Literary classics, biographically illuminated

by Janika Kronberg

Director of the Estonian Literary Museum


In conjunction with the centennial of the Estonian National Museum, celebrated this spring, it is appropriate to begin with the reminder that the Estonian Literary Museum has grown from the same ‘mother tree’. The Literary Museum’s Archival Library, the Estonian Folklore Archive and the Estonian Cultural History Archive were founded as integral parts of the Estonian National Museum, and on this basis the Estonian Literary Museum was created in 1940. Whether this was the demolition of something great or rather the right thing to do is an argument that has lasted a long time. At any rate, now we are separate entities, and in addition to the abovementioned archives, the Literary Museum now includes departments of folkloristics and ethnomusicology, both of which have scientific research as their main priorities. But the basis, under continuous elaboration, is still the archives and collections: these are the pillars of the Museum.  They have both historical and contemporary meanings. All of the collections developed from a seed of donations from the people. The Archival Library includes the Learned Estonian Society collection, founded in 1838, as well as many personal collections. In the 1920s the Archival Library fulfilled the role of a national library. To this day the collections keep expanding by way of mandatory copies of books; in addition, we purchase reference works and estica published elsewhere. We collect everything published in Estonia, and everything written by and about Estonia and Estonians abroad. The core of the Folklore Archive consists of the collections established by legendary folklorists Jakob Hurt and M.J. Eisen. Since folklore is very much alive and continues to be born, so various campaigns continue to enlarge the collection.  In my view it is something unparalleled anywhere else in the world that the president of a republic gives out an award to collectors of folklore. That is how it is in Estonia, and all of the presidents of Estonia to date have considered this very important. 
The Cultural History Archive consists of the archives of many Estonian writers and cultural figures, as well as those of organizations. In recent years there has been a wealth of contributions from abroad connected with the end of a long period of political exile.  People send their own intellectual legacy, or that of their parents, to the homeland. We store and keep it, conduct research, and prepare publications. One example of this work is the diary of Karl Ristikivi. Under the auspices of the Museum, the Association of Estonian Life Stories studies recent history, organizing life story writing competitions, and publishing books with both exciting and tragic subject matter, for example, the life stories of Russians living in Estonia and memoirs of Soviet prisons. Having said this, however, I must emphasize that the Estonian Literary Museum is a research institution, and answers to the Ministry of Education and Science. Our primary role is thus not to exhibit, but rather to collect, sort, preserve and study the intellectual treasures of the people, and to make these available to them. This is the overarching goal of our scientific publishing programs, and of our participation in digital collection projects.

Having claimed that folklore is alive and well in Estonia and at the Literary Museum, what is your view of Estonian literary classics, and their contemporary relevance?

Every culture has signs that can only be deciphered and comprehended if one knows the creations of great men and women of past eras. Classics are alive! In her forthcoming capacious monograph on Marie Under, one of Estonia’s best known poets and repeatedly a candidate for the Nobel prize, Sirje Kiin elaborates on a great number of examples of how Under has been read at different times as well as how she is regarded today. Even a dirty poem in a film parodying modern macho cults, where only Under’s name is howled over and over again, helps keep her name alive. And yet it is painfully embarrassing to me to meet Estonians who, upon hearing the name of Henrik Visnapuu, one of Estonia’s most renowned patriotic poets, ask, who was he anyway? This is a sign of uneducatedness, which has always existed, but under different guises.  This in itself is no cause for declaring the death of literature. It, too, takes different forms, and becomes disseminated among the people through songs and fragments, as in the achievements of some young poets who are invited to perform at company parties, where orders are placed for their poems. This could be considered lowbrow, and yet these things have always existed. All the more so, high, aesthetic culture should be emphasized, alongisde the lowbrow and popular, which will always find a way to assert itself. What we have to show is that these phenomena come from the same root, and that they all are important and have their place. Through them literature lives, and the best examples of literature partake of comprehending the world and pondering over it through language, in many respects similarly to what is done in philosophy, with the difference that literature is more accessible and reaches more people at their level. Literature carries tradition and continuity—we do not disown our parents, while young people have always rebelled against the old. On the basis of historical experience the best and most lasting works of literature have always been in relationship to what has gone before—either in an affirmative relation or in polemical revolt.

In different parts of the world, windows open in different directions, outward or inward. If one tentatively divided literary works between windows that open inward (those where the reader needs to be equipped with prior knowledge about context, as well as „secret knowledge“ to recognize the author’s covert nods and nudges) and windows that open outward (where even the reader who does not read the text in the mother tongue can understand the nods and nudges), how would you apportion Estonian literary classics? What examples would you cite?

