Article in Estonian Literary Magazine: “A Brief Guide to Toomas Nipernaadi’s Estonia”

I published an article in the Spring 2019 Estonian Literary Magazine entitled “A Brief Guide to Toomas Nipernaadi’s Estonia”. It introduces the 2018 translation into English by Eva Finch and me of August Gailit’s 1928 novel Toomas Nipernaadi.

Here is the full text of the article, reproduced with permission from the Estonian Institute.


A Brief Guide to Toomas Nipernaadi’s Estonia

Jason Finch


The object of this guide is to supply curious readers, who are possibly also travellers in the country, with some information about the landscape and people of Estonia, in every way aiding them to derive enjoyment and instruction from a tour in this fascinating corner of Europe. The guide is founded on the travels through Estonia during one summer in the mid-1920s of a certain Toomas Nipernaadi, as recorded by August Gailit in his book named after Nipernaadi, first published in Estonian in 1928 and, in 2018, now translated into English for the first time (by Eva Finch and Jason Finch).

Actually, that introductory paragraph adapted from Baedeker’s Northern Italy (1906) might give a misleading impression. Toomas Nipernaadi, by August Gailit, is as every Estonian knows not a reliable travel guide but a work of fiction. It contains no map, and its place names are none of them found on a map apart from a few outside the boundaries of Estonia such as Riga and Sweden. It contains lush nature writing attentive to the flora and fauna of different parts of Estonia as the seasons subtly shift one into another. But it combines literary Romanticism with harshly entertaining satire on people and manners. Still, the idea of it as a guidebook to Estonia and Estonians, even if the reader has to fill in the blanks as to region or maakond, is a helpful way of seeing it. The book was written on a historical threshold, in the first decade of Estonian independence, and around the time when the country’s population began to be far more of an urban one and less of a rural one than it had ever been in earlier times.

But it is time to begin the tour. First we visit the Black River where the ice is breaking up at the end of winter.

All of the ditches, paths and hollows are full of gurgling rivulets jumping and wiggling like little worms, which rush merrily down the slope, turning into one thing in this charge, expanding and grabbing rotten leaves, twigs and moss and carrying all this on its back to the huge current of the river, a festive ballroom. The snow is brittle and glittery, it collapses in wind and sunshine, it ices over and drops of water tear off the ice crystals as from a dripping beard. The forest is waking from its wintry swaying, the tops of the spruces are getting greener and greener, and the broad boughs of pines are full of glistening droplets of water and birds chirruping. Autumnal sprigs, icy and red, have remained hanging on the naked rowans. Slopes and hills are shedding snowdrifts; brown cranberries and the frozen stems of lingonberries are lifting their heads as if from under a white sheepskin. The air is bluish, full of water and sun. (Toomas Nipernaadi, pp, 9–10)

Loki lives here, surrounded by forests. She shares a hut with her grumpy old father, Silver Kudisiim. Perhaps she is seventeen or so, perhaps a bit older. The neighbours are another father-daughter pair, old Habahannes and his daughter Mall. They seem ‘snooty and proud’ to Loki (p. 19). Much wealthier than she and her father are, they entertain the raftsmen who pass this year every spring as the weather changes, like now when ‘[t]he nights are warm and breezy, wetlands steaming and gurgling, waking up from their winter sleep’ (p. 13). This year, the raftsmen whizz past without stopping and Loki feels ‘unspeakably sorry for herself’ (p. 15). Days pass. But then another man arrives on a raft, all alone. He introduces himself to Kudisiim and Loki as Toomas Nipernaadi. Tales and trickery involving both the Habahanneses and the Kudisiims follow, in which it is sometime hard to tell who the trickster is and who is the one tricked.

Ultimately Toomas flees the region and his journey goes on as spring becomes summer. Six more tales follow. It’s a novel in short stories, according to the original title page. Every tale, or chapter, takes Toomas into a new region and a new phase of the year.

