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Mindaugas Kvietkauskas (born 1976) is a literary scholar, writer and translator. Since 2008 he is a director of the Lithuanian Literature and Folklore Institute in Vilnius. Kvietkauskas acquired Ph.D. at the Department of Lithuanian Literature, Vilnius University, and studied Yiddish language and literature at the University of Oxford, Centre for Hebrew and Judaic Studies. His main areas of research are multinational literary modernism and urban culture in Lithuania and East Central Europe. He is an author of two academic monographs, a collection of poetry and a recent book of literary essays Uosto fuga (The Port Fugue). Kvietkauskas has also translated several books from Polish and Yiddish languages, including works by Czesław Miłosz and Abraham Sutzkever.

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From the personal archive of Mindaugas Kvietkauskas

Interview by Saulius Vasiliauskas

Mindaugas Kvietkauskas interview 01The scope of Mindaugas Kvietkauskas’ activities is hard to define in just one sentence: he is a literary historian, a poet, an essayist, a translator, and a vigilant observer and reviewer of cultural and social processes. Through his activities he builds intercultural bridges: he has translated from Yiddish, Polish, and English, has undertaken study visits at the universities of Krakow, Oxford, and Leipzig. At present he is the director of the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore and teaches at Vilnius University. Kvietkauskas’ recently published collection of essays Uosto fuga (The Fugue of the Port) made its way to the annual list of twelve most creative books compiled by literary scholars. At the Vilnius International Book Fair, the book was awarded a prize in the category of book art. The hustle of the book fair has calmed down and I am asking Mindaugas Kvietkauskas some questions about the content and the circle of issues of this collection, about the present state of Lithuanian literature and culture, and about current problems in the field of humanities.

 

 

1. A number of essays from Uosto fuga were published earlier. Some of them appeared between 1998 and 2016, attracted considerable interest, and sparked discussions in the public space.  What prompted you to put them in a book and what principle lies behind the ordering of the essays? Did you want to emphasize the multiplicity of voices and the polyphony of different (con)texts when choosing the title of the collection?

Indeed, the idea of the book was slowly taking shape while writing essayist texts for cultural media for which I worked for a number of years. From 1999 to 2008, that is, for almost ten years, I was the editor for criticism at the Metai literary magazine, and later, too, I collaborated with the main media of our culture – the press, the radio, and various websites. I would think that the collection of my texts reflects a certain stage in the shift of our culture, early-twenty-first-century problems, phenomena, expectations, mental states, and attempts to figure them out and, possibly, to change them in a positive way. The time that the book covers coincides with the accession of Lithuania to the European Union and with the development – under different circumstances – of our society, of the Baltic region, and of the whole region of Central and Eastern Europe. It is also the time of the crisis of globalization, which has become ever more obvious since 11 September 2001. When writing about these phenomena in my essays, I have been trying to combine highly personal experiences, reading of literature, observations of the living space with what I would call a critique of ideas. As for putting these texts into one collection, I must admit it was my near and dear who encouraged me to do that: "When are you going to publish a book?" In the end I succumbed to their persuasion. I selected my texts published in the media in a way that they would fall into several parts or would be connected by the main motifs. The motifs embrace personal encounters with the mystery of poetry, the losses and reconstructions of our cultural memory, the situation of Lithuanian humanities and arts in contemporary society, the condition of the cultural dialogue in the times of globalization and its crisis. Another important motif that unfolds in the epilogue, or the post scriptum, of the book is the state of personal dialogue between individuals. In my mind, these motifs coincided with the title of the essay that is one of the most important to me, "Uosto fuga", which I chose as the title of the whole book. The polyphony principle of the fugue as a musical piece expresses my affinity with the philosophy of the dialogue.

 

2. Quite often a specific detail of the text or being in a certain place restores a historical event and becomes a stimulus for a new reflection on it. For example, in the essay "Platanų šaknys" (Plane-tree Roots) a young man is on the way to a Cambridge college; his haste is suspended by the coat of arms on the gate to Newnham College depicting a deer’s head. It transports him to the year 1955 when Sylvia Plath had to stop in the same spot. In the essay about the famous architect Johann Christoph Glaubitz you reflect whether one could see Vilnius through the doorway of St Peter and Paul Church of Nysa "like Lorentz did in May 1945". Residing next to Žygimantas Augustas gymnasium of the interwar period, one of the graduates of which was Czesław Miłosz, next to the famous Tauras dormitory in which he and many other well-known writers spent their student days, also, not far from the house in which the writer Romain Gary spent his childhood, I come to think about the interaction of time and place. Could a proximity to a historically and culturally important location be seen as an inspiration to travel in history, to comb texts and contexts? What does one need for a journey like that?