This is a very good metaphor, but I think different aspects of it pertain to poetry and prose. Texts of core importance to a language and culture need not address readers in a different cultural space, despite superb translations. The question lies in the reader’s understanding of context, and whether the author even seeks to be understood elsewhere besides his or her homeland. Having said this, some works may prove to be unexpectedly translatable, even surprisingly popular among readers in many different languages. The question is also to what extent a text born of local subject matter also carries a universal, more broadly understandable message, which is presented in an aesthetically enjoyable manner. To me a literary text’s location keeps growing more and more important as time goes on. I am immediately reminded of James Joyce’s Dublin and Mark Twain’s Mississippi: these places are used as magnets for literary tourism. In Estonian literary classics we have Tammsaare’s Vargamäe and Oskar Luts’ Palamuse.  Of the two, Palamuse really exists, while Vargamäe is a fictional place, a place that has gotten its name from literature. Often we cannot even remember the real name of the place behind it—and there is the creative power of literature! However, I must say that I am rather surprised by ongoing efforts to translate A. H. Tammsaare`s five volume Truth and Justice – work at the very centre of Estonian literature, into Finnish and French. This text is strongly wedded to its soil, its land. Though I regret this, it will fall victim of a campaign similar to efforts during the Soviet era to publish mass quantities of the literature of the ‘fraternal peoples’, in those days, politically correct works. Most of these massive print runs went to the paper shredder. I have rather more faith in the soon-to-be-published Hindi translation of the Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg, the folkloric basis of which is more international, and therefore more open to readers` access. 
Among classic writers, Jaan Kross certainly wrote in a room in which the windows opened out, with a view of the nearby historic Church of St. Nicholas and the tower of the Tallinn Rathaus. Kross wrote outward deliberately and consciously, as Jaan Kaplinski is doing nowadays. Yet Kaplinski, who is a living classic is not thought of by many critics as a ‘real’ Estonian writer. Ene Mihkelson, very deeply rooted in our history and our language is one of Estonia’s most important writers today, yet her windows open inward. Let us heed a key image from her most recent novel, Plague Grave—„the sky flights bound inward.“ Thus it is all the more to be celebrated that her writings have aroused interest elsewhere, outside of Estonia.

A funny example from most recent Estonian prose also comes to mind—literary scholar Arne Merilai’s freshly published novel, Tyrant Oedipus. This is play at the highest level, a game that goes all the way to the marrow. Merilai play in the Estonian language, yet he frames his text as the author’s translation of the German-language manuscript of one Pontios Chersonesos, with the action taking place in Mussolini’s Italy.  In his role as ‘translator’, Merilai does not deny saturating his text with Estonian language and cultural history through crucial, well-marked and decipherable allusions. Yet he also points to the possibility that should the book be translated from the Estonian into some other language, one would have to find acceptable equivalents to all the word plays, allusions, and intertextual cues in the target culture. I have no doubt that he would give maximum freedom to a would-be translator to do precisely this.

 You have recently published one of last year’s most beautiful books—Karl Ristikivi`s diary, so hefty that literary critics begin their reviews with its weight.  This might be considered a „window opening inward“ in the sense that it allows us to listen in to the writer’s whispered conversation with himself.  At the same time, paratexts—such as writers` diaries and correspondences—are windows into another era.  What would Estonian culture have lost if Karl Ristikivi`s diaries had not been published? And what has it gained?

The book really does weigh in at 1.3 kilos, and contains 1100 pages. But this is Ristikivi`s own text, and it is the tribute of the publisher that the decision was made to publish it all, and in a single volume. The original of the diary kept from 1957-1968 is kept in the Baltic Archive, deposited in the Swedish State Archives in Stockholm. The copies, prepared by poet Kalju Lepik, are in Tartu in the Literary Museum. My contribution was organizing the publication of the text and preparing the commentary.
Diaries and various autobiographical and biographical sources have become ‘marketable goods’ of late in Estonia, and many places elsewhere. These belong in a larger category, which loosely termed includes „works written with a will to historical truthfulness“. However, it does seem to me that it is not a long way from these to so-called „prose of alternative history“—and Ristikivi has been regarded as one of the initiators and innovators of this kind of writing in Estonian literature—as well as of utopias and fantasy fiction about entirely imaginary societies. Granted, the reading publics of these types of fiction vary somewhat. By the way, the novel In the Footsteps of the Vikings that Ristikivi wrote in his youth, the one considered the first Estonian example of „the alternative historical novel“ tells of the possible participation of Estonia in the Vikings’ discovery and colonization of America. After this he made a name for himself in the 1930s as a creator of realistic and psychological prose fiction, and as a modernist with the publication of All Souls’ Night in 1953.  In exile in the 1960s he wrote his series of historical novels of Europe, beginning with the Hohenstaufens and ending with a Catalan who fled into exile in Paris during Franco’s dictatorship. Another novel, written in the spirit of a platonic anti-utopia, Island of Wonders wandered in among these as it were. Ostensibly free-standing, at closer glance it is linked by allusions to the historical cycle.

