To Pieces by Henry Parland
Translated by Dinah Cannell

You might recall me reviewing back in June a wonderful pair of books for Shiny New Books, issued by Norvik Press. The duo of modernist works by pioneering women authors (Hagar Olsson and Karin Boye) were excellent reads and really opened my eye to a whole strand of Scandinavian literature of which I hadn’t really been aware before. I was so impressed by the books that I felt moved to go and have a look at Norvik’s back catalogue – which was probably a mistake… One book was ordered straight away; another couple are en route; and this is obviously going to be an imprint which very much appeals to me!

The first book I was drawn to is “To Pieces” by Henry Parland, an author I’d not come across before. Born in Vyborg 1908, he had an intriguing background; his early years were spent in St. Petersburg and Kiev, where he spoke Russian and German. Come the Russian Revolution, the family decamped to Helsinki, where he attended first a Finnish School, then a Swedish school and finally the University of Helsinki, becoming a writer in the Swedish language. He was part of the avant-garde in that city, publishing one poetry collection during his lifetime – Idealrealisation (1929) – before dying tragically young of Scarlet Fever in 1930. He had been working on his novel “To Pieces” at the time of his death, which was left unfinished.

It’s striking how many of the Scandinavian avant-garde writers I’ve encountered recently had short lives; Karin Boye took her own life, and Edith Sodergran (who’s in my line of sight at the moment) died of TB at the age of 31. Used as we have been in the modern times to longer lives and effective medicine, it’s a timely reminder of our human mortality. But I digress…

As I mentioned, “To Pieces” was left unfinished on Parland’s death, but as the afterword by Per Stam reveals, the book went through a long chain of publication in various forms before it reached this definitive critical edition in 2005; and that’s the version which has been translated by Dinah Cannell and published by Norvik. The book is a short work (106 pages) and is narrated by a young man called Henry. As the book opens he’s recalling a disastrous love-affair, attempting to reconnect with his death lover Ami by developing photographs he took of her. He talks to these, they seem to talk back, and he goes over the story of their problematic love and constant misunderstandings.

Henry is something of a man at a loss. Struggling to make ends meet, speculating with his money and having to constantly negotiate credit, an affair with a woman like Ami and her expensive tastes is not the best thing for him. They’re drawn together, yet it seems that they have little in common, and the book follows the developments and then reverses in their relationship. When Ami dies of some kind of fever (and this is no spoiler, because she is obviously dead as the book opens) there is an inevitability; and bearing in mind Parland’s eventual fate, a horrible poignancy. Having recounted the end of the affair, the second part of the book sees Henry recalling their initial meeting and how random was the chain of events which led to this. A reminder, perhaps, of how arbitrary life really is.

…if, ignoring the anxious feeling that always grabs me by the scruff of the neck when I let the memory in, I dwell on it for a moment instead and let it expand to fill the full space of my imagination, the shutter-like structures in my consciousness suddenly slide aside as I, unimpeded, move among the events of that summer. All I need to do now is bend down and pick up one situation or another from the ground to feel how it wriggles through my fingers and then, with some reluctance, eventually settles down submissively on the pages of this book.

Simply looked at as a story, “To Pieces” is moving and poignant, and a marvellous portrait of the life of the times; with the loosening of society’s restrictions, visits to the beach, dancing and drinking and cinema-going, this is a world which seems very modern. However, what takes the book to another level is its experimental nature; Parland uses fragments of memories and meditations on photography to explore the relationship between Henry and Ami; and he often imbues objects with feelings and needs in a most engaging way. The writing is particularly atmospheric, with beautiful imagery and metaphor.

Photography, in particular, is a touchstone throughout the book, with Henry using the close study of the photos he develops as a way to reconnect with Ami and see her more clearly than he did in real life. The descriptions of the whole developing process have an almost sensual quality, as if Henry is using this as a metaphor for his love for her. This is one of many elements of modernity in the book; telephones, too, play a major part, with much of the communication between the lovers being phone conversations; and in fact Henry hears about Ami’s death by telephone. It’s often very meta; and frankly, what’s not to love about a book which open with a chapter titled “The writer inspects himself in the mirror”?

Henry Parland in the 1920s (Anonymous Unknown author / Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

“To Pieces” is a fascinating book, and despite the label ‘modernist’ is very readable. There are many layers to the story, and Parland provides the book with a motto hinting at a plagiarism of Proust; certainly memory is the thread which runs through the book. Stam’s afterword discusses many of these layers, as well as providing context and the history of the book’s long journey to a finished form. The question has to be asked as to whether, with a first-person narrator called Henry Parland, this is autofiction, and I can’t answer that – it would probably take a biography to reveal the solution, and there *isn’t* much available about Parland in English that I can find. Whether it is or not, “To Pieces” is not only an excellent piece of short fiction, it’s also a study of the process of storytelling, of the tricks of memory, with the narrator often standing back at a distance, stepping outside of his tale to comment on what he’s doing and the way he’s constructing his past. I picked Parland’s book up at random, liking the sound of it; and I’m so glad I did as it was a most enjoyable and stimulating read. It’s a tragedy that he died so young, leaving such a small body of work, but at least we have this book; and I do wish his poetry wasn’t so hard to get hold of… 😦