Even the texts of Antiquity say that there exists an intrinsic relationship between human memory and the experience of space. For instance, one of the methods of Roman mnemonics, or development of memory, is to memorize a text by imagining its sentences as a succession of rooms in a building, each with a different interior. It has been known since then that we remember things better if they are linked to a strong impression of space or with some bodily experience such as taste, smell, or sound. This is how memory returns in Marcel Proust’s famous novel In Search of Lost Time. I think that in the disassembled and damaged reality of Central Europe – and of Lithuania as well, where the connections of the direct tradition are ruptured, locations are extremely important mediators in recovering memory. I am speaking about living memory and not the neutral knowledge or study of history, because it is this memory that makes us the citizens in the space of our life, in our Lebensraum. I understand memory as an organ of the human psyche that is capable of resisting the indifference of historical time. It seems to me that attention to and love for certain places, such as, for instance, one’s space of residence in the city, enhances this organ. Then we also begin to feel the natural connections with the fates, thoughts, and texts of people who used to live in that place.  It can be Milosz or Gary, but it can also be a story of a totally unknown old person who had lived his or her life in the same street. The crucial thing is that love for a place helps us to overcome loneliness. I have actually experienced it and in the book of essays I am making an attempt to reflect on the abandoned and forgotten places which, when spoken to, turn into new unexpected encounters.

 

Mindaugas Kvietkauskas interview 03From the personal archive of Mindaugas Kvietkauskas

 

3. To me, among the most relevant and saddest essays of the book were "Lituanistinis interesas" (The Lithuanian Interest) and "Laisvųjų menų likimas" (The Fate of Liberal Arts). Although I must agree with ideas voiced in them, it seems that while speaking of the situation of the humanities and the teaching of literature in schools we became used to the word "anxiety". The aspects that we could be happy about are becoming scarce. Here we should also remember a book of the same title, published in 2001, in which five authors are trying to identify and discuss the dangers that had befallen the humanities and social sciences. Are there any positive things, changes, or sunny spells in the skies of our humanities and Lithuanian studies?

I think that the relationship between the humanities and arts on one side and modern consumerist society and pragmatic economy on the other can be described as a permanent tension and a struggle between different principles. So far, these two sides have not been successful in achieving harmony in society even if we label it as "cultural industries" and the like.  It is an ongoing conflicting tension that started in the nineteenth century. At times it recedes, and at other times it escalates, so the question is whether artists or humanitarians have ever been free of this tense struggle against the indifference and contempt of society, economic coercion of business and political coercion of the authorities. In the tied-up sack of the Soviet bloc the situation of Lithuanian culture used to be far ghastlier.  In interwar Lithuania, artists also had to fight the cynicism of the bureaucracy of those times and of the self-satisfied national dictatorship. And before that, in the nineteenth century, there were long years of struggle for the most basic rights of Lithuanian language and culture against the Russian Empire. Thus I see the situation of humanities like the title of one more of my essays, "Kova dėl kultūros: nebaigtas siužetas" (Struggle for Culture: An Unfinished Plot). This plot involves victories, losses, rises, and falls. The most important thing is that this plot has not finished yet and goes on. The most positive change during the past quarter of the century is that despite all the problems and obstacles, neoliberal capitalism and grimaces of bureaucracy, the Lithuanian public has become noticeably more democratic, more tolerant, and more mature culturally.

 

4. In the essay The Plane-tree Roots you write that you discovered your relation with contemporary English poetry through the work of Sylvia Plath, which launched the trend of the so-called confessional poetry. It seems that instances of such poetical speaking are on the rise in Lithuanian literature. For example, speaking about woman’s world and experiences is becoming more daring and authentic (texts by Giedrė Kazlauskaitė, Vitalija P. Butkienė, Rima Juškūnė, and other authors). How do you see the present of Lithuanian poetry? What turning points can be seen or, possibly, should be seen here? What does the diversity of our poets look like in a broader European context?

