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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Hagar Olsson (1893-1978)


Finland-Swedish writer, journalist, critic, friend of the poet Edith Södergran (1892-1923). Olsson wrote in both languages. She was among the first playwrights, who introduced the Expressionistic drama to Finnish public. Olsson's theatre works were also visually pioneering. The set design for her drama S.O.S. (1928) was planned by the famous architect Alvar Aalto. In the 1920s and 1930s, Olsson was one of the few major writers in Finland, who was more interested in such themes than pacifism, Pan-Europaneanism, and collectivism, than national, social, or historical issues.

min själ
är en stjärna, som förblöder
i rymdernas oändlig ensamma natt.

(from 'In candidum')
(my soul
is a star, that bleeds
in the endless lonely night of the spaces)

Hagar Olsson was born in Gustafs (Kustavi), the daughter of a Protestant minister. She spent her early childhood in Åland and Åbo, but in 1906 the family moved to Räisälä on the Karelian Isthmus, the eastern Finland. Her father, Karl Sixtus Olsson, was bilingual. At home she spoke Finnish with him and Swedish with her mother. The Finnish-speaking parish of Räisälä was two miles north of Raivola where Edith Södergran lived.

After finishing her schooling in Viborg, Olsson studied in Helsinki at the Swedish School of Economics from 1913 to 1914, and at the University of Helsinki. Olsson contributed literature critics to the newspaper Dagens Press, later transformed into Svenska Pressen. She was a staff member of the  culture magazine Ultra with Elmer Diktonius, Lauri Haarla and Raoul af Hällström. This short-lived but highly influential bilingual magazine was tied to the small publishing house Daimon, founded by the writer and the antiquarian book dealer L.A. Salava.  Diktonius and Salava persuaded Olsson to become the Swedish editor. She worked for free; the office was an ordinary two-room flat in Helsinki. It has been speculated that Ultra received money from Moscow through O.W. Kuusinen.

A cosmopolitian, Olsson was interested in new ideas, and she introduced contemporary literature to Finland. She hosted a literay salon at her home, a small one-room apartment, on Lapinlahdenkatu, in Helsinki. Olavi Paavolainen, who visited her several time, dedicated his first book to Olsson. She called him an "impresario of modernism".

In 1925 Olsson published a collection of essays under the title Ny generation (1925, New Generation). The cover of the book was drawn by the sculptor Wäinö Aaltonen, with whom she lived at that time. Like the members of the literary movement Tulenkantajat, she reacted against the cynicism of the day, and was enthusiastic about the new youth in Russia, Germany, and Italy. A humiliating blow to her reputation as a critic was when she fell victim to a practical joke by Bertel Gripenberg, who published under the pseudonym Åke Eriksson a collection of poems parodying the modernist, Den hemliga glöden (1925) – after Olsson had eagerly welcomed the work, Gripenberg revealed the hoax.

Olsson's first novel, Lars Thoman och döden, came out in 1916 – in the same year as Edith Södergran's collection of poems Dikter. These works marked the beginning of the Finland-Swedish modernism. Olsson's novel was about a young man, who is haunted by fear of death and gains new strength from a forest god named Samr. The theme of death reappeared in the subsequent novels as well elements from fairy tales and mysticism. Kvinnan och nåden (1919), written under the influence of Pär Lagerkvist, embraced the belief that life continues after death.

Though Olsson's friendship with Södergran lasted only four years – Södergran died at the age of 31 – it had a deep influence on her work. "Have you forgotten me?" wrote Södergran when she waited for her letters. Olsson met her the last time in July 1922, when she traveled to Raivola with Raoul af Hällström. Her interpretation of Södergran's work (that her poetry was closely connected with the nature of the Karelian Isthmus) was dominant  until the publication of Gunnar Tideström's biography of Edith Södergran (1949).

