Estonian literature is like any other European literature but with some special traits that are a result of our recent and ancient past.
In the beginning there was oral folklore. Then Estonia became a German colony and, thanks to Luther’s reforms, the locals finally became literate, although most of them read only the Holy Bible (first translated into Estonian in 1739).
As nationalism spread throughout Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, our own belles lettres emerged and a provincial doctor, Fr R. Kreutzwald, composed our long, national epic poem ‘Kalevipoeg’. It has immense symbolic value, though few have read it from beginning to end. Then, in the space of only two or three decades, Estonian literature sped through all the ‘isms’ that in the West had developed over centuries – a kind of cultural Meiji restoration. At first realism was the predominant style, but there were occasional sparks of romanticism and irony. The topics this literature covered were mostly rural and historical, and in many ways Estonian literature was akin to that of the Scandinavians and Germans, whose writing influenced us greatly.
In terms of genres, most Estonian novels were written by men, but in poetry women had the upper hand – a dominance that continues to this day. Drama, written by either sex, has never flourished.
Between the two World Wars our most important classic writer, Anton Hansen Tammsaare, wrote his novels, giving Estonians, from peasants to townspeople, the definitive image of their recent past. Then, at the end of WWII, several of our major writers went into exile and continued their work there, while at home, behind the Iron Curtain, a long lull descended. The first signs of thaw emerged in the late 1950s, after which a kind of renaissance took place – popularly referred to as ‘the golden sixties’ – during which a number of writers came forward, their work now considered ‘new classics’. These waves of elevation gave way in the 1970s to resignation and irony, which became the trademark of Estonian prose.
But when Gorbachev instituted his reforms and Estonians began to polish up their national colours, irony felt out of place – both in real life and in literature. The resulting change in the political system coincided with a generational change. Some older writers were decrepit, some couldn’t adapt, and only a few middle-aged writers carried on working in an environment in which the abolition of censorship meant there was no longer any need to write between the lines. The arrival of the internet also began to have its impact, and a new and more direct literary style emerged, one that was simultaneously leaner and more prolix.
Global literature, with all its vices and virtues is on the march here, as elsewhere, and though historical novels are written in Estonia, the emphasis now is on the present: gender issues, interethnic problems, identity. There is, however, a small but strong undercurrent of ‘Finno-Ugric revivalism’ – back to the woods and rural authenticity, etc etc), and there are writers who still use motifs from folklore as a way to speak to their readers.
The current Estonian literary scene is lively. The number of titles published and copies bought per capita are both abnormally high; there are a plethora of monthly, and weekly publications and events, and there are more literary wannabes and debutantes than ever before. All this speaks to the fact that, while writing today is a profession like any other, for many Estonians, literature is even now a quasi-religion, and the writer is, as they have always been, a kind of spiritual leader.
By Mihkel Mutt
Mihkel Mutt is one of the most popular living Estonian writers and the long-time editor-in-chief of publications such as the weekly newspaper Sirp and the literary magazine Looming. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, Mutt was busy publishing his memoirs, but in 2013 he made a successful return to literary fiction with his novel The Cavemen Chronicle, which he has followed with The Estonian Circumciser. Occidental Estonia and The Inner Immigrant have recently been published in English.