By his cycle of historical novels Ristikivi defines himself as a European rather than an Estonian political exile taking refuge in Stockholm from the Soviet dictatorship. The cycle has a grand sweep, a gesture of resistance to his status and his fate. The diary documents the process of writing the series of novels, but also gives a detailed picture of the everyday life of a person who is continually tormented by feeling like a stranger, as well as by his workaday life in the Swedish state health insurance office, among worries and concerns that are foreign to him. And with health worries of his own to boot. From Ristikivi`s single, greatly esteemed poetry collection, A Human Journey, we find plenty of proof for his view of himself as a loser in life, or at best someone who can tie the game. Ristikivi`s works were never translated, and their reception was mostly limited to the pages of diaspora newspapers. But despite his language choice, he wrote to people who shared his views and his European identity. In his literary works, he transcended the conflicts and intrigues of diaspora politics, and was ahead of them—but this speaks of the tragedy of a great personality. 

I am not sure what Estonian culture would have lost if this diary had not been made available. Certainly it has gained a great deal.  If nothing else, it has gained a smidgen of understanding that we may not achieve fulfilment and happiness in our lifetime: it may come later, and in the name of this we may sometimes be obliged to „carry bags on a foreign ship, repeating to oneself that work is what gives life meaning.“ Indeed, these days we increasingly think in a worldly rather than an eternal frame, and more pragmatically. But as to pragmatism, as far as its popularity goes, the book has sold rather well.

How do you regard the matter of the writer’s privacy as concerns the publication of his diary? How does the reading of a writer’s diary change the reader’s horizon of reception? Do you see any dangers lurking here?
I am convinced that Ristikivi kept a diary in the full knowledge—and with the wish—that it would someday be published. For those who knew his work well, and who knew that the diary existed, there must have been great anticipation of its publication—though it may have proved a disappointment to them. As I read the diary several times in the process of editing it, it became more and more interesting to me. What seemed at first to be tiresome repetitions and complaints even came to have a poetic effect. In addition to documenting one person’s ordinary worries, this proves what Ristikivi never had a chance to feel in his lifetime: that now he is a winner, a victor. His position in Estonian cultural history has risen beyond compare, and given rise to a large number of interesting interpretations, even translations. It is too bad that this is all posthumous. But if we started out talking about metaphors, then I see his oeuvre as a garden meant for those who came after him, a garden tended by grateful readers.

What do you think of the ‘fabricated diary’ as a literary genre?
In earlier Estonian cultural history we have several examples of biographies written (or attempted to be written) in diary form, with a keen ability to feel the times and the personality. It seems that in cases of more notorious figures, who are ‘stripped bare’ by such texts, this stuff sells well. Looking critically, though, these are no more than collections of legends. As for myself, I put more store in authenticity, though an elegant mystification is not without its intellectual charms. Indeed, it would be entirely possible to extend Ristkivi`s diary right up to his death in 1977. One could use correspondences, the memories of his contemporaries, and other documentary material, create a context for the works, and describe ongoing health problems. But what would be the point? Besides, Ristikivi both opened and closed his diary with a deliberate gesture, with appropriate entries for both occasions.

These days the diary has moved from intimate space into the blogosphere, public from the very moment of inception, and I have not the vaguest interest in this kind of chatter. Of course there are some exceptions, such as a text introduced in this issue of ELM—Tõnu Õnnepalu’s diary in the form of poetry, kevad ja suvi ja (spring and summer and). Õnnepalu`s previous book, the popular Flanders Diary was written in a Belgian village. This one is set on an Estonian estate. The place guarantees a firmness of tradition, which has its effects in the text as well.

What comments do you have concerning ELM and Estonian literature?
 I have been writing short introductory reviews of new literary works for ELM since 1996, I believe about 120 of them in all. What motivates me is the good quality of Estonian literature—the judgment that some works are well worth translating, and the desire just to show what we have—including some real curiosity pieces. It is also stimulating to me—in addition to working with Estonian classics and other responsibilities—to keep my eye on the whole picture of Estonian literature. To keep myself in shape, as it were. Literature has a role to play in society, even though from time to time there is talk of the end of the book and the end of literature.  The task of the humanities—including literature and the arts—is to remind people of the virtues and responsibilities of being human. As the world becomes more and more ‘measurable’, quantifiable, this role grows more and more important, though perhaps for a smaller number of people.  Lately I copied out a quote from Estonian literature’s most consistent surrealist—the poet Ilmar Laaban: „Everything is being drawn into the net of numbers. We have to draw the world of science into our net of creative art before it casts it net over us.“ Something tells me that we have already lost this battle—but we must continue it, just as Dr. Rieux in Camus’ La peste continued his battle against rats and the plague.

Interviewed by Tiina Kirss