Maija-Liisa Orvokki Vartio (née Sairanen, 1955-66 Haavikko)
Born September 11, 1924, Sääminki. Died June 17, 1966, Savonlinna
Bachelor of Arts (Art History), Master of Arts, University of Helsinki, 1950
Study trips to Italy (1952), Soviet Union (1959)
State Prize for Literature, 1954, 1958
Named after Vartio:
Marja-Liisa Vartio Prize 1994
Photo: Otava / Pentti Unho
Written by Tomas Sjöblom
Translated by John Calton
Reshaping Finnish prose
Marja-Liisa Vartio (née Sairanen) started her studies at the University of Helsinki in 1944. She studied art history, aesthetics and modern literature and received her Bachelor’s degree in 1950. Vartio became a writer.
Vartio wrote her Master’s thesis in art history under the instruction of Aune Lindström. The thesis is lost in history but it is known that it focussed on the career of the artist Ilmari Aalto. Her subsidiary topic in contemporary literature, however, which was examined by Rafael Koskimies in 1949, remains safely archived. It was called Piirteitä tulenkantajien lyriikasta (‘Characteristics of the lyric of the Flame Bearers’).
Her graduation was put off by the then-compulsory Latin studies as well as her encounter with the art dealer Valter Vartio. The couple got married in 1945. Through her husband, the young student was introduced into Helsinki’s writing and artistic circles. Vartio, who lived in Töölö, mentions in her diary in 1949 that she is living in the midst of literary history.
Her career as a writer began with the poetry collections Häät (‘Wedding’) and Seppele (‘Wreath’) in 1952. She made use of many folk poetic elements in her poetry. Some of Vartio’s greatest lyrical idols were Uuno Kailas and Edith Södergran. She also had an influence on the reshaping of the traditional Finnish ballad with her poem Balladi (‘Ballad’), which explored the topics of motherhood and giving birth. Her very best poems were published in 1966 in the collection Runot ja proosarunot (‘Poems and prose poems’).
By the mid-1950s Vartio had shifted from poetry to prose. Around the same time, in 1955, Vartio remarried the writer Paavo Haavikko, whom she had met at a writers’ party organised by the First Lady Sylvi Kekkonen. Vartio’s first prose publication was the collection of short stories Maan ja veden välillä in 1955 (‘Between earth and water’). Of her novels, the most original is her first, Se on sitten kevät (1957, ‘So spring is here’). The novel is a depiction of the love of an adult couple and the sorrow of the husband following the death of his wife.
Vartio would always write her novels three times before publishing them. In that way she was able to detect and correct any structural imperfections or flaws in the narrative. Vartio’s most central work is generally considered to be the novel Hänen olivat linnut (1967, ‘His were the birds’). As was characteristic of Vartio’s literary style, the work was written in clear and simple language and employed plenty of humour and irony.
Hänen olivat linnut was published posthumously, having been completed by Paavo Haavikko and Tuomas Anhava. Vartio fell seriously ill in 1966 and died at the early age of 41. Her plans for a doctoral thesis on crying Karelian women were never to be fulfilled. Marja-Liisa Vartio’s writing career was short but influential. She was one of the leading modernist writers of the 1950s and 1960s and had a central role in the reshaping of Finnish prose.
Helena Ruuska, Marja-Liisa Vartio. Kuin linnun kirkaisu (’Marja-Liisa Vartio. Like the cry of a bird’). Helsinki, 2012.