Volume 34, No. 2 - Summer 1988
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1988 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Astrida B. Stahnke, Aspazija: Her Life and Her Drama. 

New York: University Press of America, 1984. 381 pp. $27.50 (paperback also available).

This first comprehensive book-length analysis in the English language of the life and work of Aspazija (pseud, of Elza Rozenbergą, 1865-1943) is intelligently and sensitively told. The volume also contains two verse dramas of this major Latvian writer and champion of women's rights some ninety years ago. Author and translator Astrida Stahnke began her translating career in 1974, with the English rendition of Rainis's play Zelta zirgs (The golden steed). She is also a published poet (in both Latvian and English) and a contributor of articles to various literary journals.

Aspazija wrote more than a dozen politically and socially relevant dramas, most of them in the neo-romantic tradition. Stahnke chose Sidabrą škidrauts (The silver veil, 1905) and zalša ligava (The serpent's bride, 1928) for this volume "because they best represent two distinct phases of Aspazija's life." The first play, "a worthy period piece . . . clarified her dramatic talent" and captures the mood of Aspazija's youth. "Closely tied to the rise of Latvian nationalism," it provides "the ideological expression of the 1905 Revolution" and "dramatizes the dilemma of an exceptionally endowed woman in love." The second play, also about love, "captures the downward movement of romanticism and the sad results and realities that catch up with the dreamer." One can hardly dispute Stahnke's opinion that both are dramas "of conflict and exquisite beauty. Their poetry, although impossible to fully translate, seduces, enchants and pulls one into its vastness and universality with a power equal to Beethoven's straining chords. And it will not let one go" (8). Moreover, at a time "when Freud was forming his theories, Aspazija in her dramas already treated sexual love as a strong motivating force that underlay human actions. Love in her plays is so strong, both physically and spiritually, that it completely disorients the person to whom it comes. Love overpowers and changes the individual" (36). Especially those of her dramas written before 1905 frequently made the theater-going public as well as readers more aware of both sex and class distinctions.

Astrida Stahnke has not only a thorough understanding of the original texts and considerable skill as a translator, but also possesses a poet's sensibility, an exceptionally good feeling for words. She has succeeded in preserving faithfully the nuance and flavor of the original while neither restricting herself to a literal paraphrase nor giving a too free interpretation. Admirably readable, the translation communicates the spirit and vigor of the original. For example:

Go on and burn me, 
But Truth you cannot kill! 
Let hawks pluck out my eyes . . . 
They've seen the light A
nd that's enough for me! 
Throw my ashes in the wind! 
Like seeds they will fall down to earth 
And bring new generations forth. 
With swords they'll gird their loins 
And set out on new crusades for truth. 
They'll get the justice you deny us, 
And they will reach the promised land! (213); 


I can't stand to look at them.
Constantly they remind me
Of your slippery embraces,
Of your wet and slimy lips.
At least on our wedding night
You could have turned into a man (298).

Astrida Stahnke's 170-page biographical discussion has three sections: (1) From Childhood to Revolution, 1865-1905 (2) Years of Exile, 1906-1920; (3) In the Homeland, 1920-1943. In a lively style that sometimes reads like a novel, Stahnke recaptures the significant events, in Aspazija's life, from her youth to the gaining of prestigious literary awards and eventually to the disillusionment of life in retirement. She places them in their social and political context, if at times oversimplifying. Aspazija's "whole life in one way or another follows so closely the course of Latvian history" that Stahnke sees the poet, and rightly so, "as a symbol of Latvia herself." She was born when nationalism was rising in the middle of the 19th century; she rose to great prominence in the revolution of 1905; she went into exile in Switzerland, returned fourteen years later, and worked in the Latvian state, lived through its occupation by the Soviets (1940-1941), and died in 1943, during the German occupation.

Stahnke's focus, however, is on Aspazija's creative work, beginning with her first poem, published in 1887 in the liberal avant-garde Riga newspaper Dienas Lapa (The daily gazette). This daring twenty-four line poem was already signed "Aspazija." The name was taken from Robert Hammerling's novel of the same name, based on the life of the beautiful and fascinating mistress of Pericles, the ruler of ancient Athens. Aspazija had mixed freely with men in high government places and can be regarded as one of the early fighters for women's rights. The Latvian Aspazija, as Stahnke rightly observes, had even at this early point "clearly found herself and now announced herself as a poet." Moreover, she stated in her poem that "Latvia should be a state in its own right" and "had connected herself with the making of .that state."

Stahnke gives not only useful summaries of all of Aspazija's major plays and collections of verse, but also approaches them critically. Writing about Aspazija's first volume of poetry, Sarkanas pukes (1897), Stahnke states, for example: [Aspazija] "formed sequences . . . constructed like a classical drama, with its beginning, middle, and end . . . Unlike, for example, Dante, Petrarch, Spenser, or Rosetti, who wrote poem sequences in fixed sonnet forms, Aspazija did not follow any one form. The construction ... is quite free. Each sequence averages approximately 100 pages . . . The poems can stand alone, and one does not necessarily follow another . . . Yet, where they are arbitrarily rearranged, some vital elements are missing, namely, the dramatic continuity of the verse, the development of the persona, and, most significantly, the whole theme, mood, and idea of the sequence. In Latvian literatures, Aspazija was the first to organize poems this way. . . [and] stands out in yet another important way. She was the first Latvian who did not merely describe or narrate (although she did plenty of both), but who also revealed emotions and truths through images" (55).

