Flags are flying across the country today to celebrate the annual Day of Finnish Literature, and the life and work of one of Finland’s most revered writers Aleksis Kivi.
Born in the 1840s in Nurmijärvi north of Helsinki, Kivi studied literature at Helsinki University, and a growing interest in the theatre lead him to write his first play, Kullervo, which is based on a tragic story from Finland’s national epic Kalevala.
As a young man in Helsinki during the 1860s, he was friends with journalist, statesman and politician Johan Snellman; poet and professor Fredrik Cygnaeus; and poet Elias Lönnrot.
If these names seem familiar, it’s because all of the men were pioneers of Finnish nationalism, language and identity, and have been immortalised with streets named after them in the capital city, and other cities and towns as well.
Aleksis Kivi was a prolific writer in his short life, writing 12 plays and a collection of poetry. His most famous novel Seven Brothers took him a decade to complete – even if some critics and nationalists didn’t like the way it portrayed Finnish people living in the countryside at that time.
In 1865, Kivi won the state prize for his comedy Cobblers on the Heath, which is still performed today. But he had started drinking heavily after some harsh critiques of his work. He lived with his close friend Charlotta Lönnqvist – the two were rumoured to be lovers – and the pair helped each other financially through tough times.
By 1870, Kivi’s health was in a desperate state. He had typhoid and suffered from mental health issues, which may have included schizophrenia.
He died in poverty at age 38, but at the start of the 20th century his work was being championed by a new wave of young Finnish artists and intellectuals like Eino Leino and Unknown Soldier author Väinö Linna.
In 1939 a bronze statue of Aleksis Kivi was erected outside the National Theatre in Helsinki.