Madis Kõiv - Writer for and Ideal Reader

by Aare Pilv

Madis Kõiv is an exceptional figure in Estonian literature and at the same time one of the principal writers in new Estonian literature; he seems to be simultaneously in the centre and at the periphery. He celebrated his 75th birthday in December, although he has been known as a writer for no more than twenty years. His serious arrival in literature (to be precise bringing him to literature, as he claims never to have wanted to be in the social role of a writer, and has indeed never tried to be) occurred in the early 1990s. However, he is the essential playwright of the last decade and a highly regarded prose writer.

The peculiarity of the situation is further enhanced by the fact that Kõiv has produced literary texts from the first half of the 1960s onwards, but mainly as a private hobby without the usual dilemma of either writing into your desk drawer or publishing. Thus, he is ‘a man from the woods’ who has basically written for his own amusement, and at the same time one of the crowns of Estonian contemporary literature.

Madis Kõiv was born in 1929, spent most of his childhood in the town of Valga and finished secondary school in post-war Tartu. Then he studied physics at Tartu University and worked as a lecturer and scientist until 1991, first in Tallinn and since 1961 at the Tartu Institute of Physics. His specialty is nuclear and quantum physics; in 1960 he was a Soviet candidate of the sciences degree with special topics such as muon physics, systematics of elementary particles, string equation and comparison of concepts of time in classical physics and quantum physics. Problems of physics have also led Kõiv to a closer treatment of the history of philosophy (Leibniz, time-aporias of ancient thinkers, etc.).

Madis Kõiv’s typical brief introduction in Estonia is "writer, physicist and philosopher". The latter component is essential in understanding Kõiv, as he is a thinker with extensive philosophical erudition, who has written a great number of original philosophical reflections. Of his published texts (typically of Kõiv, his output consists of a published part and a part that is known about but that nobody has read), the most significant are Aporia of Attica, Tragedy of Elea (Attika apooria, Elea tragöödia; written in 1974, published in 2000) and Was ist des Esten Philosophie? A Metaphilosophical reflection (published in the magazine Akadeemia no 11, 1999 – no 4, 2000).

Kõiv has also been busy furthering philosophical education – he was essentially close to the continental tradition, as he was a founding member of the Society of Analytical  Philosophy in 1991 and in charge of its seminars. In the course of ten years he has supervised a whole new generation of people interested in analytical philosophy. Creating Estonian-language philosophical terminology and the tradition of its usage is, in Kõiv’s opinion, of utmost importance. The strictness of analytical philosophy is a highly suitable foundation.
In addition, Madis Kõiv is also known as a painter and a key figure in promoting Võru culture and language.

Madis Kõiv has moved in literary circles since the late 1950s. He knew the legendary Artur Alliksaar and Rein Sepp, and belonged to the group of theatre innovators in the 1960s-70s in Tartu, although for a long time he did not participate in the cultural life through his own texts. Rather, he was a fellow traveller and a kindred spirit. His first published literary works were written in collaboration with others. The play Küüni täitmine (Filling the Barn), appearing under the pseudonym of Jaanus Andreus Nooremb in 1978, was written together with Hando Runnel. It was deemed impossible to stage for quite some time (the plot unravels in a huge barn, people get lost in the hay, finally the hay catches fire and the whole theatre burns down). Finally, in 1999, the young theatre director Tõnu Lensment successfully produced it.

Next came two texts written together with Vaino Vahing: a panoramic play with numerous characters uniting cultural history and identity psychology, Faehlmann. Keskpäev. Õhtuselgus (Faehlmann. Noon. Evening Clarity; staged in 1982, book in 1984), and the dialogue novel Endspiel. Laskumine orgu (Endspiel. Descent into the Valley, 1988). The latter is one of the most original novels in modern Estonian literature, relying on real-life facts and consisting of philosophical and psychological reflections on the mentality and relationships of the early 1970s intelligentsia, discussed by the Physicist and the Psychiatrist. In collaboration with Aivo Lõhmus he wrote the Võru-language Põud ja vihm Põlva kihelkonnan nelätõistkümnendämä aasta suvõl (Draught and Rain in Põlva County in the Summer of 1914; 1987) which draws material from the life of Kõiv’s relatives and ancestors, and is connected to a wider historical context.

