Lithuanian literature today

By Gabrielė Gailiūtė-Bernotienė

You would expect that, in a civilised country like Lithuania, the year would end on 31 December. Well, not for the literary community. Writers, publishers, critics and readers get no rest until the end of February, when the International Vilnius Book Fair takes place. Opened by none other than the President, with daily broadcasts on national radio and television, it seems to be the best starting point to try to present something as fleeting and ephemeral as the pulse and feel of contemporary Lithuanian literature.

This is the time when most literary prizes are awarded, including the Book of the Year award (which is the only literary award in Lithuania where all readers are given a vote, along with a professional committee, and is therefore the most publicised literary event of the year), as well as the most important prizes for book designers, translators and other professionals. It is also the best time to launch new books, as no ordinary book presentation can hope to gain the attention of the 60,000 visitors that the International Vilnius Book Fair attracts.

Incidentally, the word ‘International’ in the title is not just a formality. It is regularly visited by foreign authors. And, rather improbably for such a small country, it usually features a major literary star, like Colleen McCullough, Frank McCourt, John Irving, David Foenkinos or Frederic Beigbeder, who have all been guests of Lithuanian publishers.

There are always some complaints that the Book Fair is too commercial, too crowded, or just too exhausting, from those who long for a purer, more elite kind of literary life. (It has actually led to an attempt to create an alternative Vilnius Book Festival, which took place for the first time in the autumn of 2012, but it is still too early to say how much this provides an alternative.)

The fact remains that everyone who is anyone in the world of books in Lithuania visits the Book Fair, presenting their books, commenting on others’ work, or meeting readers at the publishers’ stands. To take 2017 as an example, the statistics are impressive: 303 publishers and institutions from nine countries participating; 400 separate events, in 12 000 square metres, excluding fair-related events elsewhere in the city; and 62, 840 visitors in four days.

But it has not always been like this.

A historical perspective

Going back in history, the independent Republic of Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, and for five decades book publishing functioned under the planned economy. This meant that there were five or six publishers, who published up to 3,000 titles annually (including non-literary publishing, like textbooks, encyclopedias and gardening manuals or cookery books). But the average print run for a book of fiction was about 24,000 copies. Literature itself was strictly censored, to avoid any nostalgia for independence, any national feelings, anything remotely religious (especially Christian), anything sexual, violent or otherwise unsuitable for the model Soviet citizen, and any possible dissatisfaction with the status quo. In other words, almost anything that could be seen as inspiring literary material.

However, writers came up with literary devices to circumvent censorship. The most famous of these, which is still taking up the time of academic researchers who are trying to understand and explain it, was called ‘Aesopian language’. The term comes from the writer of the fables, and it presumably implies writing in fables; but this does not quite explain it. The best way to explain it would be to say that this Aesopian language was obscure. It was a language in which criticisms of the system were more or less clearly visible to any reader, including the censors. But they were so devoid of obvious references to real life that no censor could single them out.

Let us leave the academics to puzzle over Aesopian language. Something that is more relevant to this guide was the preference for poetry. In the times of great novelists such as Charles Dickens and Honoré de Balzac, according to the laws of Imperial Russia, even to write out a shopping list in the Lithuanian language was illegal. After 1918, literature began to make great strides, but it was crushed again under Soviet rule. Quite naturally, poetry was more powerful, as it could be both obscure and personal, enabling it to get past all kinds of censorship, and it was distributed more easily under the various restrictions, thanks to its shorter forms. A book of poetry could be published in tens of thousands of copies, if it had more or less, and usually less, sincere tributes to communism, communist leaders and communist propaganda scattered among the genuine poems.

And now?

The readership of poetry has dwindled to proportions more appropriate to a free country and a free market, but the poetry scene remains quite vibrant and well populated. Two major poetry events attract hundreds of poetry lovers every year, who come to listen to readings and to meet their favourite poets. The Poetry Spring Festival is organised by the Writers’ Union. It was founded at a time when everyone, including free spirits like writers, had to belong to a trade union, but it now seems a bit outdated and ossified. The Druskininkai Poetic Fall was founded directly in opposition to Poetry Spring. Interestingly, many older poets have managed to find a new but similar role in free society as spokespersons for poetry, even though the conditions for it have changed immensely. Even more interestingly, younger poets, of whom there are quite a lot, even though poetry is not commercially viable, often view their older colleagues as role models and as inspiring examples, and not as relics of the past.

However, the almost 1,000 publishers in present-day Lithuania (that is the official figure, although there are only four or five big players in the market) make their profits from genres other than poetry. The average print run for a book of fiction or other bedside reading has come down to approximately 1,500 to 2,000 copies, which is in fact more appropriate for the size of the market. And while the number of titles has increased by a mere one and a half times, the variety is astounding. Many more serious academic books are published, and all sorts of religious material is now legal and has found a decent readership. About a quarter of all published books are fiction. For a while, most of them were translations, and not just from Russian. But books by local authors have caught up and are now nearly equal. Any literary fad, be it Dan Brown, Harry Potter or Twilight, appears in Lithuania with little or no delay. For some reason, Lithuanians are fond of Scandinavian literature, and for equally unknown (or unexplored) reasons, German literature is giving way to French. It obviously goes without saying that English is the most popular source language for translated books.

