Volume 38, No.4 - Winter 1992
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas, Univ. of Illinois at Chicago
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1992 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.


Yale University

More than one historian has noticed that re-evaluations of literature and innovations in literary criticism usually precede — and predict — sharp shifts of public mood which, in turn, may prove to be indicative of forthcoming social upheavals. It could be said that literary criticism and the theories that underlie it frequently contribute to a transformation of important changes in the innermost core of a society. Any student of Eastern and Central European affairs should be aware of such a correlation.

Stifled by the tyrannical regimes of Eastern and Central Europe, public opinion more often than not found an outlet, even if a precarious one, in writing about literature. A case in point is Lithuanian criticism during the seventies and early eighties — a period that presented a picture of hopeless. Stagnation to a perfunctory observer and ended, nevertheless, in a veritable revolution and in the restoration of the country's independence. The present dean of Lithuanian criticism, Vytautas Kubilius, the bold and diligent analyst of Lithuanian poetry, Kęstutis Nastopka, and several others were doubtlessly instrumental in preparing the rapid shift from Communist to nationalist and/or democratic discourse that so astonished outsiders.

Albertas Zalatorius (born in 1932), one of the most innovative literary scholars of present-day Lithuania, belongs to the very best of that group. His work, marked by high professional standards as well as by unquestionable if cautious nonconformism, places him alongside Vytautas Kubilius and distinguishes him appreciably from only-too-numerous Lithuanian critics whose judgments on literature were — and are — marred by pretentiousness and timeserving.

Zalatorius has made his reputation by means of two books in Lithuanian. The Lithuanian Short Story: Its Development and Poetics (1971) concerns itself mainly with literature of the nineteenth century. It is rather traditional — and outdated — in its approach, retaining only historical value. The Lithuanian Short Story of the Twentieth Century: The Semantic Aspect (1980), is a continuation of the preceding monograph and discusses problems that remain topical to this day. It makes use of some critical methods developed during the last decades and, in general, represents a break with Marxist (or pseudo-Marxist) ideology, which was crammed into Baltic scholars starting with the late forties and early fifties. Zalatorius does not confine himself to strictly academic research. He writes reviews and does yearly surveys of new Lithuanian prose (a task he started already in 1966). The main bulk of these reviews constitutes his third and, in a sense, most important book. The Vitality and Impotence of Prose Fiction.

According to Zalatorius, the critic's main task is the translation of the meaning of the artistic text into logical language. In the course of that translation — and evaluation — one complements the text by one's own experience and anxiety. Zalatorius' approach has certain points in common with "New Criticism," the theoretical propositions of Roland Barthes and, to a degree, with the ideas of the Russian Formalists. One cannot fail to notice that he also comes rather close to the contemporary theories of reader's response ("[our] goal consists not in explaining why the literary work is as it is, but in answering the question, what does it mean to a reader."1 ) In this context, Zalatorius rejects such vague and undefined notions still lingering in Lithuanian criticism as "lyricism," "psychologism," "poetic mood," "emotional value," etc. However, he does argue that literature is inseparably bound to general cultural patterns, as well as to changes in economics and other extraliterary phenomena.

During the isolation of Lithuania during the Stalinist and post-Stalinist periods Zalatorius managed to obtain some knowledge of modern Western trends by roundabout and secondhand ways (which might also have contributed to his originality). In the index of his second book, one finds not only Barthes, but also Sigmund Freud, Tzvetan Todorov, Algirdas J. Greimas, and others. Vladimir Lenin is mentioned once, and is totally missing in the third book (an occurrence which, until very recently, was far from common in Soviet and Lithuanian literary criticism); Karl Marx is even more conspicuous by his absence.

The main theoretical framework for Zalatorius' studies was most likely provided by the so-called Tartu school led by Yury Lotman (whose influence he never concealed). He accepts Lotman's "pansemantic" approach as particularly fruitful. ("My main interest in a literary work relates to its sense — to be precise, its possible senses."2) That sense, according to Zalatorius (and Lotman) is generated by the interplay of the elements of a literary text on all levels, from rhythm-patterning and sound-patterning to narrative perspective, correlation of narrative segments, etc.; on the overall level, the text is defined by the interaction of cultural codes, and its sense, ever-changing in varying contexts, can never be exhausted. Zalatorius presents many convincing analyses (which might even be called virtuoso performances) of short stories by Vincas Krėvė, Petras Cvirka, Algimantas Pocius, Jonas Mikelinskas, Juozas Aputis, and others. Every one of these analyses demonstrates the validity and high explanatory value of the "pansemantic" method. Zalatorius also accepts such concepts developed by the Tartu school as "model of the world," "minus-devices" (meaningful rejection of the devices imposed by the dominant aesthetic system), informational value of the text,3 restructuring and complementing of the text by the reader's cultural codes and expectations, etc. Spatiotemporal patterns of the literary work (closely and successfully examined by Lotman and his students) are revealed and described by Zalatorius in his comparative study of two short stories written by Petras Cvirka and Romualdas Granauskas, highlighting perfectly the sharp contrast between these major authors.4 One should emphasize that Zalatorius - more often than not transforms Lotmanian ideas by giving them an unexpected turn and testing them on less known and unconventionally presented material.

