In 1992 the main Finnish daily newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, ran a contest to choose the best Finnish novel ever written. To everyone’s surprise, the winner was a 900-page loose baggy monster of a modernist/avant-garde novel titled Alastalon salissa (“In the Alastalo Parlor,” 1933), by Volter Kilpi (1874-1939). It was a surprise because Kilpi’s novel had been virtually unknown and unread since it was first dismissed with contemptuous impatience by the author’s contemporaries six decades earlier. Everyone expected Aleksis Kivi’s 1870 novel Seitsemän veljestä (The Brothers Seven in my translation) to win; and still today many educated Finns consider Kivi’s novel not only the best ever but the best that will ever be. Kivi’s novel was also Kilpi’s favorite; at age 10, in fact, he began planning a rewrite of that novel, and Alastalo was apparently the result, written a half century later, in his fifties.
The entire two-volume novel covers six hours in the parlor at Alastalo, the name of the house/farm owned by Herman Mattsson, a rich landowner and shipbuilder in Kustavi, Finland, the tiny island community where Kilpi lived most of his life. A dozen and a half landowners from the community have been brought together to agree to invest an interest in a barque. That’s the novel. The plot is drawn from ancestral memory: Alastalo is based on Kilpi’s father’s stepfather David Jansson, a rich shipbuilder who lived in a house called Alastalo; Jansson’s son Anton became an even richer shipbuilder who Finnicized his name to Antti Wihuri, founder of what is today one of Finland’s richest and most global shipping and trading companies, the Wihuri Concern. The male characters are mainly referred to by the names of their houses: Herman Mattsson is called Alastalo, Petter Pihlman is called Pukkila, Efram Eframsson is called Langholma, and so on. We spend most of the novel inside the various men’s heads; in Chapter Five Alastalo’s wife and daughter (who has a thing going with Alastalo’s first mate) come in to serve coffee and buns, and at the end again to serve dinner. Not a particularly promising premise for the greatest Finnish novel ever written!
Verbally, especially, Kilpi’s novel is an odd duck. Critics have long argued over whether it is a modernist forerunner, an avant-garde disruption, or unrelenting garbage. One contemporary reviewer, Yrjö Kivimies, wrote in 1934 that “sellaista suomalais-ugrilaista mielipuolta ei vielä toistaiseksi ole maailmaan syntynyt, joka suustaan päästäisi tuollaista mesopotamian kieltä!” (quoted in Rojola 76): “no such Finno-Ugric half-wit has ever been born into the world who would spew that kind of Mesopotamian language from his mouth!” Kilpi did have some admirers in his day, and in fact he tried to enlist one of them, the Finnish-Swedish avant-garde writer Elmer Diktonius (1896-1961), to translate some of his shorter pieces into Swedish; Diktonius gave up in frustration after only ten pages. Kilpi’s experimental work of the thirties has in fact been very little translated; two or three shorter translations exist into Swedish and German, and Thomas Warburton translated Alastalo into Swedish back in 1997. But that is it: the only full translation of the novel into any of the world’s languages. The year before, the intrepid 82-year-old Finnish-English literary translator David Barrett tried his hand at Alastalo and gave up after only three paragraphs, pronouncing the novel untranslatable, “except perhaps by a fanatical Volter Kilpi enthusiast who is prepared to devote a lifetime to it.”
What makes it difficult to translate—but also, I have to admit, unbelievably heady to translate, indeed a dream job for a certain kind of literary translator—is not only that Kilpi used archaic Finnish (the novel is set in the 1860s) but that he basically recreated the Finnish language, beginning with the morphological structures of words. He was an avid reader of Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s Recherche, and it shows—even though, as some purists have complained, there is little or no “true” or “pure” interior monologue in the novel. It often feels as if the characters are simply speaking silently inside their own heads.
