Lauri Pilter: Representative of a Nameless Minority

by Lauri Pilter, Argo Riistan

Lauri Pilter’s arrival in Estonian literature caused no sensation. Since the mid-1990s he has been translating into Estonian bits and pieces by such authors as Thomas Wolfe, Joseph Conrad and William Faulkner. An important landmark in his translation activities was Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses (Varrak, 2000). He later added Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Thomas Wolfe’s The Lost Boy. Recently Lauri Pilter brought out his debut book, A Dragonish Cloud, a novel in short stories. Last March Pilter’s short story Doppelgänger earned him the Tuglas Short Story Award. Certainly not a sensation. That is still to come.

Let us start from the beginning. You come from Noarootsi in Läänemaa County. What impact has that place and its idyll had on you and your work? Would it be wrong to assume that, because of these locations, you are quite familiar with Scandinavian, especially Swedish, culture?

Although there are no more pure-blooded Coastal Swedes living in Noarootsi, several of my neighbours in the country have Swedish ancestors. I personally have no blood relations among Swedes. Living in Noarootsi, I had contacts with various elderly Coastal Swedish women. One, for example, repeatedly offered me their national dish, a kind of meat with a sauce that had a peculiar, exciting name that seemed to come from a hitherto unknown language, a name which I have unfortunately forgotten.

     I have been burrowing around in old Coastal Swedish publications and books of reminiscences, so I know very well how the locals valued every spinney, lake, boulder or cape, how thoroughly they perceived that rather fairy-tale-like, almost Tolkienesque, peninsula. I have taken an interest in the greatest Noarootsi poet, Mats Ekman, whom some better qualified person here should introduce more widely in Estonia (he might be especially fascinating for Võru people).

    The Coastal Swedish dialects could almost be regarded as a Germanic language, or rather languages, in their own right. At different times I have been fascinated by different languages. I admire the sound and spelling of strange, unusual words. My interests are superficial, not those of a real linguist, but I like the idea that every language represents a world of its own. It is a great pity that the culture in the Coastal Swedish language vanished without leaving behind a peculiar, tiny, autonomous world, something like the one on the Faeroe Islands. Prior to the re-establishing of Estonia’s independence, I witnessed an attempt to restore the movement of Coastal Swedes; I even attended some events. But in fact I am a bystander and outsider as far as Coastal Swedes and their culture are concerned. Talking about the Noarootsi heritage, I am more fascinated by the phenomenon of a vanishing small ethnicity in general, not so much by its specific character.

     Coming from an area that for centuries was the most un-Estonian part of the country (marked on Estonian dialectal maps with a white blotch), a settlement of a slice of a nation for whom the Estonians were the majority, the ‘big nation’, has perhaps enhanced in me the tendency to identify with groups of people who are disappearing or have given up the fight, such as the Yiddish-speaking East-European Jews. Growing up in Noarootsi could be a reason why I have never actually felt like a ‘genuine’ Estonian, but rather like a representative of some nameless minority.

You taught English at Noarootsi High School. Was this a Wittgensteinian wish to engage in something respectable or was it just a pragmatic choice? At present you have a lecture course at the Estonian Institute of Humanities. What has teaching taught you?

In my earlier days I had strong suspicions that ‘the school of life’ was in fact more interesting and morally more useful than a diligently acquired academic education. I decided to do a few years of school mastering primarily because I wanted to try some courses of the ‘school of life’ myself. I chose a place for which I had tender and romantic sentiments, although I also thought about teaching in Võrumaa County. Purely pragmatic reasons played a role as well.

     My job as a university lecturer has not really taken off yet. It is certainly more illuminating and edifying than working at a secondary school. My bias is literature and teaching literature, which should be a lively spirited conversation between equal partners. It is a kind of exact science where ethical and aesthetic sides, and discoveries in the field of psychology emerge all at the same time. Preparing for the course is enlightening to the lecturer as well; first of all I think I now understand various women writers better, admiring their ability honestly and truthfully to depict both male and female characters. I am genuinely pleased about this discovery.

The central topic of your recently published debut book, A Dragonish Cloud, is the main character’s wish to convert to Judaism, become a Jew. What interested you first about the Jewish agenda? You have collected these stories into one book – does that mean that you are finished with this particular topic?

