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||Mika (Toimi) Waltari (1908-1979) - pseudonyms Leo Arne, Kristian Korppi, Nauticus, Leo Rainio, M. Ritvala|
Prolific Finnish writer, best-known for his historical novels, especially The Egyptian (originally Sinuhe, egyptiläinen), which appeared in 1945. Waltari's works has been translated into more than 30 languages. He is generally considered one of major Finnish writers of the 20th-century. Along with Väinö Linna's Unknown Soldier, his books are found from the average Finnish bookshelf. A recurrent theme in Waltari's work is the fate of humanist values in a materialist world. After World War II Waltari took the large-scale historical novels as means to express his pessimism and Christian world view.
"I, Sinuhe, the son of Senmut and of his wife Kipa, write this. I do not write it to the glory of the gods in the land of Kem, for I am weary of gods, nor the glory of the Pharaohs, for I am weary of their deeds. I write neither from fear nor from any hope of the future but for myself alone. During my life I have seen, known, and lost too much to be the prey of vain dread; and as for the hope of immortality, I am as weary of that as I am of gods and kings. For my own sake only I write this; and herein I differ from all other writers, past and to come." (from Sinuhe, trans. by Naomi Walford)
Mika Waltari was born in Helsinki, the son of Toimi Armas Waltari, a Lutheran pastor and schoolmaster, and Olga Maria Johansson. Waltari lost his father in 1914 when he was five years old. He grew up in one-parent family with two uncles, the Doctor of Theology Toivo Waltari and the Master of Engineering Jalo Sihtola, whose knowledge of art influenced Waltari's early development. Waltari's mother worked as a civil service clerk and schooled her three sons. Summers the family spent at Kalle Uusitalo's home – he was a railway-track inspector and the male companion of Waltari's mother. During the Finnish Civil War (1917-18), Waltari was in Helsinki, which was reigned by the Red Guards. After Helsinki was conquered, he witnessed the victory parade of the White Army in the Spring of 1918.
Waltari studied theology at the University of Helsinki, but against his parent's wishes, he turned to study philosophy, aesthetics, and literature, receiving his M.A. in 1929. His thesis dealt with Paul Morand. As a student Waltari wrote among others for the magazine Ylioppilaslehti, edited by Urho Kekkonen. Waltari's early literary efforts were religious poems and horror stories inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. Under the pseudonym of Kristian Korppi – the surname Korppi (the raven) referred to Poe's famous work – Waltari composed poems, a selection of which was published in the anthology Nuoret runoilijat (1926). Waltari's pseudonym was invented by Elina Vaara. As Kristian Korppi he wrote also a collection of short stories, entitled Kuolleen silmät (1926). One of the stories, entitled 'Muumio' (The Mummy), was about the mysteries of Ancient Egypt. Jumalaa paossa (1925), Waltari's first book, was a religious story.
In 1927 Waltari made a journey to Paris. There he wrote at Hôtel de Suède his first novel, Suuri illusioni (1928, The Great Illusion), which brought him fame as the interpreter of the feelings of the new generation. "I yearn for the city, asphalt, the smell of metal-dust and petrol – that nervous longing which, as the evening darkens, wanders the quiet streets," Waltari said on the first page. The description of youthful and rebellious Bohemian life in Helsinki was quickly translated into Swedish, Norwegian, and Estonian.
Valtatiet (1928), a collection of poems, written with Olavi Paavolainen, expressed the optimism of the jazz-loving generation. Waltari enjoyed traveling – he preferred the pleasures of train travel to flying – and was especially enthusiatic about speed, trains, ships, and cars. In the poem 'Hopeahaikara' a silver stork, Hispano-Suiza's radiator mascot, is the symbol of the speed of movement, but in 'Ballaadi Iris Stormista', about a car accident, the stork is also a symbol of inevitable fate. Because Waltari himself did not have a driving licence, he was dependent on his daughter Satu, who drove his yellow Škoda. Occasionally the actor Tarmo Manni served as a chauffeur. Later Waltari bought a Chrysler.