Kilpi starts off the novel in traditional premodern narrative voice: there is an omniscient third-person narrator who tells us what to think and feel about things. Tellingly, David Barrett gave up on the novel at the precise moment when Kilpi begins to throw wrenches into that Victorian works: after the first sentence in the fourth paragraph. At that juncture the narrative voice shifts, but shifts like feet stuck in mud: we are suddenly inside Alastalo, but in a strange mixture of third- and first-person narration that is very far from the kind of close third-person voice that dips into characters’ consciousness with clearly marked free indirect discourse. The fifth paragraph is back in premodern mode, setting up the dueling that will continue throughout the novel, between Alastalo and Pukkila; and for the rest of the chapter we jump not only between first and third, and not only between Alastalo and Pukkila, but between interior and exterior monologue, with arguably numerous middle points in between, so that many times we aren’t sure whether the character in question is thinking, speaking, or narrating the novel.
Kilpi claimed playfully in his “translator’s preface” to his final novel, Gulliverin matka Fantomimian mantereelle, left unfinished at his death in 1939, that he found the manuscript for the book on his desk at the University of Turku library, in Swiftian English, and translated it himself into Finnish; in translating and finishing that novel as Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia, therefore, I mainly drew inspiration from Swift and other mid-eighteenth-century English writers. Here, however, as in my Brothers Seven translation, I draw inspiration from Shakespeare—but follow Kilpi in recreating archaic English as exuberantly as I can manage. If you know Shakespearean English well, you’ll find numerous passages where I’ve either bowdlerized a Shakespearean term or phrase or invented a phrasing that sounds sort of vaguely Shakespearean. That is what I meant by a “dream job”: Kilpi gives the creative translator an incredibly free rein to make it up as s/he goes along! The novel is very difficult for Finns to read; in fact someone came up with the idea of selling t-shirts emblazoned with the boast that “I’ve read In the Alastalo Parlor!”, because reading the entire novel is indeed a significant achievement. I haven’t made it any easier for the English reader. Sorry about that. But at least so far it’s just a short chapter—the whole monster novel will have to wait until I can work on it all day every day for a year or two.
Barrett, David. “Plain Sailing.” Books from Finland 1. Online at http://www.booksfromfinland.fi/1996/03/plain-sailing/. Accessed June 12, 2020.
Kilpi, Volter. Alastalon salissa (“In the Alastalo Parlor”). 1933. Reprint. Helsinki: Otava, 2015.
__________. Gulliverin matka Fantomimian mantereelle (“Gulliver’s Voyage to the Continent of Phantomimia”). 1944. Reprint. Helsinki: Kensington, 1993.
Robinson, Douglas, trans. Aleksis Kivi, The Brothers Seven: A Tale. Bucharest: Zeta.
__________, trans. Volter Kilpi, Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia. Transcreation of Kilpi Gulliverin. Bucharest: Zeta Books, 2020.
Rojola, Lea. Varmuuden vuoksi: modernin representaatio Volter Kilven Saaristosarjassa (“Just to be Sure: The Representation of the Modern in VK’s Archipelago Series”). Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society, 1995.
In the Alastalo Parlor
By twos and threes trudged they up the cam from dockside, taking their time, sometimes more than one man in a group, as they tied up and waited for others to ship their sails and batten down their boats to be left. Alastalo stood at the grise to his portico greeting his guests, growling good-naturedly as he shook each man’s hand in turn, coaxing and coxswaining them past the portico thro’ the tambour and on into the parlor. “Find a seat, find a seat! Looking to warm yourself there, Mikkelsson, pulling up a pew next the Dutch oven, nigh the door? That cooker ain’t cackled calescence in months, la, Philip and Jacob ‘twas last het up, and here the almanack’s already gone Michaelmas! There be rocking chairs in the parlor as well, iwis the master of great Krookla don’t plan to tarry there in the doorway!” tarred he a long-jawed old martlemas, who cussedly stayed settled in the seat he’d sorted. “Move on in, all the way in, we’ve got chairs by the aft wall too!” exhorted Alastalo his guests; from the portico firked the footfalls of new arrivals.
