmari Pimiä, Viljo Kajava, and Yrjö Jylhä. As a modernizer of the Finnish poetry, she has been generally compared to Edith Södergran. But when Södergran was self-absorbed, Vala also wrote poems that had radical social views and attacked war and Fascism. Her brother, Erkki Vala, became a writer and journalist – he edited for some time the magazine Tulenkantajat.

"Ajatus on lintu, jota kutsuu
meren toinen ranta."

(from 'Etsiminen' in Paluu, 1934)

Katri Vala was born Karin Alice Wadenström in Muonio, the daughter of Robert Waldermar Wadenström and Alexandra Frederika (Mäki) Wadenström. The family moved in 1902 to Porvoo and then in 1905 to Ilomantsi, where Vala spent her childhood. Her father, who was a official of the Forest Services, died in 1911 in a hospital – he suffered manic-depressive psychosis and refused to eat. The family fell into poverty and returned to Porvoo. Vala's mother tried different occupations and once she established a small shop, which did not live long.

Vala began to write already at the age of 11. She was educated in Porvoo and in 1922 she graduated from the teacher's training school in Heinola. The future writer and theatre director Arvi Kivimaa (1904-1984) met her first time there at a concert. Some of her poems had appeared in the literary magazine Nuori Voima. "Her eyes were brown and big and shining with happiness," Kivimaa recalled in Kasvoja valonhämystä (1974). "There was no hint of the sufferings she would experience in the future."

During this period, Vala tried to find her own voice as a poet and at the same time read such writers as Hamsun, Johan Boijer, Viljo Kojo, Aaro Hellaakoski, and later Tagore. Through correspondence with the writers Elina Vaara and Olavi Paavolainen, she established contacts to literary circles. Especially Paavolainen influenced her. In a letter to Vala, Paavolainen descibed himself as a "dandy, chatterbox, and blasé – in other words - too cultured". In return Vala told about her humble life. Their relationship was perhaps never physical – Paavolainen preferred much older, mature women, but he remained her ever-faithful defender. In the mid-1920s, Vala had an affair with the poet Yrjö Jylhä, a friend of Paavolainen. He was the opposite of the dandyish and high spirited Paavolainen – a strong, silent, masculine type. Possibly she was Jylhä's first great love.

For several years, before devoting herself entirely to writing, Vala worked as an elementary schoolteacher in out-of-the way places, in Kuopio's rural commune, Valkeala, Askola, and Ilomantsi (1922-28), where she began a relationship with Edvin Stolt, who was married. Stolt, a member of the Civil Guard, was an outdoorsman and Vala followed him to his trips to the woods and swamps.

Vala's early poems were published in the periodical Nuori Voima in the 1920s. The periodical and organization, Nuoren Voiman Liitto, were originally founded to help secondary school students to develop talents and pursue hobbies. Vala's first collection, Kaukainen puutarha (The Distant Garden), which came out in 1924, was written when she worked in the small schools of Vaajasalo and Valkeala. Eight of Vala's poems appeared in the same year in the anthology Nuoret runoilijatKaukainen puutarha opens with ecstatic images of the sun, eath, and moon, but the part five ends in sorrow and loneliness, "my heart fell down on the earth / like a crushed flower." The moon is a symbol of love, the earth is a symbol of regeneration. With this this collection, which won the literary prize of the government, Vala introduced free verse into Finnish poetry.

In 1928, Vala contracted tuberculosis, of which she never fully recovered. After gaining enough health, Vala travelled to Riviera. While enjoying the warmth of the sun, she met the Polish poet Jan Brzekowski (1903-1983), who gave her his book Tetno and introduced her to the Futurist cult of machines. From Riviera Vala went to Paris, where she bought fashionable clothes. In 1929, she spent some time in the Halila sanatorium on the Karelian Isthmus. Due to her illness, her teaching contract in Ilomantsi was not renewed.

Stolt and Unto Koskela, a friend of Uuno Kailas, disappeared from Vala's life when she married in 1930 Armas Heikel. Her husband was a chemist, but as a known radical in a time when the Left was oppressed by the right-wing government, he was occasionally without regular work because of political reasons.

During the Depression, the Valas financial situation was gloomy. She earned extra income by contributing to magazines and translating Swedish poets into Finnish, mostly, but also Heinrich Heine, Comtesse de Noailles, Ernst Toller, Bertolt Brecht, and Chinese poetry. From the Swedish writers she especially admired Agnes von Krusenstjerna and Karin Boye, whose home in Stockholm she also visited.

In the 1920s and 1930s Vala was among the few Finnish poets who used free verse. Her second collection, Sininen ovi (1926, The Blue Door), was an eulogy of love and life, ecstasy and exoticism. Several of its poems, such as 'Musta jumala' (The black god), 'Helmiketju' (The string of pearls), 'Punainen temppeli' (The red temple), and 'Tähdenlento' (The starflight) reflected her affair with Jylhä, which lasted only from the autumn of 1924 to spring 1925. Vala called her lover 'The black god' because of his dark eyes and muscular body. 'Vaellus' in Maan laiturilla (1930, On the Earth’s jetty) was a love poem to her husband Armas. While love was a central theme in previous collection, now death is an equal temptation.

