ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2014 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 60, No.4 - Winter 2014
Editor of this issue: Vida Savoniakaitė

Book Review

Turning Life into Credible Fiction 

Giedra Radvilavičiūtė. Those Whom I Would Like to Meet Again. Translated from Lithuanian by Elizabeth Novickas. Champaign: Dalkey Archive, 2013, 129 pages. ISBN 978-1-56478-859-7. 

The ever more dwindling distinction between fiction and nonfiction, the growing affinity between once distinct genres, such as autobiography, biography, history, confessions, diaries, travel narratives, and essays, as well as the increasing popularity of all sorts of writings hinged on the autobiographical “I,” has been one of the most striking developments in European literature over the last forty years or so. 

In Lithuania, this phenomenon coincided with a major historical change, with breaking free from the Soviet imperial power to which it had been bound for fifty years and the reestablishment of an independent Lithuanian state in 1990. The political, social, economic, and emotional turmoil brought about by this dramatic shift had to be dealt with in all walks of life, including and especially in literature. The most pertinent literary form to capture the intensity of those times, to give expression to the experience of a disintegrating world, as well as the installation of a new − imagined, sometimes illusionary, often gritty, but mostly just ultimately unstable − reality proved to be the literary essay. From 1990 until now, the prevailing literary mode that produced the most powerful and relevant texts in the Lithuanian language has been the literary essay, creatively used and elaborated as a genre by the most talented Lithuanian thinkers and writers of the time, such as Alfonsas Andriuškevičius, Gintaras Beresnevičius, Sigitas Geda, Jurga Ivanauskaitė, Danutė Kalinauskaitė, Sigitas Parulskis, Giedra Radvilavičiūtė, Rolandas Rastauskas, and Dalia Staponkutė among others. In the early days of Lithuanian independence, there was little time or money for books. Instead, the national newspapers provided the platform for intellectual and literary life and served as the breeding ground for the newly discovered literary form. Many contemporary writers (mostly, if not exclusively, male) ran weekly columns, offering a personal take on the latest developments in the emerging state and/or their own lives and, at the same time, using or establishing (depending on their age and/or status on the literary scene) their own voices as writers. As soon as there was time and money for books again, the columns turned into collections of essays that sealed the literary status of both the Lithuanian literary essay and those who write it. The very first collection, published in 2002, was a compilation of essays, Siužetą siūlau nušauti (I Suggest We Shoot the Plot), featuring five authors. Giedra Radvilavičiūtė was the only female author featured in the anthology, which makes her a very important part of this development in Lithuanian literature.

Born in 1960 in Panevėžys, Radvilavičiūtė studied Lithuanian language and literature at Vilnius University. She then taught Lithuanian in a small provincial town (under Soviet law, all university graduates were appointed to their first job for four years, usually away from the university town where they studied). She then worked as a journalist in Vilnius and for family and parenting magazines. In 1994, she moved to Chicago with her young daughter and husband, professor of Lithuanian Language and Literature, Giedrius Subačius. Radvilavičiūtė entered the Lithuanian literary scene two years after her return from the United States in 1999, when she began publishing her essays in literary journals. The aforementioned anthology marked her as one of the most important Lithuanian authors at the turn of the century and one of the most interesting voices in Lithuanian literature. She has published two collections of essays to date: Suplanuotos akimirkos (Planned Moments) in 2004 and Šiąnakt aš miegosiu prie sienos (I'll Sleep by the Wall Tonight) in 2010. Radvilavičiūtė was awarded the European Prize for Fiction in 2012.

Last year, the American not-for-profit literary publishing house Dalkey Archive Press published a collection of Radvilavičiūtė's essays in English translation entitled "Those Whom I Would Like to Meet Again." Essays in this collection come from all three of Radvilavičiūtė's books - in chronological order: three essays from the joint collection of 2002, three from the first solo collection of 2004, and four from the latest one of 2010 - selected and compiled by the author.