I am generally interested in human values and problems, humanism in the old classical sense. People, religion and race are of secondary importance. Jewish matters are quite topical in today’s world. I merely happened to take a closer look and got hooked. The first half of the 20th century in American literature, my main interest, was mostly the heyday of Southern writers (both white and black); during the second half, Jewish writers largely took over. My interests followed suit: the initial fascination with Southern literature gradually grew complemented with an enthusiasm for Jewish literature. Racism towards Black people has been thoroughly studied and written about. Racism towards Jews and the Jews’ own racism, on the other hand, still contain, perhaps surprisingly, a lot of lightly researched areas, some considered taboos.

     I have no intention of restricting myself to Jewish matters alone, but the irresistible force of the real world might bring me back to the topic again and again. Perhaps I would be better placed to write not about genetic Jews but about people who for some reason feel Jewish or are interested in Jewish issues. On the other hand this seems a bit of a dead end, because despite the outward splendour, the Jewish world today seems to exist in a kind of triumphal lethargy. The custom of accepting non-Jews as Jews, which was quite common in the Roman empire and fairly frequent in the Middle Ages (many ancient Jewish scholars were actually of non-Jewish origin), has now been firmly put an end to. The reason could be that being a Jew today means respectability, benefits and privileges rather than persecution and being loathed.

When we agreed on this interview you said you were not qualified to talk about the moods of Estonian literature at the moment, its inside currents, trends and orientations. Don’t you regard yourself as an Estonian writer?

I am not qualified because I do not know Estonian literature that well. Maybe I know it better than an average Estonian: as a teenager I certainly read a lot of Estonian literature. I nevertheless think I know too little about it.

     I do not at all mean that I have no respect for Estonian literature or that I am in any way ashamed of it. Quite the contrary, I think that writers such as Mats Traat, Toomas Vint or Toomas Raudam – to name but a few – deserve to be read and researched at all respectable universities in the world. They deserve it more than quite a few ‘hot’ Western authors today. Estonian literature, however, does not receive that kind of attention. The reason for this cannot only lie in the obscure position of the Estonian language as, for example, Czech writers – the Czechs are quite a small nation as well – are widely translated, known and read outside their country. The problem partly lies in organisational work, in the shortcomings of introducing Estonia. Here we could learn a lot from the Jews. Even the most patriotic Estonians in exile have hardly done anything significant to introduce good Estonian authors abroad. What I have in mind is going deep into a writer’s work, comparing it with world classics, not just offering standard praise and promotion. The main reason lies in the national complex of Estonians, in our almost voluntary hiding from the world – in lines of thinking like “they have their problems and we have our own”; “only another Estonian can understand an Estonian”, and other similar notions. The emphasis in literature should be modified just a little in order to give foreigners a chance to get to know the problems of Estonians and to find our universal human dimension. This does not mean that we have to simplify or make it banal. What is needed is a cautious departure from the excessive fascination with Estonian-ness as a closed secret language. The fact that I have had difficulties in perceiving myself as a ‘genuine’ Estonian is my personal identity problem and peculiarity. It is primarily a problem, as though perpetually finding myself in a neutral zone between different countries.
Did it seem a bit risky to you, writing about Jews and the consequent self-searching?

Not riskier than life in general and all the earthly woes and natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

On the one hand, I would classify your work as traditional, realistic literature, but this holds true only in general. The contradiction, if we must seek it out in the first place, lies in your singular voice and subject matter, which in our present literary scene have truly experimental effects. Did you have moments of anxiety when you wondered whether our readers would understand you? For example, references to authors who have influenced you – as their books have not been translated into Estonian, readers might not understand your point.

I have very little, and simultaneously a lot of, faith in myself. I did not, in fact, try to work out whether or not my book and short stories would be understood or what the reception might be. My main wish was to scribble on the wall my own ‘Kilroy was here’, if you get the meaning of this American expression, and simply carry on. Recognition and attention were naturally an extra joy.

Reading your short stories, I was reminded several times of Bernard Malamud’s novel The Assistant, and Philip Roth’s novels The Human Stain and American Pastoral. What writers and books have had the greatest impact on you?