‘Twas a big day at Alastalo today. The barcarolean gear had been given great gorm this winter past, at every reading bee festivity in the county, and wheresoe’er the men had chanced to come together; la, haply was the gear older still: there had, in faith, been colloquy on that canton for years. ‘Twas only this summer, howe’er, that the thing had begun to take up safer feature in Alastalo’s months-mind. He’d felt vexed, sitting in prayer meetings with the city folk in the ports, at their effusive rodomontades about their wondrous winter fraughtages, sung whilst the stupent brig skippers sat there whist. In parlay with the Åland captains, too, talk of late had turned e’er ofter to the size inadequacy of a brig, not e’en to mention a schooner. And ‘twas withal becoming plain that he had in Janne Pihlmann a first mate with the gumption to serve on a better bucket. Alastalo had been finding himself e’er more well-wiled with the lad; a captain scarce had to do more than sit in his cabin puffing on his pipe: the boy saw to the rest! Therewithal had Siviä and Janne betwixt them a thing of some sort or other; Eevastiina had mentioned it; nor had he himself been entirely oblivious to movement in that quadrant. Not that he would anywise forspeak such a thing: there were plenty of worse sons-in-law than Janne. On their summer waftage this year it had occurred to him nigh incessantly that he’d soon enough need to give the boy his own bucket, see what he was capable of. And withal, before a sea dog turned his back on the sea once and for all, and left the foreign waters for the younkers to plow, ‘twould gratify him to know how it felt ‘neath his hat to stand ‘pon the quarterdeck and count three masts before him, with the bowsprit snifting Atlantick air and lunging toward the Spanish shore! Three weeks agone at Siwiä’s homecoming fete, then, had Alastalo tipped the gear a tetch nigher his thinking cap, chopped his choppers a time or three, scaled a speculative seed or seven, where’er the soil seemed sarted for seedness. Nor had the sloop Siwiä swung leck at the home dock days on end during those three weeks: he’d lost count of the times he and Janne had cruised in her out on Kivivesi, now and then with Härkäniemi, putting in at every primer house in the county for a hot toddy and a beardwag in the greatrooms and parlors. Upon the kirkbrae, too, these past paucas Sundays, there’d been birr enow both before and after the service that the other kirkfolk had had to stomp about in spleen for hours upon the rivage before the bigs strolled down and the kirkboat could push off and row for home. Alastalo’s first port of call was Langholma, which he’d visited with only Härkäniemi in tow; for ‘twas e’er wisest with Langholma to grow straight to the point, precisely as the thing was wedged twixt one’s teeth; and that platform was yarely unyoked without Janne at elbow. Once the gear began to gell, jaunce after jaunt, they paid, this time all three in the quill, a second visit to Langholma, where ‘twas perpended best to gather the men at Alastalo and see whether they could palter the deal. Between puffs on his pipe Langholma had cast a gauging glance askance o’er at Janne, and allowed as how he’d fettle his boat and sail it to Alastalo, aye, and we would see.
Eftsoons had the gear too seemed nigh fettled: with Langholma on board, iwis would the others embarque as well! And so now they had come so far that Alastalo stood before his portico glad-handing one man after another into his parlor, exhorting them to sit, directing them to the pipe stand, blarneying blandishment and tubby adipose loffter. “Via, Nordberg, move along in, all the way in, I’ll wager you ain’t this bashful when you’re looking to moor your yacht at the Stockholm fish quay: a skipper needs bone enow in his nose to snift out for his yacht a berth near the mole where the buyers throng, and ashore the siege in the banquet hall that’s nighest the toddy table!” a palabra or two for each man, low or high: you have to cajole a horse from pasture into the shafts, and the only way to capriole the taters into the bushel is to pluck ‘em with your own fingers! “Heh-heh, on our floor you don’t squish into the muck and mire like you do in them long furrows of yours!” prodded he the plodding master of Karjamaa, guiding him with a light touch on the back cross the floor toward the massive leather sofa on the back wall. “The bigs need sieges to withstand their biggers!” burbled he with a deft twist of his tongue. “And this autumn again, so I hear, another dozen bullocks sold to Sweden! When will you milk all the rix-dollars in Sweden into the cans at Karjamaa, heh-heh?” beguiled he, steering his guest with subtilest sinew into a siege at the stub-end of the sofa: Karjamaa was a man for mayhap a sixteenth share of the barque; ‘twas best to keep him in good humor. “Have you finally raught the age when you’re too timid to pick a pipe?” chaffed he amicably the creaky old juryman, Lahdenperä, who was sitting mid-sofa, but then next instant Alastalo had his hand outstretched to the next arrival at the parlor door.
