Abutting absences. Love Letters from Two Eras

by Tiina Kirss

The word ühtekuuluvus—belonging together (togetherness), is a common thread joining two recently published collections of private letters by prominent Estonians from two different eras. Both correspondences are written in the framework of marriage. Private letters made public can be richly textured sources for cultural history, as well as markers on the borderlines between those words meant for one person only-- as the warp and weft of whispered, intimate conversation, and communications meant for a wider circle of listeners, albeit strangers, interlopers, listening in, with purposes, interests, and curiosities of their own. Correspondences, be they private or public, are perishable, and often share the fate of ‘paper memory’. They can be closely guarded, kept in the family circle for reasons of reticence, or destroyed preemptively to prevent their becoming incriminating evidence for interrogations or other interventions of history. Even in more peaceful circumstances, it often happens that only one side of a correspondence survives the vagaries of time, the other side of the conversation requires the reader’s reconstruction—from questions, answers, and other cues in the other correspondent’s letters.

On the Road to Togetherness (Ühtekuuluvuse teel) is a selection of letters written by Johan Laidoner (1884-1953), Commander-in-Chief of the Estonian Armed Forces during the Estonian War of Independence, member of the Estonian parliament 1920-1929, and  second man in charge of the government during Konstantin Päts’ authoritarian regime at the end of the 1930s. The volume was published the same year as Martti Turtola’s provocative, even acerbic book about Laidoner’s political allegiances and choices in 1939-1940, and usefully complements the brief sketch of Laidoner’s biography in the first half of that book. The letters in the On the Road to Togetherness, which are translated from the Russian, were written by Laidoner to his wife, Maria, mostly during the periods of a month or longer when Laidoner was in Geneva, serving in the Estonian delegation to the League of Nations (1922-1929) and as member of the League of Nations disarmament commission 1932-1934.   That Laidoner’s wife was from a Polish aristocratic family; that the couple first met in 1904 when Johan Laidoner was attending the Military Academy in Vilno, and that their language of conversation throughout their lives was Russian are significant facts, both biographically and in a cultural historical sense; remembering them rightly destabilizes narrowly nationalistic retrospective projections about Estonian leaders’ home lives.

Concert pianist and writer Käbi Laretei`s (b. 1919) latest book, Where did all the Love go?  (Kuhu kadus kõik see armastus?), translated from the Swedish, is a selection of letters written to her by Ingmar Bergman in the six months after their first meeting in fall 1957 at the dress rehearsal of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in G at the Malmö City Theatre, and includes letters from other periods of their turbulent, modulating relationship, up to Bergman’s death in July 2007. In the foreword to the volume, Laretei describes how she found the packet of 120 letters from Ingmar after returning home from his funeral; to her surprise, wrapped among them was her own diary from the year 1962, about which she had forgotten. For Laretei, this had been a year of deep personal and creative crisis, which resolved that September with the birth of her and Ingmar`s son Daniel. The decision to publish a selection of the letters along with Käbi`s own diary and notations from her pocket calendar is a gesture of eulogy and commemoration.

The volume of Laidoner’s translated letters, most of which are posted from Geneva, where League of Nations meetings and assemblies were held, has been furnished by its editors with thorough, well-researched thumbnail profiles of individuals who participated in the League of Nations, both the major and smaller players, as well as documentation places and circumstances, the Estonian diplomatic corps and government officials – Karl Pusta, August Rei, Juhan Seljamaa, August Leppik, Johan Markus. Perhaps the most colourful group of letters in the volume is written in October and November 1925, when Laidoner travelled to the Turkish-Iraqi border as head of a League of Nations special commission sent to Mosul to investigate allegations that the Turks were deporting Christians in that region. Members of the commission included Dr Rudolf Jac, Czech military attaché in London 1924-1925, Spanish diplomat Otrtega, and Estonian diplomat Johan Markus as Laidoner’s secretary. In their introduction the editors state: „Johan Laidoner’s mission to Mosul, considered successful by the League of Nations, was the first endeavour in world politics entrusted to a diplomat of the Estonian Republic.“ (p.8) Bright, even humorous details are included in the documentation of this series of letters, including a lengthy passage from Britain’s High Commission on Iraq’s secretary of Eastern Affairs Gertrude Bell’s (1868-1926) account of Laidoner’s commissions arrival in Iraq in her daily report of 28 October 1925. Bell mentions Laidoner’s agrammatical French, a fact that did not seem to disturb him in the least – „he continued with the calm determination of a tank“, though the reader can glance ahead at Laidoner’s letters from May 1932, in which he is quite conscious of his limitations in the French language, and the difficulty it poses him to chair sessions of League of Nations subcommittees; to improve his command of French he purchases the Grammaire de L`Academie Francaise and disciplines himself to read periodicals and belles lettres. He misses Maria’s linguistic acumen: her spontaneous translations are far more apt than searching through the dictionary.  

