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Eugenijus Ališanka is one of the most translated Lithuanian poets: he has had more than ten books published in English, German, Russian, and some rarer languages like Slovenian and Finnish. Ališanka travels extensively, often spending time at various writers’ residences abroad and participating in events and festivals. He is also a prolific translator of poetry from English and Polish (selected poems by Tadeusz Różewicz are forthcoming this year), and an ambitious intellectual thinker. He is also a good, thoughtful essayist: he mixes cultural references with travel impressions and writes a lot about literature in the contemporary world as well as the author’s image and self-image.

Biography taken from Lithuanian Culture Institute

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Arūnas Kulikauskas, NY Sunpath, 2007-2008, pinhole camera, 28 x 35,5 Photo by Vidas Poškus. From The Modern Art Center collection.

 

An essay from the book “Empedocles’s Shoe”

 

About Travelling Writers

 

Traditionally, any serious discussion of global themes must begin with Adam and Eve. I will begin my own from a somewhat later time, from the story of Cain and Abel, and hope that my own authority doesn’t suffer as a result.

“Cain was, of course, cursed, and his punishment, like his hatred for Abel, is passed down through the generations. Therefore, be cursed far from the land that opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hands. When you work the land, it will no longer give you its harvest. You will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the Earth. Thus Cain is condemned, in his own eyes, to the hardest fate: he must become a wanderer, just like Abel. Cain resists this sentence and doesn’t obey it. He retreats from the eyes of God and builds a city, the first city, which he names Enoch.

“I maintain that this curse upon farmers, who are still prejudiced against their wandering brothers, survives to this day. The land no longer feeds them, and they are forced to pack up their belongings and take to the road.”

So writes Michel Tournier in his novel The Ogre. I doubt whether he cares only about people who raise pigs and chickens, and grow rapeseed, any more than he does about me, and how I grow stones, and not only within my chest. Can we not also see here the dramatic situation of the author? I will allow myself to abridge the last paragraph, and replace the word “land” with “words”. And how will it read then? “I maintain that this curse upon wordsmiths who are still prejudiced against their wandering brothers, survives to this day. The land no longer feeds them, and they are forced to pack up their belongings and take to the road.”

Now it should be a bit clearer, more obvious, where I am going. I will be talking about travelling writers.

Although they don’t all acknowledge or recognise it, travelling writers bear the marks of Cain. Their more sedentary colleagues look at them with suspicion; perhaps they are afraid the travellers might once again raise a hand against someone close, or maybe they simply detect the smell of foreign smoke, or perfume. There is no home, no family without smoke, visible and invisible tensions always hover. And envy is unavoidable. What have I not envied my brother, from baby bottles first to bohemian friends later? I notice ever more frequently that travellers avoid talking about their travels; they turn the conversation in another direction, to the weather and books, and perhaps that’s better, easier for everyone. This is merely a private, almost intimate matter. Almost like the contents of one’s underwear drawer or wallet. Oh, you’re in Lithuania, they say, surprised. Where have you been? someone asks, and the traveller makes excuses. I make excuses, as though I were guilty, and perhaps I am; we are all baptised Catholics, sinners. And who cares that for about half a year I have barely gone further than Zabarija[1],  that the city of the Iron Wolf[2]  hasn’t missed me, that, in Herbert’s words, “From now on I will not appear in any group photographs.” I probably carry the mark of Cain on my forehead; though, unlike Gorbachev’s birthmark, it can’t be seen from a distance. Or, for that matter, from up close.

I used to tell unsolicited stories, I even thought that everyone should be interested, and how could I have been so naïve, as surely one can’t blame everything on one’s youth? Back in time immemorial, soon after Independence[3],  I returned from America, after three months on a literature program in Iowa, carrying, in addition to impressions, a round bottle of Jim Beam, Czesław Miłosz’s favourite drink, and even best wishes from the poet himself, from Berkeley. I was eager to tell the writers in the Council[4]  about literary life in the Great Land, but very unexpectedly, though perhaps only to my own surprise, among Other Topics there would be no room for my own. I drank the bottle of Bourbon with accidental drinking buddies at The Plot[5],  and drew conclusions later, looking for the first signs of Cain in the mirror. To be honest, those signs concerned me more than my first grey hairs. A head of grey – now that looks more serious.

