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|Maiju Lassila (1868-1918) - pseudonym for Algot or Algoth Tietäväinen Untola until 1901, later Algot Untola - wrote also as Irmari Rantamala, Väinö Stenberg, and J.I. Vatanen, essays under the pen name Liisan-Antti, Jussi Porilainen|
Author, journalist, and revolutionary, one of the most enigmatic figures in Finnish literature, who he hid himself under pseudonyms. As Maiju (Mary or Molly) Lassila, Algoth Untola wrote his best-known novel, Tulitikkuja lainaamassa (1910, Out to Borrow Matches), which has been filmed twice. Untola's way from a farm-hand to a celebrated writer was adventurous. Periods of his life, Untola lived in the backwoods of Finland as a teacher, he then went to St. Petersburg as a businessman, and eventually became a Socialist agitator, dying during the Civil War in 1918. Untola's last days are still open to much speculation.
'"Niinhän se meni senkin Malisen naiminen ihan itsestään ennen kuin puhemies oli ennättänyt luontoansakaan karaista. Se Malinen oli vain istunut sen Tiinan viereen ja pannut kätensä Tiinan kaulaan tällä tavalla kuin minä tässä tämän Kaisan kaulaan, ja puhemies oli siihen ennättänyt vai sanoa: 'Ka johan se on valmis koko naimishökötys'..."' (in Tulitikkuja lainaamassa, 1910)
Lassila was born Algoth (Algot) Tietäväinen in
Tohmajärvi, North Carelia. His father, Jaakko Wilmelm Tietäväinen, was
a farmer. Maria Simontytär Hakulinen, Lassila's mother, came from an
influential and socially active farmer family. Algot's father died in
1881; his mother married next year a farm-hand, whose drinking brought
poverty and misery to the family. However, at school Algot had showed
exceptional talents. With the support of his relatives, Algot entered
in 1887 a teacher's school in Sortavala, graduating in 1891. He then
worked in Raahe and Kälviä, and from 1893 to 1900 he was employed as a
teacher in Vyborg, where he started to use the name Untola. Three poems ('Karjala,' 'Langennut,' and
'Vangittu äiti'), signed by "A.T.", were published in a 4 page lottery publication
Little is known what Untola made between the years 1900 and
1904. He moved to St. Petersburg, where he run trade in timber. It has
been claimed, that Untola possibly made
speeches under the pseudonym A. Aleksev, participated
in the activities of revolutionaries, and was involved in the
assassination of the Russian minister of the interior, Vyacheslav K.
Plehve, who was killed by a bomb in 1904. These claims are mostly
based on the autobiographical interpretation of his novel Harhama.
During his St. Petersburg stay Untola was ideologically close to conservative nationalist thinking and the Old Finns (vanhasuomalainen party) but he was also interested in Russian revolutionaries, with whom Finnish activists had formed contacts. The Karelian-Russian literary historian Eino Karhu, who identified Harhama as an autobiographical novel, saw traces of Gorky's influence in the character of Nikolai Petrof, a young socialist worker. (Dostojevski ja Suomen kirjallisuus by Eino Karhu, 1977, p. 40) Consumed by his hatred of bourgeois society, Nikolai declares in a speech: "Vannokaa, että luovutte kaikesta ja elätte ainoastaan kostolle! Luvatkaa, että jätätte lapsillenne perinnöksi vihan kaikkia sortajia ja verenimijöitä vastaan, olkoot Jumalia, tai ihmisiä!"
In 1903 Untola married Therese
Marie Johanna Küstring, a Russian woman, but separated soon, officially
in 1913. According to some sources, Therese Marie was a hermaphrodite,
and another source claims that Untola left his wife immediately after
the weddings. The divorce was connected to Untola's bankruptcy and the
steepness of his social fall.
It has been assumed, that Untola studied at the University of Moscow, but between the years 1904 and 1906 he was back in Finland, teaching in Lohja (1904-05) and Kaustinen (1905-07). It was generally believed, Untola had an affair in Lohja with a widow, Olga Jasisnki, who had two children. When their relationship was revealed, Untola was dismissed from his post.
In 1906 Untola went into politics and began to write columns
under the pseudonym 'Liisan Antti' for the Old Finn newspaper Kokkola.
His writings, in which he criticized the Finnish Party (Suomalainen
Puolue), attracted much attention. After leaving his career as a
teacher, he was a district secretary and travelled as a speaker in
election campaigns in Ostrobothnia. From 1907 to 1909 he edited the
newspaper Satakunta and ended his relationship with Olga, who according to some sources poured sulfuric
acid on the author's genitals. Untola's first novels, Harhama
and Martva (1909), were decadent, symbolistic works, which
denounced the contemporary society. Olga appeared in Harhama as
Helga Riuttula. This book had 1801 pages and Martva the
respectable 1056 - for a debutant writer a
gigantic enterprise. Both were published as works of "Irmari
Harhama was reviewed
widely, both in national and provincial newspapers and
periodicals, whereas Martva
was received with silence. One of the leading journalists and
authors of the time, Eino Leino, said
the only thing that was monumental in
Harhama was its size. Untola himself saw Leino as a prototype
of “high culture” writer.
