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by Bamber Gascoigne

Lauri (Arvi) Viita (1916-1965)


Poet and novelist, one of the central characters in the Finnish post-World War II literature. Lauri Viita published only four collections of poems. As a writer he was self-learned but he had a first-class, original talent for language. Viita mastered many verse forms and examined new uses of rhymes. His public readings of his own poems were appreciated by large audiences, often by people who in general did not know much of literature. Viita was married to the writer Aila Meriluoto, who has portrayed him in several works.

"Dear People!
Don't think, is this poetry or prose.
Don't ask, do I hate empty space.
Don't imagine anything, until you have seen
---the printing machine."

(from 'Mitä varten kirjoitan', in Suutarikin, suuri viisas, 1961)

Lauri Viita was born in Pohjois-Pirkkala (from 1938 Nokia), the son of a carpenter. His mother, Alfhild Josefina (Nikander) Viita, was a social person, talkative and optimistic, and later Viita depicted her in many loving and sentimental poems. Emil Viita, his father, was uncommunicative – he learned to read and write relatively late in life. In 1909-1910 he was a secretary of a local trade union division. The family moved to Pispala near Tampere in 1895, but due to problems with the neighbors, they moved to Tampere for some years, before finally settling in Pispala. From the age of five until he entered the army, Viita lived in the house number 97; nowadays it's a writer's museum.

The small working class village, built on a steep hill, influenced deeply Viita and became the central scene of his works. During the Finnish Civil War (1917-18) it was the last stronghold of the Red Guard, after the battle of Tampere. Pispala's reputation was not good, partly because a number of people living there supported Communists. Viita was also inclined to the Left, but he did not join any party. At school Viita was an average student. He did not finish high school – Viita's school fees were expensive for his parents. Moreover, education was not considered a high priority in the community; to be a good worker was something more valuable.

Until 1947 Viita worked as a carpenter in construction sites. His spare time Viita spent reading, especially he was interested in natural sciences. Important writers for him were Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Knut Hamsun. Viita had written some poems in his youth, but it was not until he went through a spiritual crisis during the war years he become a writer.

During the Winter War (1939-40) Viita served in the Finnish Army, and was wounded in his hand – later he told that the wound was self-inflicted. In December 1939, on his leave, he married Kerttu Solin. They correspondence from the war years record Viita's determination to find his own literary voice. With his wife he used a code language to inform her where his unit was stationed.

During the Continuation War (1941-44) Viita was a signaler, building telephone lines off the front. His last pennies he spent on works by such authors as James Joyce, Maupassant, James Oliver Curwood, Egon Friedell, Stefan Zweig, Uuno Kailas and Kaarlo Sarkia. In the evenings he wrote most of his his first book Betonimylläri, a selection of poems, which came out in 1947. The title poem describes the dreams of a construction worker during his lunch break. "Some voice is explaining: / – This is that sick head / in which the lunacy is bread. / Is it a leak in the mould, a blast / in the alloy, or a fault in the cast?" The most popular poem of the collection is 'Alfhild', about maternal love.

Viita's Moreeni, a polyfonic novel set in the working-class neighbourhood Pispala, was published three years later, but it had been under work from the early 1940s. When Väinö Linna depicted agricultural proletariat in his trilogy Täällä Pohjantähden alla (1959-1962), Viita focused on the poor people in the industrial city of Tampere. Moreeni was widely reviewed – Alex Matson said that the book was the most perfect example of the art of the novel since Aleksis Kivi. Some leftist critics noted that Viita's protagonists lacked "class-consciousness." Viita himself claimed that never before there has been written a more leftist book in Finland.

The novel was partly based on Viita's own life and depicted the family Nieminen from the Civil War to the Depression of the 1930s. The dramatic historical events of the time are touched briefly in the story, but Viita was more interested in the personal lives of his characters than history. Moreeni was set in Pispala, a run-down but fiercely independent working-class community, which was later the scene in several of Hannu Salama's novels. Iisakki Nieminen is a carpenter, who has built for his family a house and became self-employed. In the end of the story he is unemployed. He falls down with a thrombosis, is moved from the road to jail and gets a kick in the head by a police.