Waltari became one of the leading figures of 'The Torchbearers', a liberal literary movement, whose members were inspired of Russian and Italian futurism. In the 1930s the group was supplanted by a more resolutely left-wing group, Kiila (The Wedge), but by this time Waltari was already an ultraconservative. In his stage comedy Kuriton sukupolvi (1937) Waltari ridiculed the younger generation. The melancholic short story 'The Parisian tie', was about mid-life crises. "She was a pretty girl and smiled encouragingly, and I had no reason to doubt her, any more than my wife. For this reason I remained gazing at the back of my head in astonishment, in my mind the horrifying sense that I had been tricked. Perhaps it was for that reason that I had enjoyed an additional glass of cognac in the middle of the day. A man needs some cheering when he realises unexpectedly that he has moved from the indeterminate years that follow youth to the calmness of middle age." (trans. by Hildi Hawkins, from Helsinki: a literary companion, 2000)
In the 1930s and 1940s Waltari worked as a journalist and literature critic, writing for several newspapers and magazines, among them Maaseudun Tulevaisuus (1932-42) and Suomen Kuvalehti, the leading illustrated weekly, where he was a subeditor from 1936 to 1938. Waltari's guide for aspiring writers, Aiotko kirjailijaksi (1935), influenced many young novelists, including Kalle Päätalo. Between the years 1928 and 1939 Waltari travelled widely in Europe, published travel stories in magazines, and the travel book Yksinäisen miehen juna (1929). In 1931 he married Marjatta Luukkonen. Their daughter Satu also became a writer.
The structure of F.E. Sillanpää's novel People in the Summer Night (1934) influenced Waltari's portrayal of Helsinki, Surun ja ilon kaupunki (1936), which focused on single day in the life of its characters. Waltari's greatest artistic success before the wars was due to his novel Vieras mies tuli taloon (A Stranger Came to the Farm), which won first prize in a competition in 1937 and was translated into some ten languages. During the Finnish Winter War (1939-1940) and in the following war of 1941-1944, Waltari worked at the governmental information center, and wrote four books. His works about the occupation of the Baltic countries and Soviet espionage, including Neuvostovakoilun varjossa (1942), were not reprinted after the peace treaty with the Soviet Union – they were considered politically inflammable and was removed from the libraries. Kaarina Maununtytär (1942) and Tanssi yli hautojen (1944) were historical novel set in the times of Eric XIV of Sweden (1533-1577) and Alexander I of Russia (1777-1825).
A fast and talented writer, Waltari moved easily from one literary field to another. He wrote mystery novels, poems, short stories, essays, fairy tales, travel books, screenplays, plays and memoirs. Waltari's rhymes for the Kieku and Kaiku comics, drawn by Asmo Alho, gained readers from children to adults. Some of his texts Waltari wrote in collaboration with Armas J.Pulla.
Following his hard work ethics Waltari suffered from insomnia and
depression and was treated in hospital on several occasions. With his
friends in the literary, theatrical and art circles he drank
periodically and retired then during the spring in the country to
write. To prove his critics the quality of his work, Waltari participated in the 1930s in several literary
first and second prizes. Kuka murhasi rouva Skrofin?
(Who murdered Mrs. Skrof?), sent to the Scandinavian detective story
contest of 1938, won the Finnish
original cover was designed by Poika Vesanto, whose style had a great
appeal to the readers of popular fiction. Having enjoyed writing the
book so much, Waltari dediced to write in the future more mystery
novels. It turned out that his true calling would be in large-scale
historical novels; the detective series represented what he called his
"secondary side" as a writer. "In "Who Murdered Mrs. Skrof?" Waltari
demonstrated his understanding of the whodunit author's role by giving
the novel a triangular structure, and with a narrator recounting the
actions of both a rational, paternalistic figure (Palmu) and a
decadently romantic adolescent (the villain)." (Encyclopedia of Nordic Crime Fiction: Works and Authors of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden Since 1967 by Mitzi M. Brunsdale, 2016, pp. 111-112)
Waltari's Frans J. Palmu, a veteran detective of the
police department, was cast from the same mold as Marton Taiga's
William J.Kairala and Simenon's Maigret. All of them have seen the
darker sides of life without being overwhelmed by cynicism. Moreover,
base their deductions solely on reason like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule
Poirot, but also rely on intuition and psychological insight. The
narrator, a Dr. Watson figure, is Palmu's assistant Toivo Virta.
Detective Väinö Kokki also belongs to the team; together they make a comic pair.
