Baltic States

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Baltic States

Florin Berindeanu

This entry focuses on the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The Baltic countries are at the intersection of Western and Eastern elements that combine to make them distinctively hybrid societies. From the linguistic point of view, Latvian and Lithuanian are among the oldest languages, as they belong to the Sanskrit family of Indo-European culture. There is thus a blending of major European faiths in Baltic culture (Western Catholicism, Protestantism, and Slavic Orthodoxy), and linguistic amalgamation (Germanic and Slavic) which feed and inform the narrative structures and literary output as a whole. Baltic cultures also benefit from other influences, e.g., Scandinavian, Russian, and Jewish. And at a strictly political level, in any analysis of modern Baltic societies it is fundamental to consider their annexation by the Soviet Union for almost eighty years, a historical experience that has had deep consequences for cultural life.

The narrative output of the Baltic countries is fairly limited, for two reasons. The first has to do with the prevalence of oral rather than written literature. The other follows as a consequence of the prevalence of oral literature in the three Baltic countries, i.e., a relatively later emergence of specifically national literature. In this respect, it is significant that one of the major semioticians of our time, the Lithuanian Algirdas Julius Greimas (1917—92), published his study of Lithuanian mythology in the wake of Vladimir Propp's (1895—1970) Morphology of the Folktale (1928). Although little is known about the ancient folklore and mythology of Baltic countries, they are assumed to constitute the fundamental basis for the beginnings of the written literature. The reception of Baltic narrative is still notably reduced outside the territory, but Baltic mythology and more rarely narrative have influenced well-known German and Scandinavian authors, as well as Russian and Polish ones.

Estonian Narrative

The northernmost country of the Baltic republics is a vivid example of the dominant primordial culture. Estonia has an impressive oral tradition that has only partly survived. With the enthusiasm for folklore and oral literature stimulated by the Romantic ideas traveling east, so to speak, Estonia's rich heritage of fairytales, songs, and other traditional narrative forms (sayings, proverbs, riddles) had to wait until the late nineteenth century, when the Rev. Jakob Hurt (1839—1907) urged the nation to collect its treasure. Very few written inscriptions in Estonian, and certainly no literature, have been found prior to the publication of the Wanradti ja Koelli katekismus (1535, Short Catechism), Estonia's first ever book. Written by two clergymen, Johann Köll (d. 1540) and Simon Wanradt (1500—67), the book is a liturgical text whose translation into Estonian was for devotional and educational purposes. Nonetheless, Estonian literature did not begin to flourish until the late nineteenth century with Eduard Vilde a prolific novelist and short-story writer whose work spanned the early 1880s until his death in 1933. It is interesting to examine Vilde's narrative accomplishments from a broad cultural point of view. Influenced by French REALISM and NATURALISM (Honoré de Balzac and Émile Zola in particular), in his realistic novel Külmale maale (1896, To the Cold Land) and a few years later in his historical trilogy, Vilde shows a modern Estonia caught between the West and its increasingly threatening neighbor, Russia, who would soon incorporate Estonia into the Soviet Union.

Despite the post-revolutionary defeat of the tsarist occupation in 1905 and its declaration of independence in 1918, Estonia remained close to the Soviet Union, which generated in Estonian intellectuals the desire to rekindle the ties to the Western culture which had been abruptly interrupted by those events. The opposition of Estonian writers during the harsh Soviet years was expressed mainly through exile and silence. After independence, many writers enjoyed a new capacity for political expression and occupied political roles that allowed them to be particularly attentive to the still fragile democracy. From this point forward, two major themes continuously intersect: that of independence and Estonian identity, and the necessity to not lose contact with what was seen as the advanced cultures of the West. Friedebert Tuglas, Villem Grünthal-Ridala, and August Gailit dominated the narrative scene of Estonian literature as they took up the cry of their predecessor, the neo-Romantic poet Gustav Suits (1883—1956), who stressed the need to remain Estonian while also becoming European. At the same time, other influences from the neighboring Scandinavian countries (especially Norway and Sweden) were finding their way into the Estonian novel. Oskar Luts's It Is Written was influenced by Knut Hamsun, while Gailit, from his exile in Sweden, produced short stories blending the theme of exile with that of discovering different social realities. Social criticism dominates the prose of Anton Hansen Tammsaare, whose short stories display a biting sarcasm reminiscent of underground Soviet authors such as Daniil Harms, Ilya Ilf, and Yevgeni Petrov. In Kõrboja peremees (1922, The Master of the Kõrboja) and the massive Tõde ja õigus (1926—33, Truth and Justice, 5 vols.), Tammsaare's fiction explores social conflicts interlaced with deep romantic feeling.

