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by Bamber Gascoigne

Iris Uurto (1905 - 1994) - originally Lyyli Ester Mielonen


Finnish novelist, poet and playwright, who continued the female literary tradition of Maria Jotuni, L. Onerva, and Aino Kallas. Among the central themes in Iris Uurto's work are gender relations and marriage problems. In her own time Uurto's novels were considered daring – they dealt with such taboo subjects as women's sexuality and abort. Her major novel was Ruumiin viisaus (1942), in which the author sought liberation from the shackles of intellect and male dominance in marriage. Coming to terms with her erotic feelings, the protagonist leaves her husband.

"Lea katsahti hänen pahastuneisiin hartioihinsa, kuljeskeli edestakaisin laitellen astioita pöytään ja nyrpisteli nenäänsä: En voi itselleni mitään. En ole aina sama. Toisina hetkinä pidän hänestä oikein kovasti, toisinaan en voi sietää hänen kättään lähelläni. Enkä minä voi valehdella. Jos itse valehtelisin, ei ruumiini kuitenkaan koskan valehtele." (from Ruumiin viisaus)

Iris Uurto was born Lyyli Ester Mielonen in Kerimäki, the daughter of Paavo Mielonen, a farmer, and Maria Pennanen. Uurto did not like her first names, Lyyli Ester, and wanted to be called Iris already in her childhood. At the age of 15 she moved to Helsinki, where she graduated in 1929 from a secondary school. During this period Uurto worked in odd jobs, as a domestic servant, papergirl, and private teacher. At school she contributed to the school magazine. In 1930, Uurto married Aku Rautala, also an aspiring writer, who wrote under the pseudonym of Aukusti Ripatti. Rautala was a metal worker and agitator, who was imprisoned for his political activities after the Finnish Civil war in 1918. Later in the 1920s, Rautala portrayed Finnish working class people, among others in Hehkuvan raudan miehiä (1930) and Kädettömien taistelu (1930). Rautala retired from political activities in the late 1920s.

In 1930, Uurto published Ruumiin ikävä (The Longing of the Body/The Body's Yearnings), a novel, and Tulta ja tuhkaa (Fire and Ashes), a collection of short stories. The  appearance of these books also marked a turning point in her life. Abandoning her her studies at the University of Helsinki, Uurto devoted herself entirely to writing. Uurto's early success did not make her more sociable than she was. When the writer Helvi Hämäläinen met Uurto after the publication of Tulta ja tuhkaa, she gave Hämäläinen a copy of the book, saying that she has still plenty of writer's copies, but not so many acquaintances whom she could give it.

Ruumiin ikävä, later called the first Finnish psychoanalytical novel, was the sensation of the year and arose much controversy. While Christian conservative reviewers disapproved Uurto's celebration of physicality, her work responded well to debate of female sexuality and the display of women's bodies in films and adveertisements. In Arvosteleva luettelo (critical book catalog), published by the State Library Office, Lauri Pohjanpää characterized it as pathological and a sad sign of the times. Pohjanpää, a poet and theologian, condemned also Tulta ja tuhkaa unsuitable for public libraries. Still in the 1950s the critic and professor of literature Lauri Viljanen considered the title of the novel sensationalist, but compared Uurto's intense imagination to that of Sigrid Undset. Uurto's novel was translated into Swedish by Thomas Warburton, who saw similarities in Uurto's and D.H. Lawrence's thought.

In 1931, Aukusti Ripatti died accidentally – his eye sight was poor and he was killed by tram in the midddle of the day. Uurto was unable to raise her son, Aku-Kimmo, and left him in the care of her relatives. A friend of the journalist Jarno Pennanen, she joined the radical Hiilet (Coals) organization, which he had established with Katri Vala, Armas Heikel, E.F. Rautela and Keijo Eronen. In the newspaper Ajan Sana, a mouthpiece of the right-wing peasant movement Lapuan liike, the organization was labelled as communist. Hiilet was suppressed by a court order. Although Uurto was not active in politics, she wrote for the Marxist literature magazine Kirjallisuuslehti and opposed actively in 1934-35 death penalty. In 1936. Uurto became a member of the literary group Kiila, which was founded by such young leftist writers as Arvo Turtiainen and Elvi Sinervo. The poet Katri Vala, a member of the radical literary group Tulenkantajat (The Flame Bearers), was Uurto's neighbor for a short time.

