LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 23, No.4 - Winter 1977
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
Copyright © 1977 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
TOMAS VENCLOVA: COLLOQUIUM WITH A DISSIDENT POET
The closing session of the symposium featured a question-answer period in which the main speaker was Tomas VENCLOVA, Lithuanian dissident poet recently arrived from behind the iron curtain and presently acting as guest lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. To introduce him, a brief presentation by Joseph Brodsky, reprinted in that day's Capital Times (Madison), was read. In it, Brodsky makes the following statement about Venclova: "the best poet living on the territory of which Lithuania is a small part." Venclova opened the discussion with some preliminary remarks:
My answers to questions about the situation of Lithuanian poetry and poets will not always be accurate. In respect to the Lithuanian literature that is being written today in that country I have been an absolute outsider and sometimes do not really know what is going on. To begin with, I should like to say a few words — actually, to continue the discussion that has just taken place and has interested me greatly.
One day in Lithuania we were talking — a Lithuanian literary figure whose name I would rather not mention and I — on a topic very similar to this one. We were saying that although we both were agnostics rather than believers, we could nevertheless imagine a situation in which God would call us to the Last Judgment at which not only people but also nations and their literatures would be pronounced upon. Well, the Lithuanians would arrive and say: "Here we are, we are Lithuanians, we have survived, go ahead and judge us now." To which God would answer: "All right, so you have survived, so you have come, so what? The ancient Sumerians, for instance, did not survive, but they have accomplishments to show which make them more alive than you are today." This, of course, is not a very pleasant situation. There is, however, a counter-argument of a sort to be found: if you want to achieve something, you ought to survive for some time at feast. Unfortunately, the historical situation in Eastern Europe is such that this question is very timely indeed. Perhaps not as painfully timely as some tend to present it here, but timely nonetheless. Here in the West, speaking to audiences of Lithuanians, I have often had to face questions about Russification. To this I can state the following: the whole situation reminds me of an episode in the famous novel by Julij Daniel, Moscow is Speaking. For those who are not familiar with it — I do recommend reading it, it has been translated into English — I shall briefly summarize its plot. The novel is rather short, and deals with the following: from time to time, a new campaign is started in the Soviet Union. As it begins, it is advertised on the radio: a campaign like the one for growing corn, or similar campaigns in the past. So the radio announces: "In connection with the fact that the consciousness of the Soviet people has risen considerably, one day a year everybody will be permitted to kill anyone he wishes. The Government is confident that only those will be killed who should." Several months of preparatory time is allowed. Then the day is announced on which anyone may kill anybody. There are terrifying rumors, but the really interesting fact is that practically nobody dies. Some killings occur in the Caucasus; even there fewer than expected. In the Baltic countries, on the other hand, the campaign is botched up so badly that the government has to be criticized, and some officials are even removed from their posts.
One could say that the situation with regard to the campaigns of Russification is similar: they are announced, talked about, and as a rule pass without hardly being noticed, at least in Lithuania. As far as I know, in Estonia the situation is somewhat worse, and much worse in Latvia. It does seem, for the time being, that the survival of the Baltic nations for a considerably long historical period can be more or less assured. Nevertheless, under such circumstances, nationalism does arise—nationalism which was so strongly criticized here a while ago. While in Lithuania, I have often made a statement which has been heartily condemned by my friends — at least by some of them —: that after Communism, nationalism is doctrine number two which I cannot condone. Considering the present condition of the Baltic states, it is, however, more justifiable than in other situations. Without any doubt, it is more excusable and understandable in these countries than in Finland or even Hungary. This forced kind of nationalism generates, as a logical consequence, another phenomenon which was touched upon in the preceding discussion: the inclination to evaluate too highly one's own literature and general cultural heritage. Unfortunately, I myself have already been hurt by this tendency. You have just heard an excerpt from the presentation Joseph Brodsky — whom I may call a good friend—made of me in the New York Review of Books, where my activity as a literary figure is without doubt evaluated too highly. Although Joseph Brodsky is not a Lithuanian, he certainly has a certain amount of Lithuanian patriotism. I have already discussed this article with Brodsky, and I have forgiven him for it only because he knew that I was in a critical situation and that such publicity would be a great help in getting me out of Lithuania and might save me. He made some other mistakes: I never translated Yeats, for instance. I am not and have never been the chairman of the Lithuanian Helsinki Group. The Lithuanian Helsinki Group emphasized upon its foundation that it would not have a chairman. It consists of five members only, all with equal rights. Four of them still remain in Lithuania.
After this brief introduction, I am ready to answer questions.
Question: I should like you to comment on the type of censorship which a writer must face, in Lithuania, to get a manuscript published. He submits his manuscript to the publisher, and it goes then to the censor. How does this operate?