American Jewish writers – including the famous ones such as Malamud, Bellow, and Roth – have probably been overestimated and praised and applauded without reservation. They do have a lot of humanism but also a fair share of Jewish chauvinism and irresponsibly hedonistic, in a sense banal, amorality. This opinion is paradoxical, because at the same time I believe that Malamud and Roth – especially Malamud – should be known and introduced more in Estonia. However, the reception should be more balanced and critical.

     I have indeed taken Malamud as a kind of model, but not too much so. The influence of Judaism has been more meta-literary – for example the impression I have received of Malamud’s image as a writer. Writing stories about Jews, I rather imagine myself coming from a pious Orthodox Polish Jewish family, thus rather from the world of Isaac Bashevis Singer.

A writer has said that publishing his work in print is like dancing naked on stage and hoping the audience will applaud. The comparison is a bit clumsy, but I’d like to know how embarrassing writing and publishing are for you on the level of personal revelation? Do you think there is a grain of truth in the popular concept, supported for example by V.S. Naipaul, that writing is a sort of therapy? 

Naipaul is right. What is primary is to live the life of a normal, decent person, adhering to the main rules, and earning recognition for that. Recognition, alas, is usually granted only when someone has dared to test the limits of society’s moral norms and customs. Anything extreme, however, should not be essential, but instead capturing emotional flickers in art and an ability to maintain balance in depicting moral dilemmas is necessary.

The guessing game of how much a writer makes use of events in his own life is perhaps not so important. Nevertheless, have you remembered a forgotten incident or situation that acquired a new meaning while writing a story?

My entire life indeed milled around in my head when I was writing, and some moments and memories took on an especially fatal significance, as if they were the key to all the rest. Had I written about all that ten years later, the result might have been totally different and the autobiographical part expressed in a much more refined form. By the way, I don’t think I was particularly old when I published my debut book. I seem old for an author of a debut book because we seem to have an excessive cult of the young here.

The reviews of your book also pointed out certain similarities with the novels of Tõnu Õnnepalu, which is annoying. Did you plan, like Õnnepalu, to use a pseudonym?

No, I didn’t think of a pseudonym. An urge to impersonate authors by using different names overwhelmed me in my younger days when I sent innumerable letters home and to my friends in various styles.

The wish to become a Jew is not unknown in literature or in real life. In the 1980s, for example, a group of people in New Mexico created a scandal, claiming they were the descendants of Jews who fled Spain during the Inquisition. Their stories turned out to be fabrications. Another similar example was the writer called Benjamin Wilkomirski, who became famous (notorious) with his book Fragments. Wilkomirski passed himself off as a survivor of a concentration camp and presented his book as his memoirs. His bluff was uncovered and it transpired that the man grew up in a Protestant family and had never been in a concentration camp.
     What in your opinion is so attractive in Judaism to warrant such extreme manifestations? Is it just envy or narcissism? Wilkomirski was probably keen to pose as a victim. The holocaust and writing about it have produced a lot of polemic also in Jewish literature.

The main thing is: nobody, not a single person, should be treated as junk. The value of a human being is not determined by nationality, creed or race. Certain extremes of Zionism may resemble Nazism – if they are not physically as murderous, they can nevertheless become nearly as inhumane morally. Enthusiasm for and adoration of Judaism can conceal vicious Judeophobia or at any rate anti-humanism. ‘Friends of Israel’ may include wolves in sheep's clothing, and the Christian fundamentalists, seemingly all in favour of Zionism, can manifest utter disrespect for Jewish culture, just as there are Jewish fundamentalists who hate Christians. Jews and Arabs are today generally seen as mortal enemies, but at the same time Jews generally regard the period of the Middle Ages when they lived under Arab rule the greatest flourishing of their culture in post-biblical history.

     The phenomenon of Judaism has of course been horribly and regrettably, pathetically over-exploited in the world. However, the abuse of that phenomenon must not justify the arrogant, cold or scornful disregard for the problems of flesh-and-blood people, their suffering and everything of substance that the Jews or people associated with them have experienced and created in the course of four thousand years. The frauds you mentioned also tried to interpret and supplement human history via Judaism, although they failed to find a seemly method for this.

Priit Pärn once said that, among other things, cartoonists learn to imitate their colleagues, draw with ‘their hand’. In connection with that I remembered the story told by Joan Didion, the well-known American author, of how as a teenager she used to read Hemingway and then type his stories in order to understand how his sentences ‘worked’. This is what you as a translator basically do, but do you have similar experiences while searching for your voice as a writer?

