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  Riikka Rossi, Department of Finnish Literature, Helsinki University

Naturalism in Finland. Relationships between Finnish and French Naturalism


Zola – fever in Northern Europe

“Every reader of Valvoja has frequently heard talk about the new movement of literature, which is ever expanding”, and “which has come from France to Scandinavia”, wrote Eliel Aspelin about naturalism in an article on the work of Emile Zola in cultural journal Valvoja in 1884. Zola, who in Aspelin´s opinion was “creeping in the deepest caves of immorality and crime”, shocked this Fennoman critic. But there was nothing to do: the Zola- fever, already hot in Europe, had penetrated also into Finland.

In this presentation, I will first study the Zola-fever´s arrival in Finland, and then, I will analyse some Finnish and French text examples. At the end I will give some thoughts on intertextuality and naturalistic themes in general.

Enthusiasm about the work of Zola, “the father” of naturalism, spread into Finland especially from Sweden. In 1884, when Aspelin´s article was issued, almost every published part of the famous family history of Zola, Les Rougon-Macquart, had been translated into Swedish: Fällan (l´Assommoir), Blad ut Kärlekens bok (Une page d´amour), Nana, Bättre Slödder (Pot-Bouille), Uppkomlingarna (La fortune des Rougon), Damernas Paradis (Au Bonheur des Dames), Vackra Lisa (Le Ventre de Paris), and Lifvets Glädje (La Joie de Vivre). The translations were made at a rapid pace: the Swedish versions often came out immediately after the French publication. Soon after the translations´ publication in Sweden, Zola´s works were noticed by the Finnish press, too.

The Swedish translations of Les Rougon-Macquart found also their way onto the bookshelves of Finnish writers. Minna Canth, for example, acquired Zola´s works, and in her literary salon Zola´s novels such as Fällan, Damernas Paradis, Vårbrott (Germinal) and Konstnärslif (l´Œuvre), were available for other Finnish realists. The young Juhani Aho also familiarized himself with Zola´s naturalism in the beginning of the 1880s. Aho´s manifesto, “Some notes on realistic literature” (Realistisesta kirjallisuudesta sananen, 1885), called for the objectivity of realistic description, like in Zola´s theory of experimental novel. Aho insisted that realistic literature should bring up advantages and disadvantages of reality equally and that it should be based on “real conditions”, which should not be described in rosy colours. As Zola had done in his theory, Aho put, in his article, realism in opposition to idealistic literature.

The Finnish writers´ knowledge of Zola was, then, based on the Swedish translations of the Rougon-Macquart series. But in Russia, the other country neighbouring the Grand Duchy of Finland, the Zola – fever had started already in the 1870s. Zola succeeded in gaining a foothold in the Russian press, because in 1875-1880, at his friend´s Ivan Turgenyev´s request, he was a correspondent of Vestnik Evropy (the Messenger of Europe), a St. Petersburg periodical. It didn’t take much time to translate Zola into Russian either. La Faute de l´abbé Mouret was published in Russia in 1875, even before the French “original”, and l´Assommoir appeared in Russia 1876, at the same time as in France. The popularity that Zola enjoyed in Russia was enormous, as can be observed from the flattering comment, which Turgenyev wrote to Zola: “In Russia they read only you” (see Gauthier).

Zola´s huge popularity in Russia should not be ignored in the research on late 19th -century Finnish literature. It is particularly important to note that the Russian press and later the Russian literary historians made interesting choices concerning the concepts of realism and naturalism. In some of Zola´s later articles in Vestnik Evropy the chief editor of the periodical replaced the word “naturalism” by “realism”. According to Philip Duncan, the reasons for the change were political: the use of the word “realism” in connection with Zola associated him more closely with the Russian realists, the purpose of which was to tone down the criticism that the Radical Left, with their anti-Darwinian thoughts, expressed towards Zola in Russia. But in addition to this, we must remember that the term “naturalism” was already being used in Russia as a concept of landscape painting meaning the description of nature. In this context naturalism was associated more with idealisation of nature than with the truthful description of society. The term realism was also used in connection with Zola in some Russian histories of literature (see e.g. Sarajas). As is known, in Finland the concept “realism”, instead of “naturalism”, came into use to signify the literature of the late 19th century. In my opinion, we should not exclude the possibility that the Russian conception of Zola as a realist had influenced the use of the term “realism”, instead of “naturalism”, in Finland, too.