The narrator of one of her essays featured in the collection under review says: "First, I need to get through a little bit of life and only afterward turn it into credible fiction," which captures something critical about Radvilavičiūtė's creative method. Reading the English translation of her work made me think of the French writer, Annie Ernaux, whose complete works, all still in print, were published by Gallimard a couple of years ago, underscoring the importance of her life-writing project. I see a crucial similarity between the two creative enterprises. Radvilavičiūtė's fiction, like Ernaux's, features a female protagonist who is also the narrator and whose story is representative of a particular generation and social type of Lithuanian woman (as Ernaux's represents French women). It also contains, to quote Siobhan McIlvanney's observation in reference to Ernaux's work, "a plethora of realist information," which consists of references to places, historic events, reading material, food brands, and fashions that situate both Ernaux's and Radvilavičiūtė's texts firmly in a specific time and place. In Radvilavičiūtė's case, it is post-1990 Vilnius, inhabited by a single, educated, intelligent, independent-minded, and strong-headed Lithuanian woman and mother (it is no coincidence that Radvilavičiūtė's fictional world is populated with girlfriends of a similar stripe). Her work gives voice to the generation of Lithuanian women born into the last thirty years of the Soviet system, the years of its utmost perversely debilitating stagnation, who witnessed the conception of, the run-up to, and the creation of, the new Lithuanian state at the prime of their lives and the peak of their powers. They were granted the extraordinary opportunity to do with their lives what they pleased, where they fancied, and how they saw fit. This is the generation who lived long enough under the Soviet system and in a newly established Lithuanian democracy to be identified as both post-Soviet and distinctly Lithuanian.

Those Whom I Would Like to Meet Again opens with an essay called "The Native Land and Other Connections." Written over a short period, apparently soon after Radvilavičiūtė's return to Lithuania, it lays claim to her protagonists' (and her own) national identity, as well as her identity as a writer and, to some extent, a woman. Mass emigration from Lithuania to the United States has its own history, mythology, and literary tradition, referred to in the text by way of a quote from the most famous Lithuanian emigre poet, Alfonsas Nyka-Niliūnas, "Leaving home is always material, whereas returning is always metaphysical." However, Radvilavičiūtė's protagonists' ventures across the Atlantic are more closely associated with the first wave of emigration from the newly independent Lithuania, which represented the leap to a "better world," to the land of formerly forbidden plenty. The disillusionment of many of those adventurers is laid bare in the text through a strong use of contrast: "Before departing, you tell all your relatives what they already know: 'I'm leaving all the worst things in my life behind in Lithuania.' (I heard precisely this several years ago from a roofer in the suburbs of Chicago. In Vilnius, he had graduated from the Academy of Art.)" Or more painfully still: "In the evenings, her mother would be in a bad mood, because she cleaned Americans' houses, and her back hurt, and because she had nonetheless to write only cheerful letters to her relatives." By the end of the essay, the protagonist comes back to Vilnius for good with her daughter only, having made a decisive life-decision for both: "There really was a giant magnet buried underground, holding me here as easily as a metal shaving. One's native land is nothing more than this connection... " This connection is where the journey to the pleasures of the text portraying the protagonist's life in her native land begins. And what a fascinating life it is, made up of small, seemingly unrelated, visually and emotionally intense scenes and recollections, shot through with painful irony and wit. Readers are taken on sometimes atmospheric, sometimes rather grainy, but always picturesque and emotionally transformative walks along the streets of Vilnius (mostly near the railway station) participating in the protagonist-narrator's decision-making—whether about her future neighbours or her next book, watching her watch herself in the mirror, reminiscing about her school years' infatuations and divorce, accompanying her on holiday to the seaside or sharing in her musings over human nature.