Having left Toomas leaping from a boat on the fast-flowing Black River and wading ashore, we meet him next on a ‘dusty road’ through a landscape which is not the ‘immeasurable forests’ surrounding Loki but one of lakes leading to a farm set in ‘dried-out fields’ (pp. 10, 39). Approaching Krootuse farm, we hear about Toomas, ‘tall and lean’ with ‘big eyes […] full of joy’.

When curious folk asked him something, he laughed with a wide mouth and told them that he was just wandering around looking for how the land really opened up. When he got tired he sat by the roadside, played the zither and sang, but his voice screeched and was ugly’ (p. 39).

At Krootuse, the Nõgikikas boys, Peetrus, Paulus and Joonatan, have just lost their mother Liis, by all accounts not a very nice person. Here, not for the last time, Toomas gets involved in a ceremony acting like a kind of pretend pastor: the funeral of Liis Nõgikikas, where he hands round a bottle of vodka he’s found in a cupboard, praising ‘the good qualities of the deceased’ (p. 44). As everywhere he goes, he becomes rapidly and deeply involved with the people he meets, country people with their own regions and localities who are still always very much country people: sometimes greedy, sometimes hungry for affection but always tied to the specifics of the area where they survive. Toomas comes into and out of their lives, a bit like a Baedeker tourist in the Italy of 1906, a traveller from ‘beyond forests and meadows’ (p. 44) except that he is in his own country and can always work charms with his speech in the language he shares with the people he meets.

Like Loki and her father, the Nõgikikas brothers are deep in a local rivalry. Theirs is with a pompous neighbouring farmer, Puuslik. Toomas offers help. He suggests they buy the apparatus needed to establish a travelling cinema including – the key thing to attract the crowds – a real live monkey. As he does in most places he goes, he courts a local girl, in this case the fisherman’s daughter Miila. As elsewhere, too, mayhem ensues, and Toomas moves on.

Instead of outlining the shenanigans which follow in different parts of Estonia as summer reaches its height then the days start getting shorter again and mellow September gives way to bitter October, this guide will now briefly outline the regions and landscapes visited by Toomas during the rest of this year. After the events at Krootuse farm, he is encountered next in ‘an upland area overlooking a valley’ where ‘[b]lue sea could be detected beyond the distant forests’ (p. 78). He reaches this idyllic setting is reached in late April or very early May, perhaps, the trees still ‘leafless’, ‘[t]he spring evening […] full of pollen and the scent of resin’.

By early June, as the longest days of the year are reached, he is in a great wetland, ‘the swamps and bogs of Maarla’ (p. 105). The nights now are ‘momentary, milky pale, blazing hit, full of a toxic fragrance’. The people around Maarla are said to be gypsies and horse thieves. They don’t have a good reputation among settled country folk. Here there is a ferry across a river which travellers pay to use. The former ferryman, ‘Lionhead’ Joona, fell madly in love with a gypsy girl and ended up taking both of them to their deaths over some rapids. Toomas presents himself as ‘a fen-drainer by profession’ (p, 124). When he applies his professional skills, he says, the area will utterly change. It will become a normal, law-abiding place, with money to be made there. As with the travelling cinema idea so at Maarla, Toomas presents himself to the locals as an incomer from a world of modernity and new technology which is implicitly the world of the town.

From Maarla we move to a Rabelaisian country wedding – where Toomas, briefly, officiates – in the village of Terikeste, on former manorial lands, an upland area of ‘clustered hillocks, ridges, wolds and hills with old oak trees, ashes and maples on the tops’ reached after ‘the Singa lowlands, forests and swamps run out’ (p. 175). And then after that Toomas enters another agricultural area where, in the ‘mildness’ of autumn, ‘the air is yellowish, saturated with the scents of earth, the aroma of the ripe grain and hops and the continuous quiet swish of the leaving birds’ (p. 241). The reader feels shades of change: Gailit is a splendid nature writer. Small alterations within something shared make the atmosphere different. Finally, beside the sea, the rain is becoming sleet then snow. It must be November. Toomas seems destitute, his boots worn out.

