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Ričardas Šileika, The Gift of Surgailis

 by Rima Bertašavičiūtė

The Lithuanian literary essay is a genre in which a fragmentary short text combines certain traces of a historical time, the symbols of the writer’s own and other cultures, and original autobiographical writing. Unlike in the Western tradition of this genre, the Lithuanian literary essay does not deal with the themes frequently found in journalistic writing (politics, social issues). What dominates here is aesthetic-existential reflections, the aesthetic level of language, and sometimes a discernible plot. Thus, when viewing the Lithuanian essay against the international context of the genre, it becomes obvious that in its artistic orientation it is closer to short stories and short prose in general.

No matter how different the texts or the aesthetic programs of their authors, the whole of Lithuanian essay writing can be discussed depending on what cultural identity it establishes and what image of the Lithuanian intellectual it constructs.

 

The Emergence and Prospering of the Genre: The Opening of the Text to the Reader

Literary essay writing was at the height of its popularity during the first decades of the country’s independence. The genre reached its climax around 2002–2005 when at least seventeen collections of essays were published, as well as the essay- novel by five authors, Siužetą siūlau nušauti (I Suggest Shooting the Plot). The latter crowned the trend of essay writing that had evolved in the cultural weekly Šiaurės Atėnai and became the manifesto of the essayist program of this publication.

Essayist texts have sprung up and are still published in the periodical press (dailies, cultural weeklies, and magazines) but they became extremely popular around the year 2000, when three main Lithuanian cultural weeklies – Literatūra ir menas, Šiaurės Atėnai, and 7 meno dienos – “moved” to the internet. With the appearance of the comments function, it was the essays that garnered the lion’s share of attention from readers. Just about everything triggered readers’ comments: autobiographical aspects, factual coincidences or discrepancies, the character of the essay writer. Sometimes readers’ comments would evolve into parts of other essays, like, for example, the essay by Giedra Radvilavičiūtė “Ir nepadės niūrus įsižiūrėjimas į veidus” (And the gloomy scrutiny of faces will not help). Thus, the opening up of the text to the readers’ responses and interpretations was an important factor for the prosperity of the genre.

 

The Golden Age: Aestheticism and the State of Intertextuality

So-called Team Šiaurės Atėnai (Giedra Radvilavičiūtė, Sigitas Parulskis, Gintaras Beresnevičius, Alfonsas Andriuškevičius, and others) have shaped a specific image of the intellectual in Lithuanian essay writing: his or her experiences and reflections are of an intertextual nature and come from cultural symbols – cinema, poetry, painting, and mythology. For example, in her free time, Giedra Radvilavičiūtė’s (b. 1960) narrator listens for whom the bell tolls or drinks wine with Nabokov[1] in the kitchen. Meanwhile, Sigitas Parulskis’s (g. 1965) narrator lives in the rhythm of the mythical offering of the son or of the father in which not only “real” but also “poetical” sons and fathers are sacrificed[2].

The essayists of Team Šiaurės Atėnai and their followers paid particular attention to the plot and linguistic expression of the essay, the links between the text and the field of canonical, predominantly modernist, Western and Russian works of art. For this reason, they can be seen as the most prominent – if not the main – manifestations of Lithuanian literary aestheticism, when both the personality and biography of the writer, and his or her experiences conveyed in the text are meaningful to the extent to which, in the words of Oscar Wilde, they reflect what has already been verified in art.

 

In Search of a Place

Alongside the aesthetes, travel essay writing developed in Lithuania at a different time and in different periodical publications. These are texts on other places (cities and countries) and on the experiences of traveling. Rolandas Rastauskas (b. 1954) should be considered the most prominent travel essayist: in 1993, his texts began to appear weekly in one of the main dailies of Lithuania. His foreign travels and the symbols of Western culture (a bohemian lifestyle, bars, music) form a portrait of a wanderer (flâneur[3]),  which is later continued by Vaiva Grainytė (b. 1984)[4]  and Dalia Staponkutė (b. 1964)[5].  However, for the latter authors it is not the discovery of places but reflections on their relationship with them that is more important: what it feels to be in the middle of a desert or in a Chinese hostel, or how to communicate with bilingual daughters or Greek bureaucrats, and the like.

The issue that concerns travel essayists is to what extent an actual location and the culture reaching them through that location influence our understanding of ourselves. This is best revealed in Staponkutė’s essays. By portraying herself as balancing between two cultures – Lithuanian and Greek – she defines herself as permanently existing in a transitional state and thus assumes the role of an intermediary. Unlike the aesthetes who construct identity from intertextuality, places, and fragments of cultures, travel essayists use them as a means of education and enlightenment, of the taming and appropriation of the other.

 

Life: Chronicles and Reflections

Although the character of the essay writer is revealed, in one way or another, in all essays, only in some this character becomes the center of attention. It is these essays that are the closest to autobiographical writing: in a light and playful form they speak of past experiences and events, of work done and people met. This manner of writing is most consistent in the essays of Kęstutis Navakas (b. 1964). In his work, he draws the portrait of a “true bohemian” by recording the alcohol he has drunk, the women he has loved (or has been with), and celebrities he has met on different occasions[6].

He is joined by such chroniclers of everyday life as Ernestas Parulskis (b. 1963)[7] and Paulina Pukytė (b. 1966)[8],  who often write about (un)expected absurd and funny situations.  Parulskis spots the paradoxes of daily life, for example, how a painting cannot be sold at an antiques shop until its price is raised exorbitantly. Pukytė, meanwhile, writes about absurd misunderstandings between the representatives of different nationalities, cultures, and contexts. Donatas Petrošius (b. 1978)[9] and Sara Poisson (b. 1964)[10] have chosen a similar path in their essay writing: both describe mundane events that encourage reflection on such universal laws of life as the death of parents, loneliness, the complexities of interpersonal relations, and the like. A separate trend of autobiographical reflections deals with the sensation of historical time, in particular of the Soviet period (Laurynas Katkus, b. 1972[11];
Eugenijus Ališanka, b. 1960[12]). The Soviet past is often described and reflected upon; the authors recall the living conditions then and now, and in this way the Soviet period becomes one of the decisive factors in the formation of the writer’s identity.