Like a seal in seawater swam swag-bellied Alastalo in amongst his guests. Handshill silver, speechshill silv’rier still, the brainbirr behind his brow eelier than either. When a franklin’s fettling a feast he’ll fist a dipper to dip in each pot and a starch to thicken each stew! Any cog’ll creak if you absterge not the axle and slick not the sprocket! ‘Tis hot at hand for a horologer who’s got the testers and tweezers, the rifflers and mallets, the tap’n’die and the scaled steel to pash, but it tholes thumb to thrack the thrips and cogs in the dowly gnarled pashes of twenty thorpers for the wafture of wit, respectively if the proprietor of each pash wits the wallet in his vest pocket is his own! There be witswink enow inside one’s own nowl to soothfastly sowle that a barque’ll sail gilt into the county, and to feature how to put it all on an even keel! But eftsoons begins the strowswink its own self, when the sea bream is steamed and balked in the bowl! Fie! the fishbones to be fished out before there be meat in the mouth, and summer’s day! the swink before the tiniest trace of spongy sense be fished out of the baleful bone of mens’ brainpans! I got shelving enow on my ribcage to mull the deft dance steps, and my tongue ne’er tires, but pardie if this autumn I ain’t felt sorry for both my tread and my tongue, so limber has both had to be! The wit disponges down my brow in dewberry dollops, so captious must the conning be culled! chuffed Alastalo for a momentany mortice in his own meditations, and mopped the beads of sweat popping out on his reddened brow with a blue-patterned handkerchief fetched from his pocket. Where tarries Langholma, so we can brace the bull by the horns? “Janne!” called he instanter, as from the portico he began to hear a banging and, ambling to the door, passed the young Pihlmann, his first mate, “keep a weather eye out the side window for when Langholma tacks round the point into the bay, so you can be at the shore helping him ship his sails!” Is that that Pukkila bucky-boe coming up now? he hight-thought as he hearkened out to the portico hand to ear: you can tell by the brigbatty vitriol! Briggity brig brig! Going to the pukilau, aye the pukki-pukki-pukki-pukki-pukkilau! Now we’ll get to hear the whole Athanasius fable front to back and back to front again! He’s got Evald with him too: of course! Where would a trundle-tail hang if not off a dog’s backside? “Brig and Evald, brig and Evald,” soon to be ringing more soporifically in our ears than the pre-recitation hum of the catechism of a Sunday, “what-is-that-answer!” from the dark nooks in the greatroom. But let the bucky-beard misprise! Let him fly before the wind with his brigamarole, let him! But then, blessed fig’s end! I ain’t Alastalo if my cheeks can’t bark a baa-a-arcarole with the best of ‘em! And drop Evald like a hare its droppings before it hops!
Alastalo was now on the portico with his petite man outstretched. Pukkila was indeed trudging up the slope with his son. “Aha, Kivivesi ain’t so long after all that you can’t tack all the way to the end! Härkäniemi’s already here, and while waiting for you has already picked the best pipe off the stand, I fear! And two men on the sail just like two masts on the brig!” Alastalo shook hands with father and son, venting verbiage without cess: you had to keep your mouth running with Pukkila an you e’er hoped to get a word in edgewise. “Should’ve brought Verner along too, you would’ve had barque tops on your sloop! But a sinner’s got his sweats: is it the devil’s three-pronged pitchfork you picture in shipbuilding, seeing as three mastheads on a vessel throws so much sand in your eyes?” ‘Twas best to begin the brabble on the portico, take the wind out of the other’s sails in the parlor!
