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Valdas Papievis (born in 1962 in Anykščiai) is a prose writer and translator. In 1985 he graduated from Vilnius University in Lithuanian literature, and worked at Vilnius University in the Rector’s Office from 1985 until 1990. In 1990-1992 he was an adviser for Darius Kuolys, the Minister of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania at the time. From 1988 to 1990 he, together with others, was publishing a notable cultural magazine, “Sietynas,” independent from Soviet censorship. He also worked at Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty until 2004. Papievis collaborates with Lithuanian National Radio and Television (LRT). He has been living in Paris since 1992.

Papievis is the author of eight prose books. He debuted in 1989 with the novel “Ruduo provincijoje” (Autumn in the provinces). Among his many prizes, his novel “Eiti” (To go) was awarded a prize as the most creative book of the year in 2011. His novel “Odilė, arba oro uostų vienatvė” (Odile, or the solitude of airports) was nominated for Book of the year and was selected as the most creative books of the year in 2015. In 2016 he received the prestigious National Award for Culture and Arts in Lithuania. Two of his translated novels have been published, both in 2020: “Eiti”, renamed “Un morceau de ciel sur terre,” translated by Caroline Paliulis, appeared in French by Editions Le Soupirail, and in German his novel, “Odile oder die Einsamkeit der Flughäfen,” translated by Markus Roduner, was published by KLAK Verlag. His short story, “Echo, or the Sieve of Time,” translated by Violeta Kelertas into English, appeared in The Kenyon Review, July/August in 2019.  Valdas Papievis has continued the story in Lithuanian, turning it into a novel, published as “Ėko” in 2021 by the Vilnius publisher, Odilė. It is being translated into English by the same translator.

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Musée de Cluny, 24 rue du Sommerard, 5ème arrondissement. Jardin. Atget, Eugène (Jean Eugène Auguste Atget, dit), Photographe. Atget, Eugène (Jean Eugène Auguste Atget, dit), Tireur de photographies. En 1900, Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris

Interview by Saulius Vasiliauskas

Translated by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas

 

 

My first meeting with writer Valdas Papievis, currently a resident of Paris, occurred during his sojourn in Vilnius in late summer. We met – symbolically – at an outdoor café near the monument to Romain Gary. We discussed many matters over a glass of wine but eventually decided that the questions for this interview best be answered in writing. Here we present the result of our correspondence.

The act of writing can be understood as a way to record the past – an attempt to immortalize conditions and moods or to emphasize or “act out” separate events of the past. Thinking about your work (and your biography), I’d say that it has a close connection to memory, to specific places, namely cities. Would you agree?

To write is to create a story while covering your tracks.

To speak about yourself or your writing is to create another story while also covering your tracks.

If I could say the things I wish to say without writing, I wouldn’t write.

My true biography is in my books.

Without covering my tracks, I can only state that in my life there are three cities: Anykščiai, Vilnius, and Paris.

Anykščiai is the city of my birth. There was a stretch of wasteland right next to my house with a heap of stones. We used to build thrones for ourselves out of those stones when we were kids, unaware that we would never become real kings later in life.

Vilnius is the city of my youth, the city where I studied and where I met my friends who, I was unaware at that time, are the people who will remain my friends until the end. How can a person not feel nostalgic about their youth, or the city of their youth?

But to me, Vilnius, with its old town streets and alleys, with its two rivers and the morning fog that stretches across the city’s knolls, which we refer to as hills, by its very nature is a nostalgic place. It exists on the fringes of Europe, a dog of a city that sits at your feet while you stroke it as much as you want. It’s a shame we haven’t learned to groom it yet, at least without hurting it.

I then ended up in Paris. I did not expect to since before, as a prisoner within the empire’s walls, to me going to Paris seemed like going to the moon. An utterly different environment, people’s utterly different attitude, and an utterly different relationship to life. Perhaps it was my own environment or my upbringing that made me think that in Lithuania, the razor-sharp meaning of our life verges upon suffering. For our life to be meaningful, we must be always be engaged in work, writing, and reading, while each idle minute also leads to suffering, since it is spent in vain. Perhaps one of the most important “lessons” that Paris taught me is to enjoy life, as singular and remarkable as it is. When I moved to Paris, it felt like even daily life here is less depressing, somewhat “aerial,” even more “aesthetic,” though I’m not sure whether Algirdas Julien Greimas would agree with the term here. Having found myself in Paris after the recent end of the Soviet reality that surrounded me, I was bound to feel this way.

The only more apparent difference between Vilnius and Paris, for me personally, is that Parisians feel less of a distinction between private and public space. When we leave our homes, we “head out into the city.” In Paris, the city is an extension of my home.

“Between” is where I truly live. Between Anykščiai, Vilnius, and Paris: more or less everywhere, but truly nowhere. I enjoy transitory states, actually – the time between the break of dawn but before morning, or at sunset before the end of evening. The same goes for cities.

 

As a professional writer, do you make an effort to write every day? How is the origin of your most recent book Ėko different from that of your other works? To my knowledge, it was first published in 2019 with a small print run of 17 hand-bound copies. How did you decide to expand it into a new edition?