Answer: This is a very complex question. The apparatus of censorship is one of the most secret spheres of the Soviet system. As many Soviet writers have pointed out on several occasions, the first - and most important - facet is the built-in censorship apparatus that each writer carries within himself. This is the first censor you must pass: the most exacting, the most complex. There are very few writers who have ceased to heed its admonitions. If they have succeeded in eliminating it from inside themselves, as a rule from that moment on they only publish in the samizdat or in the West. As far as I know, this applies only to some Russian authors, one Estonian poet — Uku Masing —, and none in Lithuania. Of course, times change, and one can hope that the situation may improve.
After this first censor, the author must face the editor: the editor of a journal, or the chief editor of a publishing house, who, according to the post he occupies, is a functionary of the state and of the Communist party. Also he has the duty of effecting some preliminary screening before passing the work on to the official censorship representatives. Here, much depends on the personality of that editor. As many of you must know, an editor like Tvardowski in Russia managed for quite a while to direct a periodical which was almost independent. Such cases are very rare. There have been a few such editors also in Lithuania — I prefer not to mention their names —, but as a rule they are very soon removed and replaced by true party functionaries who do not have anything to do with literature. This tendency is actually prevalent, to my knowledge, in all the journals and magazines published in the Soviet Union. As a rule, these are not edited by writers any more.
I should like to tell you about a personal rather anecdotal experience with one of the editors. Once I translated a few short stories by Borges and took them to the chief editor of a literary magazine. The first question the editor put forth to me was: "Doesn't that Borges by any chance have an anti-Soviet tendency?" To which I answered: "Well, it is not so much that he would be an enemy of the Soviet system; he just does not like the solar system." This was enough to make the editor turn suspicious. He proceeded: "I must check him out to make sure he is not black-listed any place." My immediate reaction was: "Where are those black lists kept? I should like to have a look at them myself so that the next time I may know who might and might not be translated." The editor replied that he himself did not know exactly where these lists were; he must find out about them by round-about ways, he said, which he is not prepared for the moment to explain, since all this is rather intricate. All ended with only two of the four translations being published. Why two, and why those particular two, I have no idea. Given the present situation, even that was a rather astonishing event: as far as I know, there is not a line of Borges printed in Russian.
Let us continue. After passing the first two stages, the real censorship starts: the so-called GlavLit: an organization the functions and authority of which are not clearly defined nor known to anybody, and whose decisions cannot be appealed. It must be said that lately GlavLit intervenes rather seldom, because the two previous censors — the author and the editor — do a pretty good job nowadays. After the approval from GlavLit has been obtained, and after the work has gone to the press, it can still be stopped or condemned to confiscation by the last official authority: the Central Committee. This happens seldom now, although such occurrences were more frequent in the past. After this post-censorship there might, however, still be a post-post-censorship a few years hence. If the author becomes known in the meantime as a dissident, or a sympathizer with the dissidents, or if a change occurs in the party line or in the political conjuncture, even through no fault of the particular author, either all of his works, or those which no longer comply with the official party line may be removed from general circulation in the libraries and transferred to the Specfond: special holdings. Specfond is the very last stage of censorship. Usually, whoever is put in there will never, as in Dante's Inferno, leave it. The system of the Specfond has its own hierarchy: there are many degrees in it. At times, especially in Khrushchev's days, voices could be heard claiming that the Specfond should be liberalized. I must say, however, that I am not aware of any liberalization whatsoever that might have taken place. As you see, the system is very complex, and functions rather well. If the Soviet Government would put as much effort and imagination into its technological and economic systems, most likely Soviet Russia's situation would be more advanced than it is at present.
Question: How significant is it for a writer to be or not to be a member of the Writers' Union, and of the Communist party?
Answer: This is also a rather complex situation. If the writer has not yet been admitted to the Writers' Union, his works can be published, and his, as a writer's, fate may not be very different from that of a member. I personally never have been a member of the Writers' Union. At one point I did solicit to join it. It is expected that a person who has written and published several literary texts will join it. There are, of course, also party functionaries in the Writers' Union who have published no literary texts. The procedure is as follows: the author sends in his curriculum vitae, a list of his publications, and the recommendation from three members of the Writers' Union. Up to that time I had had not much difficulty in publishing my translations and even my own poems or critical studies, and I was functioning in the literary life pretty much as most of the members of the Union. After submitting the application the situation changed. My case was discussed, and as I learned, one of the very famous Lithuanian Soviet writers — who shall also remain nameless — vetoed the admission for the following reason: "This candidate does not comply with the first paragraph of the by-laws of the Writers' Union." This first paragraph, about whose existence I did not really know clearly, stipulates that a writer must, through his works, contribute to building the Communist society. To this objection, one of the members who had recommended me answered that I was asking to be admitted chiefly as a translator. The reply was that as a translator I did not meet the requirements of the first paragraph either. After the refusal to be admitted my situation deteriorated considerably. When a person is refused, or when he is eliminated from the Union, he finds himself in a difficult position.