After the late explosion of Estonian narrative in the second half of the nineteenth century, the twentieth century vigorously continued the realistic tradition of novel writing, combined with new aesthetic modes such as surrealism and existentialism. Karl Ristikivi is a good example. His novels, almost entirely centered around exile, are populated by characters who seem to inhabit concomitantly fantastic worlds. One such example is his narrative Souls' Night (1953), which shows the stylistic influence of Herman Hesse. With two other major Estonian novelists of recent decades, Arvo Mägi and Valev Uibopuu, the analysis of the individual in history became central, thereby allowing us to see how Estonian narrative still connects to its foundational roots, as well as to the search for the Other imposed by the frequent condition of exile. Very recently, Estonia has had, in Jan Kross, a serious candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature. He is one of the most representative novelists since the 1970s, and his novels describe the European vocation of Estonians, one that could not be stifled even during the dark years of Soviet dictatorship.

Lithuanian Narrative

Lithuania has an equally old history among Baltic countries which, like that of Estonia, is little known in its earliest details. Embracing the Catholic faith toward the end of the fourteenth century, Lithuania connected quickly to Western culture through its important Catholic neighbor, Poland. Geographical distance vis-à-vis the West is not so much an issue with Lithuania as it is with Estonia, and this greatly contributed to the relatively early publication of books in the country. Francis Skorina published the first books in Lithuanian in Vilnius in the early sixteenth century, and from then on Lithuania was permanently in touch with the West through two important Slavonic centers, Kraków and Prague. Another decisive factor in the development of Lithuanian literature was the impact of the Reformation on the consolidation of the vernacular language in multiethnic areas like Prussia.

Although many literary works written in Lithuanian between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries have been lost, it is very unlikely that they included secular compositions. The translation of Aesop's fables into Lithuanian in 1706 is arguably the first work of fiction published in the vernacular. It was widely based on the linguistic ideology of Michael Mörlin (1641—1708) who, in a Latin treatise dedicated to the Lithuanian language, stressed the importance of spoken language and folklore for the formation of a NATIONAL literary language. After the fall of the Polish—Lithuanian state and the country's incorporation into the Russian Empire in 1795, Lithuanian literature captured the echoes of Enlightenment ideology and tried to adapt it to the cultural needs of the Lithuanian-speaking audience. Many ideas of the French Enlightenment and, with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, essential aspects of Romantic ideology came from Poland. Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767—1835) and Johann Gottfried Herder (1744—1803) are other sources of sustaining the desire for literary change in Lithuania. Herder, in particular, is credited with the introduction of Romantic ideas such as the importance of folklore, lyricism, and a national ethos into the newborn Lithuanian literature. Silvestras ValiImagenas and Simonas StaneviImageius are the most representative nineteenth-century writers whose narrative literature is heavily focused on the revival of local folklore, the value of contemplation in the midst of nature, and the importance of education in the formation of a national spirit. The almost necessary stage of literary realism that dominates the last half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth in the wake of the big social movements that affected all of Europe paved the way to redefining literature as independent from political propaganda.