Untola's Tulitikkuja lainaamassa was not aimed as a critique of the poor quality of Russian matches; it was a version of the proverb "much ado about nothing." Set it the countryside, it tells of two farmers, Antti Ihalainen, married to a vigorous woman named Anna Liisa, and Jussi Vatanen, a widow. Anna Liisa sends her somewhat lazy husband to borrow matches from a neighbor. On his way he meets Jussi and the friends are drawn into a comic adventure after taking too much liquor. A large amount of the narrative is carried on in dialogue or monologue. At the end of his escape from the everyday life, Ihalainen returns to home with one burned match.
For the book, Untola created a
new pseudonym, "Maiju Lassila"; the first name is female. Noteworthy,
at that time women authors preferred to publish their work under male
pseudonyms. Unlike Harhama and Martva, this relatively
conventional novel was even appreciated by such highly-estemeed writers
and intellectuals as V.A. Koskenniemi,
Volter Kilpi, and Kyösti Wilkuna, who invented the name for Untola
book, Out to Borrow Matches.
Its working title had been The
Oddity of Life.
All these novels were published by the progressive Kustannus Oy Kansa. Later there were rumors that lost parts of Harhama had been written in Chinese.
Thanks to the elements that guarantee popular success in
Finnish theatre ‒ farcical situations, rural types, and drinking ‒ Tulitikkuja lainaamassa
has been adapted
numerous times for stage, especially for summer theatre. Hella
Wuolijoki, whose most popular plays rivalled those of Untola,
Bertold Brecht on the comedy Herr
Puntila und sein Knecht Matti (1940/41;
subtitled 'A comic tale of Tavastland drunkenness in nine scenes'),
which was cut from the same humorous cloth.
Both movie adaptation of
the book, the first from 1938, directed by Yrjö Norta and Toivo Särkkä,
and the Soviet-Finnish co-production from 1980 by Leonid Gaidai and
Risto Orko, were faithful to the original story. "Here Gaidai remains
true to himself, focusing on people's animalistic drives, for example,
connecting marriage with discussion of cattle and reveling in a
favorite Russian pastime of drinking and steam bathing."
('The Man Who Made Them Laugh: Leonid Gaidai, the King of Soviet
Comedy' by Elena Prokhorova, in A
Companion to Russian Cinema, edited by Birgit Beumers, 2016, p.
537) Starring the much-loved characted actor Yevgeny Leonov,
Gaidai's satire on provincial life - at
that time Finland was an autonomous part of the Russian Empire - was seen by tens of millions people in the
Soviet Union, but it has not enjoyed the critical acclaim of his 1971
version of The
Twelve Chairs, based on novel by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov.
Likely not by accident, the surname of Arto Paasilinna's
the picaresque novel Jäniksen vuosi
(1975, The Year of the Hare) was Vatanen. In Kerjäläinen ja jänis
(2011, The Beggar & the Hare), Tuomas Kyrö's retelling of
Paasilinna's modern classic, the hero is a Romanian beggar, named
While living in Kouvola in the early 1910s, Untola wrote
several plays, including Kun lesket lempivät (1911), Kun
ruusut kukkivat (1912), Luonnon lapsia (1912), and
Nuori mylläri (1912), a sentimental comedy, which
gained success in Tampere: 20 performances. In 1912 he published
books under the pseudonyms J.I. Vatanen, Maiju Lassila, and Irmari
Rantamala. The last years of his life Untola lived in Helsinki in a 10 m2 basement room on Runeberg Street 6.
There are many legends about Untola's productivity as a
writer - according to some sources the
story 'Manasse Jäppinen' (1912) was written in a few days. During
his highly creative period Untola also finished the
novel Portto: syntinen nainen, which dealt with prostitution,
but this book did not come out until 2002. Mimmi Paavaliina
(1916) portrayed a woman, who has six illegitimate children, whom she
names after a police chief, the substitute minister, a sexton, and so
forth. Kuolleista herännyt
(1916) contains the farcical elements of mistaken identity,
misunderstanding, and drunkenness.
Untola's work from a Bakhtian perspective, Irma Tapaninen has argued
that the author took a carnivalesque attitude toward the mainstream
culture. (Karnevalistinen henki Algot Untolan
varhaistuotanto ja virallisen kulttuurin muutos 1900-luvun alussa
by Irma Tapaninen, 2014) When writing
as Maiju Lassila, he assumed the role of a folk humorist, littering his
work with dialectical words he had heard or had invented himself. Like
the peasants in the paintings of Bruegel, his characters are led by
their whims, dresires, and fantasies. Basically, the laughter was
not aimed at the common people, but at human follies and foibles,
and the literary taste of the day.