The situation with regard to membership in the Communist party is rather similar. A person may not be a member of the party and yet function as a writer. However, if he is thrown out of the party or — God forbid! — not admitted, then his situation becomes very sad. Both a membership in the Writers' Union and in the party bring some privileges, for instance, a better apartment, or the possibility of traveling outside the Soviet Union, which is highly prized by some. However, insofar as functioning as a writer, the membership in one or the other is not decisive. By the way, many good writers publish their works only in the samizdat, and of course they do not belong to the Union or to the party.
Question: I understood you were saying that the situation in Latvia is much worse than in Lithuania. Why?
Answer: It is worse indeed — I know it by personal experience. Several factors converge to make it such. First of all, and this is not difficult to see, Latvia is more important for the Soviets because of her geographic position, hence, for military purposes. She holds the key to the Baltic Sea to a greater extent than Lithuania. Because of that, the Russifica-tion campaign is being pursued there much more methodically and intensely, and with greater success. I think —- I cannot guarantee — that this is the foremost reason. The second reason is of a purely demographic nature. Latvia has a very low birthrate. This again can be explained by two factors: Latvia is a protestant, not a catholic country; it has been a more civilized, more Europeanized country for a much longer time. Thus, the birthrate is very low; it must be added that in Estonia it is not high, either. On the other hand, it had a smaller population than Lithuania to begin with. As a consequence, the same number of Russians brought in for colonization has a greater impact percentage-wise. As demographic statistics show — we must remember that they have been produced by the Soviet system and should be taken with a grain of salt, although in this case by intuition and by personal experience I think I can say they are rather accurate — at present only about half of the population are Latvians. It would seem that at a certain point a qualitative threshold is reached. When a nation arrives at the point of becoming a minority in its own country, a certain, very sad break occurs in that nation's psychology. As far as I know, from a psychological point of view Latvians are in far deeper despair than Lithuanians or Estonians. There is a chance that this state may be reversed. History has shown that when a really desperate point is reached, nations find a new source of strength. This could probably be termed a second qualitative threshold, which points in a positive direction. So far, however, summing up my observations in Latvia during my various visits, the psychological situation there is, alas, very sad.
Question: Have there been any translations into Lithuanian of works that had not been previously rendered into Russian? I am thinking of Mroţek's Tango, for instance.
Answer: Such occurrences are rare, but they do exist. A case in point are my Borges' translations: there is not a single paragraph of Borges in Russian; in Lithuanian, we have a few. Also Faulkner's Light in August appeared in Lithuanian before it did in Russian, although all in all, there are more translations of his works in Russian than in Lithuanian. In this respect Estonia occupies an outstanding place in the entire Soviet Union, not only among the Baltic nations. In their days they have created a very impressive undertaking called Looming Library. The Estonians present here are doubtless quite familiar with it. Looming Library has been publishing for years all the important works of world literature, with the exception of some fiercely anti-Communist writings. They pay no attention to whether or not these books have been previously published in Russian. This Looming Library became a real legend. It was said that its editors were "volunteers in the deathrow." After a few months the acting editor was sure to be removed, but the one who replaced him continued the same policy. I do not know how true this is, but considering our present situation it does not seem too exaggerated. We, Lithuanians, have always enormously envied the Looming Library. We have always wanted to create something similar in Lithuania but were never able to achieve it. I remember so well how once, some ten years ago, I visited the famous Estonian poet Paul-Erik Rummo at his home. I was astounded to see that his library contained books in no other language but Estonian. I asked him how that was possible, and he answered simply — and not without reason — that he could read whatever he wanted in Estonian. We Lithuanians cannot say the same, unfortunately. We have to read many works in Polish, for instance. Therefore today a great number of Lithuanian intellectuals — especially in the humanities — have a perfect knowledge of Polish.