Les Rougon-Macquart finlandais: The Finnish Family

The European Zola – fever produced not only translations and journal articles, but also new versions of Zola´s works; national transformations of the parts of the Rougon-Macquart –series, hypertexts, parodies, pastiches and even some kinds of pirate versions. It has been suggested that, to a certain extent, naturalism is a rather conventional kind of literature, which varies and develops its basic repertoire by renewing certain themes, character types and motifs. One example of a character created by Zola and further interpreted in national naturalisms is his famous figure of a prostitute, Nana. Right after the publication of Zola´s Nana (1880), an Italian writer, Carlo Righetti, supplemented Zola´s novel with Nana à Milano (Nana in Milano). In France, in turn, appeared a work which proved to be very popular, La Fille de Nana. Roman de moeurs parisiennes (The Daughter of Nana, 1881) by Alfred Sirven and Henry Levendier. The figure of a prostitute was discussed also by Scandinavian writers, in Norway, for instance, by Alexander Kielland, Kristian Krogh and especially by Amalie Skram, whose Constance Ring (1885) was called “Norwegian Nana”.

A Finnish work including a Nana –type, “Sämre folk.” En Berättelse by Ina Lange appeared in 1885. The intertextual relationships between Lange´s novel and Zola´s are already present in the principal character´s name Nadja which resembles Nana. Lange´s work, many events of which take place in Russia, can be regarded also as a kind of sequel to Nana, for at the end of Zola´s novel Nana, having caught syphilis, is rumoured to have gone to Russia and become a lover of a Russian prince. But that is not the destiny of Nadja, even though this poor servant´s daughter realises her social climbing with a sense of purpose. A chorus girl of Lilla Teatern, Nadja, is said to have a “bad nature”. Like Nana in Zola´s novel, Nadja poisons the upper class with her body. She extorts money from her lover, an officer in Helsinki, and in St. Petersburg her affair results in the wreck of a bourgeois marriage.

Nadja´s career in the theatre ends in catastrophe, and her Russian career also fails. She ends up as a bar singer in Moscow. In the end she is placed in a shelter established by some Fennoman women. The national ideology gains a victory over the threat that could have upset the equilibrium of society. In comparison with Zola´s novel, in which the final chapter describes the beginning of the war between France and Germany and the rising social confusion, in the Finnish version the equilibrium of society holds out. Therefore, the national modifications of Zola´s works weren’t mere imitations adopting naturalistic ideology, but also critical comments, like the novel of Lange. Nadja´s figure serves to show that the dangerous contagion of naturalism, which the Fennomans feared, can be healed and the naturalistic pollution can be prevented from striking root in the Finnish soil.

Nana became Zola´s best-known female figure, but the reaction was not only positive. The author of the aforementioned article in Valvoja, Eliel Aspelin, absolutely refused to summarize the contents of the novel because of its “horrible filthiness”. Nana´s figure manifested contemporary conceptions of the corrupting influence of the female body and that fact certainly explained the furore she provoked. However, Nana is actually quite an unusual female character type in Zola´s literary family. Zola´s women are not usually as negatively described as Nana is, even if it is true that decay is the common destiny of Zola´s women. According to Robert Niess, the typical woman in the works of Zola is in fact a woman of boldness and patience, an ideal woman or a perfect mother, who is finally captured by the atavistic instincts and the curse of heredity, and despite her goodness, tragically thrown into depths of decline.

In the genealogical tree of the Finnish Rougon-Macquart family, the figure of a good woman, who still falls into decline, appears particularly in the works of Minna Canth. Canth´s Köyhää kansaa, appeared in 1886, can be considered a Finnish Germinal. The question of socialism and the problems of the working class, which Germinal gained its reputation, are in Canth´s work suggestively brought to light by describing the unemployed husband of Mari, the principal character . Mari herself resembles Mme Maheu, the brave mother of the worker family in Germinal. Both women are the support of their families in the middle of everyday misery and poverty. In these two women´s thoughts, hard conditions and everlasting poverty provoke the same kind of anxiety about the world as a God-forsaken place, where their children had better die than live. But there is still a difference between the two mothers´ fates. In the Darwinian struggle that dominates society in Zola´s novel, la Maheude belongs to the strong ones, and she is one of the rare survivors of her family, whereas Canth´s Mari doesn´t bear the growth of misery, but descends into animal insanity and is committed into asylum. For Mari, the bourgeois class represents a God-like authority that she dares not resist, while Mme Maheu doesn´t spare her rage in the coalmine rebellion; she even sabotages the dead body of a shopkeeper, hated by the workers. In turn, Mari´s only “rebellion”, the animal yell, which is carried from the asylum cell, has not even words.

