Vartio, Marja-Liisa 1924-1966

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Vartio, Marja-Liisa 1924-1966


Born November 9, 1924, in Sääminki, Finland; died June 17, 1966, in Savonlinna, Finland; married Valter Vertio (an art shop manager), 1945 (divorced, 1955); married Paavo Haavikko (a poet). Education: Studied in Helsinki; received M.A., 1950.


Writer and poet.


Kaikki naiset näkevät unia (title means "All Women Dream Dreams"), Otava (Helsinki, Finland), 1961.

Tunteet (title means "Feelings"), Otava (Helsinki, Finland), 1962.

Runot ja proosarunot (title means "Poems and Prose"), Otava (Helsinki, Finland), 1966.

Se on sitten kevät (title means "So It's Spring!"), Otava (Helsinki, Finland), 1978.

Mies kuin mies, tyttö kuin tyttö (title means "Any Man, Any Girl"), Otava (Helsinki, Finland), 1978.

Hänen olivat linnut: romaani, Otava (Helsinki, Finland), 1988, translation by Aili Flind and Austin Flint published as The Parson's Widow, Dalkey Archive Press (Champaign, IL), 2008.

Ja sodan vuosliin sattui nuoruus, Art House (Helsinki, Finland), 1994.

Fåglarna var hans, Atlantis (Stockholm, Sweden), 1994.

Nuoruuden kolmas näytös, Art House (Helsinki, Finland), 1995.

(With Paavo Haavikko) Sylvi Kekkosen Muotokuva, Art House (Helsinki, Finland), 2000.

Also author of Häät (title means "Wedding"), 1952; Seppele (title means "Wreath"), 1953; Maan ja veden välillä (title means "Between Earth and Water"), 1955; and Lyhyet vuodet. Vartio's short stories and poems have been published in French, German, Norwegian, Polish, Greek, Russian, English, and Welsh anthologies.


Born in Sääminki in 1924, Finnish poet and prose writer Marja-Liisa Vartio drew on her Finnish heritage for inspiration. Pirkko Alhoniemi, a reviewer for Books from Finland, commended Vartio's "strong awareness of tradition, which is apparent in the strong presence in her work of Finnish folk poetry." Alhoniemi noted that Vartio often examined topics such as "the difficult union of sensuality and motherhood." Alhoniemi commented that Vartio's "narrative style" was "rich in motifs … but it is only in Hanen olivat linnut that the technique attains its full breadth and brilliance."

Vartio's book Ja sodan vuosliin sattui nuoruus is the first of three diaries. Covering the period 1939-1941, the book focuses on Vartio's experiences in youth.

Philip Binham Kerava, writing for World Literature Today, commented that the volume "contains several letters in addition to the diaries. Together they form a body of commentary on young life that is possibly unique." The second volume of diaries and letters is titled Nuoruuden kolmas näytös. This is a record of Vartio's life from 1941-1952. Kerava, in another World Literature Today review, noted that some of Vartio's poems come from her recorded dreams. Kerava stated, "few writers have described … confusions and conflicts more honestly and effectively than Marja-Liisa Vartio has done in her diaries." The third and concluding volume of diaries and letters is titled Lyhyet vuodet. Kerava, again in World Literature Today, insisted that Vartio's "writing, prose and poetry, is too complex, too evanescent to be pinned down by a specific ‘theme.’" Plagued by ill health Vartio became preoccupied with early memories. "Still," Kerava observed, "there remains a tragic intensity that transcends the waning of her powers." Although Vartio's life ended at the early age of forty-two, Eila Pennanen, writing for Books from Finland, called her an "arctic shaman" who "casts a spell over her readers with her word magic."

The first English edition of Vartio's posthumously published novel Hänen olivat linnut: romaani, was published in 2008 as The Parson's Widow. The novel, which is considered the author's masterpiece, takes place in a rural Finnish village and follows the lives of an eccentric and perhaps mentally unstable widow named Adele and her maid, named Alma. The story is told primarily through conversation between Adele, whose late husband was a country parson, and Alma. Set in the early twentieth century, the novel features the widow and the maid arguing and discussing a variety of topics, typically reliving the past as they converse. In the process, the lives of various villagers unfold. Often, the conversations between Adele and Alma quickly evolve into arguments about their varying remembrances of past people and events, each claiming to have the better recollection of what really happened. A Kirkus Reviews contributor noted that these arguments lead readers to ruminate on the possibilities "that neither character is reliable, that memory itself is woefully unstable and that life is more or less meaningless anyway."

While the two protagonists discuss a variety of memories and mundane day-to-day events, a set of stuffed birds plays a key role in the story. The parson's wife inherited the birds from her husband, who inherited them from his uncle. Adele is obsessed with the birds, which leads Alma to lie about her family's having in their possession a beautiful stuffed swan. Eventually, Adele's compulsive behavior concerning stuffed birds and her desire to possess Alma's treasured stuffed swan lead to a final confrontation between the two.

Writing for Publishers Weekly, a reviewer noted that the author's "masterful judiciousness of detail … manages to make the slight scenario take on a great deal of weight." Referring to the novel as "brilliantly spare and poetic," in a review in Booklist, Whitney Scott also wrote that The Parson's Widow "captures perfectly … the ‘truth’ in its many versions."



Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature, Prentice Hall (New York, NY), 1992.


Booklist, December 15, 2007, Whitney Scott, review of The Parson's Widow, p. 26.

Books from Finland, 1968, Eila Pennanen, "Literary Portrait," pp. 8-9; 1986, Pirkko Alhoniemi, "Concrete Dreams," pp. 136-138.

Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 2007, review of The Parson's Widow.

Publishers Weekly, October 22, 2007, review of The Parson's Widow, p. 35.

World Literature Today, summer, 1995, Philip Binham Kerava, review of Ja sodan vuosliin sattui nuoruus, pp. 619-620; winter, 1997, Philip Binham Kerava, review of Nuoruuden kolmas näytös, pp. 190-191; winter, 1998, Philip Binham Kerava, review of Lyhyet vuodet, p. 173.

ONLINE, (August 20, 2008), biography of author.