Uurto wrote her her next novel, Kypsyminen (The Ripening), an examination of the crisis of bourgeois values, for five years. It came out in 1935 and gained critical success – the book was also translated into Swedish. Mrs. Pallas has no identity outside her relationships with her family. Her carefully built world around her home and her family is destroyed when the marriage ends. Mrs. Pallas's stepson Lauri falls in love with Maria, an extremely sensitive woman. Maria cannot reject Mr. Attila, her "benefactor" and later husband. The submissive Maria becomes a victim of her own Christian self-sacrificing character. Rakkaus ja pelko (1936) depicted the lower middle-class people. The central characters, Niilo and Kaarina, Mrs. Pallas's stepdaughter, do not find balance in their relationship and on Niilo's demand, Kaarina decides to abort her pregnancy. Timanttilakien alla (1938) reflected Uurto's changed political views and separation from her earlier radical activities. The protagonist is Peter, Nord, who has joined a group of young writers. He falls in love with Asta, the daughter of an executed Red Guard officer. Asta's husband is imprisoned. She leaves Nord and commits suicide with her new lover. Nord travels abroad to end his life. Katri Vala praised the work in the leftist magazine Tulenkantajat, saying that the thin book contained more thoughts than many overwhelmingly heavier ones in appearance.

In the late 1930s, Uurto wrote dramas without much theatrical success. Satu sankarista was not produced at the National Theatre until 1945. This pacifist play was set in the ancient Italy, and depicted the conquest of Veii, an Etruscan city, which was taken after long siege by the dictator Camillus. Ruumiin viisaus (Wisdom of the Body), a marriage novel, was set in the literary world. One of the central characters is an aspiring writer, Elias Aro. He marries Lea, an office employee, but nearly loses her before he realizes that one can deceive the mind but not the body. "The body is very wise..." Elias starts to look up to her as superior to himself. Their happiness do not last long. Elias dies accidentally and filled with new understanding of love, Lea continues calmly her life with their child.

Ruumiin viisaus was published in reworked form in Uurto's collected works in 1965 under the title Villit henget (Wild Souls). In Finnish "ikävä" means both "longing" and "sadness"; Uurto originally wanted to refer to sad things. She rewrote also her other books. Kypsyminen was retitled as Rouva Pallas (Mrs. Pallas), the central character changed from Lauri Pallas to her.

In her doctoral thesis Elämän pitäisi olla toisenlaista (2000, Life Shouldn't Be Like This) Tuula Spinkkilä sees that Uurto challenged the patriarchal society and its literary institutions with her strong emphasis on the human body. According to Spinkkilä, Uurto's work tells about the sexual difference and endless differences among women, about the importance of human and more especially of female corporeality and the potential wisdom of the female body. But the battle of sexes is never solved and patriarchal culture is equally suffocating for men as it is for women. One of her female characters in Ruumiin viisaus, the mathematical genius Siiri Halava, commits suicide.

From the late 1930s, Uurto did not participate in Kiila's activities. The writer Jarno Pennanen criticized her for passivity. During the Continuation War (1941-44) Uurto was one of the few writers who was not in any way helping officially or unofficially the war efforts. These years, filled with poverty pressure from authorities, she described in her collections of poems Sudet (1944) and Ihana lyhty (1946). Uurto mostly wrote in free verse. Sudet received a lukewarm review from V.A. Koskeniemi, but Olof Enckell in Hufvudstadsbladet praised her rhythmic form.

After the war Uurto stated that she is not going to participate in any political activities or join any literary group – she is only a member of humankind. When Kiila began to publish a new cultural magazine, 40-luku, edited by Arvo Turtiainen, she was mentioned  among the contributors, along with Aaro Hellaakoski, Helvi Hämäläinen, Yrjö Kallinen, Hertta Kuusinen, and many others. However, some of them never wrote for the magazine. Final break with Kiila came with the novel Joonas ei välittänyt (1950),  a "roman à clef" of the adventures of Joonas Tela (Uurto's alter ego) as the director of the bourgeois Suomi Theatre and the tangled relationships between Mai, Aaro and Eino Ahava, based on the real life triangle of Elvi Sinervo, her husband Mauri Ryömä, and Jarno Pennanen.   The targets of her satire were Kiila, Kirjallisuuslehti, and Suomen Työväen Näyttämö (Workers' Stage), her old comrades, and their love affairs, partly based on real life.

Uurto never remarried, but she had a serious love affair which ended about 1950. In her later years Uurto, a shy and sensitive person, increasingly chose seclusion. She hold the view that her books are her biography and refused to give interviews. After Ihana lyhty Uurto left her old publisher Otava, and moved over to WSOY, which published two of her novels, Joonas ei välittänyt and Kapteenin naiset.

Nään koko maailman, en rajoja,
rakastan koko maailmaa, en puolta,
en nurkkausta vain, en isänmaata.

(I see the whole world, not the borders,
I love the whole world, not a half of it,
not a corner only, my native country.)

(from Ihana lyhty, 1946)

In the 1930s, Uurto traveled in Estonia, Sweden, France and Italy, and in the late 1940s she visited England, France, and Switzerland. Kukkiva jakarandapuu (The Flowering Jacaranda Tree), a collection of poems, was rejected by her publisher. In the late 1950s, she lived some time at the Divine Life Society's ashram in Rishikesh, India. After a nervous breakdown, she went to Switzerland for treatment. Uurto died on April 1, 1994, in an old-age home. Aku-Kimmo Ripatti died before her, in February in the same year. Uurto received the State literary award four times (1936, 1942, 1944, 1969).