Unlike the other two Baltic countries, until recently Lithuania had to defend its sovereignty from various directions, particularly from Poland and Germany. Along with the obvious political fragility, such a situation was also conducive to new ideas and to a permanent effervescence in artistic creation. Lithuanian intellectuals travel a lot, moving from country to country or going into exile without forgetting their own national language and literature. From the artists' perspective, therefore, what is unstable from the social and political point of view becomes an important asset that can be exploited in their work. In less than half a century, Lithuanian literature absorbed and adapted the fundamental aesthetic ideas of the West. Perhaps the most famous modern Lithuanian writer, Jurgis Baltrušaitis, introduced the symbolist aesthetic through prolific translations from Russian, Scandinavian, French, and Italian writers in addition to his original poetic and essayistic output. In his novel The First Years (1936), Juozas Paukštelis renews the conflict between romantic sensibility committed to lofty ideals and the crude reality of social tensions and economic stresses typical of modern urban life. The longing for a mythical past is rendered obsolete and comical in the way in which the main character is portrayed by Jonas MarcinkeviImageius in his Benjaminas Kordušas (1937). Here, realist technique is craftily handled in a way that blends with the nostalgic aura of times past and aristocratic ideals, reminiscent of Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov (1859). A similarly elegiac note, albeit without the comedy and caricature to be found in MarcinkeviImageius, is present in the novels of Juozas Baltušis. His novel SakmImage apie JuzImage (1979, The Tale of Juza) is a fresco of the changing condition of the Lithuanian peasantry, both economically and spiritually.

The insertion of popular songs, folklore, and rural expressions represents the pronounced streak of nostalgia for a mythical past that dominates Lithuanian literature. The lyrical vein characteristic of many Lithuanian writers translates into a notable preference for the poetic genre. Indeed, very often the narrative itself is consistently imbued with poetic tones and descriptive passages centered on nature and the feelings it triggers as subjective response from individuals. When authors like Bronius RadzeviImageius draw their fictional inspiration from the interest in foreign writers like Blaise Pascal (1623—62), Albert Camus, or Thomas Wolfe, such sources are used to elaborate on the mythologization of rural life.

The thread of invoking the age of folksong and traditional society remains a constant in Lithuanian literature, old and new. Even contemporary writers like RamImagenas Klimas use popular motifs in their novels. Klimas experiments with language and NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE and in this sense, he is perhaps the most postmodern of the contemporary Lithuanian authors, as he convincingly demonstrates in his GintImage ir jos žmogus (1981, GintImage and Her Man). What distinguishes him from other Lithuanian novelists is a keen linguistic sense that combines popular speech, jargon, and idiom (see DISCOURSE) to re-create in fictional narrative something similar to a history of spoken Lithuanian. This trait, combined with subtle and ingenious manipulation of plot and temporal perspective, make his writing emblematic of the two dimensions that are typical of the Lithuanian ethos in novel writing: the local (rendered linguistically) and the external (often expressed thematically).

Postmodernism in art and literature is considered a landmark in Lithuanian cultural life in general. In addition to its strictly aesthetic meaning which has been adopted from the precursors of postmodern thinking, Lithuanian artists convey, through their recourse to postmodernist ideas, a clear historical meaning. It represents the moment of liberation from the imposed burden of marxist ideology that was demanded to be at the core of any artistic creation. Thus, for instance, Saulius Tomas Kondrotas jettisons any referential discourse in his fiction, replacing it with playful narrative strategies that border on allegory. In his novel Ir apsiniauks žvelgiantys pro langImage (1985, The Faces of Those Looking through the Window will Cloud Over), Kondrotas chooses elliptic and ambiguous narrative information, through which he insinuates political changes in a traditionally allegorical manner. Themes of freedom and nonconformity are pronounced in literature. Interestingly, and rather unusually, many contemporary Lithuanian writers have a scientific background: many studied engineering, medicine, or architecture, while others came to literature by way of the visual arts. The latter is the case of Jurga IvanauskaitImage, a young writer who was deeply influenced by the “hippie” movement and was the first to adopt a feminist approach to fiction. One of the most imaginative and adventurous novelists of the new generation, IvanauskaitImage combines surrealism, psychoanalysis (see PSYCHOANALYTIC), and gender discourse in her later writings, most notably in Gardens of Hell (1992). There is also a sort of “forbidden” theme in contemporary literature that is tackled mostly by the Lithuanian writers in exile. This includes the tense relationship between Lithuanians and Russians, and especially the guilt complex related to the violent outbursts of anti-Semitism in 1941. The haunting sense of guilt, and the near-impossibility of speaking about it in a context where the subject remains a hideous taboo, are present in the novella Isaac (1960) by Antanas Škema. In this work, the protagonist gradually decides to transform the impossibility of erasing his crime (at the beginning at the novel he kills Isaac) into a sort of irrepressible passion for self-victimization. The conclusion of the novel gathers all the influences that animate Škema's art: existentialism, the theory of split personality, madness, and the image of the world as a confining mental asylum.