After 1990, one thing was expected to happen but did not. With freedom of speech finally achieved, people believed that anyone who had written anything that was unpublishable under censorship would finally emerge. No such luck. It turned out that hardly anyone was writing anything publishable. However, for a very short period of time, writers felt that they were the heralds of freedom, the voice, the conscience, the spirit of the nation. Once more peaceful times came, they had to find less prominent and more mundane roles for themselves and their art. Some became dispirited and felt forgotten and discarded. Others took up the challenge.

Yes, but what is it all about?

After all these numbers and general remarks, one main question has to be asked. What do Lithuanians write (and read) about? An easy answer to this question would be to say that they are obsessed with their past. However, we have to make a long list of excuses and explanations. Ever since the Spring of Nations, they have never had a real chance to examine themselves and their past. One occupation followed another, with just a couple of decades to catch their breath, so it is quite understandable that both a questioning of national identity and the evaluation of historical traumas and achievements are under way. In fact, several very strong non-fiction books have been written, such as those by the philosopher Nerija Putinaitė, the psychologist Danutė Gailienė, and the social and political scientist Ainė Ramonaitė and her team, to mention just a few. They attempt to analyse these issues, based on research and data, and not just on impressions and memories.

Likewise, innumerable memoirs are being produced, which in turn provoke debate, disputes and replies in other non-fiction books and memoirs. Communism is officially illegal in Lithuania, but in the broader Western context there has been no official evaluation or trials for crimes committed under communism, and so the trauma and the pain are still open wounds in a society that had to suffer under the regime. Literary writers have also tried to add their voices: with Marius Ivaškevičius deconstructing the life of a famous leader of the postwar freedom fighters; Renata Šerelytė attempting to fictionalise her own life, being born into a family of deportees in Siberia and then returning to grow up on a kolkhoz; and Sigitas Parulskis devising a story to trace how family memories impact on a modern character. Setting aside what is really a long and painful process of reconciliation, let us just briefly mention that many writers who began their careers under the Soviet regime have obtained a liminal identity, and need to account for their past and present allegiances, for their own sakes and for other people.

Another way in which the past makes its way into literature is through earlier history. According to the narrative in Soviet times, history was a slapdash mixture of naive romanticism and blatant propaganda. Questions, therefore, like what it means to be Lithuanian and where we come from still come back to haunt us. Most are material for historians, who, like the social scientists mentioned above, have produced several in-depth studies on these questions, and these studies enjoy an unusual popularity with the general public.

However, history has never really been reflected in literature, and contemporary authors are sometimes tempted to do so. Several historical novels, some realistic and detailed, some outright fantasy, are published every year; but none have enjoyed the success of the four volumes of Silva Rerum, written by the art critic Kristina Sabaliauskaitė, tracing the story of several generations of a noble family in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The past is a prologue, then what?

While historical questions are painful and topical, they are not the only literary material. The contemporary social and cultural situation is a recurrent theme as well. The variations range from fictional and semi-fictional conspiracy theories, involving strong feelings of discontent with the general political and social atmosphere, to close-ups of separate socially sensitive groups, like the abandoned children in Vanda Juknaitė’s and Gendrutis Morkūnas’ books. One particular social reality that has a strong presence in literature is emigration. Considered by some to be a demographic, economic and social catastrophe, and by others to be the bold exercise of the long-withheld right to choose where and how to live, the phenomenon itself remains a fact. People are travelling abroad to study, work and marry, and do not always plan to return. Naturally, among these travellers, some are bound to have literary leanings; so several years ago, books began to emerge detailing their lives in their new homelands, humorously, philosophically and tragically. These books almost always attract the attention of readers and critics who are interested in the phenomenon of emigration, but it is only honest to say that the literary merits of such writings are very unequal. Interestingly, the theme has become quite popular among first-time writers, like Aleksandra Fomina (who writes about the United Kingdom), Dalia Staponkutė (Cyprus), and others. Presumably, it provides plenty of stories and exotic settings, and, most importantly, it gives a fresh feeling of boldly going where no man has gone before, literally and literarily.

Form, genre and reflection

But after all this has been said about the historical situation, it is quite understandable that one of the main themes for contemporary writers is literature itself. Having missed the natural postwar literary developments in Western culture, with Socialist Realism forced on the arts as the only acceptable style, do we now try to catch up? Do we skip it altogether? Do we come up with something completely new? Do we have something interesting to offer: to ourselves, to our readers, and to the world?