If you are not bored with this story as yet, I can tell you about another rather fantastic experience. There is an important Soviet poet of Chuvash origin who lives in Moscow. His name is Genadii Aigi. His works are fairly well known in the West and have been translated into several languages. I believe the Chuvashes are of Turkish descent; they live on the Volga, are small in numbers, and have practically no cultural life. Genadii Aigi has, however, translated and edited a huge anthology of French poetry in his language. Up to that time, only one French poem had been translated into Chuvash: the International. The anthology includes poets like Saint-John Perse, Henri Michaux, Oscar Milosz, Renë Char, any poet you may think of: many who had never been — nor will be — published in Russian. Joseph Brodsky said once that this anthology is one of the best arguments for the lack of meaning in history. One way or the other, this has been quite a fantastic happening. The anthology has been reviewed in the French press (le Monde and other periodicals), and in our literary life it represents one of the brighter moments. For a while, we Lithuanians had conceived hopes of doing something similar or even better. So far it has been impossible. As a consequence, one might conclude that a lot depends on each personality and the efforts of that particular personality.
Question: I had the impression, speaking with Estonian poets in Estonia, that there is more of a meeting and discussion between Estonian and Lithuanian colleagues; although the Latvians are in the middle and in greatest trouble, they seem to get less sympathy from Estonians or from Lithuanians. Is this true? Why should it be?
Answer: This is in part so. On the one hand, Latvians and Estonians are bound together by their common Livonian past. The Lithuanian cultural tradition and cultural life in general come from an entirely different source. Therefore, the literary evolution in Estonia and Latvia shows more analogies than that of Lithuania with any of the two. There certainly is a process in the background which unites Latvians and Estonians and separates them from Lithuanians. On the other hand, there exists another development by which Estonians and Lithuanians communicate, so to speak, over the heads of Latvians. There may be many causes influencing this, one of them the already mentioned fact that Latvians find themselves in a deeper depression, and this is reflected in their activities and their attitude. Another may be the general rule that close neighbors usually find it more difficult to understand each other than those living not quite as near-by. One must say that Lithuanians and Estonians complement each other rather nicely. In recent times one can talk about them as compensating cultures. Generally, Estonians are much more up-to-date in what is happening in the world. In their turn, when we state this and say how we envy them for it, they reply that we have a history to lean on, and even now act in a more historical manner. Somehow, Latvians have not been included in this complementary structure. In general, structures of that kind are based on dichotomies. One should not, however, exaggerate. We have a lot in common with Latvians also: our languages are closely related, we have to face common problems, and common interests generate reciprocal sympathies. I must confess I was rather surprised to see that during this whole conference the Latvian poet Knuts Skujenieks (Emil's son) has not been alluded to at all. He is one of the greater Latvian poets today and maintains very close relations with Lithuanians.
Question: Did I understand right that you were teaching World Literature at the university?
Answer: Yes, indeed, I did teach Survey of Western Literature at the University of Vilnius.
Question: What was that experience like? What place does such a course occupy in the curriculum? What interest does it generate? Was there any special difficulty in teaching it?
Answer: My teaching activity had a somewhat peculiar character. My course was never a part of the regular curriculum. I never have been a regular faculty member. Usually they invited me as a substitute, when somebody had to go away or was ill. I generally gave one lecture a week and was paid 3 roubles for it, Therefore, in the words of Marx, I had nothing to lose, and my lectures were geared around those Western authors who happened to interest me at that moment. Thus, I managed to talk about Proust, Borges, Kafka, and several other writers whose names are not included in the official program. Then I would stop lecturing; a year later they would invite me again, and so it continued all the time.
Generally, Western Literature is taught according to a rigidly established program which does not include the most essential authors of the twentieth century, or if it does, they are dealt with in an extremely sketchy and limited way. I never followed that curriculum, since my own situation at the university was not regular. The interest in the recent Western authors is very great.
Question: Has any of the Lithuanian literature written in exile been published in Soviet Lithuania?
Answer: Yes, as you well know, a few books have been admitted, among them more than one really important work, as poetry by Algimantas Mackus, Jonas Mekas, or Marius Katiliđkis' novel Autumn Comes Through the forests. Also, during some time, the periodical especially dedicated to follow up developments among emigres, Native Land, would give series of poems by one or the other poet writing in the West. At present this has almost completely stopped. I should mention that it is not too difficult for an émigré writer to get published once he dies. Well, some have not been helped even by death, as Jonas Aistis, one of the most important of the exile poets. On the other hand, presently there is talk about publishing Henrikas Radauskas, and there is good reason to assume it will be done. it depends on the author and to a certain extent on the degree of his anti-Communist persuasion. Also, as already mentioned, on his death. I am not quite sure, but I believe a similar situation exists also in Estonia. I do not know about Latvia: another proof that we have closer relations with Estonia. In spite of this very selective and infrequent printing of very few exile writers, we manage to get and read most of their books, A good case in point is Đkëma's The White Shroud: almost all Lithuanian writers and intellectuals have read it: one of the best Lithuanian novels written in the West. It was even reviewed in literary journals, in spite of the fact that it was not available officially.
(The questions were answered in Lithuanian and simultaneously translated by R. Đilbajoris)