Olsson's major novels include Mr Jeremias söker en illusion (1927), in which the protagonist dies in a traffic accident and finds the real adventure and a new world in death. Chitambo (1933) reflected the conflict between individualism and collectivism. This autobiographical work, set in Helsinki before and after the Civil War (1917-18), took its title from the village in Africa where the famous explorer David Livingstone died. Vega Maria, the protagonist, is named after A.E. Nordenskiöld's famous ship. She had devoted her life to women's rights movement. Following a personal crisis, she decides to become a great individual like David Livingstone, but in her own country. "Om jag inte var kallad att öppna vägen till det inre av Afrika, så finns det svarta världsdelar nog för mig i mitt eget land, nöd, mörker och natt, slavjakt och brödarkrig. Det stora och enastående som han verkligen vunnit med sitt liv, det var döden i Chitambo!" Vega Maria's father, Mr. Dyster, is a visionary, who is not able to realize his ideas. Her mother tries to find safety in her life through self-denial and conformity.

Olsson's play's were heavily experimental and showed her familiarity with the work of Pirandello and the German expressionist Georg Kaiser. S.O.S. (1928) dealt with the guilt of a poison gas manufacturer, and his transformation into a pacifist through the love of a self-scarifying woman. Erkki Vala praised the play in his review in Tulenkantajat: "You did what no one else has dared to do. You have heard the voice of the times . . . " Noteworthy, in G.B. Shaw's Major Barbara (1905), which Olsson's most likely knew, the arms manufacturer Andrew Undershaft is a model employer and the conclusion is that you "cannot have power for good without having power for evil too." In the play Det blåa undret (1932) a sister and brother represent, respectively, communism and fascism, but at the end they learn to understand each other.

Det blåser up till storm (1930) was a love story of a working class girl and a middle-class young boy, who propagate new ideas, but eventually the parents of the boy destroy their life. The novel received much attention in Sweden, where Olsson traveled in 1931 and became there in contact with writers around the magazine Tidevarvet and feminist activist at the Kvinnliga Medborgarskolan (The School for Women Citizens) in Fogelstad. With Ada Nilsson, the chief editor of Tidevarvet, and the rector Honorine Hermelin she began a decades-long correspondence. She wrote to Hermelin of the loss of her life's companion Toya Dahlgren, who died of tuberlulosis like Södergran. Olsson kept large number of the letters she received. The letters are stored in Åbo Akademi.

The short story Kinesisk ulflykt (1949) was dedicated to Olsson's friend Ella Frelander. The dream fantasy, an imitation of a Chinese legend, was built around scenes from the author's life. Träsnidaren och döden (1940, The Woodcarver and Death), a romantic novel, tells the story of a woodcarver, Abel Myyriäinen, who is drawn to mysterious Karelia, the source of his art. He meets a young sick girl Sanni and her father on their way to a monastery. She wants to see Saint Mary before she dies. After her death under a miracle-working icon, Abel follows Sanni's father to her home village and finds again his true calling as an artist.

Olsson edited a collection of Edith Södergran's letters. This work, which appeared in 1955, emphasized her role as Södergran's closest friend and confidante. Olsson also translated into Swedish works from such Finnish authors as L. Onerva, Johannes Linnankoski, Juhani Aho, Maila Talvio and F.E. Sillanpää. In 1969 she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Helsinki. Olsson's memoirs, Möte med kära gestalter (1963) returned partly to the events of Kinesisk utflykt. In the 1960s she published three collections of short stories, in which she dealt with religious themes. The title story of Hemkomst (1961) examined the daughter-father relationship, which was a recurrent subject in her work. Olsson died in Helsinki on February 21, 1978. She never married. From 1917 to 1920 she was engaged to the poet R.R. Eklund (1895-1946).

Olsson's forbidden play Lumisota(Snowball war), which she wrote under the shadow of the Winter War (1939-40) and which criticized nationalism and the martial spirit, was not professionally performed until 1982. During the postwar years, she was one of the most important cultural critics, who urged his colleagues to remember the lessons of the past. In 1965, Olsson received the prestigious Eino Leino award for her work as a critic.