I am not a professional writer. Writing happens to me or it doesn’t. Perhaps it is strange, but Ėko came from a very great desire to write and an inability to do so. I felt quite miserable: not a single character or character profile, no narrative, however ephemeral, not even a sentence. I tell this to a painter I know, and she says: “Why don’t you try doing what I do?  Perhaps it’ll help?” “And how do you do it?” I ask. “When I can’t paint, I do sketches in my notebook. I’ll draw anything: houses, trees, or people on the bus or the subway – in secret. I draw what I see. You should try it too. Maybe those notes could prove useful?”

And I did. I took my computer and headed into the city. This was in August 2016. Paris was empty – the locals were vacationing, and the visitors that typically fill the streets in their stead were gone after the November 2015 attacks; tourists were afraid of the city. I sat with my computer on my lap. So, so, so, so? I couldn’t think of anything but “here.” But what is “here”? I thought I should stick to the advice I was given and write about the things I saw. From there – not just what I saw, also what I felt: “This here: the languidness of summer. Summer, it seems, will never end...”

My imagination kicked in as I described the empty city of Paris: what would it look like if the locals also never returned? I recall a feeling of torpor that made me think that nobody can ever return to this city and never will. The imagery of the abandoned apartments, the decrepit bridges, and the overgrown Luxembourg Gardens all sprang from this feeling. I very much enjoyed writing those passages, but you can’t just do descriptions without end – so then I found a dog for my character, or had the dog found him? I did not venture further.

This resulted in a novel of sorts. It got translated and published in The Kenyon Review, I believe because the Americans enjoyed imagining Paris in ruin. I always wanted to continue the story. But how? What is there to do for my character and his dog in an empty Paris?

I had many possible sequels in mind. When I wrote about desolation in Paris, it felt like I must target at least one brick of Notre Dame, but I told myself – stop. This would be an act of literary terror. Sacrilege. So I didn’t do it. I remember inventing many possible avenues, many developments which would all lead to the same ending – everything would collapse save for the cathedral, which would stand as a symbol of Western civilization. And then Notre Dame caught fire.

The sequel had to bide its time until they announced the first lockdown, and I went out into the streets of Paris and felt like I was walking through the pages of my own writing. The dam broke again.

Then came the theme of refugees, the origins of which are a mystery to me. Perhaps I too felt somewhat like a refugee? Maybe more like an expellee in a world that no longer needs us. I would not dare to think that a year later the compass would turn and my country would find itself in the same predicament. And that the myth of Lithuania – God’s ear on the fringes of Europe – would crumble, and that we would see ourselves carried by the same winds of globalization. And that we would request aid from those whom just recently we ourselves were reluctant to help.

I also say that this kind of spontaneous writing interested me because as I wrote, or just after I had finished writing something, I would often find reality surpassing the capabilities of my imagination.

Valdas Papievis interview 03Rue de Bièvre", Atget, Eugène (Jean Eugène Auguste Atget, dit) , Photographe, En 1924, Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris, PH3851, CC0 Paris Musées / Musée Carnavalet

 

In Ėko you portray Paris in desolation and decay, while the story is one of melancholic destruction (perhaps of civilization itself?), individual alienation, and protracted time. Can we consider Ėko a dystopian novel, given the geopolitical and environmental challenges of our time – a potential scenario for our bleak future, a retribution for the damage humanity has inflicted on nature? Surely at the time of writing, you were unaware of the global disaster that the Covid-19 pandemic would become.

I try to think of what made me imagine Paris in such a state. When I began to picture it this way, I remembering telling myself that I was getting immersed in absolute fiction and that this was not my territory, that my imagination was too weak to carry me any further. Indeed, there was a vague feeling of something not being right, some vague sense of anxiety. Perhaps it can be traced to my time spent working in Lithuanian radio, very engaged in all the news, attacks, climate change, and the Paris Agreement conference, where they said that if we do not act, the processes will become uncontrollable and gradual destruction will follow – something along those lines. I also remember them saying: think of what we will leave for our future generations. And it seemed that if anything should happen, it would happen when we were not around anymore. And I recall being persistently dogged by a sentence I had read in Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, a statement that stuck with me: that times can only get worse.

I do not in any possible way associate our present condition with any sort of retribution or warning, one which was sent to us. Such outbreaks have been known to happen and will continue to, although this is the first global one. For me it translated into a pause, offered by the given circumstances, to reconsider our role in this world and whether we are chiefs big enough to do as we please here, and to remember that we are merely an element of nature, so we must expect that eventually it will even the score with us.

In my book Eiti, I wrote: “When we perish, it seems the whole world perishes with us.” But the vector is opposite in this case: the doomed city dooms the character in it. It is strange how opposite vectors can meet in the same places. Maybe this is why the moods described in this book are somewhat like those in Eiti, despite the opposing frames of reference.

Besides the so-called great expanse of time, we all have our own short time to live out. The pandemic, especially in the beginning, made me focus on the sensation of mortality. Death is not far and not reserved for some point in time – it is here, and maybe even now, for all you know. It is a bird, Death, that sits on your shoulder.