Kuka murhasi rouva Skrofin? was a bestseller. However, it was through Matti Kassila's films featuring Palmu that the character made its way into national consciousness as an archetypal old police officer. The series started with Komisario Palmun erehdys (Inspector Palmu's Mistake), which was published in 1940, and filmed in 1960, starring Joel Rinne (as Palmu), Leo Jokela (etsivä Kokki), Matti Ranin (as Toivo Virta), Matti Oravisto, Pentti Siimes, and Elina Salo. The series was continued with Kaasua, komisario Palmu! (1961, Gas, Inspector Palmu!), Tähdet kertovat, komisario Palmu (1962, The Stars Will Tell, Inspector Palmu!), in which Toivo Virta is the voice-over narrator, and the political thriller Vodkaa, komisario Palmu (1969, Vodka, Inspector Palmu), not based on Waltari's original text. This time Matti Kassila and the assistant director Georg Korkman created the story, which mixed murder, spying, and Finnish-Soviet commercial relations. Lilga Kovanko played a Soviet agent. The film has been regarded as an example of Finlandization. Reviewers were right: Palmu had been called back from retirement just for nothing. The about 60-pages-long Lepäisit jo rauhassa, Komisario Palmu, which Waltari scripted with Kassila in 1962-63, has not been published. The story was set in the theatre world of Helsinki and dealt with real estate speculation.
"When I consider the quintessential cinema, I feel it should combine the imagination and humanity of the Italian film, English humor, French sensuality, and the control and pace of the American movie; and because historical themes interest me, I would add to the inventory the brilliant montage of the Russian historical film." (Mika Waltari, in Drifting Shadows by Peter von Bagh, 1999, p. 46)
Already before the war Waltari had dealt with historical subjects, including in the play Akhnaton, which was produced at the National Theatre of Helsinki in 1938. Also Valtatiet included a love poem about eternal youth and mysteries of the ancient Egypt. The Egyptian was set in the Egypt of the 18th Dynasty, 1300 BC. The main characters are Sinuhe, the royal physician of the Pharaoh Ekhnaton, Kaptah, Sinuhe's servant, Nefernefernefer, the ruthless courtesan and Sinuhe's unfaithful beloved, and the military commander Horemheb, who destroys Ekhnaton's plans to remove old Gods and establish a monotheistic religion, anticipating Christianity. "The people must be controlled by fear. If the gods govern them, the throne needs no weapons to support." The theme of Sinuhe illustrates the disillusionment and resignation of the Finnish bourgeoisie when nearly all its old values collapsed through the turmoil of WW II. In the story a newly-born baby Sinuhe is placed in a tarred reed boat and allowed to float down the River Nile – like an unknown Moses. The wife of the paupers' physician in Thebes finds Sinuhe and raises him as her own son. He becomes a doctor like his foster-father. The beautiful courtesan Nefernefernefer ruins Sinuhe's life and he is driven into exile. There he befriends with Horemheb, and falls in love with Minea, a Creatan bull-dancer, who dies. Thanks to Horemheb, the general of the royal army, Sinuhe is made the Pharaoh's brain surgeon. When Ekhnaton tries to introduce monotheism to Egypt, he is killed and Horemheb becomes the new ruler. Sinuhe, who knows too much and is well-aware of his own true origin, is expelled from Egypt. In exile he writes down his life story.
The ancient world offered Waltari a grand and colorful stage to examine freely, without any political agenda, wartime and post-war realities of European life. From the mid-1940s Waltari concentrated on long historical novels, set in classical Mediterranean world, as in Turms, kuolematon (1955, The Etruscan), or in the Ancient Rome, as in Ihmiskunnan viholliset (1964, The Roman). Among his novels set in the Byzantine Empire are Johannes Angelos (1952, The Dark Angel), a love story set in a doomed city, and Nuori Johannes (1981), a prequel to The Dark Angel, which was published posthumously.