The novel Liika viisas (Too Wise) was produced in the spirit of Rabelais and Cervantes, whom Untola named as one of his major influences, along with Dostoevsky. Sakari Kolistaja, the protagonist, believes that worldly wisdom is evil, and he begins to preach against wisdom. At the end Sakari, the "too wise" of the title who has become the director of an insane asylum, leads a group of patients off in a wild procession of fools. Sakari's sermons are parodies but Untola's attitude toward religion was ambivalent - his unpublished manuscripts reveal that he was concerned with faith and spiritual things.
"Sillä ei tarvitse suomenkansa viiautta eikä turkkia se joka löylyssä kylpee. Ei, vaan usko ja sana, pelkkä sana on meidän voimamme aina ollut. Leivällä ja sanalla, eikä viisaudella on suomenkansa ennenkin elänyt... Aamen! Herran nimeen ja selkiän sanan voimalla aamen." (in Liika viisas, 1915)
From 1917 to 1918 Untola worked for the leftist newspaper Työmies,
and became its last journalist during the Civil War. From that time one
remembered his Chaplinsque appearance, resigned look, unkempt trouser
legs and shoes. When Helsinki was
captured by the German troops, Untola published his final column. In
vision he saw in the morning a proletarian woman, a rifle on her
shoulder, as the greatest gift the Finnish working class has given and
will ever give for its cause. This belief was not shared by the White
Army, who considered the female Red guards the worst kind of enemy.
Untola was arrested
with a bag which contained some clothes, photographs, books, and some
four or five thousand pages of writing.
the most prominent agitator in Helsinki, Untola's fate
was sealed. Probably he did not believe that he would be
death. (After the victory of the Whites, over 20,000 Reds were
executed or died in prison camps.) On hearing of Untola's arrest, Juhani Aho wrote in Hajamietteitä kapinaviikoilta
(1918-1919): "I would let him live, if he himself wants it . . . "
Despite V.A. Koskenniemi's claim in Vuosisadan alun ylioppilas
(1947), Aho did not make any effort to help Untola. (Raukoilla rajoilla.
Suomenkielisen proosakirjallisuuden historia by Markku
Eskelinen, 2016, pp. 233-234) Untola, prisoner number
158/1918, was killed on May 5, 1918, on
his transport by a towboat
to the execution place in Sveaborg, a sea-fortress located off the
shore of Helsinki. The circumstances of his death are unclear – whether
he was pushed overboard or tried to escape by jumping over the railing.
Several shots were
fired after him. The boat was stopped and Untola's body was lifted from
the water. He was buried in a mass grave with other Reds.
A collection of Untola's last writings came out in 1977, but
much of his work has remained unpublished; many manuscripts are in the
Helsinki University Library. His adventurous life was the subject of
Pirjo Honkasalo and Pekka Lehto's film Flame Top (Tulipää) from
1980. The title refers both to Untola's read hair and his radical
flaming socialist views.
For further reading: 'Literature in Finnish in the Twentieth Century from 1901 to the Indepencence,' in A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas (1973); Maiju Lassila. Legenda jo eläessään by Leo Lindsten (1977); Maiju Lassila by Elsa Erho (1957); 'Maiju Lassilan Kuolleista herännyt' by Veijo Meri, in Kaksitoista artikkelia (1967); 'Ihmeellinen Maiju Lassila' by Veijo Meri, in Goethen tammi (1978); Hiidenkiven arvoitus by Juhani Niemi (1985); 'Descriptions of the People: Jotuni and Lassila' by Kai Laitinen, in A History of Finland's Literature, ed. George C. Schoolfield (1998); 'Liikkuva tekijyys. Maiju Lassilan Rakkautta tekijyyden tekstinä' by Kaisa Kurikka, in Tekijyyden tekstit, edited by Kaisa Kurikka Kaisa and Veli-Matti Pynttäri (2006); Algot Untola ja kirjoittava kone by Kaisa Kurikka (2013); Omin voimin: Algoth Untolan (1868-1918) poliittis-vakaumuksellinen elämäkerta by Marko A. Hautala (2010); Karnevalistinen henki Algot Untolan varhaistuotanto ja virallisen kulttuurin muutos 1900-luvun alussa by Irma Tapaninen (2014); 'Varjeltu salaisuus' by Juha Hurme, in Helsingin Sanomat (30.12.2018); Algoth. Kapinallinen kynämies by Marko A. Hautala (2021) - Other writers killed in Civil Wars: Ambrose Bierce (during the Mexican Civil War in 1914); Federico García Lorca (during the Spanish Civil War in 1936); Juhani Siljo, who fought on the side of the White Guards during the Civil War in Finland, died of wounds after the Battle of Tampere in May 1918.