Lithuanian poet and one time Soviet dissident Tomas Venclova visited Scotland as part of Lithuanian Days in Scotland in October and compared experiences of Union in his home country and Scotland. As we celebrate 30 years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall this week, we review his memoirs of life as a poet behind the Iron Curtain.
Italian poet Eugenio Montale noted in one essay that history cannot be compiled until all the documents of the chronicle have first been prepared. A chronicle by a certain definition is the documentation that deals in personal testimonies, in the details of dates, times, places and sequences of events. Montale was writing in 1945, at the close of WWII and the era of Italian fascism. Hence we could imagine the more momentous and complicated and unsettling is a period in a history, then all the more important is it that our understanding and interpretation should be enriched by drawing on the broadest cross-section of data and evidence. It’s with this conception of the necessity of a gradual and accumulative vision of the truth of resonant era in human affairs that we recognise the significance of the work Magnetic North by Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova and his editor and interlocutor Ellen Hinsey. Venclova, born 1937 has certainly lived in ‘interesting times’. The interest in Magnetic North lies weightily and fascinatingly in its testament of the formative years of a Lithuanian poet of world standing spent under the oppressive epoch of Soviet rule. The format is of a dialogue wherein the editor Hinsey (-who is clearly expert herself both in the historical era and in the work and life of the poet) sets brief questions and directs the conversation. The poet in turn answers, digresses, storytells and generally puts us in the full moral and human picture as regards the experience of one whose life was absorbed in and committed to an authentic literary culture in that time and place.
While Venclova and Hinsey published the book with University of Rochester Press in the USA in 2017, occasion to review the work was afforded by the recent staging (October 2019) of the festival Lithuanian Days in Scotland, a week-long celebration examining relations between these two small northern nations. Venclova, professor of Russian Literature at Yale University (he arrived there in 1980), appeared personally at the festival in discussion alongside Professor Robert Frost –not the American poet but an expert in Polish and Lithuanian history at Aberdeen University. Their discussion ranged over the similarities and differences in the respective histories of the two nations, but focused peculiarly –and unexpectedly for most Scots in the audience – on the respective experiences of union. Both Frost (-a unionist) and Venclova seemed to agree that Lithuania had got more out of its two century long union with Poland than Scotland has got from its own union with its larger neighbour. Apparently the Polish-Lithuanian union was much more a partnership of equal nations than an amalgamation whereby a simple majority of the total population always gets the say. –But ‘watch this Brexit space…’ appeared to be their provisional conclusion, for that story is not finished yet …
When it comes to Venclova and Hinsey’s book however, it seems –unlike Brexit – the chapter of the Soviet domination of that small nation is indeed over and done. And all for the best. Or is it? Venclova describes himself as a historical optimist and defines the position thus: All will turn out for the best, only I won’t be still here to see it. His judgement at times is unforgiving, he writes ‘Everything mediated by the state or Soviet society was false.’ Yet Venclova’s attitude throughout the difficult years seemed nonetheless to have been that sooner or later the Soviet system would come to an end. And even if it were to happen long after his own death, its everyday atmosphere of censorial menace, and its extremes of executions, disappearances and prison camps for those who would not buckle under, would eventually collapse under its own oppressive weight. He never, for example, (not even under the threat of nuclear war and mutual destruction of the cold war powers) adopted the attitude he ascribes to Ukrainian poet Serhij Zhadan as Apocalyptic Optimism –namely, all will turn out for the best, only none of us will be here to see it…
It’s a liberalism of sorts, and Venclova has that in spades, though its formation is highly idiosyncratic, forged out of his own peculiar times and places. It may even be described as an unlikely alliance of resistance, consistency, endurance and tolerance all playing an important part in his survival, along with his ability to understand the broad horizons of his personal and social predicament and put into historical context the seemingly blind alley of the Soviet system. He assesses that Lithuanian predicament thus, ‘A total loss of sovereignty and the fear of losing one’s identity created a depressive – and explosive – psychological atmosphere.’ Nonetheless the quiet understated strength of both his civil convictions and his adaptations to circumstance, borne despite the uncivil times through which he lived, allowed him to maintain cordial relations across the board of civic and literary society. He is open to the positive contribution of all peoples, and even all regimes, who have played a role in Lithuanian history. The breadth of engagements he could maintain ranges from the personal with his father who had been a member of the Soviet government of Lithuania, with the ethnic Polish who had long been settled in the country, with Jewish Lithuanians who had suffered at the hands of the Nazis (with some Lithuanian help), as well as his close links with the Russian writers – Akhmatova, Brodsky, Pasternak etc – he knew during his long stay in Moscow (where he also first met his wife Tanya).
