H. K. Riikonen leaves but isn’t going anywhere

H.K. Riikonen, professor of comparative literature, retired this autumn and praises the University of Helsinki for tolerating eccentric people. Such as himself.

Sometime in the mid 1950s, somebody read an excerpt from the Finnish children's book Ollin oppivuodet by Anni Swan over the PA system at the primary school in Meilahti. The young Hannu Riikonen liked the story very much. He wanted to know how it ended, so after school, he went to the Töölö library and borrowed his first book. This marked the beginning of a lifelong love of reading.

This year, H. K. Riikonen, professor of comparative literature, retired after 46 years of service. In the speeches at the retirement ceremony, his friends and colleagues praised his exceptionally broad and profound education. Riikonen’s research and interests range from Antiquity to the present day, from classic literature to comics.

 “I’ve never wanted to specialise in a narrow field,” Riikonen explains.

His extensive interests have led to cooperation across disciplines. And Riikonen has never been too busy to help students of other disciplines, who also turn to him.

 “I feel like a professor of the University, not just of my discipline. It’s a lot of work, certainly, but it’s work for Finnish research and its promotion.”


Many generations of students have memories of Riikonen. The students compiled anecdotes of him into two volumes as a retirement present. On the cover of the booklet collected by doctoral students, Riikonen is depicted as his favourite childhood comic book hero, Tex Willer, with guns blazing at the National Library.

 “I’ve tried to uphold the tradition of eccentric professors,” Riikonen says.

His lectures have helped, peppered as they are with anecdotes from his personal life and the University’s history. According to Riikonen, his lectures couldn’t be further from academic orthodoxy. His main pedagogic tool is the blackboard.

Early in his career, Riikonen was a strict teacher. One student even called him a concentration camp warden.

 “That’s mainly in the past for me. I’ve become softer, perhaps too soft.”

Riikonen has noticed that students' knowledge of classic literature is decreasing. Instead, they know more and more about things of which Riikonen is fully ignorant. This is why he feels working with young people keeps him alert. Thanks to his students, the teacher can enjoy an eternal spring.


When the 23-year-old Riikonen was appointed an assistant in Roman literature, he received no guidance or teacher training. As a teacher, he tried to follow the models he had seen in his own teachers.

At the University, Riikonen studied Latin, Greek, history and aesthetics as well as contemporary literature. He had received a solid foundation in classical languages during his secondary education at the Helsinki Normal Lyceum. A lover of books and music, Riikonen also made many friends at the Lyceum, the most important of whom was Eero Tarasti, who is currently professor emeritus of musicology.

Riikonen and Tarasti were classmates throughout their school years. They later became professors at the same department of the University of Helsinki. This autumn, they retired almost simultaneously.


At age 12, Riikonen and Tarasti began a lasting correspondence. Both boys had families with a background in the civil service and an active interest in culture, and they spent their summers in the country, Riikonen in Enonkoski in Eastern Finland and Tarasti in nearby Mikkeli. During the summers they would write one another long letters, comparing their reading and musical experiences as well as unfortunate encounters with a variety of insects. The boys also planned to co-author an opera, but this never came to fruition.

Riikonen also writes letters to his other colleagues and friends. For some, the letters have turned into long emails, but most of them are still transmitted via traditional post. Riikonen himself points to his extensive correspondence as his literary magnus opus, above his scholarly publications.

 “Writing letters has become a form of creative work for me. Due to both its breadth and this creative element, my correspondence has been highly important to me.”

The first 15 years of correspondence between Tarasti and Riikonen was published with the title Eero ja Hannu in 1999. Decades worth of unpublished letters still remain in the archives. Publication of those has also been mentioned.

 “But I don’t know if that’s possible, as we’re quite frank about what we really think about the goings on at the University,” says Riikonen.


Life at the University has not been without its comical and grotesque turns. Riikonen says that he has experienced everything it is possible to experience in the academic world, both good and bad. Good experiences have been the ability to follow his research interests and the cooperation with students and colleagues.

On the negative side, Riikonen lists the continuous degree reforms, which he has never found to be of any significant use. The ongoing education reform even threatens Riikonen’s former position. It is currently unknown whether a new appointee will take over the professorship vacated by Riikonen.

In the early 2000s, Riikonen considered leaving the University. That’s when the University adopted the new salary system, in which part of the salary is based on personal performance. Riikonen was furious at the personal evaluations and the unrealistic work hour plans.

 “For me, it was tantamount to bullying from the institution itself. That professors would have to have development discussions and have a supervisor!”


The positive aspects of the University were more significant in the end, and Riikonen decided to stay.

 “Fortunately, the impossible systems were gradually adapted to be more sensible. I was no longer asked to evaluate the performance of my colleagues. I also noticed that I could enter whatever numbers I wanted into the work hour plan, because it is obvious that nobody reads them."