In 1889 published short story of Canth, Kauppa-Lopo, in turn, could be examined in relation to l´Assommoir, especially considering the theme of alcoholism, which plays a remarkable role in both works. The principal character of Canth´s work, Kauppa-Lopo, is an alcoholic but kind-hearted vagabond, who has been thrown repeatedly in prison for theft and intoxication. Lopo can be considered as a modification of the drunken Gervaise, the Gervaise in decline at the end of l´Assommoir. Despite the misery of alcoholism, these alcoholic women are not always taken very seriously in their community. Gervaise entertains the other poor by imitating her husbands delirium tremens; Canth´s Lopo, in turn, gets people amused by her ugly appearance, by her sincere eagerness as a scrap dealer; by her willingness in matchmaking a bourgeois widow with a rich farmer. But there is, behind this mild comic, a tragedy. Zola´s Gervaise Macquart´s life is a story of a beautiful and succesful woman´s descendance into decline. Lopo does not fall, but she has always been fallen and in decline. In a strange manner, she is even proud of this vagabond identity, but decline doesn´t make her happy either. Like Gervaise, whose body, ruined by alcoholism, is not good enough for prostitution, finally Lopo is in society waste and scrap, which she herself collects and sells. “You are disgusting. A mere visit of yours pollutes the air in the room”, a bourgeoise woman says to Lopo.

Entropy and Cohesion

It would be interesting to examine the Finnish family of Rougon-Macquart further. From this point of view, there are other interesting figures, too. Juhani Aho´s Maailman murjoma, for instance, presents evident relationships with Zola´s La Bête humaine, whose principal character Jacques Lantier and Aho´s Junnu have the same kind of problem in controlling their bestial nature. In addition, the motif of train connects Aho´s work to Zola´s novel. But instead of concentrating more deeply on this example, I will now give some thoughts on intertextuality in general.

In his study Palimpsestes (1982) Gerard Genette illustrates the two-level nature of intertextuality. On one hand, the relationships between the texts can be studied in an historical level, which, in Genette´s terms means the examination of a “direct” intertextual relationship. In direct intertextuality the parts of the relationships can be clearly indicated as single hyper- and hypotexts; the texts can be set chronologically in succession; and the argumentation of the relationship can be complemented by biographical facts related to the writer´s knowledge of literature. This has been done also in the Finnish and French examples being studied in this presentation. On the other hand, we can abandon strict historicity and examine the texts more from the current point of view, reorganize and newly consruct the relationships between literary works. This level of intertextuality, in Genette´s terms, is called an “indirect” (médiate) relationship between the texts. In spite of being about the repetition of character types or motifs, the indirect intertextuality is based on thematical resemblances, on a common vision, which can be interpreted in different works. To state it pointedly, the difference between the direct and indirect intertextuality could be described by defining, that in the direct intertextuality, the fixed figures, motives and characters are placed to play a role in a new story, whereas in indirect intertextuality the same theme gets new forms, the same story is narrated differently.

If we then proceed to study the “indirect” relationships between Finnish and French naturalism, what is the theme which is re-formed and the story which is re-told in different naturalistic works? In the research on naturalism, it has frequently been proposed that the central naturalistic theme is the process leading to destruction and decay; the increasing disintegration in the world of the work, the growing threat of catastrophe; entropy. Particularly David Baguley in his Naturalistic Fiction. The Entropic Vision (1990) has suggested this. The theme of entropy can be observed also in the texts that has been analysed this presentation. Canth´s Köyhää kansaa ends in the destruction of the family, which is the basic cell of society, and as for Lange´s “Sämre folk”, it reveals the destructive power of female sexuality and the fragility of the social order. The human mind can also get caught by the forces of entropy, which is shown by the destinies of Mari in Canth´s Köyhää kansaa and of Junnu in Aho´s Maailman murjoma. In Kauppa-Lopo, alcohol accelerates disintegratio in the work: on the next day after drinking, Lopo´s kleptomaniac tendencies arise and she commits a theft again.

