Thursday, February 16, 2012

Reading Emilie Demant Hatt in Helsinki in 2002

Queen Christina, by Sebastian Bourdan
I first read Emilie Demant Hatt's narrative about her time with the Sami in northern Sweden and Norway in 1907-8 in February of 2002, while sitting in one of the most beautiful libraries in the world: the University of Helsinki library in Senate Square. It was founded in1640 by Queen Christina of Sweden, though the main building dates from 1832. For almost a week I went to this library every day and sat in a book-shaded nook reading With the Lapps in the High Mountains in Danish. I'd just come down from the far north, my first winter in Lapland, and my mind traveled easily back to the dark and snow above the Arctic Circle. 

 In describing what I read years later in The Palace of the Snow Queen,  I wrote about her visual acuity: her painterly eye saw in the snow  "hyacinth blue light." I was at the beginning of my search for more information about Emilie, whose name I'd heard for the first time up in Alta in December. So far I'd seen none of her paintings. I sat dreaming in the library of one day translating her book into English. Finally I found the time in 2008 to concentrate more on this project, though it proceeded slowly. 

Now I'm preparing the manuscript for the University of Wisconsin Press, which will publish it with my introduction, notes, and a foreword by Hugh Beach in about a year. By that time it will have been eleven years since I spent many happy hours in the library (rotunda above). Most good things in life take patience; my time with Emilie has been and continues to be rich and absorbing. I've never had any doubt that it was work worth doing.
In 2006 the library on Senate Square in Helsinki became the National Library of Finland and this stamp commemorates it:



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