Lithuania in Europe: The Gladiators’ Masks and the Longing for an Underground
I am increasingly asking myself what Europe really is. Is it a figment of our imagination that we now habitually use as a linguistic cliché?
I am increasingly asking myself what Europe really is. Is it a figment of our imagination that we now habitually use as a linguistic cliché? According to the latest genetic research, scarcely anyone of pure descent is left in geographical Europe, except perhaps the Basques, the Sami people or the Albanians – they carry the most of the so-called “European” gene. And they preserve the languages, or at least their linguistic remnants, of pre-Indo-European times. Everyone else comes from other continents. Lithuania, too, might as well be America in this respect. Almost without exception, national stereotypes are now as unacceptable as economic favouritism, cultural myths or the defensive rapacity of the “small fry.” Paradoxically, what one attempts to describe as “European” is still greeted with rejection by literati (but not only by them); “Europe enthusiasts” are viewed with contempt, many treat the EU Prize for Literature with scepticism, participation in exchange programmes is low - apparently because for many Lithuanians, the EU is merely a new twist on the former USSR. In an historical context like this, not many wish to go to the trouble of gaining recognition from their European “big brother,” abase themselves before the predominant language, or mechanically position their creative work in a market defined by “euro-demand.” In such a perception, Europe appears for the most part as a faceless mass demanding, if not bread, then circuses, and expecting them from the unfortunate gladiators.
The Lithuanian reader (probably every other as well, independent of ethnicity), is interested in everything authentic, that one can recognise as one’s own experience. Or in everything that astonishes with its unusualness and opens up a new perspective. Viewed in purely sociological terms, a gifted writer will only rarely flatter the reader by satisfying his curiosity, unless he is simply writing for money. Such literature also exists and is in pretty high demand, but it is also quickly forgotten. As a criterion of good literature, memory seems increasingly significant to me – what one cannot forget is what endures and is validated by one’s own reading experience. Hardly anyone remembers exactly the contents of the animated film series that one saw as a child. Or of the comics, mystery novels or romantic novels one read. But most of us can remember the fairy tales we were told, as a first impression, very deeply and narratively. Lithuania’s largest publisher makes use of the concept “reading pleasure“ in its marketing campaign – evidently referencing Roland Barthes’ interpretation of jouissance. Oddly, the books that always particularly influenced me were the ones that deliver a certain reading displeasure – that made one cry, bored one, etc. Good prose must be boring, said the Lithuanian exodus poet Alfonsas Nyka-Niliūnas. And it is not the writers’ task to “draw” readers to literature as if they were children: instead, people themselves, individuals, regardless of the society to which they belong, should take responsibility for themselves, because if they fail to develop skills with respect to reading books, they will find themselves having to live in a tiny world with very limited horizons.
My own view of literary Europe is somewhat arbitrarily and superficially delineated. And this is only natural, as one cannot comprehend the entire world at once, let alone imagine seeing it sub specie aeternitatis. Not a few Lithuanian literati hold the view that Europe (or more precisely the foundations of the European mentality), is still represented by classical antiquity because one can build on ancient literature, familiarity with it is always worthwhile. Most young Lithuanian writers know several foreign languages (some of them work as translators of literary fiction), but they only rarely read foreign-language books or newspapers solely for their own personal enjoyment. Book translations are abundant, but fall short of expectations. If the best foreign-language literature were what commercial publishers acquire and issue, we would feel pathologically Eurocentric in the artistic sense. Questions of identity are current, but the feeling of individualism characteristic of “East Block” countries predominates – according to a young Lithuanian author, what is popular is what the majority likes, i.e. what is kitschy and worthless. On the other hand, youth is normally considered to be the boundary where creative experiments or the search for personal identity transition into professional ambitions. With respect to the worth of their texts, weekly cultural newpapers and magazines sometimes pay disproportionately low fees. Those who wish to earn a living from writing sell themselves to major daily newspapers and make compromises in the direction of popularity. But most have other sources of income, work as editors or journalists. And in my opinion, they manage to write excellent texts without squandering their talents.
At this time in Lithuania, Marius Ivaškevičius – a virtuoso of the interrelationships between literature and the stage (a prose writer and dramatist who also directed several plays and films himself) – is presenting himself in particularly original ways. Among his themes are the playful relationship between intellectuals and history, the people and himself. With his biography begins the establishment of creative universals – from now on, the writer is no longer just someone who sits at a desk, in sociological terms he gains the status of a parlour scholar and jester who can participate in a show project. Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė’s prose has also gained popularity (last year she was awarded an EU prize and her plays were produced both in Lithuania and abroad). Following in the tradition of classic prose (which is sometimes rather inadequate), she manages to do without the descriptions of nature, inner monologues and streams of consciousness that Lithanian readers are already weary of. Since she deals with current relationships between men and women, between parents and children, updates key childhood experiences, the reading audience of her fiction can unconsciously search for answers for themselves. I fear this author does not write “correct” literature, not the kind of literature that the critics seem to expect from her; she simply does what interests her and leaves no doubt about its authenticity. Andrius Jakučiūnas takes another direction, one that has abandoned all preoccupation with psychologising. Taking pastiches of classical mythology as his point of departure, this author transitions to an openly existential problematic, interprets religious issues in his own fashion along the way, and does a balancing act on the boundaries of a philosophical approach. Kristina Sabaliauskaitė’s debut novel “Silva Rerum,” which she had worked on for over a decade, turned out to be a powerful literary event in which she skilfully investigates embroilments in the lives of Lithuanian nobility in the 16th century. Even though literary experts accuse her of flirting with popularity, this novel is a great sensation with the public. Most likely because, among other things, the author relies on a negation of “Lithuanian bucolic literature” (many a Lithuanian has an inner complex that seeks to deny his agrarian, rural background and simulate an aristocratic or at least urban consciousness). A further promising debut is that of Ieva Toleikytė. This author is twenty years old – and she can tell stories. She depicts situations and conditions in childhood, puberty and maturity (a rare theme in Lithuanian literature) as if in film; the short time-frame of her distance from the material, her abstention from imitating an “adult” tone, and above all the natural voice of a twenty-year-old are what impress one most.
Projects are being carried out intensively in the local area of literary mobilisation: the Top Five, Top Ten, Top Twelve, and other hydra-like marketing events are put together and prizes awarded with a considerable amount of pomp. This means that the rules of the market are being adopted, although most literati would much prefer to simply go about their work, without having to deal with management issues or communications of whatever kind with advertisers - television, for instance. Up until now, literary criticism has been a problem zone, because in a small society it is always bound up with ad hominem evaluations. Most young literati therefore feel drawn to an underground that nonetheless does not seem to exist. This instinct (longing for something that does not exist, but which one should create) seems to me to still derive directly from the Soviet era.
Giedrė Kazlauskaitė, Lithuania
Translated from Lithuanian by Daiva Petereit
Translated from Lithuanian by Daiva Petereit