Paradoxically, when “entropy” was introduced in natural sciences as a concept of thermodynamics in the 19th century, the term was an analogy to “energy”, which as a life-supporting power has quite the opposite meaning. But entropy, in a manner, also presupposes cohesion. Firstly, decline and destruction need something firm that can decline and be destroyed. Secondly, the result of the decay is a static, stable condition, in which there are no differences between phenomena, thus a kind of cohesion again. Michel Serres, who has studied the concept of entropy in naturalism, notes that Zola´s poetics of decline, paradoxically, includes also continuation: despite destruction and death, a new generation is always born in the family of Rougon-Macquart, and life goes on. Serres finds that the narrative structure of Zola´s Les Rougon-Macquart is organized as a cyclical system, movement between entropy and balance, between even faster disintegration and static order. The movement towards continuation is facilitated by the open endings, which, according to Yves Chevrel are typical of naturalistic works, and which structurally render possible serial continuation of a literary work.

In addition to the theme of decline, we can, then, find some naturalistic cohesion, or at least a tendency towards it. The idea of naturalistic cohesion is bolstered by the fact that naturalistic writers did not necessarily “support” the decline, which takes place in their works, but also expressed desires for social reform. It is true that Zola has often been regarded as a father of pessimism and a creator of degeneration, but, in his theory of naturalism, he also claimed to search for the means to control and to direct social phenomena, and declared the humanity´s right to happiness. But it is in Finnish naturalism, especially, that there should be room for optimism, since Finnish research has firmly stressed the Finnish realists´ calls for social reform. In Aho´s aforementioned manifesto of realism, realism´s task is, in addition to the description of unembellished reality, also the replacement of injustices by better things.

However, Finnish naturalistic works often end in death or descent into insanity, as in the cases of Junnu and Mari, and in the extinction of families. Actually, Finnish naturalism entirely lacks large family histories. There is neither any serene acceptation of suffering by the characters nor optimistic future visions presented by the narrator’s voice. In some respect Finnish naturalism could be thougth of as even more pessimistic than French naturalism, at least on the basis of the text examples of this presentation. Zola´s Germinal ends with an energetic vision of a germinating landscape and with socialistic defiance through the revenge of future generations, whereas Canth´s "Germinal", Köyhää kansaa, concludes with a description of the insane Mari´s animal yell, which is carried from the asylum. At the end of l´Assommoir, the old Bazouge says that the dead Gervaise has finally achieved her catharsis, peace and happiness. Canth´s Lopo, in turn, is taken to the police again at the end of the work. In a manner, Canth´s short story returns to repeat its starting point.

Therefore, the Finnish works end in a kind of closure, in which there are no signs of continuation: either in a concrete closing into prison or asylum, or a metaphoric closing by death. There are, of course, some exceptions to this Finnish acceptance of decline, and resignation towards it. A spirit of reconciliation can be found, for instance, at the end of “Sämre folk”, in which Nadja becomes a reformed character. But this positive development of Nadja is in somewhat ironic, too, for, in the Fennoman shelter her own identity is entirely changed, including her name, which is altered to the more Finnish Maija. “The wild cat” of streets has disappeared and her place has been taken by a humble servant of the bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, from the nationalistic point of view, everything is fine, because the “filthiness and repugnance”, the disgust aroused by naturalism, which Aspelin stressed in his Zola –article, has gone. Considering nationalistic ideology, the closed ending leads to good results, since the decline is “cleaned” away from the world of the work. It is over, totally: after the death of a naturalistic hero a Fennoman can heave a sigh of relief and get a good night´s sleep.



Baguley, David, 1990: Naturalist Fiction. The Entropic Vision. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chevrel, Yves 1982/1993: Le Naturalisme. Étude d´un mouvement littéraire international. Paris : PUF. 

Dubois, Jacques 1973/1993 : L´Assommoir de Zola. Paris :Belin.

Duncan, Philip. A. 1963: Emile Zola. Lettres de Paris. Choix d´articles traduits du russe et présentés par Phillip A. Duncan et Vera Eldery. Paris : Minard.

Franzen, Nils-Olof 1955 : “Emile Zola, homme d´affaires. Correspondance inedité avec son éditeur suédois”. Cahiers naturalistes 1.

Gauthier, E. Paul: “Zola´s Literary Reputation in Russia prior to l´Assommoir”. French Review 33, 1959-1960.

Genette, Gerard 1982: Palimpsestes. La Littérature au second degré. Paris. Éditions du Seuil.

Niess, Robert J. 1976 : “Emile Zola: La Femme au travail”. Cahiers naturalistes 50.

Serres, Michel, 1975: Feux et signaux de Brume. Zola. Paris : Grasset.    


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