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by Jūratė Čerškutė


Introductory remarks: What is the twelve and what is it for?

It is often said—and it is, of course, true—that not only do literary lists and various votes for books liven up the circulation of the literary field (the reactions, the despair, and the joy of writers and readers, the nerves and the illusionary feeling of involvement in matters) and shape readers’ tastes and the trajectories of their choices, but also record certain literary tendencies and fashions of a particular stretch of time. They become not only relics of the past but, with passing years, facts, contexts, and circumstances of literary history.[1]

This is probably the most important aspect of literary trends and literary development that the list of the twelve most creative books by Lithuanian authors seeks to implement and demonstrate. During a period of more than ten years, the list of twelve most creative books selected by the scholars of the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore has become not only a welcome event and tradition that brings life to the beginning of February and to the waiting for the Vilnius International Book Fair. It is the only list of the best and most interesting books compiled exclusively by literary experts in Lithuania.[2] No doubt, every year the list of twelve most creative books stirs passions and debates in the closed circles of the literary guild because so far there has not been—and will not be—a list of twelve that will satisfy everyone, the writer and the reader alike.

Eternal, finite, or unchanging lists do not exist, and the compilation of each list, and a literary list in particular, is inseparable from cultural play, simple arithmetic, and the human factor. The advantage of lists, said the Italian writer and semiotician Umberto Eco in one of his interviews, is that a list is not only the origin of culture but also an attempt “to make infinity comprehensible.”[3] “Every year, the twelve not only aim at an attentive inspection of the calendar year of contemporary Lithuanian literature, but also at the evaluation and, as befits the genre, a playful statement of what can be seen and felt when reading, in one go, the books by Lithuanian authors that appeared in the previous year. In other words, it is an attempt to introduce some structure into the chaos of the books of a single year. Two main factors serve this purpose: the choice, or sifting, of books (which means that a list of books is compiled every year from which the twelve is eventually formed), and the criterion of evaluation, which in our case is creativity. Every year, thus, really good, high-quality books are read[4] and creativity, the key evaluation criterion, sums up the qualities of a good work of literature: the gift of narrative, style, the development of the plot, the aspect of values, the linguistic “ear,” and the like.

The Twelve Most Creative Books of 2015

1. Alfonsas Andriuškevičius, Beveik visi eilėraščiai, Apostrofa, 2015.
2. Akvilina Cicėnaitė, Niujorko respublika: romanas, Alma littera, 2015.
3. Laura Sintija Černiauskaitė, Renata Šerelytė, Hepi fjūčer: aštuoniolika novelių, Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla, 2015.
4. Ieva Gudmonaitė, Sniego skonis: eilėraščiai, Kauko laiptai, 2015.
5. Birutė Jonuškaitė, Maranta: romanas, Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla, 2015.
6. Donaldas Kajokas, Apie Vandenis, medžius ir vėjus: eilėraščiai, Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla, 2015.
7. Danutė Kalinauskaitė, Skersvėjų namai: novelės, Tyto alba, 2015.
8. Aidas Marčėnas, Viename: eilėraščiai, Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla, 2015.
9. Kęstutis Navakas, Begarsis skambutis: esė, Tyto alba, 2015.
10. Valdas Papievis, Odilė, arba Oro uostų vienatvė: romanas, Alma litera, 2015.
11. Vitalija Pilipauskaitė-Butkienė, Kvėpuoju: eilėraščiai, Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla, 2015.
12. Undinė Radzevičiūtė, 180: romanas, Baltos lankos, 2015.
 
The winner was Beveik visi eilėraščiai by Alfonsas Andriuškevičius.


Subjectively on Some Books from the Twelve of 2015

Having moved on to the subjective part of the twelve, I would like to admit, both to myself and to the reader, that the six-year-long experience of being part of the process of the selection of the twelve most creative books has unconsciously rearranged a great number of things about what literature is and what an art creator is; it has also pointed to that fear of dying that Eco referred to in his interview, to the germ of the game that hides in every collection, to the desire to introduce structure to things, and to an infinity of other things.  In addition, I should also admit that were it not for the twelve, I would not make myself read as much Lithuanian literature as I am doing now. And finally, were it not for the twelve, I would not know where to check out the literary events of the previous year, for in this respect those twelve most creative books are a perfect indicator of the evolution of Lithuanian prose and related events.[(The same is true for poetry, of course, but I find prose more transparent.)