Stahnke also brings us close to a number of Aspazija's literary acquaintances and friends, most importantly her husband, Latvia's most famous poet and dramatist, Janis Rainis (1865-1929). When they met in 1884, she was already a well-known writer and pioneer in the Latvian women's emancipation movement. He was a little-known journalist with a law degree. It was Aspazija who recognized in him a poetic genius, which "she then proceeded to nurture until she herself nearly sank into anonymity," because her own literary talents were submerged by Rainis' needs. Each frequently drew male and female characters based on the other. At times, however, the author tends to exaggerate Rainis' indebtedness to Aspazija, as with such statements: "Fire and Night, of all Rainis plays, is perhaps most infused by Aspazija's ideas and phrases. Ironically, it is also regarded as the most important of his original patriotic dramas . . . Furthermore, in establishing Aspazija's/Rainis' contribution to drama, it is evident that the whole concept of such Wagnerian operatic verse dramas was Aspazija's idea, which she pushed on him" (62). Is it really so evident?

Although Stahnke received considerable assistance while doing research in Riga, some important materials were denied to her, for example, Aspazija's diaries, which "at this time are only available to select people." Stahnke notes that for a long time there was no prominent place for [Aspazija] in the Writers' Museum, and "Aspazija's name is still not engraved on [her] joint monument [with Rainis]. She has only a granite slab." The reason, according to Stahnke, is that in Latvia under the Soviets, Aspazija has "remained an enigma." This is a gross understatement. The fact is that for some ten years Aspazija was portrayed in an extremely negative light largely because of her pre-Soviet activities. Also, during the first year of Soviet occupation, when the new cultural overseers "had to fight a fierce battle against elements hostile to the Soviet rule — the powerful bourgeois opposition — an attempt was made [by this opposition] to elevate at its forefront the poetess Aspazija" (see Biruta Šira-gudrike. Arvids Grigulis: Monografija (Arvids Grigulis: a monograph) Riga, 1961, pp. 51-52). As a result, Aspazija was derided because she (openly) opposed various (Soviet) revolutionary undertakings" (Janis Niedre. Diena dienu maca. Riga, 1965, pp. 112-113). Aspazija's partial rehabilitation began in 1956.

Although Astrida Stahnke makes a great effort to be accurate, other literary scholars will have minor criticisms here and there.

On page 146, she regrets her inability to answer the question of "exactly how Aspazija felt about Ulmanis during the six years of his regime" but a few pages further, she records, even hyperbolizes, Aspazija's approval of Ulmanis. "Aspazija, like one of her heroines, goes to the Presidential Palace with money; she bows and flatters . . . Her heroines, too, had had an irresistible fascination for the very kings and entrepreneurs they condemned. Could there have possibly been some dream of sharing the throne of this petit 'king'?" Also, it is not accurate to state that Tevzemes balva (The Fatherland Prize, given for literature), which Ulmanis instituted, in 1937, has been viewed "as a means of buying off some of the outstanding personalities, silencing their criticisms, and extracting cheap praise from them". And did Ulmanis really "buy out the clergy, and it prayed for him"? Transliteration from Russian is not consistent, for example, "Boris Godunof" in place of "Boris Codunov." Names are sometimes inappropriately anglicized. A few words are mistranslated. In Latvian, only the first word in book and journal titles should be capitalized. There is no such thing as the "complete works of Janis Rainis in seventeen volumes (published 1977-1983]." Rainis's complete works are being published by the Latvian Academy of Sciences in thirty volumes (plus several variant volumes); volume twenty-three came out in 1985. And the following nonsensical utterance by "a Latvian professor of history . . . living in Louisville, Kentucky" should have never been quoted: "Each nation has the government it deserves. I think that Latvians have a very underdeveloped awareness of legality and no such nation can achieve real freedom, but it remains doomed into [sic) subservience — either of one's own overlords or outside ones."

The volume includes a map, nineteen curious and captivating photos, and a letter to Aspazija (dated December 17,1936) from the Monumental Works of the Outstanding Women of Our Time Committee in Prague. She is informed that she has been selected from among sixty-four prominent women in twenty-six countries as one of the outstanding writers of Europe. The book also contains rather thorough notes to each chapter, with bibliographical data, supplementary explanations on the text, and a selected bibliography. Unfortunately, there is no index.

This is certainly one of the most outstanding contributions of the 1980s in the area of Latvian literature in English. To those who view the "small literatures" with raised eyebrows, this may sound like exaggerated praise — but Astrida Stahnke deserves it.

Rolfs Ekmanis
Arizona State University