I would say that the process of brewing of a new breakthrough is on the way in Lithuanian poetry at present. We have an extremely strong school of poetic language. Sigitas Geda, Marcelijus Martinaitis, Tomas Venclova, Judita Vaičiūnaitė, Vytautas Bložė and others – the classics of late Modernism, of the last quarter of the twentieth century – reached a very high level of poetical originality. They were succeeded by authors of a more postmodernist trend – from Donaldas Kajokas and Antanas A. Jonynas to Aidas Marčėnas – who also created a highly intense field of linguistic mastery. The next fundamental stage or the higher league of poetical game is, in my opinion, just beginning to emerge. It is quite possible that gravitation towards authentic, realistic, carnal expression and a testimony of actual personal and social experience will be important to it. Also, Lithuanian women’s poetry will play a very significant role. Incidentally, the poetesses of the younger generation continue, in an original manner, the line of material and narrative poetry initiated by Nijolė Miliauskaitė, our classic of the late twentieth century.  It proves yet again the relevance of a strong poetic school. Meanwhile, today’s diversity of young Lithuanian poets is thoroughly European in the freedom of their expression, outlooks, cultural contacts, mobility, and fairly rapidly spreading translations of their work into foreign languages. Maybe the young poets themselves could translate more of the authors relevant to them into Lithuanian, and not only from English, which prevails, but also from other languages, including the smaller ones. We still have too many white spots in the field of translations of European poetry.

 

5. Somewhere in the book you write that part of the episodes from Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous book The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge first appeared in his letters which contain sharper expression if compared with the book.  While reading, I lingered over these words – sharpness of expression! It sometimes seems to me that part of contemporary literature tends to hide behind aesthetical decorations, enjoy the beauty of language (or, on the contrary, the unornamented language), thus "rounding the corners" of the plot too much and avoiding its unexpected and sharp edges. It seems that much of today’s literature arises not from the author’s authentic experience but from the striving to construct this experience, to live through it in the process of writing, or maybe even from the inertia of writing… Would you agree with such an observation?

What you are asking about is probably a permanent situation of literature or ars poetica: a struggle against inertia of language. Just like the struggle of any other artist against the inertia of the main creative medium. The fight is always hard and victory is not guaranteed to anyone. Only very few win and very often at an extremely high personal cost; the majority lose. Such are the ruthless laws of every branch of genuine art, including the art of language. There is only one question: is a writer prepared to carry on fighting, irrespective of all the ironies and relativities of contemporary literature, or does he or she abandon the fight being content with self. Methods of modern advertising, PR technologies pave an easy path for artistic mediocrities to look like geniuses to themselves and to others, and for literary pulp to become a "masterpiece". Which is understandable, for the literary market is in a constant need of "masterpieces".  Book fairs also need them. I think we have a fair amount of mediocre literature that is constructed for these particular purposes, for this environment, and for success in this environment. Yet it is obvious that real masterpieces are rare. And when they emerge, all the means of dissemination are just a third-rate issue. I personally saw the fascination with which the readers were trying to get hold of the German translation of Antanas Škėma’s Balta drobulė (The White Shroud) at the Leipzig Book Fair, and the amazement of the critics with which they praised this book as an absolute discovery. And it does not matter when it was written, how long it had to wait for its hour of glory in Germany where Škėma was just a poor refugee in a DP camp after the war. Therefore your question about the shortage of authentic language in literature could be answered in Rilke’s own words, which were apt a hundred years ago and which are apt today: each author can find such language only in self, by going into self.  "Es gibt nur ein einziges Mittel. Gehen Sie in sich" (There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself).

 

6. When speaking of active literary life in the capital during the interwar period, about the salons, secret associations and societies, you call the present state of Lithuanian literature "a crisis caused by alienation". Could you please expand on this thought? Is the lack of a more active, fierce, and passionate literary life – discussions, disagreements, groupings, rallying, or bohemians – felt today? Or, possibly, with thriving communication in virtual space, has the larger part of all this moved onto the "walls" of social networks?

Grouping is valuable not for the sake of forming groups, literary arguments not because of arguing, but because of what connects people and what is argued about. In interwar Vilnius, there existed such artistic environments as the Polish "Żagary" and the Jewish "Jung Vilne" which functioned as highly intense literary and intellectual laboratories, or, if you want, as guilds in the modernist style. And, of course, there were laboratories of life and informal friendship, the so-called bohemian life. In Lithuanian literature, the most intensive and interesting in this respect was the interwar avant-garde group "Keturi vėjai" (Four Winds), the generation of neo-romanticists under the magazine Naujoji Romuva, and the high modernist movement of žemininkai-lankininkai that evolved in Vilnius during the Second World War and in émigré literary circles after the war. There was nothing of the kind after that: the movements of "silent Modernism" of the Soviet period could not function in the open, and none of the movements of the years of independence has reached that level of conceptuality (I used to belong to one of them, the group of poets "Įžanga" (Introduction), from 1994 to 1996). Unfortunately, I do not think it is in principle possible to set up something in social networks that would reach the level of a creative laboratory. They will not produce a new Futurism or a new Bauhaus just because interaction there satisfies the needs of a daily chat but nothing more than that. One can only hope that the fate will bring kindred artists together in a manner resembling the times of flourishing Modernism. And that it will be a very unexpected beginning.

