Lithuanian Culture Institute

100 Years in One Month: The Joycean Liberation of Literature

Lithuanian Culture Institute
Ričardas Gavelis. Algimanto Aleksandravičiaus nuotrauka

Photo by Algimantas Aleksandravičius

Published in 1989, the first novels by the writer Ričardas Gavelis Jauno žmogaus memuarai (Memoirs of a Young Person; to be published in translation in 2018 as Memoirs of a Young Life Cut Short) and Vilniaus pokeris (Vilnius Poker; 2009, 2016), demasking the Soviet system, was the turning point which marks the beginning of contemporary Lithuanian literature and the end of Soviet Lithuanian literature. Even though he made his debut in the middle of the 1970s, permeated by the Era of Stagnation under Brezhnev, Gavelis never wrote according to the requirements of socialist realism, and therefore was not a ‘writer servant’, a product of that epoch. Gavelis was a visionary, who created freely in the way he wanted even in those times of censorship, and therefore it is not by coincidence that Vilnius Poker, the novel he wrote between 1979 and 1987, is considered to be not only Gavelis’s best novel but also the best novel ever written for the drawer in Lithuania.

Gavelis with his principled stance of a loner and his values was a real European, always oriented only to the very best writers in the world, on the other side of the Iron Curtain during the Soviet period – Kurt Vonnegut, William Faulkner, George Orwell, and, of course, James Joyce. It was James Joyce who was his great inspiration, helping him to formulate – and formulate for himself – the most important vision of a free Lithuanian literature: ‘All our artists must forge a Lithuanian spirit, one perhaps that exists, but one that has not yet been formed and perfected. Joyce shows us the way – to use the whole treasure trove of world culture, to fit into European (or Western) epistemology.’

Gavelis’s first novels, with which are connected the deliberate withdrawal of Lithuanian literature from agrarian culture and a focus on the intellectual culture of the city, were the first attempt to define a literary identity and fit into the normal world. ‘We are Europeans – let’s be that,’ that was Gavelis’s well-known strategy from 1989, the strategy par excellence of his time. Gavelis is probably the only writer in Lithuanian literature to have consistently followed Joyce’s direction
and almost with every novel tried to forge an existent / non-existent Lithuanian spirit – demasking the façade of nationalism and patriotism, using a scalpel to dissect the Soviet system, to reveal with precision the games played by the authorities, and most importantly – bare the national character with all its characteristics. Gavelis created a literature in which the era, political philosophy, eroticism and even economics co-exist in harmony, but most importantly – synchronicity with a European context. Gavelis himself was written into that literature in 2015, when the French edition of his Vilnius Poker was accompanied by comments by critics: ‘It’s Dostoevsky. It’s Burroughs, Bukowski and Kafka. It’s Kundera.’ Gavelis’s literary vision – to write the way the whole world writes, to understand oneself not in the context of a small country but in that of a great Europe, to create literature that is provocative, and most important of all – to create literature that encourages one to think and not bemoan one’s fate – has no use by date and is hardly ever likely go out of fashion.

Jūratė Čerškutė