Latvian Narrative

As I indicated earlier, Baltic countries have in common a recurrent longing for the ancient past, and Latvia is no exception. The interest in folklore and all that represents the rhapsodic mentality of traditional society is even more enhanced by the fact that Herder moved to Latvia in 1764, where he studied and collected samples of the Latvian songs he would put into his Volkslieder (1779, Folk Songs) and Stimmen der Völker in Liedern (1807, The Voices of Peoples in Songs). As in most European countries, Latvian literature began with translations from biblical and ecclesiastic texts. Since religious texts circulated for many centuries as the primary educational source to accompany spiritual growth, Latvian literature in the vernacular would have to wait—as in Estonia and Lithuania—until the mid-nineteenth century. Perhaps for this reason, realism and Romanticism are the main aesthetic directions in all literary genres. Realism is employed by novelists, like Rudolfs Blaumanis, when the intention is to suggest how changes of the individual are caused by social transformations. Imported almost simultaneously, Romanticism is most suited for novellas and novels that stress the idea of universal freedom and spirituality: this is the direction taken in the fiction of JImagenis Poruks, a kind of Thomas Mann of Latvian literature. Poruks inaugurates the line of individual Romanticism which finds a different expression in the several volumes of fairytale collections written by KImagerlis Skalb, viewed by many commentators as the Hans Christian Andersen of Latvian literature.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Latvian prose was enriched by the decadent novels of the writer and painter JImagenis JaunsudrabiImageš. Novels like Caucasus (1920), NImageves deja (1924, The Death Dance), and Capri (1939) depict—in simple terms sustained by the use of provincial expressions and oral-expressive modes—female characters caught in social situations that lead to their moral decay. The decadent aesthetic connected to linguistic symbolism is one of the most common themes in Latvian narrative of the first decades of the twentieth century. The influence of Oscar Wilde, Emilé Verhaeren, and Gabriele D'Annunzio permeated the fiction of many Latvian writers of the time, who saw the decadent aesthetic as the most suitable medium to explore the intricacies of human emotions. Even where there are traces of other aesthetic influences and interests (most commonly, expressionism), Latvian writers use such experiments as short-lived deviations from other forms of decadence. More recent Latvian novelists like Antons Rupainis and Knuts LesiImageš develop what appears to be a constant of Latvian narrative: namely, that of complex plot orchestration and the narrative technique of intertextuality. Rupainis, the author of novels set in monastic environments, tries to emulate a semiotic tradition in fiction made famous by Umberto Eco. For his part, LesiImageš is another exponent of interdisciplinary discourse—in his case, literature and music. LesiImageš, in fact, belongs to an important trend in Latvian contemporary fiction that approaches narration and music as areas for investigating the human soul. Probably the most representative of this is the well-known Latvian composer, MarImageeris ZariImageš. At the age of 60 ZariImageš wrote his first novel, which immediately became an international success. Mock Faustus or The Corrected Complemented Cooking-Book CCC is a fictional reply to the acclaimed The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. ZariImageš, who in 1990 became Latvian Minister of Culture, uses the myth of Faust, Goethe's epic, and Bulgakov's novel to address the issue of creation in a totalitarian system from the point of view of the active intellectual who never surrenders belief in the impact of action for the collective good.

Where novelists like ZariImageš and LesiImageš represent the intellectual side of Latvian prose, another direction of the past decades focuses on the effects of determinate historical situations on individual destiny. Aleksandrs PeleImageiš's novels engage the recent history of Latvia and show how it can be seen to illustrate human psychology. The postmodern theory of fragmentation is perhaps best expressed by PeleImageiš's ironic and subtle tone, one that avoids nostalgia and obsolete meditation and instead opts for frequent digressions and sarcasm that remind us of the satiric vein of ZariImageš. The horrific sense of the Other that Baltic artists—who for strategic reasons never embraced communism—had toward the Soviet Union is suggestively portrayed in PeleImageiš's novel Siberia Book. With the succession of occupation and temporary liberation from the great belligerent forces, PeleImageiš insists on rendering ironic the profound collective trauma of Latvian people through most of the twentieth century.


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