Among Viita's other major works is the poem Kukunor (1949), a playful adult fairy tale about two young trolls, Kukunor and Kalahari. They read books and debate on geography. Kukunor, an idealist, believes in her dreams. The poem was partly inspired by Maeterlinck's famous fairy tale The Blue Bird (1908), which Viita had read in 1948. The collection included one of the most performed poems of the author, about a woodpecker, starting with the words "Tikka päätään puuhun nakkaa / – muttei loukkaa / koskei lakkaa . . ." Kukunor received mixed reviews, it was considered difficult and sold only 1 384 copies by the end of 1950. The verse collection Käppyräinen (1954) included several poems written in prose metre or in archaic Kalevala metre, which dominated his last lyrical works. Some of the poems were aimed at Viita's critics, among the 'Satakieli,' about a boy who kills a nightingale to prove that he had recognized the bird right. Humor was present as in Betonimylläri, although now it was not so satirical. Some poems dealt with religious problems. "Oh Jesus, must I know everything?" the poet asks in 'Do I believe'. Viita's mother Alfhild had been very religious, but Viita himself had left the church as a protest. However, in the last period of his life he joined the church, viewing it still suspiciously as an institution.

Viita was married to the writer and translator Aila Meriluoto (1924-2019) from 1948 to 1956. Meriluoto published in 1946 her first collection of poems, Lasimaalaus, which gained a huge success, selling 25 000 copies in a short time. Meriluoto was inspired in particular by the work of Rainer Maria Rilke, and quickly emerged as one of the leading voices of the post-war generation. Her experimentation with metre also encouraged other young poets. At the time she met Viita, he was still married. They both fell passionately in love, but, as writers, they differed greatly: her work was marked by bourgeois optimism while Viita viewed the world in terms of class struggle. Besides poems, Meriluoto's oeuvre consists of novels, short stories, fairy tales, children's books. Her many translations include Harry Martinson's Aniara (1963), Nelly Sachs' Israelin kärsimys (1966), and Rilke's Duinon elegiat (1974). - Selected works: Sairas tyttö tanssii (1952), Pommorommo (1956), Pahat unet (1958), Portaat (1961), Asumattomiin (1963), Ateljee Katariina (1965), Tuoddaris (1965), Meidän linna (1968), Silmämitta (1969), Peter-Peter (1971), Elämästä (1972), Lauri Viita: legenda jo eläessään (1974), Kootut runot (1976), Kotimaa kuin mies (1977), Varokaa putoilevia enkeitä (1977), Sisar vesi, veli tuli: jännitysromaani (1979), Talvikaupunki (1980), Vihreä tukka (1982), Lasimaalauksen läpi: päiväkirja vuosilta 1944-47 (1986), Ruusujen sota (1988), Vaarallista kokea: päiväkirja vuosilta 1953-1975 (1996), Mekko meni taululle (2001), Kimeä metsä (2002), Miehen muotoinen aukko (2005), Tältä kohtaa: päiväkirja vuosilta 1975-2004 (2010), Tämä täyteys, tämä paino (2011). - For further reading Lasinkirkas, hullunrohkea: Aila Meriluodon elämästä ja runoudesta by Panu Rajala (2010); 'Lauri Viita & Aila Meriluto,' in Suurin on rakkaus by Kaija Valkonen, Elina Koivunen (1997)

In 1948 Viita left his home town and moved with Meriluoto to Orimattila and then to Pieksämäki, where he wrote in a small sauna room a part of Moreeni. During this period he read Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Tolstoy's War and Peace. The small town depressed him, and after Moreeni was published he moved to Ruovesi, but also spent much time in restaurants in Tampere. He had several writing plans, the most fantastic of which was a play entitled Lindströmin pihvi (Lindström's steak) about a missionary, named Lindström, who is captured by cannibals in Africa.

Viita's last creative years were shadowed by a mental illness that Meriluoto depicted in her book Lauri Viita (1974). Viita was also hospitalized several times for short periods. When Meriluota started to fear Viita, she had divorce in two weeks. Most of the poems in his last collection, Suutarikin, suuri viisas (1961), Viita wrote in the summer of 1960. 19 of its 51 poems were composed in Kalevala metre. The work was compared to Eino Leino's Hekavirsiä (1903-1916, Whit songs). In reviews Viita was seen as the last great representative of traditional poetry, but like Leino he avoided following the Kalevala metre slavishly.