Zalatorius' writing is, nevertheless, slightly marred by impressionistic reflections traditional in Lithuanian criticism (which he strongly condemns). In his second book, one still finds some remnants of Marxist ideological parlance, perhaps unavoidable in a non-samizdat enterprise at that time (1980). He pays decidedly too much attention to the short stories written by so-called proletarian authors (Vincas Kapsukas, Bonaventūras Pauliukevičius, even Aleksandras Gudaitis-Guzevičius who, in the forties, combined his duties as head of Soviet Lithuanian secret police with secret literary undertakings). This may be a lamentable curtsy to Soviet censorship, albeit one made under duress, and further Zalatorius does his best to reveal the biases, narrow horizons, and slow-witted didacticism of that kind of fiction.

Zalatorius' research in his second (and, to a degree, in his first) book testifies to his clear-sightedness and solid academic training. The application of strict scholarly methods (including structural and statistical ones) to the analysis of literary texts helps him in re-evaluating and understanding better the development of Lithuanian fiction. His comparison and contraposition of the Lithuanian nineteenth-century short story (marked by polarity of contrasts, emphasis on social context, and on a primitive notion of readers' response) and the twentieth-century short story (marked by relativization of values, emphasis on the inner world, multiplicity of narrative strategies, deautomatization of the word, and a sophisticated notion of readers' response) might be called the epitome of insight and will doubtlessly retain its value for many years to come.

On the strictly scholarly side, Zalatorius provides stimulating statistical analyses: for instance, counting "fully semantic" words versus auxiliary ones enables him to establish a kind of aesthetic hierarchy of several characteristic texts by Petras Cvirka, Antanas Venclova, Juozas Baltušis, Juozas Grušas, Antanas Vaičiulaitis, Stepas Zobarskas, Juozas Zlabys and Stasys Tamulaitis "the least semantic" ones).5 Several diagrams representing the textual semantic units in their interconnection reveal symmetries and asymmetries of  the correspondence of the "earthly" (rhythmically narrowing)  and the "transcendental" (rhythmically widening) universes in the classical story The Drowned Maiden by Antanas Vienuolis; logical and/or rhetorical links of seven sentences in a snort story Along the Nemunas by Jonas Biliūnas are represented by an equally elegant (though less monotonous) figure.6 It would be rather interesting to apply the method proposed by Zalatorius to other than Lithuanian texts (and not necessarily to short stories): most likely, it could be developed into a powerful heuristic and classifying approach.

Perhaps the most original and promising part of Zalatorius' work consists of the experimental rearrangements of the analyzed texts to reveal their inner logic in a totally unexpected way: here, the critic in him competes with the artist.

Last but not least, one has to mention the profound ethical dimension of Zalatorius' writing. He is skeptical and tolerant at the same time. He renders their due to the more talented leftist writers, who in post-Communist Lithuania are perhaps valued less than they deserve, such as Cvirka; and he should be credited for the literary "rehabilitation" (before the restoration of independence) of dozens of authors in the interwar period who later became unmentionable either because they had emigrated (Jurgis Savickis, Petras Tarulis, Liudas Dovydėnas, Nelė Mazalaitė, and many others) or because they were being persecuted by the Soviet authorities (Kazys Inčiūra, Kazys Jankauskas). In many cases, Zalatorius was the first who dared to discuss (and, frequently, praise) their work in the official press. He was also instrumental in a general re-evaluation of the literature of the interwar years. According to him, the multitude and coexistence of various artistic and intellectual patterns was the most prominent—and promising—trait of Lithuanian fiction during the thirties: diachronic development (where certain patterns were replaced by new ones) gave way, at that time, to the synchronic interaction of all the patterns. This emphasis on plurality and pluralism is reminiscent of Mikhail Bakhtin's emphasis on the multiplicity of perspectives and on the dialogue of Weltanschauungs (see his famous book Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics). The ideological and political implications in both cases are rather obvious: both Bakhtin and Zalatorius undermined Soviet "mono-ideology". In this instance, the Lithuanian critic was the equal of Bakhtin — if not in erudition and originality of thought, then in boldness.

As a practicing critic, Zalatorius has done much to demystify so-called "stream-of-consciousness Socialist Realism" (Mykolas Sluckis, et. al.) and to promote authentic talents (Romualdas Lankauskas, Juozas Aputis, Bronius Radzevičius, Ema Mikulėnaitė), whose originality he had noticed earlier (and described better) than anybody else. He was — and remains — opposed to pretentiousness and mannerism, to anachronistic thinking and to anachronistic style, to banalities and taboos. In times of stagnation (a term he used before it was popularized by Gorbachev), Zalatorius insisted on truth (as opposed to half-truth), on clarity and responsibility of thought (as opposed to cynical accommodation), on creative atmosphere (as opposed to fear, alienation, and disreputable compromise). In his brilliant readings of Lithuanian narratives Zalatorius was perhaps the Lithuanian critic who contributed most to the subverting of Soviet discourse in Lithuania before the era of Sąjūdis.

1 Albertas Zalatorius, Prozos gyvybė ir negalia (Vilnius: Vaga, 1988), 112.
2 Ibidem, 331.
3 Zalatorius defines the informational value of the text as a function of its (un)predictability (on the lower level) and its polysemy and polyvalency (on the higher level).
4 Prozos gyvybė..., 133-141.
5 Albertas Zalatorius, XX a. lietuvių novelė (iki 1940 metų). Semantinis aspektas (Vilnius: Vaga, 1980), 290-300.
6 Ibidem, 92, 243.

Albertas Zalatorius at 60. Foto R. Rakauskas