Some of his tolerant beliefs about multicultural society are guaranteed to irritate those nationalists who would believe that a pure and isolated ethnos is the only way to protect that sovereignty and identity in the post Soviet era. He writes
‘The loss of the country’s Jews (and Polish speaking intellectuals) deprived Lithuania of important intellectual resources: these groups could have contriubuted significantly to a post-Stalinist democratic renewal.’
Yet for all his broadly tolerant and conciliatory approach, Venclova ought not to be understood as some sort of pushover or patsy, or fellow-traveller (despite some ‘patriots’’ opinions of his family and his father’s involvement with the Soviets). He is trenchant in his criticism – political and literary – where he sees no redeeming qualities –as in his dismissal, personally to this writer, of Yevtushenko’s poetry as ‘trite’ and ‘banal’ and his rejection of him, in the text of Magnetic North , as a pet of the Soviet establishment.
In many ways Magnetic North can be seen as one long detailing of the ground upon which Venclova stands and from whence he views his world. For this reader, it appears that there are two strong elements that knit that ground together and allow him to gain support. The two are constituted by Venclova’s commitment to philology and also to poetry.
That first element, Venclova’s habit of – or, is it rather his insistence on – referring to his work as philology strikes a slightly odd, anachronistic note. For the Western reader – in a culture which has long been driven by specialisation and the ‘expert’ – the generalist nature of philology as a field of study has rendered it obsolete or at least put it out of favour as a title in the current day. Back in the 1960s for example, that epitome of western literary intellectualism, Jean Paul Sartre, was already commenting that,
‘Today the thing is clear; industry wants to lay hold of the university to compel it to abandon outmoded old humanism and replace it with specialised disciplines, intended to provide enterprises with test engineers, middle managers and the like.’
Western intellectuals of the contemporary era are actively seeking a dismantling of humanist (i.e. white western male dominated) tradition entirely for other reasons and desires than those cited by Sartre as belonging to big business and industry. It is easy to conceive of the reasons why Venclova might want to insist on a descriptor for his work which not only encompasses the breadth of his engagement with the culture of languages and literatures, but one which in its very etymology declares the love of the word. Venclova’s everyday operations span, with patience and in concern and delight, from the writing of poetry in Lithuanian, to teaching and researching Russian literature at Yale, to the study of books in libraries and archives; a veneration, and a facility with the written and spoken word, and intercultural and interlinguistic translation as a professional occupation –why shouldn’t he hanker after and glory in a title –‘philologist’ – which celebrates his work? But is his use of that title a perfectly understandable personal quirk, or does the field as ‘philology’ still have a currency and validity in Eastern Europe in general, or in Lithuania and Russia in particular today? It’s hard to assess – perhaps a mixture of both the personal and the broad cultural? At any rate, it is conceivable that the generalist –or even, humanist – approach, an anxiousness to cover the full breadth of the culture and keep all its precarious elements alive and in relation, would take on a vital aspect as a moral imperative in an otherwise culturally reductive age of totalitarianism such as described in Venclova’s writing.
When it comes to assessing his life in poetry and the solid integrated and influential social legacy that his and his peers’ work has had, we can only assume that western poets of the era –and perhaps even Lithuanian and Russian poets of the current era, would encounter it with a certain wistfulness. If his commitment and loyalty to philology as professional scholarship strikes us as ever so slightly anachronistic (only in its nominative sense not in its results!) then the role he and his fellows could play as poets seems somehow to belong to an even older model. Magnetic North brings home to us repeatedly how central was the work of poetry in civil and political society in the Soviet Union.