Kõiv’s serious arrival occurred at the turn of the last decade when various journals started publishing his essays and short prose, finally out of his desk drawers, and theatres were eager to stage his plays. So much so that Kõiv became the essential Estonian playwright of the last decade. His advent was the more prominent as it happened at a generally low ebb of drama.

The most prolific producer of Kõiv’s plays has been Priit Pedajas. The style and language of his productions was later taken as the norm, and in hindsight, the more modest reception of other theatre directors might have been caused by that fact.
Prose texts and plays that began appearing over ten years ago, actually dated from an earlier period (e.g. The Meeting and Castrozza, produced in 1991, which mark the start of the so-called Kõiv period in theatre, were written respectively in 1982 and 1965). The fact that Kõiv’s texts were not published before had nothing to do with politics or censorship. Instead, as the author has himself confessed in interviews, he never thought of himself as a writer, and considered writing texts as a trivial pastime compared with serious science. The other factor was that at the time he was writing the texts, they did not seem to suit the prevalent literary manner and artistic principles. Kõiv therefore made no attempt to get them published (there is one known instance in 1976 when the literary magazine Looming refused to publish his long, stylistically quite peculiar essay about Mati Unt). Kõiv’s literary pieces began appearing thanks to the insistence of his friends. It can only be guessed how his texts, alongside the innovative prose and drama of Unt and Vahing in the early 1970s, could have influenced the Estonian literary processes. At the same time one must admit that the last 15 years might have been a more favourable time for receiving his texts. Thirty years ago he could have found himself in a major interpretational vacuum, and been pushed to a more peripheral position. Who knows?

The real arrival of Kõiv (considering the previous collaborative publications as an introduction) was immediately honoured with various awards: the Tuglas Short Story award in 1991 for Film (in the magazine Vikerkaar, 1990/7) and in 1993 for the Life of an Eternal Physicus (Looming, 1992/8); an annual literary award in 1991 for The Meeting and in 1995 for the plays Filosoofipäev (The Philosopher's Day) and Tagasitulek isa juurde (Return to Father). In addition, he received the annual literary awards in 1983 (Faehlmann) and in 1999 for Stseene saja-aastasest sõjast (Scenes from the Hundred Years' War). Kõiv’s dramaturgy became the Grail of Estonian drama – it was, and is, highly valued, although there has always been some perplexity in analysing and interpreting him. In the reception of Kõiv, therefore, a somewhat paradoxical situation developed – on the one hand he was totally accepted, but on the other hand he concealed his nucleus from the critics. One reason is certainly the exceptional intellectual and philosophical content of Kõiv’s plays; besides the profundity of the author’s personal understanding of life, his plays also contain numerous detailed allusions to philosophical or scientific traditional heritage (the characters in several plays are great European philosophers, e.g. Spinoza and Leibniz in The Meeting; Kant and Fichte and Kant’s servant Martin who speaks in Heidegger’s quotations; Finis nihili has references to physics). Kõiv’s writing is indeed often addressed to the ideal reader whose literary preferences and interests coincide, to the smallest nuance, with those of Kõiv. At the same time the intellectual repository of these texts is large enough to offer something interesting to any thinking person with some philosophical intuition.