Going back to the list of 2015, one must stress that it is not typical and that it violates its own rules: for the second time in the history of the twelve it features literature for teenagers (Akvilina Cicėnaitė, Niujorko respublika [The New York Republic]), and it is also one of those rare cases when a collection of work expanded by new poems was voted a winner (when voting for the shortlisted books, the unwritten rule of not including collections was loosely observed, but then, rules are often created only to be broken). Although I tend to avoid grand generalizations, a comparison of the list of 2014 and that of 2015 shows that 2015 was a year of the masters of Lithuanian prose (Danutė Kalinauskaitė, Valdas Papievis, Undinė Radzevičiūtė), when 2014 can be conditionally called the year of the young (Giedrė Kazlauskaitė, Meninos; Vytautas Stankus, Iš veidrodžio už [From the Mirror Behind]; Mindaugas Nastaravičius, Mo; Tomas Vaiseta, Paukščių miegas [The Sleep of Birds]; Agnė Žagrakalytė, Klara; Artūras Valionis, Daugiau šviesos į mūsų vartus [More Light to Our Gate]).

While reflecting on this year’s twelve books and the prose in particular, this year, as never before, I have been thinking about translations of Lithuanian literature into other languages. What should be selected or proposed for translation: the unique and original, or, in other words, Lithuanian, or the universal, common, and familiar to the world, no matter in which country it is read? With these thoughts in mind, my choice falls on the unmistakable leaders of the list: Danutė Kalinauskaitė, Valdas Papievis, Kęstutis Navakas, and Undinė Radzevičiūtė. They are the writers who have stepped over the boundaries separating different worlds. Thus, with your kind permission, below I set out brief instructions as to why these books are in the list of twelve and why they should be read not only by Lithuanians.

Skersvėjų namai (The House of Draughts) by Danutė Kalinauskaitė is the third book in the recent ten years by one of the most prominent writers of small prose and a representative of the feminine voice. The appearance of this book was much anticipated. Like in her 2008 collection Niekada nežinai (You Never Know), Skersvėjų namai contains nine stories pointing to Kalinauskaitė’s narrative talent and her attempt to test the boundaries of literary ingenuity and persuasion in each of her texts. Her texts do not allow a pause to catch your breath: they breathe life as well as ever smaller details. Her sentences are interrupted by other sentences, and, likewise, stories merge with other stories until they become unique episodes of life. In this book the author reflects on her writing methods by comparing them with the most meticulous archaeological activity. With her texts, Kalinauskaitė scrapes off the sediment of life and recounts almost everything about the loyal in life and the life of the loyal, about people and their destinies, which in her books look like “loose diamonds.” Kalinauskaitė’s writing befits a master of detail who is capable of placing her creative world in a sliver and “populating a shard-like home.”

Begarsis skambutis (A Soundless Ring) by the poet and cultural figure Kęstutis Navakas is his third book of essays, which differs noticeably from his earlier books. Begarsis skambutis is a book in two parts. In the first part, “Sudegusių vabzdžių dulkės” (The Dust of Burnt Insects), Navakas reflects on the relation between the author and the text, and between the author and the personage. It allows the reader to imply that the narrator of the book is at the same time its text—just like the author who is gradually turning into a text. The second part, “Tas kuris aš” (The One That’s Me), is made up of open narratives from and about real life, and about women who might be real or exist in dreams. Navakas knows how to link unlinkable things and worlds in his graceful sentence, how to build bridges between what is real and what can hardly appear even in dreams. Reading Navakas’s texts is fun thanks to their ornamental beauty alone and not just because you can encounter well-known names or recognize something familiar in them.