In every place there is a story. But as for Toomas’s own story, that only gets indicated to the reader at the very end of the book. Everywhere he goes he has been presenting himself as one thing or another: who is he really?

This isn’t a guide to August Gailit himself or to his literary circle. As all Estonians know, a road-movie called Nipernaadi was seen at the cinema in 1983 and afterwards many times on TV, but that belongs in another article.

Toomas Nipernaadi was written and is set at a time when Estonians were still primarily a rural people but when the old rural world was becoming a backward curiosity to the many city-dwellers now among their number. Gailit is more of a comic writer than England’s Thomas Hardy, but his portrait of the countryside has elegiac qualities, like Hardy’s. He shares with Hardy an intimate knowledge of how country people speak and judge one another. Gailit’s nature descriptions may resemble Wordsworth and Thoreau, but the crazy vigour of the book recall the trickster tales of African-American and Native-American literature. In Toomas Nipernaadi’s Estonia a set of elaborate pranks unfold against a rich landscape, ever-changing but ever-alike.



All page references are to August Gailit, Toomas Nipernaadi, trans. Eva Finch and Jason Finch (Sawtry, UK: Dedalus, 2018). ISBN: print, 9781910213506; ebook, 9781910213902.

Toomas Nipernaadi copyright © the estate of August Gailit 2018

Translation copyright © Eva Finch and Jason Finch 2018

CfP: Public Transport as Public Space (T2M conference, ‘Mobilities and Materialities’, Paris, 16.10.19-19.10.19)

Please consider submitting a paper for this session, which is part of the HERA project I am involved with as PI for Finland. Literary and historical papers addressing public transport as public space are very welcome.


CfP: PT as PS, T2M conference

Session proposal for International Conference of Transport, Traffic and Mobility (T²M)

“Mobilities and Materialities: Building Bridges Between Past and Future”

Paris, 16-19 October 2019

Public transport as public space


Convenors: Tauri Tuvikene (Tallinn University), Wojciech Kębłowski (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Université Libre de Bruxelles), Wladimir Sgibnev (Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography)


As public transport continues to be studied primarily by engineers and planners, who rely on the dominant economistic and technocratic readings and approaches, it remains peripheral in the social sciences and humanities literature. Yet, public transport embraces intense and intimate sites for encountering cultural diversity, facilitating social integration and negotiating public space. It is a site of encounters that shapes perceptions of others and can add to collective experience (Paget-Seekins & Tironi, 2016), conviviality and “intercultural dialogue” (Koefoed et al., 2017), acting as a site of everyday multiculturalism (Lobo, 2014) and micro-encounters (Purifoye, 2015). At the same time, public transport is entangled with processes “of differentiation and exclusion” (Wilson, 2011: 635), which could result in “racialisation, stigmatisation and intolerance” (Koefoed et al., 2017). This session aims to explore the public space dimension and potential of public transport in different cities around the world considering the historical development and difference of public transport vehicles and systems, as well as attending to the cultural and political diversity across countries and regions. In this way we expect to position public transport at the frontline of considering what is, can be, or should be public in the city. Examining public transport in conjunction with diverse conceptualisations of public space and publicness the session aims to expand the existing understanding of public spaces through historical, political, social and cultural account of everyday mobilities and public transport spaces. Public transport potentially confronts citizens with social diversity, speaking to them of different types of ownership, surveillance, subversion, interaction and transformation of social norms. Thus, it is also important to pay attention to the historical shifts and futures of public transport—including the so-called sharing and platform economies as well as self-driving mobilities—and the ways they affect the publicness of public transport.

We welcome both theoretical and empirical, case-oriented or comparative analysis from a variety of disciplinary perspectives: cultural history, literary, narrative, cultural and media studies, ethnography and anthropology, geography, sociology, etc. The paper should take urban public transport as the centre of attention and offer a critical analysis of public transport as public space.

If you are interested in taking part of the session, please do send an abstract of maximum 300 words and 100 – 150 words of biographical note on each speaker to session convenors Tauri Tuvikene (, Wojciech Kębłowski ( and Wladimir Sgibnev ( by 27 February 2019.