 

Mindaugas Kvietkauskas interview 02From the personal archive of Mindaugas Kvietkauskas7. The essay "Requiem Literatų svetainei" (Requiem to Literatų svetainė) about the most famous Vilnius literary café closed in 2014 is like a lament to historical places that we have failed to protect, to cultural spaces that are swept away by the global market and to some extent by the public sector of culture, by the passivity of our society. What are other places in Vilnius that can still be brought back, restored, returned to the residents and the guests of the city?

At present I am most of all concerned about the fate of two truly special places of Vilnius. The first one is the former library of the Vilnius ghetto in Žemaitijos (former Strašūno) Street. This building was the centre of cultural and underground activities of the ghetto. Through the effort of the famous ghetto poets Abraham Sutzkever and Shmerke Kacherginsky, immediately after the war the building housed the first Jewish museum of Vilnius, which was later closed by the Stalinist authorities. Even now the building is in a state of ruin and is begging to be brought back to life. In September 2014, a group of doctoral students did some voluntary tidying up in that building and we organized the first in seventy years readings of poetry, Abraham Sutzkever’s work in Yiddish and Lithuanian. My wish is to see this historical place, which is as painful as a wound and which again is part of the State Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum, reborn as a museum of Litvak culture or a house of literature. Also, to see lines from Sutzkever’s poetry on the wall next to the entrance as a symbol of the victory of poetry against destruction.

There is another place the future of which will show whether we are a cultured European society. It is St George’s Church and a former Carmelite monastery in the centre of the city, very close to Gedimino Avenue. In 1946 these buildings were turned into Knygų rūmai (the Palace of Books), a half-closed bibliography centre and a repository of books, mostly of religious nature, brought here from manors and estates, Catholic monasteries, gymnasia, Jewish religious schools and synagogues. Huge bookshelves were fitted on concrete supports right up to the domes of the church and the place became a bizarre heterotopy resembling Borges’s Library of Babel. I wrote about this church in the essay "Esteros žirklutės" (Estera’s Scissors). In February, together with the book artist Sigutė Chlebinskaitė we organized an artistic performance and a presentation of my book in this church. A part of Martynas Mažvydas National Library before, it has already been passed over to the archdiocese of Vilnius. The fact is that it is an exceptional place of our cultural memory. It is like an amalgam of multiculturalism of Vilnius. What are we going to do with these buildings? Will we manage to fill them with meaning and life? Or will they become yet another hive of private occupants and commercial offices like it has happened to a number of such complexes or places of memory in the Old Town? This will show how far our thinking has progressed from post-Soviet to more cultured European.

 

8. In the essay "Prakeiktoji poetė" (The Cursed Poetess) you reflect on why, after more than seventy years, the need to judge the writers who had collaborated with the Soviets has returned. This context could probably include other debates that stirred the public space, for example, the one about the fate of the sculptures on Žaliasis tiltas (Green Bridge) reminiscent of the occupation. Why do you think our society has suddenly become so eager to judge and demolish? Is it related to the escalation of geopolitical developments and the war in Ukraine? Is such a need not somewhat superficial?

I do not defend either Soviet collaborators or traitors of the homeland. I do not like those who nurture any kind of nostalgia for the years of Soviet occupation. And yet, in my opinion, our discussions about the attitude to Soviet culture are too categorical and politicised: a concoction is made of things that should be evaluated separately. The Soviet figures of Žaliasis tiltas are a typical product of Stalinism, an ideological emblem. The relationship with them can be of "either/or" nature: either get rid of them entirely, or find a way to transform them ironically into objects of contemporary art. I personally supported the second variant proposed by the well-known artist Gediminas Urbonas. Still, I accept the removal of those sculptures as a well-founded solution. When, however, we speak of such a poetess as Salomėja Nėris, we are facing something completely different: classic and very deep lyrical poetry, an extraordinary biography of a poetess, and a tragedy of an outstanding talent. Shortly after Nėris had committed the historic blunder of agreeing to collaborate with Soviet invaders in 1940, she realized what she had done and deeply repented, in texts and deeds, by distributing her secret manuscript poetry. It reached the anti-Soviet partisans and demanded a great deal of courage during the war and in post-war years. Therefore I think that erasing the memory of the talent of Nėris, a talent that had stumbled yet risen again, is a huge mistake, because in this way a hand is raised both against poetry and the Christian principle of mercy to the repentant. Such political aggression only shows that the relationship of our society with the Soviet period is still laden with traumas, with escape from full historical reality, and blind rejection instead of searching for a way of overcoming such traumas productively.