Odilė, arba Oro uostų vienatvė (Odilė, or the Loneliness of Airports) is the fourth novel by Valdas Papievis, a Lithuanian writer who has been living in Paris for over thirty years. The novel focuses on Odilė, a ninety-year-old petite dame, and on the story of her life narrated to the reader by the tenant of her attic, who looks after her and takes her on daily walks round the Latin Quarter of Paris. This five-part book is multilayered, so everyone is free to choose a line to follow: Parisian daily life, reconciliation with old age, the ability to depart with dignity, or to live a refined and free life despite its mundane aspects. They all fall into place with harmony in Papievis’s extraordinary sentence, which is sometimes short, breaking down strangely and angular; sometimes miniature, flowing, and gentle; and at other times broad, resonant, and majestic. His sentence accommodates both banks of the Seine, Notre Dame, and the Luxembourg Garden. This novel is doubtlessly like a translucent emotion and pure nostalgia. It is the atmosphere in which the time of Proust, pure love from the stories that Odilė wrote in her youth, and the unmistakable air of past and present Paris become tangible. To rephrase the narrator’s words, this book is basically a story about the main and subordinate clauses of life, one of which—and, possibly, one of the important ones—sounds like this: “Will you agree, Odilė, that everything that differs at least very slightly from how it was in our times, is naturally inferior for us?” (p. 80).

180 is the fourth novel of Undinė Radzevičiūtė, a writer of extraordinary voice and narrative. The book is as riveting as it is irritating with its universal nature and the gunshots of chopped-up sentences in which “each of us can appear as a hero or an utter scoundrel. All depends on who is telling the story” (p. 25). This novel is fascinating as a narrative told in a moderate, slightly ironic, slightly hopeless and sarcastic tone about an individual without a system of coordinates, about a person who has already passed out of an earlier phase in his life and has not discovered yet what his future might be, and who is suspended over the dilemma whether it is salvation or total decline. It is a narrative about how everything can suddenly and unexpectedly change in the blink of an eye, just like the trajectory of the characters of this novel—from a maker of history to a victim of history. Although the series of gunshot sentences in Radzevičiūtė’s novel are no longer as deafening as in her previous texts and often simply resemble flattened geometrical shapes, they nevertheless point to the writer’s talent to break the sentence, to shift its meaning from a different angle, and at the same time to compose a dotted line of a unique trajectory that must be followed like a detective follows a case.

 

 

1. I have always believed in the power of literary lists, especially regular and periodically publicized lists, to evaluate the present moment of literature and to preserve it for the future. My faith was strengthened last summer when the Lithuanian PEN Centre held a literary election called the Ten Books of the Decade. By inviting active players of the literary field to take part in this vote, the organizers referred to “the lists of books compiled from the annual twelve books of the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore and the five books of the best Book of the Year of the recent decade” as a certain reference point that would make it possible to recall the recent decade of Lithuanian literature.

2. The list of twelve of the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore should not be confused with the campaign aimed at choosing the Book of the Year. For the latter, five books are selected in the categories of prose, poetry, and books for children and teenagers, each by literature experts, but the winners in each category are chosen by popular vote. On the other hand, the existence of just two literary lists—the twelve and the five—allows us to say that we are not a nation of literary lists, and it is only recently that the process and the act of evaluation of global popularity has begun gaining impetus. Only time will show whether this idea becomes established.  Possibly, for a small country and its literature two lists are more than enough.

3. SPIEGEL Interview with Umberto Eco:  “We Like Lists Because We Don't Want to Die,” in: http://www.tekstai.lt/tekstu-naujienos/463-verstines-literaturos-kritika/5595-rasytojas-u-eco-megstame-sarasus-nes-bijome-mirti-interviu.html

4. Although if I had to read absolutely all books by Lithuanian authors published in Lithuania in a year without applying the quality filter, it is hard to imagine how much time it would take as such a list alone, compiled on the basis of information provided by the Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania, would cover several tens of pages and hundreds of entries.

5. The list of books compiled by the Lithuanian PEN Club is ideally suited to describe the development of Lithuanian prose and its processes.

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