More information on the conference:




Koefoed, L., Christensen, M. D., & Simonsen, K. (2017). Mobile encounters: bus 5A as a cross-cultural meeting place. Mobilities, 12(5), 726–739.

Lobo, M. (2014). Everyday Multiculturalism: Catching the Bus in Darwin, Australia. Social & Cultural Geography 15(7), 714–29.

Paget-Seekins, L., & Tironi, M. (2016). The publicness of public transport: The changing nature of public transport in Latin American cities. Transport Policy, 49, 176–183.

Purifoye, G. Y. (2015). Nice‐Nastiness and Other Raced Social Interactions on Public Transport Systems. City & Community 14, 286–310.

Wilson, H. F. (2011). Passing Propinquities in the Multicultural City: The Everyday Encounters of Bus Passengering. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 43(3), 634–649.


20th-century planning in St Louis and Houston among current thoughts about city futures

On 19 November I was pleased to present at the symposium Imagining City Futures Across Disciplines, a Turku Institute of Advanced Studies (TIAS) event co-organized with SELMA, in cooperation with the Association for Literary Urban Studies.

The title of my paper was ‘Zoning versus Private Action: Envisaging Urban Futures in Twentieth-Century St Louis and Houston’. The point was to look at twentieth-century projections of the future and ask how this could become material for deepening our thinking on the futures of twenty-first cities. In terms of imaginative place, as proposed in Deep Locational Criticism, the effort in this specific case is to focus on regional intersections and not on a centre versus periphery model. The specifics of the Mississippi and Gulf Coast regions of the USA are vital here.

My study focused on specific planning texts of St Louis and Houston produced between the 1920s and the 1940s. It put these into dialogue with other views of the cities concerned. For St Louis, these would include the memoirs and poetic views of the city which I described in earlier presentations on it given this autumn (including those of T.S. Eliot, Henry Armstrong, and former residents of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex). For Houston, these included a 1940s guidebook to the city and the 1990s view of it given by the British novelist Alan Hollinghurst, who wrote of an approach to it as one along which cars:

career […] to the gathering rhythm of power pylons, used car lots, motels, the cacophony of billboards selling burgers, judges, vasectomy reversal, everything exposed and unashamed, the great aesthetic shock of America in all its barbarity and convenience (Hollinghurst, in GUST 1999 collection)

Cornerstones of the method include the study of city personality, the establishment of city typologies including those identifying specialized cities such as ports or leisure-focused cities, and the examination of text types not commonly thought literary, via techniques of literary analysis.

City plans are profoundly imaginative, even fictional, texts. St Louis, driven between 1915 and 1950 by the single-minded visions of Harland Bartholomew (1889-1989), differs profoundly from Houston, where official zoning was rejected in the 1920s and the general plan of the city that emerged in the 1940s was focused far more on facilitation than direction, above all through the improvement of the road network.

Image at top: from The Major Street plan for Houston and Vicinity (1942), public domain (

Disembodied ‘Holborn Inhabitations’ at the MSA

On Saturday I presented at the Modernist Studies Association in Colombus, Ohio, via Skype. Many thanks to organizer Sarah Fedirka, chair Courtenay and co-panelist Elizabeth Evans. It worked surprisingly well, on the whole, although reading my paper out without seeing the room and just trusting that someone was clicking through the slides in the right order at the other end (they were) was a novelty. I was able to participate in the Q and A well too: not seeing who was in the room made it easier to focus on the words of a question.

The title of the paper was ‘Holborn Inhabitations: Fragile Geographies of London’s Italian “Colony”, 1877-2017’.

Here are the first few paragraphs:

In 1877 Adolphe Smith wrote that that while ‘[m]ost persons are aware that there is an Italian colony at Saffron Hill, it is strange how few visitors ever penetrate this curious quarter’. In the text of Street Life in London, written to accompany John Thomson’s incredibly vivid and pioneering works of street photography, Smith produced sketches following in the footsteps of Dickens’s persona as Boz.

