ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2013 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 59, No.2 - Summer 2013
Editor of this issue: Elizabeth Novickas

Book Review

The Author Never Died 

Transitions of Lithuanian Postmodernism. Lithuanian Literature in the Post-Soviet Period. Ed. Mindaugas Kvietkauskas, Amsterdam- New York: Rodopi, 2011. ISBN: 978-90-420-3441-9. 

Since mid-2000, Lithuanian and Baltic literary studies have seen almost a steady, although proportionally slim, output of published English research in book format (approximately a book a year). The year 2011 stood out in that it witnessed two English language collections of articles on the literatures of the three Baltic States. The first, entitled Baltic Memory. Processes of Modernisation in Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian Literature of the Soviet Period (eds. Elena Baliutytė and Donata Mitaitė. Vilnius: Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore, 2011), deals with the writings of the Soviet period and attempts to identify a common ground in the literatures of three different languages (Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian) in the face of the Soviet regime. In that respect it is similar to its predecessor, Baltic Postcolonialism (ed. Violeta Kelertas, Amsterdam-New York: Rodopi, 2006). The second, Transitions of Lithuanian Postmodernism. Lithuanian Literature in the Post-Soviet Period, focuses exclusively on contemporary Lithuanian literature and, as such, is the first English book-length treatment of the subject. This is a compilation of recent research on the latest Lithuanian fiction by Lithuanian scholars. It covers almost all genres of fiction and nonfiction (with the exception of drama) – literary prose, fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, essays, autobiography, memoirs, and literary histories – and touches upon critical discourse. Some of the texts featured in the book are theoretical (Jurgutienė, Satkauskytė); many are introductory or generalized reviews of current literary trends (Jakonytė, Sprindytė, Kalėda, Daugirdaitė, Matulevičienė, Baliutytė, Čiočytė, Tūtlytė, Speičytė); and some are close readings of specific authors’ texts or problems (Tamošaitis, Mačianskaitė, Mitaitė, Peluritytė- Tikuišienė). 

The collection carefully situates the literary output it explores within its historical, cultural, and ideological background. Some articles take the reader, even if very briefly, through the series of occupations and regimes Lithuania endured in the last century, illuminating some of the resulting artistic and ideological practices and positions that shaped Lithuanian fiction and other kinds of discourse. As the subtitle of the book, Lithuanian Literature in the Post-Soviet Period, suggests, the main point of reference is, of course, the Soviet occupation, which creates a temporal split and provides a clear sense of “before” and “after.” Although the “before” is multiple and complicated, it seems to have produced powerful mental structures that have found literary expression. The overriding notion that dominated Lithuanian literature of the “before” period, whose effects have spilled out into the “after,” is the idea of a homogeneous and stable nation and a nationalist, or borderline nationalistic, ideology, which had a strong hold on Lithuanian literature and its aesthetics for about a hundred years. The authors of Transitions draw attention to the fact that, until the 1980s, Lithuanian fiction was mostly preoccupied with verbalizing Lithuanians’ close and emotional relation to their land, Baltic archetypes, melancholy, and a longing for a better and greater past, which in turn was largely mythologized. For example: “A discussion of Lithuanian literature most often refers to ‘traditional’ literature as literature with moral implications, the ‘rural’ mode that portrays the peasantry and its transformations in the twentieth century” (Satkauskytė, 63), or “the older generation of writers fostered nostalgic images of independent Lithuania and bright depictions of village life that supplied moral and ideological pillars for their creative work as well as allowed them to withstand the cultural nihilism that came with the reality of Soviet life” (Tamošaitis, 138). Jurgutienė argues that the same mentality is responsible for producing two recent Lithuanian literary histories that, to paraphrase her, exhibit and canonize national literary values (23). 

Sprindytė quotes the 2001 diary entry of the eminent Lithuanian literary scholar Vytautas Kubilius: “The era of national idealism, with all its emotions and rhetoric, that lasted for the entire century is over” (104-105). Lithuanian nationalism is rapidly losing its currency in the contemporary literary climate, but the book suggests it remains a powerful and agonizing point of contention. Post-Soviet Lithuanian language literature seems to be desperately trying to deconstruct all possible myths, be they to do with Soviet degeneration and brainwashing or with Lithuanian nationalism. In all cases, this is a difficult and painful, albeit necessary and therapeutic process. The cover of the book features the controversial poetic and, at the same time, earthy sculpture by Vladas Urbanavičius, Arch of the Quay, which echoes the undulating curves of the river Neris, but also inspires associations with the sewage that pollutes it. The background of the Gediminas Tower within a winter setting is evocative of its double-edged plight. It also suggests the layer of modernity, energy, and contemporary aesthetics superimposed onto a national symbol that looks deflated and devoid of vitality, “just a powerless phallus,” to quote Sprindytė discussing the prose of one the greatest Lithuanian writers of the end of the twentieth century, Ričardas Gavelis. 