The sedentary observe the travellers with suspicion, there’s no denying it. If you’ve travelled to a literary festival or stayed at a writers’ residence, it would be interesting to know, how did you fit in there? If your work is translated into other languages, maybe that’s how you write, to be translated, to be translatable, pumping out euronovels and europoems? The whole world on the other side of the fence is suspect; the people playing literary games over there, their rules and their values, are unfamiliar and incomprehensible. Hic sunt leones: where there are lions there is a circus, and where there’s a circus there are clowns. Travelling clowns.

“Here they don’t care if you’re a top-level or third-rate poet, a unique linguistic treasure in translations, even in successful ones, in those foreign-language fragments in the writings of great poets and poetesses, one way or another, it’s all for nought.

“Abroad – this is a perfect context for us, the mediocrities! It gives us weight, significance, the illusion of meaningfulness, an inappropriately high pedestal, given one’s size and importance.”

So writes Aidas M., having found himself in Vienna, and so think other sedentary types. In simpler terms, it would go like this: the leading, the exceptional, the uncomfortable are sedentary, while the mediocre, the poseurs, travel. Yes, yes, now I’m going to pull a trump card from my sleeve. While working at the Writers’ Union, in charge of international relations, I invited Seamus Heaney, Tomas Tranströmer and Tomaž Šalamun to the Poetry Spring festival. Lithuania was abroad for them; what a perfect context for mediocrities like them, just right for them. Yes, yes, I agree, examples can only take you so far; generally, they only justify exceptions. But if great literature isn’t based on exceptions, then on what else? Otherwise it risks descending into sociology. And I have lost faith in sociology, to be honest I never had any. At best, I have a weakness for numbers; like how almost weekly we hear that Lithuanians have the greatest faith in firefighters; and there I am, still wasting money and getting insurance for the one great horror, fire.

“It is thought that both of Adam’s sons wrote and begged in smoke,” writes and begs Alfonsas A. Both sons played with fire. Writers play with written and unwritten stories, with angels, death and rhymes. They play with beautiful surfaces, dregs of wine, and cards. Some write first and beg later; while others do the reverse, they beg first and write later. Travellers usually ask for grants, but in the process they are also writing: they write applications, they promise to finish an unfinished book, to write an unwritable novel, to translate untranslatable poems. Only a writer knows what he or she writes after writing the application, because, in the end, nobody else really cares. Projects play out their ephemeral course, the writer is merely a line on an Excel chart. The writer determinedly writes pieces of questionable literary merit (I am referring to applications), and not because life is good. Language no longer feeds the wordsmiths, so they are forced to pack up their belongings and take to the road. That is how Lithuania looks to me from a bird’s-eye view: hundreds of feral, hungry writers, their laptops, tablets and smartphones thrown on to wagons, departing in caravans for the West. The fate of those who remain is not much better: the sedentary, too, can rarely feed themselves from their writing. Some have dual citizenship, sorry, I mean careers, while others, backed into corners, write and request grants from their wives or the state. C’est la vie, as the fatalistic French would say. Some kind of Somalia in the centre of Europe.

Some will say that this picture is as cloudy as condensed milk; but I remember how, in childhood, that was the clearest path to happiness. Once, I came across a can of it among my grandmother’s secret pots. I punctured it with scissors or a knife. What difference does it make? Both instruments are sharp in the same Freudian way. I punctured two holes, and sucked out the thick contents to the last drop, in one go. Happiness blended with crime. Happiness, but without punishment. Why do I remember this now, drinking black coffee in Vienna? Perhaps because that is what writing is, short-lived happiness blended with crime, or, as the French postmodernists would say, with transgression. Maybe because I ended up here, not only because language no longer feeds me. Because, following Alfonsas Nyka-Nyliūnas, I can begin my own biography with his words: “Afterwards, lying in a cradle or in bed, I would spend entire days imagining how I might reach the door, and, crossing the threshold, which at the time seemed to me like some kind of Cerberus at the gates of Hades, severely and unforgivingly examining each one wanting to enter or leave.” Because I am still climbing over that threshold, even in my dreams.

Despite his curse, Cain never became a true wanderer, a nomad par excellence. He merely withdrew far from the Lord’s eyes and founded a city, in fact the first in human history. That would allow us to view his act as archetypal, with which Jung would agree. In other words, let’s not take everything too literally. At least until the archaeologists unearth Enoch in the deserts of Israel or the salt-beds of the Dead Sea. The travelling writer completes this operation, like an organist performs Bach’s Requiem, for the umpteenth time. There, where he finds himself, a city already stands; he has but to destroy some of it to make room for his own. The aforementioned French would nod their heads, yes, yes, deconstruction. To establish a home, become sedentary, a homebody, temporarily of course, but that doesn’t make the challenge any less daunting, the more so because with each new city both energy and memory fade. Less and less of the Baroque, the Rococo, the Gothic, more and more naked body and bare walls.

