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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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This post forms part of my ‘aspects of the novel’ collection. Please do note that these entries, which may appear basic, are simply my own notes on the subject. They implicitly or explicitly describe a canon not of my own making or choosing and replicate this from various sources. The original encyclopaedia articles are far more comprehensive, nuanced and worth consulting. I am especially conscious in articles such as this, which work with complex and detailed racial histories, that the summary here is reductive and incomplete; but nonetheless a starting point. I am also cognizant that some of the living writers here may not even wish to be categorized under this racial rubric. However, as I am summarizing various facts from encyclopaedic sources, I present this as-is, nonetheless.

The Baltic States, for the purposes of this piece, consist of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Traditionally, these countries have much stronger histories of oral culture and storytelling than written narrative. Nonetheless, novels have emerged in this part of the world.

In Estonia, the earliest written narrative is Wanradti ja Koelli katekismus (1535, Short Catechism) by Johann Kõll and Simon Wanradt. It was not until Eduard Vilde’s Külmale maale (1896, To the Cold Land) that the novel really took off in Estonia, though. In the wake of Estonian independence in 1918, works by Friedebert Tuglas, Villem Grünthal-Ridala, and August Gailit came to the fore. Oskar Luts’s It Is Written was influenced by Knut Hamsun, according to Berindeanu (p. 89). Anton Hansen Tammsaare wrote short stories that enact biting social commentary, such as in Kõrboja peremees (1922, The Master of the Kõrboja) and Tõde ja õigus (1926—33, Truth and Justice).

In the twentieth century, Karl Ristikivi’s Souls’ Night (1953) is an example of surrealism and existentialism in Estonian literature. Arvo Mägi and Valev Uibopuu examine the role of history in shaping identity and Jan Kross was thought to be in the running for the Nobel Prize.

Lithuanian literature has absorbed many aesthetic traits from the West. Jurgis Baltrušaitis created a symbolist aesthetic through his translations of Russian, Scandinavian, French, and Italian literature. Juozas Paukštelis’s The First Years (1936) explores the challenges of day to day life within a broader national romantic framework. Jonas Marcinkevičius’s Benjaminas Kordušas (1937) yields an absurd take on nationalistic nostalgia. Juozas Baltušis’s Sakmė apie Juzą (1979, The Tale of Juza) takes up a similar theme in a less comic vein. Ramūnas Klimas’s Gintė ir jos žmogus (1981, Gintė and Her Man) is exemplary of a strong postmodern tradition in the Lithuanian novel. Other examples include Saulius Tomas Kondrotas, Jurga Ivanauskaitė, and Antanas Škema.

Latvian literature began with translations from biblical texts (see Berindeanu, p. 91). There is thus a strong realist tradition in Latvian narrative, exemplified in the work of Rudolfs Blaumanis, while Jānis Poruks takes a more romantic direction. Meanwhile, Kārlis Skalbe drew on folklore to write fairytale collections.

Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš wrote decadent novels, such as Caucasus (1920), in the early twentieth century. More recently, novelists such as Antons Rupainis and Knuts Lesinš have played with complex intertextuality and referentiality. Marģeris Zariņš, a composer by background, has written a novel, Mock Faustus or The Corrected Complemented Cooking-Book, that responds to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Aleksandrs Peleciš has examined the more recent history of Latvia in his novels.

Further reading: Berindeanu, Florin, ‘Baltic States’, in The Encyclopedia of the Novel, ed. by Peter Melville Logan, Olakunle George, Susan Hegeman, and Efraín Kristal (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 87–93