Pukkila rolled a reef into the rabato. “Belike, belike!” beadled he and babbled in his beard. You certes don’t gun grouse ‘cept from a goodly gap, and was he going to stand there on the portico blasting all over the empty walls the charge that’d singe the hairs on Alastalo’s chin, but not till they was in the parlor, where a dozen greedy pairs of ears all ‘bout could savor the sweetness? As they’d trudged up the hill from the beach he’d said to Evald, his son: “let ‘em build that barque-barque, far’s I’m concerned barque-barque! but me I’ll salt-salt, salt-salt. Alastalo’s got them prodigious ear flaps, right royal ear flaps, lavish landing nets for ears, let’s loose us a little word-skeeter into ‘em, heigh? They got room! Langholma, now, he’s still tacking on the back side of Kaaskeri, we got time to tickle the tooth! Let’s smoke-smoke the moke, so he’ll drop some of that pudge he’s packing! Who knows but what ol’ Mr. Cheek’ll chivvy-chortle hearty and jump in jiggling with matey mood, but once or twice, once or twice now, even scads of times maybe will a aggravated thumb angrily smudge the inside of a wide nostril when Pukkila’s word-barb thrusts through the lard into the mind’s skin and off all four walls boom the chatterers’ chinny chuckles! I ain’t little and I ain’t big, me, I’m Pukkila, and it’s Pukkila’s squiggly tongue I got in my mouth! Don’t loff, Evald, I ain’t loffing when the barbason bolts out of my beard, but see here, while the others loff, Evald, that’s how I goggle ‘em!” was how he’d advised his son whenas they was already wiping their feet on the big brushy evergreen branch out in front of the porch. So “belike-belike!” puttered Pukkila, just jawing his own jabs at Alastalo. “Persnickety-rickety wind-went backety, Kivivesi-vesklivity!” burbled he but to breach the bunkum battlements and to train his tongue twisty, and so to block yet bitterer bubbles from bombarding his ear, his eye peering already o’er Alastalo’s shoulder through the hall into the parlor. Aha! Lahdenperä’s slab of a face already smack-dab in place, basking back there in the center of the aft sofa! The juryman already foreseeing his forest fashioned into pantherboard and himself a barque-owner? And Härkäniemi cruising cross the open floor toward the pipe shelf corner as if towed by his nose: was it hearing Pukkila in the vestibule, me there in that vestibule, that put the extra spring in his step, so’s he might slip the best pipe twixt his own teeth? And Krookla’s Mikkelsson’s skinny snoosnose curved curious as it crooks round from behind the doorpost? That skinflint, Alastalo managed to scheme him too to the party? Pukkila’s eye repaired from its peregrinations and looked askance at Alastalo’s flush round facepudding. You grunt out them loffs: a pig’ll grunt too, but it’s got a tusk in the corner of each cheek! You got that waggish twinkle in the corners of your eyes and the good-mood jiggle in them quivery cured carbonadoes you carry on your face, but inside them eye-scanners a heedful haggard hones his claws, and a quarter inch below that chubby cheeksmile there be bunched bone! Me, la, I’ve ne’er wrestled a fathom-long elephant seal bare-handed on the slippy ice on a bright spring day, but now I got me a wrestling rondy-voo with you in that parlor! ‘Tis truly going to be a taxing day after all today! was the worry that worked itself wakeful into Pukkila’s wit. “Tush! So at your advanced age you got a wild hair to start carving barquey-boats! I had a age like that paucas years before confirmation class!” There weren’t nobody but Evald in earshot of that blurt, sith allicholy had pelted the poison onto the tip of his tongue too early, so in vain. ‘Twas a wasted shot, Pukkila brooded, all amort: should’ve saved it for Alastalo’s ears when Lahdenperä would have lumbered long with loffter, mayhap someaught else in the parlor as well. “Barque-barque-pinebarque!” drilled he anew for clarity’s sake, so’s the word wouldn’t slip away idle, to keep his mouth fecund enow to prevent Alastalo from launching.