 

9. You translate from Yiddish and in this way you included the work of Abraham Sutzkever, Moyshe Kulbak, and other Jewish writers in the field of our reception of literature. What other authors are you planning to translate and how do they add to the historical picture of those who used to live and work in Vilnius?

As a translator of Yiddish literature, I feel I must speak to an immense continent sunk into silence and oblivion. The work is hard indeed, but at the same time it lends a strong sense of meaning. My translation of Abraham Sutzkever’s book of poetical prose Žaliasis akvariumas (The Green Aquarium) about experiences of the Vilnius ghetto attracted immense interest of readers and very deep and sensitive responses, especially from the younger generation. I feel that it helped many readers to find that living relationship of memory, and not just historical information, with Jewish culture and the tragedy of the Holocaust. I have just begun translating Moyshe Kulbak, one of the most original classics of Litvak literature, whose expression and imagination make me think of Marc Chagall. Kulbak alone is a continent: several novels, large narrative poems, and many of them written nowhere else but in Vilnius. At present we have just the narrative poem Vilnius and a couple of his poems in Lithuanian. So, basically, the texts of such an impressive writer as Kulbak are out of reach to present-day residents of Vilnius; how, then, can we have a living connection and an understanding of who the Litvaks were, what made them tick, and how they thought. In the nearest future I would like to translate at least one of Kulbak’s novels and more of his poetry. Another Jewish writer of Vilnius the translations of whose works are simply a must for us is Chaim Grade.

 

Mindaugas Kvietkauskas interview 04From the personal archive of Mindaugas Kvietkauskas

 

10. It seems that so far we do not have a strong tradition of cultural benefactors. Are we exceptional in Europe in this respect? What are the reasons behind it: is it cultural indifference of business people, the lack of interest to support culture, or maybe withdrawal of the art creators, unwillingness to look for connections, contacts, and ways to bring their work to larger audiences?

Our deep traditions of benefaction – from the times of the nobility of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the benefactor of national revival and culture Petras Vileišis – were simply ruptured.   During the period of post-Soviet capitalism, the new business people found them incomprehensible. Nonetheless, we can see how they return, and on a rather large scale.  Let us not forget the Contemporary Art Centre founded by business people and benefactors Viktoras and Danguolė Butkus (it will be built in the place of the former cinema "Lietuva"), or art projects supported by the large law firm "Valiūnas Ellex". Let us remember that the Prize for the Most Creative book of the Year established by the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore has for over ten years been supported by the company "Bod Group" and its founder Vidmantas Janulevičius. The Vytautas Kubilius Prize for literary criticism was established by the Kubilius family. Therefore I think that the principles of benefaction are gradually coming back and it shows that the cultural identity of our business and political elite is also becoming stronger.  Although slowly, the taste and needs of this layer of society are changing. It is the effect of the quarter of a century that we have lived in an independent country.

 

11. When speaking about the outstanding art historian and painter Vladas Drėma, you ask: "Is it possible for such fantastic works as Dingęs Vilnius (The Vanished Vilnius) to be born out of pure science?" Also, the words "creator idealist" recur in your work. Do we have artists and scholars so utterly dedicated to their art and work in the twenty-first century?  Or can we only hope to have them when evaluation criteria are directed towards a fast product based on toadying up to international standards?

I read this question of your interview and am writing an answer to it in Weimar on a sunny day of early spring, in a café in Frauenplan Square, very close to the house of Johann Wolfgang Goethe. According to him, each stage of life has its own philosophy. In his words, a child is a realist, a youth is an idealist, a mature person is a sceptic, and an elderly person is a mystic. It would follow that we can have as much idealism in culture as we have youth in it. So haven’t we got any?

 

 22–26 March 2017, Leipzig–Weimar
 
Mindaugas Kvietkauskas was interviewed by Saulius Vasiliauskas, a writer and doctoral student at the Department of Contemporary Literature of the Institute of Lithuanian Language and Folklore

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