140 years later, shortly before his death at the age of 95, the London organized crime boss Bert Rossi told a ghostwriter, ‘I’ve kept my money, live in a nice part of London. Who’d have thought an Italian boy from the Saffron Hill slums would end up living next door to Boris Johnson?’ In these words, Rossi taps into Saffron Hill’s close-to-legendary reputation as a London slum district. It is a reputation that stretches stretching back far earlier than Rossi’s birth thereabouts in 1922, indeed beyond Dickens (in Oliver Twist, Fagin’s gang is based on Saffron Hill) as far back as the early-eighteenth-century. Then the ‘Thief-Taker General’ Jonathan Wild had a house on Saffron Hill in which he was said to dispose of bodies by dropping them into the waters of the River Fleet via a trap-door, and to have escape routes leading to Clerkenwell, on the eastern side of the river. An inn, the Old Red Lion, survived into the mid-nineteenth century, by which time it seemed a shameful yet fascinating relic of an earlier London: needing removal but also transmission via illustrated record.

The houses of this narrow north-south artery, crammed between the City of London to the east and Holborn to the west, backed on to the Fleet River or rather ditch. It was no doubt a physically repugnant area at least until the 1840s when today’s Farringdon Road was cut through the area and the Fleet hidden away in a sewer.

My paper works with a long timescale of modern and migration. This begins half a century before Smith and Thomson produced Street Life in London when Italian political exiles began choosing the city as somewhere to live outside the reach of tyranny, and indeed reaching back to the turn of the nineteenth century heyday of the actor and comedian Joseph Grimaldi. The memory of this legendary clown was used to romanticize the area by a survival of the era of high modernism writing in the 1970s, Sacheverell Sitwell.

The images show, from above, the entrance to St Peter’s Italian Church on Clerkenwell Road and, below, the blue plaque commemorating Joseph Grimaldi on Exmouth Market, EC1.

Lion Farm to Birmingham City Centre, 17 October

Starting with the 0749 from Euston to Birmingham New Street station then after a brief walk around, onto a local train for Sandwell & Dudley. From there through Oldbury Town Centre, very depressed but fine council buildings, to the Lion Farm Estate with a brief detour into Rowley Regis. Shells and tiny figures in a gravelled front garden in the latter. In the former much that was green and bucolic. Some striking gardening. Picturesque variety among the types and sizes of smaller social housing blocks and individual terraced homes. The remaining taller blocks being overhauled; another up the hill towards some antennae standing alone in its non-clad form.

From there through fields and past canals to the Wolverhampton Road. Cheap snacks from Aldi. A long, long walk along a parkway with 1930s houses on either hand. Left towards Warley Woods, over an undulation, with narrow, gabled terraces and old Volvos about. Then entering Birmingham along the Hagley Road. Lodging-house and DSS ‘hotels’, then actual hotels, and little else but buses, cars and the odd pedestrian for miles.

A greeting from a man you’d expect to be hoisting a can who called me ‘brother’, and then a sob story from a woman with a pushchair (unclear if occupied), eliciting a pound, announced the fringes of the city centre in about Edgbaston. Portland Road of old fame, and Cardinal Newman’s Oratory.

Finally brash Broad Street and the huge hole of works which now seems Birmingham’s centre. Never seen a city so remade. Up to the terrace in the library; finally back along pedestrianised streets with not a car or bus in sight. Pink trams crossed at Corporation Street / New Street junction, and a group of dancers entranced an audience, with a young man in black vest and loose pants twisting his arm around his head quite frighteningly.

And on the 1603 back to Marylebone, armed with pictures.

SUKOL presentation

On Saturday 6th October I entered two notable Turku buildings that I had never entered before. One was the Messukeskus or Exhibition Centre in Artukainen west of the centre. This was for the Turku Book Fair and a highlight was almost literally rubbing shoulders with President Sauli Niinistö who marched right past me wearing a literary-looking tweed jacket.