Yes, I have indeed manually re-written excerpts of some authors just to get to know their style better. I have read bits and pieces out loud, to hear the sound play more clearly. Once in the early 1990s I spent the entire evening and night reading aloud to myself, in English, a play by Shakespeare. As a teenager I filled notebooks with atmospheric sketches, imitating Hemingway’s style.

Edgar Allan Poe, a significant theoretician and practitioner of the contemporary short story, stressed that a short story must create a physically perceivable effect in the reader; he used the French word frisson. Have you tried to achieve this as well? Do you pay any attention at all to various theories connected with literature?

Should we seek a parallel in music, I am perhaps not a composer but a musician: relying on my own experiences in life, I re-interpret the world-views of writers who interest me. This also means that I am so much involved with practice, and its problems of creating ‘verbal music’, that I have no chance to ponder on any abstract theoretical ideas or cultivate elaborate theories. The aspiration and the skills must come as if from one’s blood circulation, must be felt at one’s finger-tips, as it were.

     What a work of literature should aim at and achieve is in my opinion best expressed by the English writer Joseph Conrad in the theoretical foreword to his novel The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, published in 1897. My translation of that foreword appeared in the magazine Akadeemia in August 1996.

Was taking up translating a natural step for a student of English?

It was an inevitable step, as I had to earn my living, and I was far too impractical for most other jobs. In fact I might be too much of an English philologist to be a translator because, although I have tried to keep my Estonian vocabulary as comprehensive as possible, my sense of Estonian grammar and idioms is somewhat distorted by English.

     There are two methods in translating from English into Estonian. The first method involves making the text clearly understandable for Estonians and keeping at least part of the feel of the original. The second method strives towards pure Estonian language in every sense of the word, where all foreign elements are eliminated and the text seems to be written by a native Estonian. Most literary editors want the second version. Some translated texts are so thoroughly Estonian that it is impossible to recognise the original author.

How do you prepare before starting a translation? Can a translation re-create the original?

As for preparation I first read the text, try to find commentaries and critical sources, sometimes I study the author’s biography and the rest of his or her work, and if necessary, get hold of specialised dictionaries. The latter are especially useful for translating idioms and regional slang. Occasionally one has to turn to an expert, for example someone who knows a lot about horses, and try to get a sense of a new field of life.

   There are probably several ways in which, to a certain extent, a translation is able to re-create the original. I have read quite a few texts by earlier Estonian translators, and I think I have mastered several levels of style, but I have nevertheless experienced that there can be a huge difference between what an Estonian philologist considers a good translation and what satisfies an English philologist.

     Some translations really seem like betrayals of the original. An excellent solution was found in a translation of Faulkner, where the two translators did not transfer the speech of Black people and poor whites into a specific Estonian dialect, but invented a new dialect based on Estonian colloquialisms. The translator indeed often has to find or invent a totally new level of language or its usage. It can seem strange and unfamiliar, but sometimes it really has to have that effect, especially when the original had a similar effect in its own country.

     In my opinion, a translator should try and forget the enormous difference between the number of English and Estonian speakers and work on the presumption that Estonian has the potential for just as many levels as English. An example of the second method mentioned earlier would be translating dialect sentences into a specific Estonian dialect, and thus giving the text an extremely familiar, parochial sound, which is far too clichéd and creates all the wrong associations.

You wrote your MA thesis on Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. What fascinates you in the works of these two authors, if this word is suitable in the given context?

I am fascinated by the flexibility of their style, an exciting complexity (and especially in McCarthy a tasteful diversity), in poetic parlance a ‘sensual bathing in words’, so that words seem to materialise, exuding warmth and love for the reader, who falls in love with them for their precision and beauty. Before Faulkner and McCarthy, such cultivated high-level English, full of bright original images, was perhaps seen only in Shakespeare’s dramas.

     I am charmed by their cool and austere romanticism, reflections on the topic of violence from various points of view, powerful descriptions of nature, conveying deep spiritual states and compellingly showing simple physical activities. They are among the few writers who confirm my belief that the real philosophical and ethical quest should never forget the physical side of the human being and his or her true place and time in the material world. Although one cannot say that either of these writers presents women in a very close and diverse light, their depictions of women, of love and sexuality display tenderness, serious consideration, and gentlemanly recognition of women’s rights. That is quite rare in literature.