In 1962 Viita married Anneli Kuurinmaa; they had one son. The new marriage did not stop his restless traveling to Helsinki or Tampere, and once police returned him from Sweden back to Finland. His final novel was the first volume of the novelistic trilogy Entäs sitten, Leevi (What then, Leevi), which came out for the Christmas season of 1965. Meriluoto read its early version and considered it "incomprehensible." Only two chapters have survived from the second volume. "It's better to die in the middle of my work than it dies before I do," says the aspiring writer Leevi, the protagonist. Lauri Viita died after a car accident on December 22, 1965. The author though that he was not badly hurt, and said: "No nyt on pahin ohi!" (Now the worst is over) He was taken to a hospital where he died of internal injuries next morning.

When I have died, when I have died
Summer will continue.

(from 'Onni', 1965)

Viita's success and example as a writer encouraged other aspiring poets and novelists from the city of Tampere to form a literary club called 'Mäkelän piiri.' It consisted mostly of writers who had a working class background, except Alex Matson (1888-1972), a critic and essayist, who guided the discussions at the Tampere library. Viita was a central member of the circle, whose loud voice and energetical personality dominated discussions. He could keep all participants awake sometimes until three-four o'clock in the morning. Viita's example as a novelist inspired several working class authors, among them Väinö Linna, but Viita himself did not understand why Linna's novel The Unknown Soldier (1954) gained a huge popularity.

For further reading: Lauri Viita. Kirjailija ja hänen maailmansa by Yrjö Varpio (1973); A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas (1973); Lauri Viita. Legenda jo eläessään by Aila Meriluoto (1974); A Way To Measure Time, ed. by Bo Carpelan et al. (1992); 'Lauri Viita & Aila Meriluto,' in Suurin on rakkaus by Kaija Valkonen, Elina Koivunen (1997); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 4, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Taide ja taudit: tutkimusretkiä sairauden ja kulttuurin kosketuspinnoilla, ed. by Laura Karttunen, Juhani Niemi & Amos Pasternack (2007); Kirjailijan kieli ja mieli: Lauri Viidan elämä sairauden valossa by Raimo K. R. Salokangas (2012); Haltiakuusen alla: suomalaisia kirjailijakoteja by Anne Helttunen, Annamari Saure, Jari Suominen (2013); Moniääninen Moreeni: referointi ja moniäänisyys Lauri Viidan Moreenissa by Anneli Niinimäki (2016);  Kukunor: uni ja nonsensekirjallisuuden traditio  Lauri Viidan runoelmassa by  Sakari Katajamäki  (2016); Luojan palikkaleikki: esseitä Lauri Viidasta, ed. by Olli Löytty (2016); 'Niin viita vastaa kuin sinne huutaa' by Yrjö Varpio, in niin & näin (nro 91 talvi 4/2016); Lauri Viita: kirjailijan elämä by Jukka Lyytinen (2020) - See also other writers from the city of Tampere: Kalle Päätalo (born in Taivalkoski, moved to Tampere in the 1950s), Alex Matson

Selected works:

  • Betonimylläri: runoja, 1947
  • Kukunor: satu ihmislapsille, 1949
  • Moreeni, 1950
    -Ein einzelner Weiser ist immer ein Narr (aus dem Finnischen übertr. von Carl-August von Willebrand, 1964)
    - Morän (övers. av N.-B. Strombom, 1965)
    - Moreny (Przelozyl Krzystof Radziwill; Opracowanie graficzne: Wojciech Korytowski, 1970)
    - Moréna (fordította Bereczki Gábor, 1977)
  • Käppyräinen: runoja, 1954
  • Valikoima runoja, 1958
  • Suutarikin, suuri viisas: runoa ja proosaa, 1961
  • Entäs sitten, Leevi: romaani, 1965
    - A végtelen bennünk van: regeny (fordi´totta Gombár Endre; az utószót Bereczki Gábor irta, 1983)
  • Kootut runot, 1966
  • Kootut runot, 1968 (2nd ed., foreword by Lauri Viljanen)
  • Kootut runot, 1991 (7th ed.)
  • Ne runot, jotka jäivät: Runoja kokoelmien ulkopuolelta, 2016 (edited by Sakari Katajamäki)

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