La petite mort, say the French (are there any words left that they have not said?) about the orgasm, but the travelling writer also needs to die a little, to blow a goodbye kiss to his or her old life. No one wanted to die[6],  no one wants to, but aren’t we talking about the same death here? Travellers always want to die a little, they are slightly suicidal, they are death-worshippers. Sometimes wandering between orgasm and literature. Every time I arrive at a residence, I scan my home with a realtor’s eye, scatter my bachelor’s belongings, and immediately begin building my city. I sketch maps, identifying my cafés, my stores, my garbage bins, my most remote park trails. Like a dog, I mark my territory, sometimes literally. Cities of a travelling dog. Not everyone succeeds in acclimatising immediately, just as some feel nauseous in the mountains or others in the sea. Like that Estonian master poet, who arrived in Visby and drank for three days, roving through the artists’ residence like a wrongly jailed man. He couldn’t come to terms with it, couldn’t die a little in relation to his old life, until Gunila, the mother of all the wanderers, promised to deport him, neither dead nor alive, back to melancholy Estonia earlier than planned. Only then did the poet sober up. He died and was resurrected for the sake of creation. La petite mort. I usually succeed before getting a warning or a reprimand, often even sooner than the Estonian.

And what does another story tell us, not very instructive but worthy of a detective novel, this one about a German prose master? One day, this great writer strangely disappears from the small town of W., or more precisely from a mansion reminiscent of the era of the Kaisers, where twenty or so of Europe’s best suicide victims wrote, painted or played. For several days, we wandered around the imperial ponds, looking for the drowned man. A silence of uncertainty hung over us for two weeks; he was already buried in my mind. I could even see the epitaph (He tried), but then he turned up somewhere in Berlin, where a lot of people end up unexpectedly. I myself have appeared there more than once, and my eyes filled with tears when I heard he was alive. What can you do? I agree with Vonnegut, that author of the ruins of Dresden, who said that the masters of prose have strayed too far from the eyes of the Lord. Maybe his nerves gave out. Or he was working on a crossword. Maybe he had already died at another level of the game. I don’t know, but the master never returned to the village of W.

Artists’ residences. If I had to choose, which word would I put in italics? Which one would you? It’s a silly question, like one asked by a beginner journalist playing with dichotomies, as though it wasn’t really his own; it’s probably fun when an author of a distinguished age is tripped up, mutters on the one hand, on the other hand, and tries to be conscientious when no one has asked for it. I feel as though I have been tied up, and at the same time that I would feel worse if I were released, I say in the voice of Kafka’s notebook. A burning lamp, the room is quiet, outside it is dark, the last moments of awareness, which give me the right to write, even if only about the most minor things. A right I hurry to use. That’s how I am. That’s how I am. The rooms I stay in are usually unlucky; it seems as though someone has just betrayed or neglected them, taken the paintings off the walls, the clothes from the hangers, removed all the holiday souvenirs. The shelves contain the odd book in an unreadable language just like now, when next to several unknown names I recognise one I have heard somewhere, such as “Blaubarts Kinder”, “Bluebeard’s Children”, and standing on a cupboard, a framed poster of a monkey, probably a chimpanzee, as it looks so human, holding a banana in its hairy hand, the thick type aligned with its blue eyes: “Hallo, liest da jemand?” The word liest is italicised. Yes, and also sometimes and I read. For italics still have their place.

The carpets have been rolled up and sent back to Baghdad or Damascus, the bare floors creak. Except for the Wannzee residence, which is hushed and mysterious, all the rooms and corridors covered in carpets, but I’m not too surprised that this is a bordello. A former one, of course. And a lot of white, to paraphrase Nietzsche; white, much too white, so that I feel as though I’m in a hospital lobby or ward, which makes me want to invite all of the city’s graffiti artists to come over and party (these days we’d say to a blow out). Never mind. A room is a room, and this time we’ll manage without Chekhov.

Sometimes I try to brighten up the atmosphere in a room and, like an inexperienced lover, buy gifts, African masks from flea markets, silver spoons, copper teapots, empty picture frames. I collect rocks on seashores, and once brought back an African drum, even tried to extract a tone-deaf melody from it. I am sure that when I pack up and leave, with all my temporary gifts, the rooms become bleak again. It’s just a game for me. That’s how I am. I’ll use even the smallest thing as an excuse to write. Such as gifts for lovers. Or italics. Or the residence by Lake Wannzee, which before the war was a high-class brothel, and where, in 1942, German military fat cats, today we would say elite, gathered to toast a decision that had been made on the other side of the lake regarding the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Or about the artists’ residence in a monastery by Lake Zug. About artists’ residences without italics.