But before that I spoke at the Virastustalo building in the centre on the south/east side of the river, next to the Finnish theatre. The audience was a fairly large one of high-school English teachers. I applied my research on St Louis to pedagogy: how, in the classroom, would we use this sort of material and the sort of approach I have developed in publications as Deep Locational Criticism? The possibilities to use a city for genuinely multidisciplinary, multimedial and participatory activities seemed to come across well, based on the feedback I have received so far. Here are the materials for the day, and a few images from my second visit to St Louis in April of this year .

6 October presentation, SUKOL

Photographs of St Louis, 18-24 April 2018

Handout 061018

Water Cities: papers at Åbo Akademi University’s English department

On 26 September the first session of the English department’s literary research seminar PREMIS of the academic year 2018-19 was held. Under the heading ‘Water Cities‘, there were two talks. I presented on St Louis, destructiveness, life stories and city personality with the title ‘River City Blues: Tales and Visions of St Louis’.

Any comments or observations would be valuable: my aim is to turn this into an article submission for an American studies, cultural studies, cultural geography or related interdisciplinary journal.

I went through the Pruitt-Igoe story and the personal accounts of the city of Eliot and Armstrong, integrating those from the Narva and Stockholm presentations. I also got to the planner Harland Bartholomew and in particular his 1928 Plan for the Central River Front. The images attached to this post relate to that. Below is the smoky, Dickensian riverside city that Bartholomew thought was out of date; above is what he wanted to replace it with.

Preparing this particular paper was valuable because it took me further with planning discourses associated with Bartholomew and others, but above all because it enabled me to explore the notion of city personality as used in some sorts of writing about cities but not in others.

Lena Englund then spoke about her recent researches into journalistic accounts of the Cape Town water crisis, still current in 2018. Lena’s title was ‘‘“The rest of us prayed for rain” –  Tracing the Personal in Accounts of the Water Crisis in Cape Town’.

There were some notable cross-overs and consonances between the papers, despite differences of physical geography, historical moment, genre and other things. For me it was clear that the idea of doom and the narrative of apocalypse had been used in discursive accounts of both cities, St Louis and Cape Town.

Thanks to all who were there!

Pruitt-Igoe Comes to Tensta Konsthall

On 21 September, I spoke at the one-day symposium ‘Large-Scale Housing Projects as Productive Space in Literature and Culture’ held at Tensta konsthall, a centre for contemporary art in the 1960s large-scale suburb of Tensta, Stockholm. This was an event jointly presented by ALUS and the Department of Culture and Aesthetics (IKE) and the Department of Baltic Languages, Finnish, and German, Stockholm University.

My talk developed my work on the intersections between individual experience and citiness or the personality of a city using the example of life stories of different sorts from 20th century St Louis, Missouri. When you put together for example the memories of the poet T.S. Eliot of childhood in St Louis in the 1890s and early 1900s, with the memories of residents of the Pruitt-Igoe development from the 1960s and early 1970s, you start to see connections and stories that wouldn’t emerge otherwise.

In the talk, ‘Myth and Materiality in The Pruitt-Igoe Myth‘, I took as a primary text an archive and interview based documentary film (dir. Chad Freidrichs, 2011). The film is a rich source for grasping both the ways in which the story of Pruitt-Igoe has been told, and the harshly material aspects of how life there broke down in unmaintained buildings. Many of the speakers in the film expressed positive aspects of life there, including senses of celebration, togetherness and home.

Overall this was a fascinating symposium, which worked well for discussion. Topics were close enough for us really to learn from each other, and we didn’t pack the day with too many talks so there was space for freer exchange of thoughts at the end. The venue, in the heart of a ‘large-scale housing project’ built as part of Sweden’s Million Programme, contributed a great deal. We had a tour of the shopping centre in the venue where, in connection with the Tensta Konsthall and community centre, art has been installed in various shops and small-businesses now established there. This was a great opportunity to hear about Tensta from a resident artist and also interact a little with community members who have very varied backgrounds.