The result of such reflections is prolific experimentation. Poets are trying their hand at writing novels, journalists and columnists write books, and some writers boldly suggest ‘shooting the narrative’. Like any series of experiments, these are not always equally successful, but one thing worth mentioning has definitely come out of this. The prevailing form in contemporary writing is the non-fiction essay. In fact, this is an umbrella term for a variety of short, stylistically literary, but thematically fictional, semi-fictional and even non-fiction writing. While some critics feel that this shapeless form has thrived too much and too quickly, obscuring more traditional literary constructions, it has to be acknowledged that such non-committal writing has helped to bring to the fore some very interesting authors, like Giedra Radvilavičiūtė. Another no less important aspect is that it has caught the attention and the interest of the reading public.

The novel, as everywhere else in the West, is considered to be the most accessible and respectable genre, and the most commercially successful. Novellas and short stories are often well written, but they sell poorly, as in other countries. But for Lithuanians, the novel is really a bit of a sore point. It had to develop basically from scratch, and it is quite natural for it to suffer some childhood illnesses. The Aesopian language mentioned above, which is still employed out of habit, has become a disadvantage. Without censorship to play with, this complicated game quite simply becomes obscure, remote, and even boring. Constructing a plot and developing characters sometimes turns out to be hard work, for which pure inspiration and talent may not be enough, hence the suggestion to ‘shoot the narrative’. The novel seems to have matured quite successfully in the last few years, often driven by the younger generation of authors, but what still seems to be lacking (although it is not missed by more high-brow literati) is purely entertaining, low-brow, commercial literature. While there have been some attempts at writing mysteries, thrillers and romances, they hardly ever catch on, and they almost always give way to their foreign counterparts.

Lithuanians in the world

However, there are still some success stories. Ruta Sepetys, a second-generation American Lithuanian, has written a novel in English about a family deported to Siberia at the beginning of the Soviet occupation. Between Shades of Gray was originally intended for teenagers and young adults, but it has received critical acclaim and attained commercial success as a story for all ages, and has been translated into more than 35 languages. While some people with first-hand experience of the events described in the book feel that it does not meet their standards of historical accuracy, Sepetys is a good example of yet another aspect of Lithuania and its literature.

Lithuanians sometimes think of their country as a backwater, but geopolitically a more correct description would be an outpost. On a crossroads between Eastern and Western Europe, over the years it has had a lot of friends, masters, occupiers and visitors. For example, its capital Vilnius has been home to world-famous Polish-language authors, like Adam Mickiewicz and Czesław Miłosz. The Baltic coast variously enjoyed and suffered a long-term German influence, and Thomas Mann’s family had a summer residence in Nida on the Curonian Spit. The house is now the Thomas Mann Cultural Centre, and its main annual event is the Thomas Mann Festival in July, a glorious intellectual celebration of European culture.

Likewise, Lithuanians themselves have always been intrepid travellers. When the Soviets invaded, many clever, bright and energetic people, like Ruta Sepetys’ family, had to flee. Many ended up in the USA, but some went as far as Australia. Wherever they went, they did not assimilate and disappear, but maintained their national identity, living in Lithuanian communities and engaging in various cultural activities, like sports or music clubs and religious groups, but also artists’ circles, radio broadcasts, and even publishing. The works of émigré writers were forbidden in Lithuania during the years of the occupation, but since then many have been discovered, read, published and studied. There have even been some cases of people leaving the Soviet Union in scarcely believable ways. The poet and scholar Tomas Venclova wrote an open letter to the government, saying that life here was untenable for a person with intellectual interests, and asking for permission to emigrate, and got it. He now teaches at Yale University, and visits Lithuania several times a year, still continuing to write and publish poems and essays. Another important figure is Icchokas Meras, who was ethnically Jewish, and therefore was allowed to leave the Soviet Union for Israel. He lived there until his death, but still wrote only in Lithuanian, and often about Lithuania, and his work has been critically acclaimed both in his homelands and abroad. Many people are fascinated by semiotics, but even specialists do not always know that one of the first semioticians, Algirdas Julius Greimas, was also Lithuanian, although he wrote in both Lithuanian and French, and his French works are often better known worldwide. The Canadian writer Antanas Šileika also comes from a Lithuanian family and, although he writes in English, his novels constantly develop plots about recent Lithuanian history. It is quite likely that contemporary Lithuanians, who are going abroad to live, either temporarily or for good, are in fact quite in tune with an old tradition. Therefore, more and more cosmopolitan themes are to be expected.

As for those who stay here, their books are not unheard-of in other countries. Most poets have some translations, although often in anthologies or special editions related to poetry events and festivals abroad. For larger-scale translation, a ground-breaking event was the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2002, where Lithuania was the guest of honour. That was an occasion to translate some contemporary authors into German; and authors like Jurga Ivanauskaitė were extremely successful there, and later in Scandinavia and other countries as well. More and more translations followed, even though the language is not widely known and translators are few. Some are of Lithuanian descent, like Elizabeth Novickas, who translates classics into English, while others are simply friends, like Cornelius Hell, Pietro U. Dini, Claudia Sinnig, Guido Michelini and Markus Roduner. With their help, with some interesting things to say and stories to tell, and with their own unbreakable spirit, Lithuanians are ready to take on the world of books.