Riikonen emphasises that his quarrel is with bureaucracy, not administration. He has done his share of administrative duties, serving as the head of department and even as vice-dean. The latter position also led to a membership on the information management committee – which the employees at his department found hilarious, knowing as they did Riikonen's scant knowledge of information technology.


In the late 1990s, Riikonen participated in a competition collecting anecdotes about the University, and won. Due to the delicate subject matter, however, this collection was never published.

 “Friendship, love and hate are all here. Passions flare and gossip circulates,” states Riikonen.

Riikonen even found his wife-to-be, Marjatta, at the University. They both studied Latin and attended the same lectures. The couldn’t marry until 11.5 years after their first meeting, however, as H. K. Riikonen wanted to follow scholar Valentin Kiparsky’s advice to not marry until his dissertation was complete.

Marjatta Riikonen made her career as a librarian at the Faculty of Arts library. She has been retired for years. The Riikonen’s two children have followed in their parents’ footsteps. One of them holds a Master's degree in Swedish, and the other in Spanish.


H. K. Riikonen’s primary research topics over the years have been James Joyce, Pentti Saarikoski and Olavi Paavolainen. Of classical authors, he is closest to Horace and Virgil. However, Riikonen has never tried to guide his students to follow his interests.

 “I have never tried to stop a student’s research plan, and I have not tried to make my discipline such that it would focus on a particular topic or research field. Perhaps I have by doing so prevented research from becoming focused, which could have led to the discipline becoming a centre of excellence. But restrictions are against the principle of diversity.”

Students like to propose popular literature as their Master’s thesis topics. Riikonen sees no problem with this. He believes that high literature and popular books are both indebted to one another. As a field, research into popular literature has grown tremendously. In fact, it has grown so much that Riikonen no longer feels the need to study it and can freely relegate it to a hobby.

At his jubilee seminar, Riikonen's Turku-based colleague, Jukka Sihvonen, characterised him as a bibliophile and a manic hoarder of books. Riikonen says that he has never counted the exact number of books in his home, but he estimates that his is one of Helsinki's most extensive private libraries. It features several valuable books, including a respectable collection on James Joyce.


Retirement has not brought major changes to Riikonen's life. He continues to lecture and to supervise theses and dissertations. And he is continuing his research – he is currently working on a book on Emil Zilliacus, scholar and translator of classical literature.

Riikonen has also planned a book on the Aristotelian concept of temperance. He believes temperance can also be used to describe his own lifestyle.

 “I’m a calm, middle-of-the-road person. I have never veered toward the extreme, in good or bad.”

Every day, Riikonen walks to his office in Topelia from his home in Etu-Töölö.

 “Last year, around the New Year, I lost my temper for the first time, as the electronic lock system in Topelia was broken and I couldn't get to my office during the weekend. The weekends are the best time to work, because it is very quiet,” says Riikonen.

The coming spring term will bring a change to his routine, as a pipe renovation will drive the Riikonens out of their home and to their second apartment in Turku.


Riikonen takes a walk back home around noon, for a half-hour nap. He is puzzled by people who disapprove of naps as a mark of laziness. After all, it has been proven that they boost efficiency.

During his walk, Riikonen plans his speeches in his head. He is often asked to speak at a variety of events, such as parties held after doctoral defences. Comparative literature is one of the heirs of the historical discipline of rhetoric, and Riikonen is happy to uphold its traditions.

Due to his extensive walks, Riikonen does not consider himself in need of any other exercise or sports.

 “Jogging or a gym workout would not befit a professor such as myself.”

Neither is Riikonen a winter person. Even though his traditional Christmas letter to the staff of the discipline features an encouragement to enjoy the joys of winter, he himself heads to Tenerife as soon as Christmas is over. That’s when he takes his summer vacation.

During the summer, Riikonen is naturally most often found in Topelia, working.

This article was published in Finnish in the Y/10/16 issue of Yliopisto magazine.


In Helsinki, 1948

Professor emeritus of comparative literature

Bachelor of Arts 1970 (Roman literature), Licentiate of Philosophy 1972, Doctor of Philosophy 1978 (comparative literature)

Professor of comparative literature at the University of Helsinki 1997–2016 (locum professor 1994–1997). Assistant professor and locum professor at the University of Turku 1979–1993. Hourly-paid teacher, deputy positions at the University of Helsinki and University of Jyväskylä 1971–1993

Kirjallisuus antiikin maailmassa (2007) and Kulttuuri antiikin maailmassa (2009) (books on classical literature and culture); Suomennoskirjallisuuden historia (2007) and Suomennetun tietokirjallisuuden historia (2013) (books on literature translated into Finnish)

Books and toy cars

Das Boot

Librarian Marjatta Riikonen (retired), daughters Pinja Terentia (b. 1980) and Selja Lavinia (b. 1982)

“Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad and Beatrix Potter.”