In the beginning of the 1930s, Vala was the leading critic in the magazine Tulenkantajat, publishing her reviews under the pseudonym 'Pecka'. Most of the writers attached to the magazine held leftist views. Vala often attacked National Socialism and racial policies of the Third Reich, opposed warmongering, and taunted such prominent literary figures as Mika Waltari and V.A. Koskenniemi, whom she called a "little blue-black poetry professor".

Vala's later production became darker in tone, in contrast to her poems which declared the optimistic ideals of the working class movement. However, she never adopted the Marxist-Leninist ideology of many of writers in the Kiila literary group. Often Vala's personal experiences and living in poverty mixed with the atmosphere of the era. From 1931 her home was in Helsinki's biggest apartment house called Marjatantalo, the first real home with her husband. The poem 'Kesäilta laitakaupungilla,' published in Paluu (1934, Return), told of the house, its people, and atmosphere: "Suuri talo helisee kuin soittorasia, / etelämeren lauluja, tanssin rytmiä, / hempeitä lauluja rinnan marssien kanssa." Vala's apartment was on the sixth floor, the address was Vilhovuorenkatu 7-9 F.  Her neighbours included the writers and journalists Jarno Pennanen and Jenny Pajunen. 

Vala's first child, a girl, died in 1931; she lived only two hours. After her death, Vala was depressed for a long time and once tried to commit suicide by gas oven. Vala mourned her loss in such poems as 'Portin takana,' 'Yli virran' and 'Vaikeneva lapsi' in Paluu. This collection sold poorly, and confused the critics. "Who said I'm a singer of the masses," Vala noted in a letter to her husband. The last part of book consisted of fairy tale poems. Also in her first and second collection Vala had taken inspiration from the world of fairytales, but in the allegorical Si-Si-Dous series, which dealt with the ideological battle of the time, Vala combined fantasy with Christian motifs. The heroine is an elf, her enemies are the little black men who do not tolerate happiness. "Si-si-dous looked at man / And pitied him. / Work and dreams and gray thoughts / Made up man's life. / And Si-si-dous went to man / And sang to him a little ditty. / A song about wood, about light and liberty." (from 'Tales of Si-si-dous', transl. by Cid Erik Tallqvist) Tired of all ugliness and hatred she sees, Si-Si-Dous decides to sleep for a thousand years. At the end, "The temple stands, silent, / filled with the smoke of transfiguration."

In other poems of the collection, Vala expressed her sympathy for underprivileged, confessed her own weakness, but as a rebel did not accept the prevailing world order. "Olen virran partaalla paju, / jonka lävitse tuulet puhaltavat, / josta maailman kapinallinen henki / taittaa yksinäisen pillin - -" (I am no standard-bearer, / no eagle-hearted trail-blazer / on your journey to Jerusalem. / I am a willow by a stream / through which the wind blow, / from which the world's rebellious spirit / breaks off a simple whistle / to blow its tune / in which there is storm, pain, love / and a little of the new dawn." (translated by Keith Bosley) Vala had also joined the Social Democratic Party and festive poems appeared in leftist magazines. "The morning of the world is yours," she once wrote about workers' movement for an election campaign.

After working as a teacher in Lauritsala (1935-37), Vala returned to Helsinki. Her second child, Mauri Henrik Heikel, was born in 1934. She fell ill again – according to her husband she took too much sun. Vala gave up her plans to continue her career as a teacher. In Lauritsala she did not write much poetry, but worked with the translation of Ester Ståhlberg's biography on Mathilda Wrede.

In the 1940s Vala's tuberculosis and financial problems forced her to move with her son Mauri to Sweden, where her brother Erkki lived. In 1942 Armas Heikel was arrested again and Vala's papers were confiscated in a house search. Heikel had opposed the Winter War (1939-40), and expressed his critical views in letters to Sweden to Erkki Vala.

Katri Vala's passionate pacifism was not consistent – she had sympathized the Republicans fighting against Franco's forces during the Spanish Civil War, but during the Winter War and the Continuation War (1941-44), when Finland was fighting against the Soviet Union, Vala criticized the whole conflict. Both her leftists friends and the general public did not greet her stand with enthusiasm. In the middle of the war, Bertolt Brech visited Vala's home in Leppävaara, partly because Erkki Vala had translated his play Mutter Courage into Finnish. In 1942 Erkki Vala was arrested in Stockholm in a restaurant, where he was with a well-known Swedish communist, Dr. Per Meurling.

Katri Vala died in Eksjö sanatorium, Sweden, on April 28, 1944. Just a few days earlier Vala had written an optimistic letter to the Swedish writer Olof Lagercrantz, who had helped her financially. Her ashes were brought to Finland in 1945 and buried with honors by the government. Vala's old friend, Olavi Paavolainen carried her urn in the memorial procession through the steets, Jylhä  stood on the pavement and said to the poet and folklorist Martti Haavio, "You know, we both were once engaged to her." 