The artists’ residence as adventure? And why not? That’s another twist. It doesn’t end happily for everyone: while some extract literary oil from their adventures, others are themselves squeezed dry like soapy sponges. Here is Herkus K., who has travelled to many residences, describing a grey-haired Portuguese woman writer, F., who “crying on my shoulder, confessed that this evening she feels she finds herself at the edge of an abyss. Her books are no longer published, she can no longer afford to feed herself, and, as the years go by, grants are ever harder to obtain. Having travelled the entire world in the last forty years and having had many love affairs, today she has neither family nor home. But the worst of all is that her stay at the residence ends tomorrow, and the next one, somewhere in the hills of Provence, only begins in six months. Where will she go tomorrow? Where can she find refuge? She sees no point in returning to Portugal, it’s too far, she can’t afford it, there’s no one waiting for her, as she hasn’t even been there for a quarter of a century.” Even Cain would be grieved by such stories. Never mind that they are not instructive. Especially to those bearing the mark of Cain. I have always admired gamblers, those who play for all or nothing, but more as movie characters. Without makeup, good suits, and a dozen or so credit cards in their pockets, they, how can I put this subtly, lack elegance. They cry on your shoulder.

“Our paths crossed. We exchanged a few words, and something happened in that moment that, not being a poet, I won’t even attempt to describe. Suffice it to say that Eros interfered. From that moment, I became someone else.” How many travellers will be brave enough to admit that Coetzee, my cherished African, wrote these lines for them? I shouldn’t have to remind you that, one way or another, everything has been written, as those French have proclaimed, that one need only find the appropriate books, or at least quotes. Say, for example, Once upon a time in America has also been heard. Not by everyone, so once upon a time in America, in a writers’ residence, a Dutch poet unexpectedly raised a Hamletian question, just asked it bluntly: her or Penthouse? In such a matter-of-fact and un-Shakespearian manner, that’s those free Amsterdam universities for you. And what can I say? Still basically a country bumpkin, I went and said, or maybe I only wanted to say, so I’m saying it now: you know, unholy Mary, I said, starlings only hear the call of nature at home, in Lithuania, and only in spring. That is where they copulate, and hatch their eggs, and do all the other hard work, while in your Africas and Americas they vacation, as though on heavenly beaches, and there they become pure once again in the eyes of God. But how can I know what those starlings do in their free time, of which they have an awful lot in the winter, and they don’t write, but maybe they do look for adventures, or lose their minds. A few days later, I saw her with a local, black-skinned starling. Did I envy him? To be honest, a little. Just as all travellers envy the sedentary. Even unfulfilled adventures change a lot, even after many years. Not to mention adventures that do take place. But in every case is it enough to say that Eros interfered? And what if it was Thanatos? Or some drunken Dionysus?

And after all, they are artists’ residences. The French have written everything on my behalf. I have written a few things for them too, such as my posthumous book on postmodernism, which I wrote night and day in a Hanseatic city, as the church bells tolled. I did some translation for them, in that artists’ residence: a couple of Poles, who stress the penultimate, rather than the last syllable, not at all how the French would have them do it. I played in too high a key in Graz, perhaps because I was living on a mountain, where the air is thinner, so that I wrote a lot of falsettos that didn’t suit any book. In Krems, circling around the local prison for a month, I wrote a tourist guide for Proust. The book of my own life I began on an island, and finished ten years later in the mountains. In Berlin, like the centipede in the joke, I forgot which foot to start on, and stumbled away for a year. Other times, when I remembered, I would write a lot of sad poems. I wrote my most beautiful poem in Zug. The one that is not even a poem. And even brought home a couple of unfinished books. In another residence, I cried on the last day. I feel as though I have been tied up, and at the same time that I would feel worse if I were released.

Scylla and Charybdis, which would you italicise? When you have just returned from a journey, it doesn’t seem like such a stupid question.

Translated by Karla Gruodis

 

1. A village 50 kilometres from Vilnius (translator’s note).

2. Vilnius (translator’s note).

3. Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990 (translator’s note).

4. The Council of the Lithuanian Writers’ Union (translator’s note).

5. The café at the Writers’ Union (translator’s note).

6. A reference to the 1966 film by Vytautas Žalakevičius (translator’s note).

 

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