As a fellow poet, translator and colleague Venclova was involved both in the Russian and Lithuanian scenes, as these artists engaged in the various ways they knew how -overt and underground – publishing officially, in samizdat, from prison camps and in dissident exile, with the regime. It seems almost to hark back to a traditional -pre-modern, that is to say – structure whereby the poet lived and worked cheek by jowl with the all-powerfull ruler or rulers (indeed was often kept by them in their court) and the work functioned to counsel, critique, regulate, contextualise – and, of course, often to mock that power in its operations. Even when the regime , the power, the king, the tyrant pretended to ignore it.
Again it is difficult to assess whether in these Eastern European societies there has been some form of continuity of that ‘tradition’ of poetry’s civil and critical role, or if the Soviet era of political extremity, of social crisis, great ‘psychological’ oppression adversity and isolation alongside economic difficulty had prepared the ground, as it were, for a recrudescence of that antique political mechanism? Ultimately, history and historians can make the judgement on that mutual relationship poetry/politics in the Soviet era (-after all the chronicles have been compiled!) and what will always remain most enlightening and rewarding for the reader and critic is the story of the poet’s engagement with that given milieu. Venclova is richly and profoundly saturated in literary culture (he even translated two soviet science fiction novels) and he incessantly poses the word and its truths at the heart of civil society. That can be understood in its full scope if we examine what for this reader could be conceived of as the two poles of his work.
A lot might be understood, that is to say, about Venclova’s professional, emotional, artistic, political and psychological spirit if we view together and juxtapose his relationship with his father alongside that with Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Not that these two older literary figures were necessarily the most influential in his life and work –one cannot forget, for example, the influence of Brodsky and Mandelstam, not to mention the historic Lithuanian literary figures of Mickiewicz and Maironis. But from an examination and contrast of his apprenticeship of sorts with these two figures we can understand not simply a dualism in his approach, but look beyond to see how these two sample influences typify his patient , careful and attentive attitude to a whole spectrum of his avatars and peers. Venclova’s father belonged to an interwar generation of Lithuanian writers who saw Soviet communism as the answer to their country’s erstwhile woes. Venclova senior served briefly in the Soviet Lithuanian government and was very much a part of the Soviet establishment, receiving the Stalin Prize in 1947, and authoring the lyrics for the Soviet national anthem for Lithuania.
As a dissident poet, an émigré who was disallowed from publication in the Soviet Union, there was no doubt that a love of literature, the word and poetry was a ground on which Tomas Venclova convened with his father. It might seem strange to say of a Stalinist father, but it appears that it was his father’s openness to thought, expression and literary history that nourished the young Venclova’s emotional inclination and commitment to tolerance in his personal and social relations. Equally it might seem paradoxical that the great twentieth century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova who opposed Stalinism but did not quite become a dissident, and was rather ignored by a regime fearful and touchy about her world fame was such a powerful influence on the dissident Venclova. He befriended her after translating her work, and clearly the vital voice of ethics in her poetic work was of great influence in his aesthetic, and gave him the insight and strength to make the connection between art and endurance of spirit. He writes,
‘Poetry in particular is somewhat mysteriously linked to ethics, and poetic discipline to the fortitude of the spirit. Many poets, including Zbigniew Herbert and Akhmatova –and her protégé Joseph Brodsky – insisted that refusal to succumb to evil is primarily a matter of taste. I was of the same mind.’
Even from such small excerpted samples of this work, the importance of the breadth of its emotional, literary, poetic, political, ethical and even spatial and geographical testimony can be appreciated. As a portrait of a certain kind of life in a very particular historical era it provides invaluable insight into the totalitarian system and its operations, particularly in its confrontations with individuals and groups irrevocably and unrelentingly set on paths of freedom, authenticity, honesty and openness.
Special thanks to Naomi van Dijck, Asta Chaladauskiené , Ellen Hinsey, Catherine Watts, Justé Kostikovaité and to publishers Boydell and Brewer Ltd for permission to reproduce part of Magnetic North.