Winter, in my mind, will forever be associated with mental images from the Bregenzerwald: ski slopes that I have prepared by hand (or foot) myself, toboggan runs on snow-covered forest roads, the crunch of snow beneath my feet, frozen toes, and the starry sky on frosty nights. For me, winter forever remains frozen in a childhood memory. This is one of the reasons I have never been tempted (thank God) to escape winter’s icy grasp. Sunbathing on a picture-perfect beach in my bathing suit beneath the swaying of palm trees? No way. I’d go so far as to take the opposite approach. As proper winter wanes here, I would head north instead. Proper winter? The kind with snow and ice and short days… not to mention a hot grog, fireside stories, and a hot sauna. And where would that land me? You guessed it: Finland.
The book I’ve been reading today also hails from snowy Finland. More specifically from a region of Finland that combines winter with yet another constant, the sea. After all, in my view, the sea is more than just a place to bathe by the seaside. It’s an uncanny, strange and powerful setting with its own special allure: It’s far more about the wild storms than the romantic sunsets. The book in question concerns a Finish archipelago, a world of islands off the coast of Finland that has attracted its own set of extraordinary personalities. This is not altogether unlike the people of the Bregenzerwald. It’s just as the locals say: “Living in the Bregenzerwald is not for everyone.” Mountain people, like sailors, are more often than not a quiet, quirky bunch. Volter Kilpi, the son of a captain, lived in the archipelago from 1874 to 1939. Instead of following wholly in his father’s footsteps, he instead became a librarian and writer, one of the most important Finnish authors. Today, he is mentioned in the same breath as James Joyce and Marcel Proust.
His most significant book, entitled “Alastalon salissa” from 1933, is a true winter classic. It’s ideal for very long evenings and quiet nights. More than 1,000 pages describe just six hours in which a large gathering of men sit together and discuss the building of a three-masted barque, a large ship that promises both wealth and prestige. These men celebrate their manhoods as if they were eternal: “A man pulls up his own pants” (page 576). Such a man, of course, does not “drink well water, but rum!, he added to his daily musings” (ibdb.). Apropos daily musings: These are thoughts in which you take yourself seriously, including your own significance to the world and existence! Sounds suspiciously like something that a person from the Bregenzerwald might say, does it not?
If we examine the themes and figures of Kilpi’s literary feat more closely, the Bregenzerwald is also drawn more clearly into focus, not least the version so vividly thematised by Franz Michael Felder (1839-1869). Wealthy farmers, i.e. the cheese barons, and their dealings with small-scale farmers, for example. The age old story of rich and poor plays out in Finland and in the Bregenzerwald: Neighbours competing pettily amongst themselves and against each other, followed by a cunning, somewhat devious, or at the very least mischievous, common struggle against the authorities: this is a familiar refrain in these parts as well. It’s easy to have a clear conscience as long as things work out. After all, history is penned by the winners: “With a clear conscience, Alastalo laughed at his own story and looked around with a calm stomach” (page 381). I find it amazing, and even reassuring that the true hero (the book was named after him for good reason) of these 1,000 pages is not one of the pompous captains or proud shipowners. Instead, Alastalo is one of the many men who sits and talks, talks, talks, all the while concealing many things. Many things are said without reason, or at least not for the purpose originally intended.
At issue is the space, the spaces, and thus ultimately the time that one is granted to do great things. In Alastalon salissa, however, a miracle takes place that goes far beyond the talking, fussing, and posturing of men: “The Hall of Alastalo witnessed the same miracle that it had witnessed on every other bright-sky day — namely, that the sun, having in the morning shone through the windows on the east side to spread its dazzling linen of light on the carpets and on the floor between the carpets as the panes on the seaward wall permitted, later, rolled up said linen on that side of the hall. Hours later though, as the day had progressed, it began to stretch out from the opposite, courtyard-side wall and through the western window panes toward the same floor, first with slanting streaks and later with ever-widening patches, until the entire room and floor were once again completely washed over with the same light and warmth that had blanketed the area in the morning from the sea. This Hall of Alastalo, with its most commonplace of experiences and unchanging sequences, had now become aware, as the sun shone from the west instead of from the east as in the morning, that within its five-bladed walls, as opposed to the hum of the daytime and before, there was now an unexpected silence, indeed an almost wasteland of a deserted, empty space (page 1065).” We can thus conclude that the most progressive force, the most inexorable, is each new day anew.
Aside from this, what still counts is perhaps nature, also that of man, but then there is not much left that would have constructive continuance, that would be physically and psychologically or socially healthy: “Man has his nature, and although he sometimes rebells against this nature with violence forced upon it by wisdom, it nevertheless defends itself relentlessly within and at the roots of the mind… (page 820).” Night has fallen, here and in the Hall of Alastalo. In my small cabin in Grossdorf in the Bregenzerwald, I set aside my copy of Alastalon salissa. Here there was talking and drinking, reading and writing. Building a three-masted barque or writing a text… They are not as far apart as might seem at first glance. What counts is finding your task and doing it. To give to God what is His, to people what is theirs, and not to forget oneself, or not to forget within oneself, where the journey is always heading. This is what I have learned from stories such as Alastalon salissa. Such lessons are reflected by my experiences in the Bregenzerwald: the crunch of the snow, the ice-cold air, and the majestic silence on a starry winter night. A good snowstorm also does the trick.
Author: Peter Natter
Travel Magazine Issue: Winter 2022-23