For further reading: 'Den unga Hagar Olsson' by Olof Enckell, in Skrifter utgivna av Svenska Litteratursällskapet i Finland (1949); A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas (1973); Hagar Olsson och den nya teatern by Lena Fridell (1976); A History of Scandinavian Literature, 1870-1980 by Sven H. Rossel (1982); Karakteristik och värdering by Roger Holmström (1988); 'Avantgardet i öster' by Clas Zilliacus in Den Svenska Litteraturen, Vol. 5 (1989); Hagar Olsson och den öppna horisonten: Liv och diktning by Roger Holmström (1993); A History of Finland's Literature, ed. by George C. Schoolfield (1998); 'Med ansvar för hela mäskligheten,' in Nordisk kvinnoliteraturhistoria 3: Vida Världen 1900-1960, ed. Elisabeth Møller-Jensen (1998); Suomen kirjallisuushistoria, Vol. 2, ed. by Lea Rojola (1999); Finlands svenska litteraturhistoria. Andra delen: 1900-talet, ed. by Clas Zilliacus (2000); The Poet Who Created Herself: The Complete Letters of Edith Södergran to Hagar Olsson with Hagar Olsson's Commentary and the Complete Letters of Edith Södergran to Elmer Diktonius, edited by Silvester Mazzarella (2001); Häilyvyyden liittolaiset: kerronnan ja seksuaalisuuden ambivalenssit by Pauliina Haasjoki (2012); The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines. Volume III: Europe 1880 - 1940, edited by Peter Brooker, Sascha Bru, Andrew Thacker, and Christian Weikop (2013)  - "There can be no doubt that a new cultural idea, which aims at unity and togetherness in human affairs, is beginning to emerge in the world." (Olsson in 1948)

Selected works:

  • Lars Thoman och döden, 1916 [Lars Thorman and Death]
  • Själarnas ansikten, 1917 [Soul's faces]
  • translator: L. Onerva, Jungfru Marias gåva, 1918
  • translator: Johannes Linnankoski, Jeftas dotter: poem i en akt, 1919
  • translator: Johannes Linnankoski, Simson och Delila, 1919
  • Kvinnan och nåden, 1919 [Woman and mercy]
  • translator: F. E. Sillanpää, Fromma eländet: ett avslutad finskt livsöde, 1920
  • translator: Juhani Aho, Valda skrifter. Bd. 1, Järnvägen, 1920 (2. uppl.)
  • translator: Maila Talvio, Tranorna, 1921
  • translator: Juhani Aho, Spånor. Saml. 1, 1923
  • Ny generation, 1925 [New generation]
  • Hjärtats pantomin, 1927
  • Mr Jeremias söker en illusion, 1927 [Mr Jeremias searches for an illusion] - Mr Jeremias etsii illusionia (suom. Rakel Kansanen, 1927)
  • S.O.S, 1928 - S.O.S. (suom. Rakel Kansanen, 1929)
  • På Kanaanexpressen, 1929
  • translator: Kosti Vehanen, Mästersångaren Helge Lindberg: personliga minnen, 1929
  • Det blåser up till storm, 1930 - Sturm bricht an (deutsch von Helen Woditzka, 1931)
  • Det blåa undret, 1932
  • Chitambo, 1933
  • Arbetare i natten, 1935
  • Lumisota, 1939 [Snowball war]- Snöbollskriget (övers. av Eva Stenius, 1967; Johanna Enckell, 1982)
  • Träsnidaren och döden, 1940 - Karjalainen vaeltaja (suom. Lauri Viljanen, 1941) - The Woodcarver and Death (translated by George C. Schooffield, 1965)
  • Rövaren och jungfrun, 1944 [The thief and the maiden]
  • Hurskaat herjaajat: esseitä, 1946 (suom. Vihtori Laurila)
  • Jag lever, 1948 [I live]
  • Kinesisk utflykt, 1949 - Silkkimaalaus (suom. Eeva-Liisa Manner, 1954)
  • Kärlekens död, 1952 [Love's death]
  • Tidiga fanfarer och annan dagskritik, 1953  
  • Ediths brev: brev från Edith Södergran till Hagar Olsson, 1955 - Edith Södergranin kirjeet (suom. Pentti Saaritsa, 1990) - The Poet Who Created Herself: The Complete Letters of Edith Södergran to Hagar Olsson with Hagar Olsson’s Commentary and the Complete Letters of Edith Södergran to Elmer Diktonius, 2001 (translated and edited by Silvester Mazzarella)
  • Hemkomst, 1961 [Homecoming]
  • Möte med kära gestalter, 1963
  • Tidig dramatik, 1962 [Early plays]
  • Tidig prosa, 1963 (inledning av Jörn Donner)
  • Drömmar, 1966 [Dreams]
  • Ridturen och andra berättelser, 1968
  • Hitchcock kommer på besök, 1987

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