Narva, an Industrial Border City: Literary Reflections. Symposium in literary urban studies and discussion day

  On 13 September 2018 I spoke at the symposium ‘Narva, an Industrial Border City: Literary Reflections’, held in Narva, Estonia. Unlike most of the speakers I did not speak about Narva, North East Estonia, or even Europe. Here is the abstract for my talk, Mobilizing a Riverine Border City: Plans and Memoirs of St Louis, 1910-60. I introduced the city beside the Mississippi which has a long-standing narrative of itself as the ‘Gateway to the West’. Individuals’ narratives of the city are exemplified by memoirs and autobiographies written by those who spent portions of childhood and youth there, including the poet T.S. Eliot and the boxer Henry Armstrong. Both wrote forms of Protestant spiritual autobiography concerned with this city which has a strong Roman Catholic tradition. Eliot and Armstrong’s views of the city contrast with those taken by city planners, notably Harland Bartholomew, who radically reshaped the city between the 1910s and 1950s as it entered an era of dramatic decline.

I was delighted to participate in such a dynamic event at this border city where several cultures meet. Apart from the formal discussions in the seminar room, a highlight was a guided tour of the now disused Kreenholm works (pictures from inside), a vast cotton mill with many ancillary buildings, on the western side of the Narva river separating the EU and Estonia from Russia to the east. Thanks go to the other organizers of the event, from the Under and Tuglas Literature Centre of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, and the Centre for Landscape and Culture at Tallinn University. The event took place at the splendid new building of the University of Tartu’s Narva College, next to the seventeenth-century old city hall of Narva which survived the Second World War, unlike few other buildings in the town.

Talk at Aboagora 2018: ‘Exhausting a Place in Turku? Kauppatori and the Infra-Ordinary’

Before it disappears into the mists of time, I wanted to say something about a talk I gave at Aboagora 2018 on 22 August. Aboagora brings university research together with the creative arts and a public beyond academia. This year the theme was ‘burden’.

The workshop I participated in was called ‘Palimpsest Cities: The Past as Burden and Possibility in City Literature’. Lieven Ameel spoke first, introducing literary urban studies as a discipline. Memorably he talked about the city in terms of the image of the ‘machine in the garden’, referring to the theorist Burton Pike and to literary examples from the USA and Finland. People benefit from living in cities, according to this image, but by doing so risk losing their understanding of themselves as part of the order of nature.

In my own talk I explored the past and present of Kauppatori, the Market Square of central Turku. I did so using historical mediations of it including photographs and maps, and by taking my own notes and photos on repeated visits to this place in July and August 2018. While speaking I showed a rotating slideshow, both my own shots and old photographs plus images from books

I argued that it is a place whose identity combines extreme centrality with important lacks or failures of centrality. These photos included one which is now the cover page of this blog. There, the layered nature of this city is made visible by the archaeological excavations accompanying the reconstruction of the square in 2018, revealing an earlier layer of pavement perhaps from the late 17th century.

In my account of Kauppatori I worked closely with the notion of the infraordinary, proposed by Georges Perec. To left is Perec sitting in the Cafe Marie at the Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris in 1974.

Among the infraordinary items of Kauppatori in 2018 I became particularly fascinated by the tall, rusting lamp-posts that I think will be removed by the present works on the square. Here is one of those:

Next, the Estonian writer Jan Kaus spoke about his childhood in Kitseküla, a neighbourhood south of the centre of Tallinn, and the changes this area has seen. Jan reflected on the relationship between cities as experienced and the time of a life, such that old buildings may seem actually to be the past but in fact are not. We exist in a present which is always momentary and between pasts and futures. This fact has been interpreted or avoided in various ways when cities have been regenerated or, as sometimes after wartime bombings and the like, reconstructed in an effort to restore the past.

A lively question-and-answer session followed. On balance I thought that in our talk the speakers connected with each other well by talking about related areas in ways that were quite different from each other. I was pleased to get the feedback afterwards that it had sounded like I was reading out a short story about Kauppatori and me.