The Story of Loomingu Raamatukogu

by Anu Saluäär

The Story of Loomingu Raamatukogu
Anu Saluäär

The homepage has the following introduction:
Loomingu Raamatukogu (Library of the magazine Looming, LR) is a subscribed book series, which first appeared in 1957. The annual set usually contains 20 paperback books.

Loomingu Raamatukogu offers quality literature from different corners and eras of the world – from ancient Indian sacred texts to the most modern contemporary authors. The choice is diverse and extensive: novels, collections of short stories and poetry, essays, travelogues, plays, tracts and memoirs.

Over the years, LR has translated books from about fifty languages and introduced the literatures of over seventy nations.

Every year, LR also publishes original Estonian works; it has discovered new Estonian authors and published little masterpieces of great masters.

In 2010, Loomingu Raamatukogu started its 54th year. More than half of this time it had to exist at the mercy of the Soviet occupation and censorship, when conveying information and literature from abroad was under strict ideological control. During the fifteen-year period 1940--1955, most cultural activities were largely blocked. With the first signs of the ‘Khrushchev thaw’ in 1956, some members of the Estonian Writers’ Union decided to apply for a permit to start a new magazine. This would formally be the publication of the Estonian Writers’ Union, a supplement to Looming, the oldest Estonian literary magazine, and the pocket library of Estonian writers, students and everybody interested in literature.

In the restricted publishing circumstances of the Soviet era, LR significantly expanded the opportunities for introducing foreign literature and became amazingly influential in Estonia’s literary life. Although the format was small, 52 times a year readers got a carefully chosen and excellently translated booklet with a print run of about 10 to 15 thousand. These examples of high-quality foreign literature certainly expanded the worldview of readers. The entire Estonian literary public seemed to read the same book each week; the publication of almost every booklet was talked about and discussed in cultural circles. In the 1960s, for the first time in Estonia, the best translators published such authors as Franz Kafka (translated by August Sang), Albert Camus (translated by Henno Rajandi) and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, plus various cult works, such as Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana (translated by Lennart Meri), C. Northcote Parkinson’s Parkinson’s Law (translated by Henno Rajandi) and many others. LR also issued many groundbreaking books by Estonian writers (Jaan Kross’s poetry and prose, Enn Vetemaa’s novels Monument and Musician, poetry by Jaan Kaplinski and Paul-Eerik Rummo, Rummo’s controversial play Cinderella Game, Arvo Valton’s allegorical short stories etc.)
Although the ‘period of thaw’ ended in the early 1970s and the editorial staff were replaced, the series nevertheless maintained their essence and readership. The best translators still contributed to LR, and the language skills were at a high level, including some rather exotic and rare languages. Old and new literature from both West and East was introduced. The editorial staff could not, naturally, totally avoid the official publishing policy, i.e. issuing a certain number of works by authors living in the Soviet Union. However, it goes without saying that only the best of them got published. Looking back, there is actually no need to feel ashamed of any book that came out; each book was a small discovery of a new world, whether the work of an Azeri writer or a Kazakh poet. There was practically no publishing market in those days; everything in Soviet Estonia appeared either from the ‘big publisher’ (Eesti Raamat/ Estonian Book), or the ‘small publisher’ (LR). The print run was usually around 20,000; LR had approximately 10,000 subscribers.
     In 1988, when signs of instability and weakening censorship emerged in the Soviet Union, LR for the first time dared to use the colour combination blue-black-white on its cover – the colour combination of the banned national flag. For this, the editor-in-chief was summoned to the Central Committee of the Communist Party to ‘explain’.
    During the subsequent years of radical change, a huge number of previously forbidden authors were allowed. In 1986-1991, LR seized the opportunity in the increasingly feeble Soviet system and began publishing literary treasures from Estonia and abroad, writers in exile (Karl Ristikivi, Ain Kalmus, Bernard Kangro, Käbi Laretei, Heino Susi, Ilmar Talve and others), critics of the Soviet power (Aleksander Zinovyev), previously banned works (Milton’s Areopagitica) and the truth about Estonian history (books by Mart Laar, Lauri Vahtre, Heiki Valk and Erik Virbsoo).

In the new era of independence, with dozens, even hundreds of new publishing houses in Estonia, the role of Loomingu Raamatukogu in the literary world has changed, although we have found a safe niche – to be the ‘wise man in the pocket’ of people keen on culture.
The dominance of English-language literature in the output of most publishing houses in Estonia has encouraged LR, as a state-subsidised cultural magazine, to extend the choice of languages as much as possible, thus offering an alternative to the prevailing market trends. We have, for example, enlarged the share of Nordic literature (for example, LR has published film manuscripts of Ingmar Bergman and Per Olof Enquist), and if it is impossible to issue any translations from Georgian or Armenian, we try to find something new and exciting in Portuguese or Arabic, Greek or Hebrew.
We would like to acknowledge here the invaluable contribution of Professor Kalle Kasemaa, who has offered Estonian readers the chance to enjoy literary masterpieces translated from Greek and Latin, French, Hebrew, Arabic and Yiddish.
LR has employed about 300 translators.
One of our missions is the field of estica, where Estonia and Estonian history are seen through the eyes of foreigners. The authors are often our former compatriots (e.g. Dr. Bertram, O. von Grünewaldt, Edzard Schaper and Ingeborg Johansen). Such works have a significant place in extending the perception of our national identity.

The handy and affordable LR is also trying to introduce works on classical values. For instance, in recent years we have issued a series of works by the great Utopists: Thomas More’s Utopia, Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun, Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon.
Besides classical texts, we have published contemporary popular essays in the field of history, art, literature and politics (Pierre Bourdieu, Alain Besançon, Claes Andersson, Slavenka Drakulic, Marcel Gauchet, George Steiner and others).

LR has continued the tradition of publishing Estonian original literature: essays (Haljand Udam and Hasso Krull), plays (Eeva Park, Mati Unt, Jaan Undusk and Urmas Vadi), shorter prose (Ehlvest, Sauter and Heinsaar), poetry (Indrek Hirv, Toomas Liiv and Kivisildnik), and (new) printings of significant cultural-historical, antiquarian texts (e.g. Leonid Trett, A. H. Tammsaare, as I knew Him; Bernhard Linde, Ten Years of ‘Young-Estonia, and Hindrik Prants, Finnish Bridge).

The bibliography summarising the first fifty years (LR 2006, no 37-40) reported that by that time, 2412 issues of LR had come out, i.e. 1344 booklets bearing the LR emblem. By the end of 2009, the numbers had increased to 2532 issues and 1400 booklets. This is quite a unique collection, a small universal library. The many masterpieces issued here over the years are now being republished by various other publishing houses.
Throughout its existence, the size of the editorial staff of LR has been minimal: all the work has been tackled by just two people, under the more or less vigorous leadership of four editors-in-chief (Otto Samma 1957-1972, Jüri Ojamaa 1972-1983, Agu Sisask 1983-1994 and Anu Saluäär since 2008. There was actually no editor in chief for a long time, as the post was made redundant in 1994, largely because of financial shortages. The tasks were fulfilled by Anu Saluäär who was elected editor in chief in 2008.) LR also has a board of eleven people, consisting of prominent translators and editors, whose recommendations and advice are invaluable.

In 2010, Loomingu Raamatukogu has about one thousand subscribers, who will receive about 20 booklets of worldview-expanding literature. We could thus say that the Soviet-era legend has also found its place in independent Estonia.