More mundane aspects of the correspondence include weather, descriptions of excursions and social occasions, including changing clothing fashions, and „books, both good and bad.“ Maria’s wish lists for dress fabric, tableware, shoes that Laidoner tries his best to purchase in Geneva, as well as the practical management of their residence at Viims and the education of their son Misha.  Representing a small nation in international circles unavoidably meant accepting constraints of state budgets for accommodations, clothing and hospitality, and s finding dignified solutions to fulfil the social rituals. The warmth of these letters is no surface politesse; frequent frank admission of impatience and boredom in the social routine of meetings and receptions without a companion, solicitous concern for his wife’s delicate health, and the undertone of passion, discreet but unabashed, charges the letters with emotional fervour.

The only reservation about the composition of Along the Road of Togetherness is Maria Kruszewska’s limited presence—an objection often addressed by those attuned to ‘women’s history’ to documentary sources on the lives of famous men, whose wives deserve a more strongly drawn profile, not footnote status, in the very context of these sources. Maria, clearly a woman of personal charm, education, and culture, is, after all the addressee of Johan Laidoner’s letters. Within the limitations of her health and the constraints of finances, she not infrequently accompanied Laidoner on his trips abroad; more gifted in languages than her husband, and spoke excellent Estonian, enabling her to be fully his consort in his public life in Estonia. Despite her own protestations to modesty, the letters do not relegate her to the margins: Laidoner writes to her about world politics as reflected in the deliberations, conflicts, and speeches of the League of Nations as an equal intellectual partner, and shows interest in her opinions and views on many other matters, ranging from classics of Russian literature to novels serialized in Journal de Geneve, formalities of diplomatic customs and the quirks of members of Estonia’s own diplomatic corps... Though the book includes facsimiles of Laidoner’s handwritten letters, there is only one photograph of the couple together, and only limited biographical information about Maria. Though the location of Johan Laidoner’s Geneva letters is indicated with scholarly accuracy, the reader is left wondering whether any of Maria’s own letters have survived, and where and to what extent her papers are part of the couple’s personal archive. Turtola’s book provides considerably more detail on Maria and Johan’s meeting, courtship, and the early years of their married life, including references to bibliographic sources on Maria’s family and education. The editors of Ühtekuuluvuse teel do not mention the textual tradition of commemorative works on Laidoner`s life, which Turtola examines in the context of ways in which Laidoner crafted his own biographical monument in his lifetime. Uncharacteristically, streets were named after him in his lifetime; an extensive gratulatory collection of essays was published on his 50th birthday. As for Maria, however, who voluntarily accompanied her husband when he was imprisoned and deported in 1940, who spent long years in political imprisonment with him until 1952, and lived to return to Estonia, a great deal more is known than the editors of Ühtekuuluvuse teel see fit to document, including an article published by Kaupo Deemant in August 1988 in the magazine Vikerkaar, based on interviews he carried out with Maria before her death in 1978. These sources should have been more specifically documented in Ühtekuuluvuse teel, which after all is aimed at an Estonian readership.     

Käbi Laretei`s Where Did All the Love Go is a continuation of a long series of autobiographical writings that was well received by Swedish readers, and gradually, after 1990, also reached Estonian audiences. The text is a stark, laconically evocative complement to Laretei`s longer memoir Sasom i en oversattning. Teman med variationen (Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2004), translated into Estonian under the title Otsekui tõlkes (As if in Translation) by Anu Saluäär (Tänapäev 2005), in which she discreetly broaches the topic of her marriages. As in the case of so many other celebrities, this topic had been surrounded by much journalistic unpleasantness at the time, and Laretei shows exquisite tact and dignity in finding a register and voice in which to speak of this aspect of her life.   In As if in Translation, as well as in her other autobiographical writings the reader is given a portrait of Käbi Laretei’s life as the daughter of Estonian diplomat Heinrich Laretei, the family’s life in Moscow, Lithuania, and Sweden in the interwar years of independence, and the experience of exile in Sweden after WW II. Over the course of her international concert career, and increasingly after the death of her parents, Käbi Laretei distanced herself from the narrowness of Estonian exile society and politics, while the brightness from her renown also extended to her exile Estonian countrymen.  In 1988 she returns to Estonia for the first time in over 40 years—As If in Translation is an episodically constructed narrative of that return—coming home again, in all its possibility and impossibility is one of the themes with variations around which the book is composed. 

Where did all that Love Go? is a window onto the story of a love between two creative people whose marriage was one episode – in the long view, perhaps not even the most important chapter – of a longer journey together. The mellowing and maturing friendship Laretei and Bergman came to enjoy in their later years, in summers spent on Fårö was sustained by an extraordinarily brave capacity for reflection on times past, including the strifes and storms of the past, as well as by the fact and the flow of music. Laretei came to spend most of her summers in Dämba, one of the houses Ingmar owned on the island of Fårö, where she wrote and prepared for the next concert season. On Ingmar’s regular Sunday evening visits, Käbi would play the piano for him. Even in these later years, Bach was solace – a way for Ingmar Bergman to find courage to face his ‘demons’. Laretei spares the reader rose-coloured retrospectives, and instead of airbrushing, shows the relentnessness and brutal edges of intimate relationship. The texture, the exposed emotional sinews of Ingmar Bergman’s films, are palpable in his letters, and Käbi Laretei struggles in the brevity of the markings and well-polished stones of her diary entries. The door is opened to the bold possibility that friendship can emerge from and redeem the wreckage of marriage. 