As the anthology progresses, Radvilavičiūtė's carefully crafted essays get more ambitious in terms of structure. My personal favourite, "Awakenings," is situated halfway through the book. Radvilavičiūtė's elegant signature play between the personal and generational, the trivial and consequential is most intense here. The essay opens with an image of the protagonist's late mother's photo hanging by her bed, taken by the mother's male friend who never got to be her second husband: "She had gotten divorced three years earlier, found herself someone else, and immediately fell ill with an incurable disease." The mother, it is implied, died a single woman. Gender relationships and the female perspective are among the most interesting aspects of Radvilavičiūtė's prose. It has been suggested by critics that stories determined by the dynamics of relationships among women often use a male figure to drive the story along at crucial moments in the narrative. The mother-daughter plot for many Lithuanian women of Radvilavičiūtė's generation and social type has been one from which the man is absent altogether. The underlying social and historical reasons for this are too complicated to explain here and are only marginally related to the fact that, statistically, women in Lithuania outnumber men considerably. It has more to do with the wider context of gender relationships in that part of the world. Specialists working on gender relationships in Soviet and post-Soviet Lithuania observe that neither the right to vote granted to women by the Lithuanian government in 1918, nor the subsequently introduced Soviet ideology that installed theoretical equality, canceled the patriarchal mindset of male comrades or the misogyny of the society of that time. Thus, throughout Soviet times and well into the era of reestablished independence (social relations do not change overnight the way governments do), in addition to achieving professionally and earning a living, women have been expected to be loving and caring wives, housewives and mothers, available lovers, and admiring partners in equal measure. Financially independent, extremely well-educated, and intelligent, many Lithuanian women have naturally found themselves ill at ease with the conflicting gender roles available to them and therefore end up alone. "I've written about the inevitable solitude, that circle drawn around me by some unseen hand, that border only three creatures can cross without frightening me - the cat, my daughter, and Nobody. (Or, in order: my daughter, the cat, then Nobody)," - says Radvilavičiūtė's protagonist-narrator. "Nobody" is a loaded figure containing both an imaginary and ideal partner, the longing for him, and the impossibility of his existence in her real life.

At the beginning of "Awakenings," a powerful text about being a single woman in her forties, the protagonist says to her dead mother's photograph next to her bed: "When I wake up in a pool of sweat, most often at daybreak, I start to feel quite clearly that I myself belong to Nobody. My eyes are Nobody's. My arms are Nobody's. My legs, skin, nails, lungs, breath, and hair - Nobody's. It makes me feel terrible," to which the mother retorts: "Don't get carried away. You aren't Nobody's. I'll be thinking about you... for at least another few years." At these words, the narrator's daughter, sleeping next to her in the same bed, smacks her in the face, thus staging the first of the three awakenings featured in the essay and signalling the protagonist's belonging to the female lineage. The narrative moves on to her troublesome, but apparently still healthy heart, "the organ thought to be so vital to love," and, subsequently, to men - real and imaginary. The real ones feature Russia's president, Putin, committing atrocities in Chechnya, representing violence and the worst of male chauvinist power she feels threatened by; the US president, George W. Bush, referring only to the latter and therefore inspiring contempt rather than threat; a divorced heart-specialist, who conducts an ultrasound of the protagonist's heart and recommends she learn the joy of life from the drunks she sees in the street; and a well-dressed Lithuanian passerby, who, stopped by a toothless female beggar, "quickly unzips his jeans and puts his signifier of masculine power into her hand." The last two embody ordinary men she meets in the city of Vilnius who could potentially be let into that circle of solitude drawn around her. This not being a desirable option, the protagonist resorts to her imagination and invents a man for herself, "an ordinary man. (An electrician.)," who cannot tell Tzvetaeva from Akhmatova, but "exudes peace and understanding," and continues to want her, even though she is "furious, sweaty, unshaven, and disgusting." However, before she does that and before she explains why such a man would not be an option either, the protagonist-narrator evokes yet another of her awakenings, the most beautiful and authentic of them all: "I generally do wake up a half-hour before I get out of bed. I call those thirty minutes my stolen time - stolen from the day, from my routine. You need it, not just to speak with the dead (as if they were alive), but also to gently, calmly, and respectfully remember some of the living (as if they were dead)." The stolen time is the time when the protagonist-narrator comes face-to-face with herself, with her loneliness and sadness, but also with her sense of self, with knowing who she is, where and with whom she truly belongs. In the final section, the essay launches into a farcical and genuinely funny sequence about the protagonist's new fiance, who is supposed to move in with her, but presumably never does, because she wonders what would happen when, in the middle of the night, she wakes up for no reason and he asks why, she wouldn't know what to say: "In anticipation of this, the question fills me with horror, because... well, how will I ever manage to give him a short answer?" says the protagonist thus closing the circular composition of the piece.

Since I had only read Radvilavičiūtė's work in my native Lithuanian, it was strange to read it in English, let alone American English. That said, Radvilavičiūtė's texts in this translation have not lost much of their original urgency and fluidity; and although some of them have been slightly culturally adapted for the US audience, they have not lost the feel of the place and time they were written from. I enjoyed reading this collection of Radvilavičiūtė's work in translation almost as much as I enjoyed the original texts when they first came out, because they offer a rare glimpse into the mind of a contemporary Lithuanian woman whose main pastime is turning life into credible fiction.

Eglė Kačkutė