Hagar Olsson's "Chitambo" and the Ambiguities of Female Modernism

By Rees, Ellen | Scandinavian Studies, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview
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Hagar Olsson's "Chitambo" and the Ambiguities of Female Modernism


Rees, Ellen, Scandinavian Studies


OVER TWENTY-FIVE YEARS have elapsed since George Schoolfield's informative and thought-provoking article on Hagar Olsson's 1933 novel, Chitambo, appeared in Scandinavian Studies. In the intervening years much about our understanding of women in the cultural field of modernism has changed. Hagar Olsson's crusade to bring new thoughts and ideas to Finland through her literary criticism has been widely documented, and indeed it often overshadows her own creative production. The most thoughtful analysts of Olsson's role as critic successfully document the innumerable contributions she made to Finnish and Finland-Swedish literature and at least in Roger Holmstrom's case attempt to integrate her life, criticism, and literary production. However, each of these analyses suffers from the same weakness Olsson herself raged against in Finnish literature--a certain Finnish myopia concerning the broader cultural context. In this article, I aim to switch directions: instead of looking at European modernism through the lens of Hagar Olsson, I want to look at Hagar Olsson through the lens of a particular aspect of European modernism. Specifically, I want to place selections from Olsson's critical essays and literary texts in the context of female modernism. To this end, I will first compare Olsson's career as a woman of letters with key American and British female modernists. After establishing the cultural context within which she wrote, I will then turn my attention to an explication of the modernist elements of her most important work of prose fiction, the 1933 novel Chitambo.

ON CRITICISM, FEMALE MODERNISM, AND "BITEXTUALITY"

Three things stand out about Olsson's literary criticism: first, she was convinced that she lived during a paradigm-shift in literature and consequentially relentlessly pursued the new and rejected whatever she perceived as old; second, Olsson argued passionately in favor of literature expressing what Holmstrom has dubbed "hjartats imperativ" (118) [the heart's imperative] in contrast to the intellectual or formalistic; and third, she used contemporary European literature as a sort of source book for ideas on how to achieve her primary agenda, which was to improve and promote Finnish and most particularly Finland-Swedish cultural identity. Interestingly, gender-identification appears to be entirely absent from Olsson's critical apparatus. Although Olsson often falls into the race- and culture-based stereotypes typical of the age, her critical writing is remarkably free of gender-based stereotyping.(1) True, she reviews more books by men than women, but she appears to judge them all according to the same standards. Moreover, she insists that her own critical and literary production be accorded the same respect and indeed by the late 1920s had attained significant status as a critic.

Given this background on Olsson's successful critical program, as well as what is well known, about her literary works, it is natural to ask how Olsson compares to other women modernists in Europe and the United States. The last two decades of Anglo-American feminist scholarship have reintroduced women into the cultural field of modernism and shown that, in some camps at least, ambivalence (if not outright antagonism) toward women writers was a central motif and motivating factor for much of high modernism.(2) In reconstructing female modernism, a number of patterns have developed. Virginia Woolf's sexless and intellectualized androgyny and Gertrude Stein's powerful, carnivorous lesbianism are perhaps the most widely-recognized stereotypes of the modernist woman writer. In each case, the individual's sexuality provokes almost as much critical attention as her textuality often leading to biased or weak analyses of the importance of their works. In a counter-move, feminist criticism has appropriated the supposed sexual deviance of many woman modernists in order to explicate and create alternative readings of their texts.

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