Pesäpuu palaa (1942, The nesting tree is burning), Vala's last collection, was mostly written in 1935-39. Its first poems were filled with visions of war and fears of the future of her child. Feelings of hopelessness change into waiting for the springs – "conceive, bloom, give birth!", marking a return to the passionate joy of life in 'Kukkiva maa' (Kaukainen ranta): "To live, to live, to live! / To live furiously the high moment of life, / with petals opening to the utmost, / to live in wonderful blossom". (tr. Jaakko Ahokas) Vala's poems have been translated into Swedish by Arvid Mörne, Joel Rundt, and Elmer Diktonius. During Vala's life time 'Andante religioso' was translated into French and appeared in the Belgian magazine Le Journal des Poétes.

For further reading: Katri Vala: Kulkuri & näkijä by Minna Maijala (2021); Valon juhla by Asko Jaakonaho (2017); Työmaana runous: runoudentutkimuksen nykysuuntauksia, ed. by Siru Kainulainen, Karoliina Lummaa and Katja Seutu (2012); Uutta aikaa etsimässä: individualismi, moderni ja kulttuurikritiikki tulenkantajien elämässä 1920- ja 1930-luvulla by Vesa Mauriala (2005); Runokirje: kertomus nuoresta Katri Valasta by Raili Mikkanen (2005); A History of Finland's Literature, ed. by George C. Schoolfield (1998); Kapinalliset kynät by Raoul Palmgren (1984); Katri Vala: aikansa kapinallinen by Kerttu Saarenheimo (1984); 'Katri Vala ja koneromaniikka' by Kerttu Saarenheimo, in Kirjojen meri, ed. by Kai Laitinen et al. (1983), 'Katri Vala, kaukaa nähty' by Arvi Kivimaa, in Kasvoja valonhämystä (1974); A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas (1973); Tulenkantajat by K. Saarenheimo (1966); Suomalainen lyriikka Siljosta Sarkiaan by Unto Kupiainen (1948); Aleksis Kivestä Olavi Siippaiseen (1944); Maailman aamun runoilija by J. Pennanen (1944)

Selected works:

  • Kaukainen puutarha, 1924 [The distant garden]
    - Daleki sad: izbrannye stihi (predislovie Debory Vaarandi, 1966)
  • Sininen ovi: runoja, 1926 [The blue door]
    - Den blå dörren (övers. av Signe Stenbäck, 1954)
  • Maan laiturulla: runoja, 1930 [On the Earth’s jetty]
  • Kolme: runoantologia, 1930 (with Elina Vaara, Katri Suoranta)
  • translator (poems): Ester Ståhlberg, Katso, unennäkijä tulee..., 1933
  • Paluu: runoja, 1934 [Return]
  • translator: G. Stratton-Porter, Pudonnut sulka, 1936
  • Pesäpuu palaa, 1942 [The nesting tree is burning]
  • translation: Moa Martinson, Kuninkaan ruusut, 1943
  • Vår sång: lyriskt urval, 1943 (svensk tolkning av Elmer Diktonius et al.)
  • translator (with Henry Peter Matthis): Finska folksagor, 1944
  • Henki ja aine eli yksinäisen naisen pölyimuri: taistelevia pakinoita, 1945
  • editor: Suomen kansan satuja, 1946 (illustrated by Tapio Tapiovaara)
  • Kootut runot, 1948
    - Sinine rohtaed (tõlkinud D. Vaarandi, 1974)
  • Valikoima runoja, 1958
  • Maa rinnal: luuletused, 1959 (soome keelest tõlkinud D. Vaarandi)
  • Daleki sad: izbrannye stihi, 1966 (predislovie Debory Vaarandi)
  • Poèmes, 1973 (trad. du finnois par Jean-Luc Moreau)
  • Severno sl"nce, 1977 (prevod Zdravko Kis’ov)
  • Zemes azote: dzeja, 1979 (sastadijis un no somu valodas atdzejojis Laimonis Kamara)
  • Kootut runot, 1977 (edited by Kerttu Saarenheimo)
  • Suorasanaista: 30-luvulta ja -luvusta, 1981
  • Eikä minussa ollut pelkoa:  runoilijan omakuva kirjeiden, päiväkirjojen ja kirjoitusten valossa, 1991 (edited by Kerttu Saarenheimo)
  • Ant žemes krutines: eilerasciai, 1994 (is suomiu kalbos verte Stasys Skrodenis)
  • Kootut runot, 2001 (6th ed.)
  • Onnen lupaus: lempeitä ja kirkkaita säkeitä, 2006 (edited by Katarina Yliruusi)
  • Onnen lupauksia, 2018 (illustrated by Sinikka Hautamäki)
  • Henki ja aine: eli yksinäisen naisen pölynimuri, 2023 (published by Oppian)

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