Recording everyday life is a frequent yet inconsistent aspect of Lithuanian essay writing: the authors are often content with just one collection of essays, which turns into their autobiographical “utterance” and into a context for their other genres (mostly poetry). Their texts, then, depict the becoming of the author (an intellectual) and answer the question “what has shaped me?”

 

The Essay after 2015: Excavations of Inner Spaces

Two themes are more prominently developed in the collections of essays published in 2015–2016: the search for a place and the search for personal writing, or writing about the self. They are interrelated: the search for a place no longer needs a foreign country as an object of discovery. The exploration of one’s inner spaces is sufficient. For example, Rastauskas’s latest collection Trečias tomas (The Third Tome) speaks of his travels in the past, in the Soviet period that has already become an alien space and thus a foreign, exotic country. In the context of this book, Rastauskas’s earlier essays arise as the archaeology of the self, an attempt to find out which texts and images (the book is illustrated with photography by Remigijus Treigys, which often accompanies Rastauskas’s texts) have shaped the personality of the wanderer and vagabond. On the whole, the search for the roots of everything in the Soviet period is a rather frequent feature of the contemporary Lithuanian essay, and it is characteristic of the texts by the thinkers about life and those of the visual essay alike[13].  At the same time, it is bait for the so-called ostalgia[14] and, consequently, a “commodity on demand.”

The signs of time (the Soviet period) are also prominent in Navakas’s Begarsis skambutis (A Soundless Ring): they complement the portrait of the essayist anti- hero developed in the collection. In addition to the catalogue of women been with and alcohol consumed, the narrator keeps recalling those he has robbed, beaten up, or at least thought badly of. Like Rastauskas’s Trečias tomas, Navakas’s collection makes it possible to view all his earlier essays as a story of becoming an enfant terrible, or a wannabe enfant terrible.

One of the most significant steps in recent years in personal essayist writing is Regimantas Tamošaitis’s collection Vien tik zuikiai naktyje (Only Hares in the Night, 2016). From the point of view of the theme, it falls into the category of the chronicles of the mundane: the texts are triggered by a fragment of a conversation, a quotation, or an unexpected thought. However, amidst all those conversations arises the character of the narrator, who exists as though in virtual reality and looks at the world around and at the self through eyes that add a bizarre quality to everything. Fears and emotions are described as if from outside; the alienation of the narrator from himself becomes a source of laughter: for example, in one of the essays the narrator asks an insurance agent to insure him against his own unexpected behavior, shame, and moral failures. In this way the figure of the intellectual as created in Tamošaitis’s texts is shown as an individual without autobiographical or historical characteristics, as part of the world and of its flow: “Families emerge, families disperse, and fate and time rule over everything. I, meanwhile, am just a migrating atom observing the environments in which I find myself. I rejoice at everything I see and feel, but I am no longer capable of fitting in with people or of blissful self-forgetting at a celebration: the memory living in me and that irreplaceable feeling of loss are too strong” (p. 64).

In general, the newest Lithuanian essays have almost completely dissipated the pleasure of aestheticism and intertextuality as such, as well as the thrill of experiencing foreign lands and cultures. In addition to the always popular theme “what has shaped me,” they address other similar aspects: the relationship with cultural texts that would not be limited to consumption, citation, or the incorporation of the text into life that would be closer to, rather than the joyful “O, art!” the bored “What do I get from that art?” The temptation to call this relationship “cultural satiation” is strong. Yet it would be more precise to argue that, paradoxical as it may seem, culture as such is no longer an object of value (understanding, acquisition, appropriation) to the people of culture. Or maybe it is not so paradoxical if we recall how totally unengaged the Lithuanian literary essay was for most of its lifetime – without a living relation with differently perceived history or social and historical present time with all of its issues. Issues, to which art, unfortunately (or is it fortunately?), does not belong.

 

1. Giedra Radvilavičiūtė, Suplanuotos akimirkos (2004), Šiąnakt aš miegosiu prie sienos (2010).

2. Sigitas Parulskis, Nuogi drabužiai (2002), Miegas ir kitos moterys (2005).

3. Rolandas Rastauskas, Kitas pasaulis (2005), Privati teritorija (2009), Trečias tomas (2015).

4. Vaiva Grainytė, Pekino dienoraščiai (2012).

5. Dalia Staponkutė, Lietumi prieš saulę (2007), Iš dviejų renkuosi trečią: mano mažoji odisėja (2014).

6. Kęstutis Navakas, Gero gyvenimo kronikos (2005), Du lagaminai sniego (2008), Begarsis skambutis (2015).

7. Ernestas Parulskis, Kasdienybės kunstkamera (2010).

8. Paulina Pukytė, Jų papročiai (2005), Netikras zuikis (2008).

9. Donatas Petrošius, Kaip negalima gyventi (2014).

10. Sara Poisson, Čiupinėjimo malonumas (2007).

11. Laurynas Katkus, Sklepas ir kitos esė (2011).

12. Eugenijus Ališanka, Gatvė tarp dviejų bažnyčių (2012).

13. Cf. the cinematic essays by Deimantas Narkevičius or the CoolTuristės group of artists.

14. See, for example, Živilė Dambrauskaitė, “Leninas ir menas. ‘Ostalgijos’ fenomenas,” Literatūra ir menas, 7 June 2004.

 

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