Henry Parland and Kaunas

One of the most prominent representatives of Fenno-Swedish modernists, a Fenno-Swedish writer Henry Parland (1908–1930) is an important figure for the multi-cultural memory of Kaunas.

Henry Parland was born in 1908, Vyborg (Finland, later Russia). His creative path started in 1925, Finland. In 1928, together with a writer Gunnar Björling, he joined the activities of the modernist movement Quosego. In 1929, parents who wanted to protect their son against the Bohemian lifestyle, sent him as far away as possible from his friends, to live with his mother's brother, professor Vasily Seseman who worked at the University of Lithuania in Kaunas. This was where Parland developed his creative and writer's skills and expanded the circle of acquaintances (he met erudites Lev Karsavin, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, writers Henrikas Blazas, Bronius Raila, Antanas Venclova, etc.). Parland spent his free time in cafés and soon became friends with local bohemians and ballet dancer Vera Sotnikovaitė who influenced him greatly. He worked as a secretary in the Swedish consulate in Kaunas.

Living here, Parland started his first novel Sönder (To Pieces) that he did not manage to complete due to his sudden death caused by scarlet fever in November of 1930. The writer was buried in the Old Cemetery of Kaunas, the Lutheran part (currently Ramybės Park, but the grave did not survive to this day).

In 2005, using the manuscripts, literary researcher Per Stam prepared and published To Pieces. It was translated into Lithuanian in 2011. Literary experts see Parland's works as influenced by the trends of cosmopolitan Lithuanian avant-garde, artists of various nations and traits of modernist literature by French, Russian and German intellectuals whom he met living in Kaunas.

Parland’s letters to his close ones express his unique approach to Kaunas, its traditions and everyday life, cultural and public affairs. According to those who investigate Parland’s life and works, he was greatly impressed by the multi-ethnicity of Kaunas. Below you will find several excerpts from writer's letters confirming this, as presented in an article by historian Saulius Pivoras “Kaunas identity from Henry Parland ’s and Swedish perspective" (2013).

On 6 May 1929, having just arrived to Kaunas, he wrote to his parents: “Kaunas is not as a hole as you have thought it to be. It is a city with wonderful nature, endless space, electricity, buses, Jews and lots of poor coffee. /.../ people here celebrate Russian Easter and eat unbelievable amounts of food. /.../ The trip from Tallinn to Riga was horrible. I could not have believed that train carriages can be so dirty. And that passengers can be even dirtier. One has to go out and wash himself every half hour and breathe in fresh air. From Riga to Kaunas, it was a lot better. German wagons. Better audience. Just slightly sleepy. Uncle Tutti (Vasily Seseman) met me at Kaunas. A swarm of Jews wanted to enter the wagon, while another swarm wanted to depart it, so no one avoided stains on clothes. Eventually, I removed my things through the window and then managed to get out.”

“The environment here is comic and nice. There are no rocks, just sand. The city itself is on the lowland and surrounded by plateau. I live outside the boundaries of the real city and have to climb that plateau every day and this will kill me. I think that magnificent rotten stairs, coiling upwards, will collapse next week the latest.”

“Kaunas is a small dirty city mostly inhabited by Jews. But they are not like Jews in Helsinki: they are dirty, stinky devils spread around all the sidewalks. In summer, they bring their chairs outside, place them on the street and stop the traffic. Not that there is any traffic. Sometimes an isvostjik [coachman] passes by. I live not in the city but on the Green Hill, which is very steep and higher than Odenwall (hill) in Grankulla (a district of Helsinki). It is insufferable to climb small, inconvenient stairs every day 3-4 times. Other than that, it is rather good to live here. I have a very comfortable, small room with two good and one broken chair, a bed, a table and a bureau. This can be considered the ultimate luxury. When I started living here in autumn, I had only half a table, a couch full of bugs and a giant washing basin. Generally, there are a lot of bugs and fleas.  Most of my acquaintances are Russians, but I know several Lithuanian modernists which are, after all, rather insignificant. Finnish modernism is of higher level than the Lithuanian one. I am writing a novel. Unfortunately, it moves forward slowly, because I don't have much time. What is more, Kaunas has this obligatory custom: at 2 o'clock, after lunch, they all go for a nap. Between four and five, everyone sleeps here: Jews, Christians, and recently, me as well. After 5 o'clock, three times a week we exercise with uncle Tutti.”

“To be honest, there are no more horrible drunks than Lithuanian poets, and they accepted me with open hands. I also taught them to drink tefritšaras [tea with vodka] and it seems that it has a very strong effect on the non-Finnish people. I remember a funny yet uncomfortable situation last week, when I had to prop young men against the lamp posts on the main street of Kaunas in a long queue, and then look for a car that could take them from there. They stood obediently, clinging to the posts and only sometimes, they would fall, and I had to put them back. Restaurants in the country are extremely poor. I have already written about the only slightly decent apocryphal restaurant-cabaret where one can spend time.”