Philip Roth recently published the novel The Plot Against America, a speculation on history: what would have happened had the Republican Party in 1940 nominated Charles Lindbergh, an aviation fanatic and disciple of Hitler, as their presidential candidate, and if he had won? Michael Chabon will soon publish an equally intriguing work where Franklin D. Roosevelt decides to re-settle the European Jews in Alaska during WW II. How significant are such alternative histories for understanding what really happened?

I should not say anything about the above-mentioned books by Roth and Chabon, as I have not read them. But since Jewish matters are once again on the agenda, I tend to think that this shows a certain ethical bankruptcy among some Jews, and a narrowing of their sense of identity, if their national pride can no longer make do with the horrors that the real Jew-hating dictators perpetrated, and they feel the necessity to invent new similar dictators.

    Such speculations could even be neat and ingenious, especially if they contain cute, realistic, true-life details. Speculations of this kind might produce a new imaginary cultural sphere, which helps better to understand European and American history and to connect Europeans and Americans more closely. History, after all, can only be understood if we also consider present connections and circumstances. Feuchtwanger’s The False Nero was to a certain extent also an alternative history. What I would really like is for a writer to produce a realistic story about how Meir, the direct descendant of the most murderous Roman emperor, Nero, who hated and destroyed Christians and Jews, became one of the most significant rabbis and thinkers in the entire history of Judaism (a fact confirmed by all Jewish sources).

Literature coming from the Eastern European countries was vibrant and fascinating during the years of the Cold War. It was political literature that fought against the restrictions on freedom of expression established by a certain regime. Since 1989 the situation has changed and it seems that Western Europeans are no longer that keen on literature produced in Eastern Europe. Literature about the opposition of that time has lost its topicality. Do you see any new developments here? Undiscovered paths?

The main new trend and path would probably require the Eastern European literatures to abandon the narrow romanticising of all the woes and worries of their countries, to forsake the romanticism of suppression, which indirectly derives from the Jews as the archetypal nation of all sufferers. This has turned East-Europeans into second or third rate ‘Jews’, some kind of shadow figures of real Jews.

     It is time for Eastern Europe to start thinking more broadly – on the one hand to perceive America in all its diversity and complexity (and not as a simple unambiguous emblem), to take more interest in their Americanised fellow countrymen and realise how now, in a global society enjoying instant information distribution, America has become physically unexpectedly close. Writers should therefore feel in the same transatlantic cultural space with America. On the other hand, Eastern European writers might also turn to problems in the Middle East and the Arab world and perceive the proximity of that as well.

     People should finally acknowledge that not all Arabs are murderers, terrorists, supporters of totalitarianism or religious fanatics. Many are in fact tolerant, good people who are genuinely interested in the culture of other nations, including Jews. The only ‘crime’ of such Arabs against Jews and Israel is that they were not born Jewish, so that Israel’s benefits, privileges and adulations do not extend to them. Their only ‘crime’, as far as the Western world is concerned, is that they were not raised in a culture with a Christian background.

Young British and American writers have been increasingly criticised recently. Their books are good, but they do not amaze, shock or pose challenges to the reader. The writers are afraid to insult the values or self-evaluation of one social group or another, criticise somebody’s religion or cultural identity. In sum, they do not have such ambitions as the old generation who, at least in American literature, tried to act according to Norman Mailer’s admonition: “Settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.” What is your opinion?

It would perhaps be too much to expect every new generation of writers to produce a new revolution in consciousness, but the development of consciousness should be continuous and eternal; I refuse to believe that the progress of the human spirit or consciousness could ever cease, or reach a dead end. We must always hope for leaps in development.

     To be more specific, I have great expectations, in English-language literature, for an exciting 32-year-old Canadian author, David Bezmozgis, a Latvian Jew by extraction, born in Riga. He has already published a very successful and enthralling book. He could be an example of how to unite Jewish issues, an East-European fresh voice and the English-language literary space. Even without the Jewish factor, he could be a trailblazer for the Balts into transatlantic literature.

     It is sometimes difficult to recognise one’s own innovative role, but every Estonian writer might nevertheless take a deep look into themselves and try to test whether or not he or she might have a significant message to the West.