“Barques into the bog and men into the parlor!” jawed Alastalo juicy as if not having heard the hurtling. “Into the parlor-into the parlor say I twice, sith I’ve imposes twain! Step up to the o’erburthened feast table when your host taps you on the shoulder, and take the curved scythe in hand when ‘tis offered, and swing it in the glebe—a fair practice in a good house!” Alastalo paltered parted palabras like potassium soap, one hand propelling Pukkila politely o’er the threshold by the back whilst t’other signaled to Evald to spaniel after into the tambour. “So you’ve been floating homemade boats then?” bubbled he all innocent into Pukkila’s ear as they approached the parlor door. “And here I had this notion that you roisted your vessels ready-made from the Luvia shipyard, leastwise when the Ålanders don’t sweettalk you into taking their wrecks off their hands!” ‘Twas best to trim a little headway off the man’s cheeks before he was in the parlor, lest his tongue begin to pop and snap in there!
‘Twas indeed a palabra of puggish pain in Pukkila’s ears—just as a person was about to step in through the door to the parlor! So inflamed were Pukkila’s innards that he had half a mind to hit out with his hind hoof, ding the devil dern in the shinpipe, as he grunted along back there behind his back. For sooth ‘twas: he’d roisted the Usko in Luvia, and about the brokering of the Frida he nowadays preferred to remain mum. So the termagant trencherman had to come whispering in another man’s innocent earhole just as the guest was innocently stepping into the parlor! And piss his poison, the nettle, so softly at the base of the ear that all hope of retort went straight to the devil, sith no one roundabout heard ary a word! There lay naught for him now but to swallow the pain, swallow it bone and bowels like a boiled bream, down the hatch, and step cross that threshold, a pinched and put-paid pajock, into Alastalo’s parlor.
Born in 1874, Volter Kilpi spent his childhood in Kustavi, later studying at the University of Helsinki. At that university’s library and others, he worked for two decades as a librarian. Kilpi’s precocity is demonstrated by the fact that he wrote his first novel while still in school, titled Bathseba: Daavidin puheluja itsensä kanssa (Bathseba: David’s Conversations with Himself, 1900), which won the Finnish State Prize for Literature. After several more works, he stopped publishing for 20 years, then worked on two political books around the time of Finland’s Civil War. Later, he published the first of his Archipelago trilogy, Alastalon salissa (In the Alastalo Parlor, 1933), a 900-page two-volume Proustian epic that takes place in 1866 and details a mere 6 hours on a Thursday in October. The trilogy is greatly influenced by his childhood, growing up in Finland’s western archipelago with a father whose ancestral legacy was related to ships and sailing. His final novel, Gulliverin matka Fantomimian mantereelle (Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia), was started in 1938 but remained unfinished by the time he died of a stroke in 1939, later published posthumously in 1944. Kilpi’s oeuvre was largely forgotten after his death until about the 1980s, and in 1992, Alastalon salissa surprisingly beat the beloved Finnish classic of 1870, Seitsemän veljestä (The Brothers Seven) in a poll which determined the ‘greatest Finnish novel of all time.’ In his homeland, Kilpi is now recognized as a forerunner of the modern experimental novel.
About the translator: Douglas Robinson has been translating Finnish literature since 1975, when his Finnish girlfriend dragged him to a summer theater performance by this dead guy named Aleksis Kivi (1834-1872). Turned out he was the founder of Finnish-language literature and is still considered the greatest Finnish writer, or one of the two greatest, including Volter Kilpi. Kivi’s Finnish, Doug’s girlfriend warned him, is pretty difficult, so he might want to read the play (Nummisuutarit > “Heath Cobblers”) before they went. He did, and fell head over heels with Kivi’s writing. The performance was even more wonderful, and gave the words on the page brilliant comic body. When they returned from the play, Doug began rereading the play, and by some magic rereading turned into translating. Having translated all of Kivi’s greatest works—his three best plays and his exuberantly iconoclastic 1870 novel The Brothers Seven-—Doug turned to Finland’s other great novelist, Volter Kilpi, with a transcreation of Kilpi’s unfinished posthumously published novel Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia now and In the Alastalo Parlor in the hopefully not-too-distant future. Robinson is also considered one of the world’s leading translation scholars; his books include Aleksis Kivi and/as World Literature (Brill 2017), and he’s hard at work on another book tentatively titled Translating the Monster: Volter Kilpi in Orbit Beyond (Un)translatability.