In her 2004 doctoral thesis at the University of Tartu, The theatrical reception of the plays of Madis Kõiv, Anneli Saro places his philosophical plays, together with Faehlmann and the Võru-language text based on the life of Estonian poet Ernst Enno Las olla pääle/Ennola (Let it be, 2003), among the so-called historical plays. The other type, according to Saro, includes the memorial plays based on the life of Kõiv himself or on the lives of his relatives. These plays are characterised by the insecurity of space and time, which expresses the fragmentary nature of memory, dreamlike existence and the blending and splitting up of the characters. Such features join the typical Kõiv personal remarks, which are often unusable in the actual production of a play (e.g. the appearance from the darkness of the face of Ding an Sich above the audience; wolves or horses on stage or flying characters). Quite frequently these remarks contain the author’s comments and an emotional atmosphere around the plot that cannot be created in the production. Memorial plays include, for example, Return to Father, Drought and Rain, Private Conversations with Aunt Elli (Omavahelisi jutuajamisi tädi Elliga), Scenes and Finis nihili. This type of play has perhaps found the greatest response among wider audiences, as they tackle the painful recollections of the whole population of the Second World War and its consequences. The third type according to Saro are model plays (Castrozza, Filling the Barn, The Rogues' Night Show (Peiarite õhtunäitus), When We Tried to Sell Walnuts with Vassel of Moondsund, No One Wanted to Buy (Kui me Moondsundi Vasseliga kreeka pähkleid kauplesime, siis ükski ei tahtnud osta)), which are less circumstantial, focusing on existential situations. Another typical feature of these plays is the lack of clear-cut main characters; what matters is an assemblage of characters and various emerging moods. Nevertheless, these model plays are also largely based on the past facts of life of peasants in the southern Estonian Võrumaa County (storing hay in the barn, gathering of the village youth who simultaneously feared and hoped to be called to war).
In a separate category are Kõiv’s dramatisations of texts written by others: Tali (Winter) is a weirdly shifted re-writing of Oskar Luts’ legendary seasonal cycle; stage versions of E. T. A. Hoffman’s The Devil’s Elixir and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (Mann’s novel is one of the “stem” texts of Kõiv’s entire world outlook; several of his texts have references to this novel).

Analysis of Kõiv’s plays has emphasised several dichotomies. Firstly, the blending of metaphysical heights and the so-called low everyday existence – a good example here is the servant Martin in The Philosopher’s Day who presents the views of simple people dressed up in Heidegger’s quotations (late 18th century!). Another is a farmer’s monologue, in a philosophical manner, about salvation in Filling the Barn. Such blending often produces a comical effect, but Kõiv’s humour is mostly intellectual, creating certain openings in ordinary speech that induce a surprised smile and from which the breeze of great generalisations flows in. On the other hand, Kõiv’s plays often intertwine the real and the imaginary (e.g. Return to Father has a bottomless hole in the living room floor that occasionally opens up and reveals yellow light and unintelligible sounds). The third dichotomy is the strong presence of both the intellectual and the sensual. Kõiv’s texts frequently exhibit intellectualised emotions or perceptibility of thought – an abstract idea goes hand in hand with a shade of emotion; perception of light or smell is inseparable from conveying an existential condition. Kõiv’s sensuality and perceptions are remarkably compelling and intensive, encompassing his characters (a repetitive motif is, for example, the yellow evening light that causes terror and is simultaneously part of the background of significant existential recognition). Although Kõiv himself endorses the cool intellectual "thinking" theatre as opposed to the "warm" theatre of experience (see his short essay Cold Theatre), his poetics can by no means be identified with the Brecht-like theatre of the mind. Kõiv is not oriented towards rational reflection; rather he delineates existential frameworks which, as obvious pre-conditions of human existence, usually remain unnoticed. The “thinking process” of Kõiv’s plays does not thus denote conveying rational decisions via the characters, but rather emphasising some general intuitions in their natural state of not being consciously acknowledged.

Kõiv has written 22 plays altogether (as far as we know), 16 of which have been staged (of these, 15 have appeared during the last 13 years!) and seven have been published. The fact that some texts are still not available to readers, is typical of the mystery associated with Kõiv. Apparently we only know half, at most, of what Kõiv has written over the years. In addition, he has delayed some publications, or limited the circle of readers (e.g. Keemiline pulm (Chemical Wedding), a novel with personal background written a few decades ago, appeared some years ago in only 11 copies properly printed and bound). More than his writing, Kõiv himself values the remarks and notes in his diaries, written over the course of many years, which are naturally unavailable to the public, at least for now. However, even if they were physically available, they would be difficult to access intellectually (his diaries, too, have been written with an absolutely ideal reader in mind).
Kõiv’s dramatic texts also include four radio plays – Haug (Pike), Ketas (Disc), Järv (Lake) and Üks teine lugu (Another Story). Radio makes it possible to realise the essential spatial and temporal movement of Kõiv’s plays, plus their vagueness and the active participation of atmosphere in the plot. Kõiv is additionally the author of two original manuscripts for Sulev Keedus’s feature films, and the co-screenwriter of Georgica (Georgics, 1998) and Somnambuul (Broken Sleep, 2003). In dark tones and images, both films touch upon the hidden wounds of Estonia’s national psychology, and both are among the best of recent Estonian cinema, having also achieved recognition abroad.