Uurto's last book, a war novel, Den brinnande ön (1957, Puut juuriltaan), appeared first in Swedish, translated by the writer Bo Carpelan. The Finnish, reworked edition, was published by Otava in 1968. Uurto examined the psychological effects of war on the soldiers and the experiences of women during the war years. At the end of the story Allan, after spending years at the front, admits that he cannot live the same inner life than before the war. Again Uurto refers to the inner voice of her characters, the voice of nature. Parnasso, the most important literary magazine in Finland, did not review the book. Toini Havu wrote in her surprisingly negative introduction to Uurto's collected works in 1970 that Puut juuriltaan is one of Uurto's best novels but an uncharacteristic work for her.

Uurto remained distant to her son, Aku-Kimmo Ripatti (1931-1994), who also became a writer. Mostly she focused on her writing and her son lived in Kerimäki in Uurto's childhood home. Later Ripatti worked as a teacher and published novels, poems, and pamphlets of the life in Finland's developing areas in Kainuu. Ripatti's documentary novel Iris (1988) was about Uurto's childhood in Kerimäki. "Iris is my mother," Ripatti wrote. "However, I don't know her." As an anecdote Ripatti tells, that Uurto wanted to buy in the early 1980s the Punkaharju Ridge, a beautiful natural monument in eastern Finland, when she began to believe that its trees will be cut down. Ripatti's other works include Luodemailta (1962), Kolmen vuoden lumet (1964), Siirtomaasuomi (1970), Sikojen juhla (1970), Kyösti Sorsan opintie (1972), Syrjämaa (1974), Tervahanhi (1974), En sano muuta (1986), Arki soi (1987).

For further reading: Mitta ja rytmi Iris Uurron lyriikassa by Ulla-Riikka Uurto (pro gradu, 2014); Elämän pitäisi olla toisenlaista by Tuula Spinkkilä (2000); 'Syvään uurrettua – Iris Uurto naiskirjailijana 1930-luvun kulttuurisella kentällä' by Ulla-Maija Juutila, in Ajan paineessa: kirjoituksia 1930-luvun suomalaisesta aatemaailmasta, ed. by Pertti Karkama, Hannele Koivisto (1999); Suurten henkien jäljillä by Liisa Vepsäläinen (1991); Iris by Aku-Kimmo Ripatti (1988); Kapinalliset kynät II-III by Raoul Palmgren (1984); 'Iris Uurto' by Toini Havu, in Valitut teokset by Iris Uurto (1970); 'Iris Uurto' by Aarne Laurila, in Suomen kirjallisuus V, ed. by Annamari Sarajas (1965); 'Naisen näkökulmasta' by Lauri Viljanen in Lyyrillinen minä (1959); 'Iris Uurto' by Unto Kupiainen, in Iris Uurto's Valitut teokset (1957)

Selected works:

  • Ruumiin ikävä, 1930 [The Longing of the Body] (published in 1965 in Kootut teokset as Villit henget)
  • Tulta ja tuhkaa: novelleja ja runoja, 1930 [Fire and Ashes]
  • Kypsyminen, 1935 [The Ripening] (published in 1965 in Kootut teokset as Rouva Pallas)
    - Farväl Maria (övers. av Olof Enckell, 1936)
  • Rakkaus ja pelko, 1936 [Love and Fear]
    - Den tappra kärleken (övers. av Olof Enckell, 1937)
    - Armastus ja kartus (tõlk. H. Lepik, 1963)
  • Timanttilakien alla, 1938
  • Ruumiin viisaus, 1942 [Wisdom of the Body]
    - Kroppens visdom (övers. av. Th. Warburton, 1943)
  • Sudet, 1944 [Wolfs] (poetry)
  • Satu sankareista, 1945 [A Tale about a Hero] (play)
  • Suomalainen kohtalonnäytelmä. Puolustuspuhe ja hyljätyt murhenäytelmät, 1945 [A Finnish Play on Destiny] (play)
  • Ihana lyhty, 1946 [The Wonderful Lantern] (poetry)
  • Joonas ei välittänyt, 1950 [Joonas Did Not Care]
  • Kapteenin naiset, 1952 [The Captain's Women]
  • Den brinnande ön, 1957 [The Burning Island] (övers. av Bo Carpelan)
  • Valitut teokset, 1957 (introduction by Unto Kupiainen)
  • Valitut teokset, 1965-66 (3 vols.)
  • Puut juuriltaan, 1968 [The Uprooted Trees] (reworked from Palava saari / Den brinnande ön)
  • Äiti, 1970 [Mother] (play)
  • Valitut teokset, 1970 (introduction by Toini Havu)
  • Ruumiin ikävä, 2016 (E-kirja)

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