The Dark Angel is written in the form of a diary. It opens in Constantinople in the spring of 1453 when the Ottoman Turks besieged the city. The last city of the Greek church and the capital of the Byzantine Empire will be soon taken by the Turks and then serve as their capital in the succeeding centuries. Against this change of an era Waltari creates a love story. Johannes Angelos, a man who has wandered far and known much, falls in love with the beautiful Anna Notaras, who takes a sword in defense of the city. "I have stayed up to write. From time to time I have closed my eyes and rested my hot forehead on my hands. But sleep will not take pity on me now. Through eyelids gritty from weariness I see her beauty – her mouth – her eyes. How her cheeks burn at the touch of my hand – how dazzling a flame shoots through me when I stroke her naked loin. Never have I longed so madly for her as now, when I know that I have lost her." (from The Dark Angel, 1952, trans. by Naomi Walford) Johannes knows that he also must witness the collapse of a civilization. He dies in the hands of the Sultan, who declares that he is his own law. "Not God himself can compete with me in earthly power." Johannes realizes that in his fashion he is right, since he has chosen truth as man sees it, and material death, rather than the reality of God. "In believing that you can shake off the past like an old prejudice and set yourself up as the standard by which all things are to measured, you are forging worse fetters for yourself than anyone has ever borne before you."
Some of Waltari's novelettes were first rejected by his published because they were considered obscene and he then published them himself. From 1957 to 1978 Mika Waltari was a member of The Finnish Academy. In his later works, such as Feliks onnellinen (1958), Valtakunnan salaisuus (1959, The Secret of the Kingdom), and The Roman, Waltari dealt with religious themes. His last effort was a historical fiction novel about the Templars, which he never finished, but burned the manuscipt. During his visit in 1968 in Turkey, where he was celebrated as a public figure, Waltari collected material for the novel. "Mr. Waltari felt happy as a child," his guide recalled. Mika Waltari died on August 26, 1979, in Helsinki. Waltari's books have not lost their popularity among readers; they have also inspired academic research.
Among film makers, Waltari has been very popular. According to
director Matti Kassila, his works were basis for 33 films, such as
Tanssi yli hautojen, Kuka murhasi rouva Skrofin?, Komisario Palmun
erehdys, and Tähdet kertovat, komisario Palmu. Other film adaptation's not listed in selected works below include Sininen varjo (1933, dir. by Valentin Vaala); VMV 6 (1936, dir. by Risto Orko); Helmikuun manifesti (1939, dir. by Toivo Särkkä); Oi kallis Suomenmaa (1940, dir. by Wilho Ilmari); Onni pyörii (1942, dir, by Toivo Särkkä); Tyttö astui elämään (1943, dir. by Orvo Saarikivi); Nuoria ihmisiä (1943, dir. by Ossi Elstelä); Nainen on valttia (1944, dir. by Ansa Ikonen); Maailman kaunein tyttö (1953, dir. by Veikko Itkonen); Pikku Ilona ja hänen karitsansa (1957, dir. by Jorma Nortimo); Verta käsissämme (1958, dir. by William Markus); Kuningas jolla ei ollut sydäntä (1982, dir. by Päivi Hartzell). The Italian-born film producer Dino De Laurentiis wanted to make a film from The Dark Angel. Dalton Trumbo,
a formerly blacklisted writer who had won two Oscars, was commissioned
to write the screenplay; he finished the second draft in February 1963.
Richard Fleischer was planned to be the director, but the movie was
never made. (Poikki! toteutumattomat kotimaiset elokuvat by Niko Jutila, 2020, pp. 38-39)
For further reading: Pyramidiuni: piirteitä tulenkantajien runoudesta by Kerttu Saarenheimo (1969); Mika Waltari ulkomailla by Jorma Vallinkoski (1978); Kirjailijan muistelmat, ed. by. Ritva Haavikko (1980); Mika Waltari - mielikuvituksen jättiläinen, ed. by. Ritva Haavikko (1982); Valtakunnan illuusio by Paavo Rissanen (1982); Hovikulttuuri, manierismi, Mika Waltari, ed. by Jussi Välimaa (1986); Suuri illusionisti: Mika Waltarin romaanit by Markku Envall (1994); Noita palaa näyttämölle: Mika Waltari parrasvaloissa by Panu Rajala (1998); Mika Waltari: muukalainen maailmassa by Risto Lindstedt (2007); Mika Waltari ja taiteilijaystävät: kirjailija kuvataiteen kuraattorina, ed. by Tuula Karjalainen (2008); Unio mystica: Mika Waltarin elämä ja teokset by Panu Rajala (2008); Mika Waltari: the Finn by Markéta Hejkalová (2008); Valkokankaan Waltariana: Mika Waltarin elokuvat by Kari Uusitalo, Sakari Toiviainen (2010); Komisario Palmun jäljillä by Juha Järvelä & Marjo Vallittu (2014): Mika Waltarin Helsinki by Juha Järvelä (2019)