Lithuanian literature is not widely known, despite the fact that Lithuania gave the world Adam Mickiewicz, Czesław Miłosz, Chaim Grade and Vilnius-born, twice Prix-Goncourt-winner Romain Gary, who wrote in Yiddish, French and Polish.
Our historical use of Polish is the reason Poles and Lithuanians quarrel over who owns the Lithuanian-born Mickiewicz and Miłosz, who both wrote in the language. While I prefer the word ‘share’, as great talents cannot be ‘owned’, our debate raises a philosophical question: what is more important – content or form? We can probably speak of Lithuanian literature – Lithuanian in its content, outlook and sensitivity, such as The Issa Valley by Miłosz or Promise at Dawn by Gary, but written in languages historically used in the country. For example, after the union with Poland in 1569, methods of communication needed to develop and adapt swiftly, leading the nobility to absorb both church Latin and Polish. Thus our first international best-seller, Lyricorum libri tres by Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski (published in 1625 and popular in Britain at the time), was in Latin.
With the Enlightenment, however, the interest in the public use of the archaic and sonorous Lithuanian language grew, and in 1775 ‘The Seasons’ – the first peasant epic poem in Lithuanian – was written (in classical hexameter) by Kristijonas Donelaitis. Unfortunately, in 1795, the Polish- Lithuanian state was partitioned, Lithuania became part of the Russian Empire, and the language became so essential to Lithuanian identity and resistance that in 1865 Russia banned it completely, along with the Latin alphabet. However, our love of our literature and language was such that we started smuggling in Lithuanian books. At approximately 3,000 titles, and five million copies, this was a mass, cross-class movement.
When the ban was finally lifted in 1904, and then Lithuania declared itself independent in 1918, our creativity was unleashed in an eruption of great novels and grand plays – symbolist, expressionist, realist and futurist literature. We seemed to be relishing Lithuanian words and our new-found freedom of expression.
The Soviet occupation after WWII brought a different kind of suppression: the language was permitted, and later – slyly, and in keeping with Soviet ‘class-conflict’ ideology – was even encouraged. The concept was weak, though, describing a peasant ‘national identity’ that ignored our sophisticated multicultural heritage. At the same time, there was thorough censorship and content was severely restricted; foreign and most pre-war literature was destroyed or locked away, and anything considered even slightly bourgeois or Western was prohibited. Narrow circles of dissident intellectuals conducted some secret self-publishing, mostly on typed carbon copies, and only the few who escaped to the West could express themselves freely – The White Shroud by Antanas Škėma being a notable example. Meanwhile, behind the Iron Curtain, many Lithuanian writers self-censored. Others sought out Aesopic language with which to express their discontent, often choosing poetry as a more ambiguous form, in the process mastering the language’s nuances.
At last, in the late 1980s, dissident literature started reappearing and quickly became a bestselling genre. And since 1990, when we became independent once more, there has been an abundance of genres, styles and experiments with expression.
I, for one, hope that the London Book Fair Market Focus 2018 will prompt many English translations of contemporary Lithuanian literature, giving British readers the opportunity to see the full range of what could now be described as a New Golden Age.
By Kristina Sabaliauskaitė
London-based Kristina Sabaliauskaitė is the most widely read Lithuanian author (sales of her books run to hundreds of thousands of copies). Her award-winning four-part historical novel Silva Rerum is a bestseller beyond Lithuania’s borders, where it has attracted the admiration of readers, exceptional reviews and was shortlisted for the final of the ANGELUS Central European Literary Prize in 2016.
Read The Baltics Riveter in its entirety here.
Photo of Kristina Sabaliauskaitė by Monika Pankūkū