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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, Borrowing 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)
Maiju 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. There he started to use the name Untola, and made business trips to Russia.
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. Most likely the divorce was connected to his 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). According to some rumors, 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
Jasinski, a widow, who according to some speculations 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 that
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 a version of the proverb "much ado about nothing." It is a story of two farmers, Vatanen and Ihalainen. Vatanen notices that matches have run out at home and goes over to borrow matches from his neighbor. The friends are drawn into a comic adventure after taking too much liquor. Vatanen returns to home with one burned match. For the book, Untola created a new pseudonym, "Maiju Lassila"; the first name is female. Unlike Harhama and Martva, this relatively conventional novel was read and appreciated by such well-known writers as V.A. Koskenniemi, Volter Kilpi, and Kyösti Vilkuna.
In the early 1910s, when Untola lived in Kouvola, he 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 nine books under the pseudonyms J.I. Vatanen, Maiju Lassila, and Irmari Rantamala. There are many legends about Untola's productivity as a writer - according to some sources the short 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.
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 he 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 contemporary
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 his
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 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: 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); 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) - 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). The poet 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.