Transitions provides an adequate and exhaustive account of the latest developments in the contemporary Lithuanianlanguage literary scene. The editor of the book, Mindaugas Kvietkauskas, situates Lithuanian literature at a historical and ideological intersection of the post-Soviet (I’d say postcolonial) and the postmodern (I’d say the age of globalization). He identifies several periods in the post-Soviet history of Lithuanian literature. He sees the run-up towards the restoration of independence, 1988-1990, as a period of consolidation of unequivocal national myths and the 1990s as a breakdown of those myths in Lithuanian literature. Jurgutienė focuses on recent histories of Lithuanian literature, pointing out a number of problems with their method that involves “the intense and full-scale revival of historic memory” (19) and goes on to suggest several more appropriate methodological approaches, including both an existentialist and a regional mode. In her theoretical article, Satkauskytė debates the viability of the term and phenomenon of postmodernism, especially in the context of Lithuanian literature, and argues that, although sometimes espousing some of the surface characteristics of postmodern aesthetics, Lithuanian fiction largely resists postmodern poetics. Jakonytė’s piece of literary sociology is an interesting analysis of Lithuanian writers as a social group that, after the fall of the Soviet state, in which they either enjoyed a privileged status or were completely marginalized, struggled to adapt to the dramatic change in social order, but seem to have successfully defended their rights and put an adequate system of state grants and other structures in place. Sprindytė offers an exciting and insightful overview of the main trends in post-Soviet Lithuanian literature. She suggests that the Lithuanian language and imagination in twenty years of independence have advanced more than in the last hundred years. A previously emotionally and stylistically monotonous literature has developed different voices, styles, types of characters, and set out to explore new territories physically and aesthetically. Kalėda focuses on recent Lithuanian historical fiction and argues that its scope is still rather limited: “the key paradigms of Lithuanian historicism are about the creation of national myths (“dreams of past grandeur”), their individual paraphrasing, offering new interpretation, questioning and ultimately deconstructing” (121). Tamošaitis’s article introduces the work of Ričardas Gavelis, whose acclaimed novel Vilniaus pokeris (Vilnius Poker) shook up the Lithuanian literary scene at the time of its release in 1989. Tamošaitis argues that although Gavelis was a critic of the totalitarian regime and the perverse society that it creates, he was also a secret idealist. Mačianskaitė’s sophisticated piece deals with a persistently difficult topic in Lithuania, the Jewish issue. She looks at three literary interpretations of the biblical character Isaac and offers some interesting insights into the complicated discourse around those subjects, including the Holocaust, in Lithuanian fiction. In her clever and vibrant article, Daugirdaitė celebrates Lithuanian women’s writing, discussing its diversity on the one hand, and the deeply misogynist climate it must contend with on the other. Daugirdaitė quotes one Lithuanian female poet, Onė Baliukonė, complaining about: “a certain hostility expressed, not exactly conscious, but unconscious and unperceived, stemming from ancient ideas about the old lady who writes or creates in some other way, the lady whose real place is in the kitchen and bed” (191). In her article on postwar memoirs, Matulevičienė writes: “Even though memoirs of the history of postwar Lithuania did not become a ‘grand’ narrative, in essence, the paradigm of a heroic assessment of the past is prevalent” (201), which is indicative of the type of national discourse that persists twenty years into the restoration of independence. Baliutytė’s article delicately deals with a rich and interesting part of Lithuanian literary output: autobiography and nonfiction. She singles out three main types of writing: formerly banned memoirs of deportees (the most startling example of which, Dalia Grinkevičiūtė’s memoirs of the first wave of deportations, she analyses closely); political activists, such as resistance fighters, etc.; and recent autobiographies of people who “reconciled with violence and made compromises for which they paid the price of personal integrity and dignity” (226). Čiočytė focuses on one of the most exciting genres of contemporary Lithuanian literature, which she calls the “critical essay.” Mitaitė’s article is devoted to an exceptional Lithuanian cultural figure, the poet Tomas Venclova, whose life and work have been fully determined by totalitarianism and who, she argues, did not “accept the contemporary popular view that all values are relative” (257) and who declared language and poetry to be sources of freedom under totalitarian regimes. Peluritytė-Tikuišienė identifies similarities between classical trends in Lithuanian and Polish poetry and discusses their origins. Tūtlytė focuses on contemporary lyrical poetry and concludes that it has gone through exciting changes and has retained a specific Eastern European feel to it. Finally, Speičytė gives an interesting overview of the latest trends in Lithuanian poetry, which include deconstruction of the Lithuanian poetic tradition, narrative poetry, and opening up to the Other. 

The overwhelming message throughout the book seems to be that Lithuanian literature over the last two decades has been busy reshaping itself, finding linguistic and artistic ways to deal with a complicated history, a fragmented and confused contemporary reality, enormous social changes, and a crushing identity crisis. Techniques such as the grotesque, pastiche, collage, fragmentation, and others often associated with postmodern aesthetics have been used. However, Lithuanian postmodernism has no time for self-referential games, citations, and even less so for the death of the author. Postmodernist assumptions of the decentredness of the subject, its constructedness, and grotesque reality reflect the recent Lithuanian experience. It seems the return of the subject will not be necessary there, because the author of Lithuanian fiction has not had time to die, and continues to agonize over ethical and other issues firmly based in reality while reinventing itself stylistically and aesthetically. Although the book could have enjoyed a better translation (the names of the translator(s) are not indicated) and closer proofreading, it is definitely a good introduction to the recent Lithuanian literary scene and contemporary Lithuanian literary research. 

Eglė Kačkutė