Although Kõiv is primarily recognized as a playwright, he has also produced fascinating prose. The axis here is his series of memories, Studia memoriae, of which four have been published: Rännuaastad (Travel years, 1994), the Võru-language Kähri keŕko man Pekril (1999), Kolm tamme (Three Oaks, 1995) and Kalad ja raamatud (The Fish and Books, 1998), which depict Kõiv’s childhood beginning in the 1930s from a tender age to primary school in The Fish. The Võru-language volume is dedicated to childhood summers at his grandparents’ farm in Võrumaa. The fifth volume, Poisid ja tüdrukud (Boys and Girls), will soon be published and takes the reader to the next decade. Studia memoriae has quite a few points of contact with the above-mentioned memorial plays. These seem to be memoirs, albeit rather peculiar ones. Instead of the usual biography turned into fictional narrative, Kõiv presents serious introspection and lengthy discussions about the reliability of his memory. The main motif in these books is the attempt to restore single mental images as precisely as possible, at the same time asking whether any of these images is remembered accurately or whether something has been added to them. The text is not trying to order the past into easily followed sections, but is instead imitating the fragmentary nature of actual remembering and recollection, the arduous extraction of details from oblivion. These are naturally subjective memories, such as recollecting a specific archway, or the sunshine falling on the wall of a concrete house; at the same time this has a strong meaning related to personal existential identity, because inalienable personal recognition is connected with such memories (see for example a paragraph from The Three Oaks). The background motivation of all this is an attempt to capture the essence of past existence, ‘of-that-time-ness’, ‘wasness’ – what does it mean that something that happened to me exists only in the past, and what does the fact that I remember it, mean? Several of Kõiv’s philosophical and physics-related essays about time are connected with that topic.

A large part of Kõiv’s short prose, scattered throughout the press, offers obscure subjective descriptions of fragments of memory that approach the logic of dreams; some of these texts are indeed dreams written down by the author. The novel Aken (Window; written in 1965-72, published in 1996) is equally tense and vague, depicting the wandering around in the confusion of the character’s memory and reality.

It is interesting that some of Madis Kõiv’s texts are difficult to place genre-wise, as they move in the border areas of the fictional introspective and essayistic speculation (a good example here is Aporia of Attica, Tragedy of Elea, which tackles the central notions of classical philosophy and culture, but does this in the form of describing the first-person character’s dream-like movement in thoughts materialised into landscape). Such indeterminism, which has resulted in some texts with the most original structure in the whole body of Estonian short prose (e.g. Õun (Apple); Akadeemia 1989/9), again derives from the orientation to the ideal reader, and the non-fictional initial intention of Kõiv’s texts (Kõiv has been wearing a writer’s hat only during the last decade or so, and even then mostly producing plays for theatres at their request, or writing literary-historical essays for various magazines.)

Madis Kõiv is a thinker and writer, characterised by an enormous integration of different aspects – his works blend various levels, from high philosophy to local down-to-earth matters, into one dense whole. It is far from easy to pigeonhole Kõiv, because as a playwright he is also a philosopher, and as a philosopher he is a dreamer. His vastly divergent texts are nearly impossible to tackle separately since they are full of recurrent motifs – in one text a motif could be a sensual image, in another a significant link in a subtle intellectual argumentation. In Estonian literature and culture, Kõiv is a prolific (both in the quantitative and contextual senses) author of perpetual value, who has by no means fully opened up yet. There always seems to be ‘more’ of Kõiv, something always remains out of reach; this derives from the same ideal reader whom Kõiv’s texts often take for granted and who maintains the desire of the real reader for those texts – and this is precisely what characterises great literature.