Indeed, if Johan Laidoner’s letters to his wife point to the sustainability of relationships—what Dietrich Bonhoeffer once named the cantus firmus of marriage, full-orbed, companionate intimacy punctuated by absences that create hollows for longing, refresh awareness, and allow the building of deep, appreciative perspective of one another’s distinctivness, Käbi Laretei’s book, particularly Ingmar Bergman’s letters direct the reader to the dark side of ‘togetherness’: the sharp edges, switchbacks, impasses, and fatal strokes of pain for which the hope of ‘togetherness’ provides no balm or repair.  One such point of no return occurs when Ingmar, himself deeply enmeshed in a creative crisis of his own in 1962, hands Käbi the filmscript for Silence, insists that she read it, and that she decide whether the script would become a film. Lived experience and creative fruits clashed. Her devastating recognition that her hope that love would placate the other’s creative demons, and provide wellsprings of sustenance, support, and light was not enough; that without rejecting the offer, the beloved was incapable of receiving it, and that what he experienced instead of  ‘togetherness’ was the relentless exposure of his radical loneliness results in a widening rift—and a film that was wildly successful. 

In Laidoner’s correspondence ‘togetherness’, is a quiet, vibrant modus vivendi founded on a sense of belonging together; for Laretei and Bergman it is about longing for ecstatic and creative union, an ideal that is only struck for a moment, in consonance or dissonance, punctuating tracts of territory requiring much more mundane work to craft a common life. For a concert pianist and a filmmaker, each in quest not only of success, but mastery, the support or hindrance to one another’s creativity is an elusive third dimension, fraught with its own hazards. The wisdom of this high ideal, as well as its feasibility, is questioned astutely in As if In Translation by Käbi`s sister Maimu, whose letters to Käbi at the beginning of her relationship with Bergman are reprinted in As If in Translation, and might well be read alongside the letters in Where Did All the Love Go?. In Käbi’s diary from 1962, ‘togetherness’, intimate merging, occurs at the price of great suffering, of bearing the emotionally unbearable in oneself and the other; at the time the letters were exchanged and the diary written, this hard-won harmony, a temporary chord, was struck by the fact and the physical difficulties of her pregnancy. Ingmar Bergman, as he speaks through the letters in Where did all that Love Go? is in every way the complex, brooding, personality of extremes known in his personal writings and films. His expectations of love and relationship are fraught with intense contradictions; his insistence on totalizing focus and total belonging might indeed suffocate, if not jeopardize the exercise of creative life in a beloved: only after the relationship ends as a marriage do the two gradually find ways of being generous to one another’s creative daimonai, hospitable to one another’s muses, and open to finding a common language.

In As if in Translation, Käbi Laretei carefully places a possible key to the condition that made her and Bergman’s life together impossible, without making this a final or comprehensive explanation: the matter of translatability: „After Ingmar had left, it struck me that I had lived my life with him as if in translation. What I had expressed was not exactly what I had been thinking; it was never what I really thought.  I lived in translation.  Words had different valences. Behind what I wanted to say there was a different charge.  It had been difficult to explain why I was crying, though it is difficult whatever the case to explain tears.  Ingmar never cried.  He got angry.  The thought came to me that he, too, was speaking a different language.  And that maybe I was never quite able to understand completely what it was that he really thought. (97).
The breakdown and failure of intimate relationship, of ‘belonging together’ is a mystery, as much, if not more so than their continuation, and Laretei lets this be so, frank about its pain and the scars it leaves, particularly on children.

While translation is neither a metaphor nor an informing structure in Johan Laidoner`s letters to his wife Maria, and while there seems little, if any awareness of ‘translation losses’, the reader of those letters might well broaden his or her understanding of ‘home’ languages and ‘national’ languages, their separateness and intertwining, their half-tones and incommensurabilities—lest we forget the enriching accents of the fact that it takes many languages to make a life.

Publication data:

Ühtekuuluvuse teel: Johan Laidoneri kirjad abikaasale. (On the Road to Togetherness: Johan Laidoner`s Letters to his Wife.).  Edited by Irene Lään and Toomas Hiio, translated from the Russian by Jüri Ojamaa.  Eesti sõjamuuseumi—Kindral Johan Laidoneri Muuseumi toimetised 5. Tallinn. Varrak, 2008. 160 pp. ISBN 978-9985-3-1602-3.

Laretei, Käbi. Kuhu kadus kõik see armastus? Ingmari kirjad Käbile. Päevik. Taskukalender.  (Where Did All The Love Go? Ingmar`s letters to Käbi. Diary. Pocket Calendar.) Tallinn:SEJ&S, 216 pp. ISBN 978-9985-854-86-0.  .