But no. I did not experience a sense of collapse of either the great expanse of time or my own short time here on Earth. I was more pervaded by a sense of valediction, echoed by “We know to have lived in happy times only when they end.” I simply felt sorry for time gone by, time both mine and everyone else’s.

I felt the need to say farewell, first to my own books that I had written in the past; it seems the characters from those books of mine naturally approached me to say goodbye. And to the books I read in my childhood and youth – thus the literary references in Ėko, perhaps there to be found by some book sleuth.

I even decided that I would write my final book and that I shall continue writing it until I die, whenever that happens. I had come up with various turning points for my narratives, even bringing characters from my past work into the picture. But days turned into weeks, and weeks went by as they began to talk of easing the first lockdown in France. At that point, I felt like I must stop here and now. I knew that I would never wade into the same river of emotion that I had already been in.

It turned out to be a small book. One literary pundit called it a novel – since a book’s genre is determined not by its page number, and world literature has seen smaller novels put into print. One reader called it a notebook. To me, this description fits better. All of my writing, whether short stories or novels, are, simply put, notes. Attempts to relive my personal experiences and transform them from an intimate diary into a text that has the capacity to speak to others and not just me.

 

The novel posits the classical opposition of the city (culture) vs. nature (natural order). For example: “And indeed, the more the people in the city dwindled, the more it seemed that the city was returning to nature, or perhaps more precisely, nature was returning to it.” (p. 9) Or “Truly the plants and the animals had nothing to declare nor to say, and indeed nothing to prove; they simply returned to the lives that we had taken from them.” (p. 21). Did you intend to emphasize this opposition?

I would care to believe that we are now grasping the notion that the essential things in our lives depend on our relationship to nature. We were brave enough to antagonize it with culture, with civilization in general; we wished to surpass it, and sometimes we mocked it. Nature is very generous and patient. It is not spiteful, and it does not take revenge. But its survival instinct is stronger than ours. It depends on us, yet we depend on it more. We are part of it, and naturally it is much greater and more powerful than us or anything that we do or create. What I mean to say by this is that we should respect our boundaries.

I wrote this three years ago: “Nature can bid us farewell quietly, easily. Our vacation here will end here and now, in the most surprising of ways.”

I do not try to oppose culture/civilization with nature. I sometimes think though, perhaps we should be a little slower, more silent? More humble? Can we not feel how the axle on the rollercoaster ride is starting to break?

 

We can also find some Lithuanian folk elements in the book, like the skudučiai panpipes or the polyphonic sutartinės songs, as well as bird breeds from the Lithuanian countryside. Are these symbols testament to a longing felt in emigration? Or perhaps the word “emigration” is too strong, too retrograde, too backward for a globalized world?

When I wrote about Paris, and Provence, France, in general, I always cared to include some Lithuanian realia, maybe some reminiscence or metaphor about Lithuania. I began putting in conscious effort to avoid that after I published Vienos vasaros emigrantai because the existential experiences that I wished to portray were quickly associated by some with the lot of a poor emigrant who didn’t fit in. I then felt like as I watched from a distance how Lithuania mourned both me and my character.

I don’t write about emigration. Or maybe I do write about emigration only as much as each and every one of us is an emigrant: our origins uncertain, our direction unknown.

But the Lithuanian details in Ėko were not borne of any longing whatsoever – how can you long for something that is in you?

So I suppose it was borne of that same sense of valediction.

And because I got bored of covering my tracks.

 

A French translation of Eiti was published in 2020. You had mentioned that your book tour, which would have included 20 cities in France, was cut short by the pandemic. What do you make of your experiences in communicating with publishers? How do they perceive your works, or, more broadly speaking, the works of authors from small countries?

I am very glad that the translation of Eiti found itself in the hands of Emmanuelle Moysan, head of the publishing house Le Soupirail. The manuscript had already been translated for more than five years. Naturally, I had offered it to several publishing houses, and based on the advice of my friends and my own vanity – the biggest ones. I won’t say who. Their responses were different but essentially the same. For example, your text is very good but it does not fit our line of publishing. I was pleased to find a handwritten response in my mailbox, a very rare phenomenon in our time: your text is very good. I happened to fit the line of publishing that time, but all forthcoming titles were planned a year in advance, while the person who had contacted me was preparing to retire and there was nobody to replace them yet. After several attempts to get in touch with them again, I received the following response: your text is very good, but our reader panel has voted that it does not guarantee financial success. That is when I lost hope. However, I knew that it was typical for budding and later-famous writers in France to pound on the doors of dozens of publishing houses before they would find anyone willing to take an interest in their first book.

I trusted my gut feeling that manuscripts have a habit of emerging at precisely the right time.

Why do I say that I am glad for the happy coincidence that led Emmanuelle to come upon the translation for Eiti? Because from the moment we first met I felt that she was very sensitive to my work. We met at a café and spent several hours talking over a glass of wine while Emmanuelle proceeded to ask me about the book, about what writing is to me, and about me and my life in Paris. I can laugh about it now, but I must confess that I had been so invested in the conversation that I felt physically exhausted by the time I got back home.

What I am trying to say is that Emmanuelle is very perceptive, not just about her manuscripts but her authors as well. She does all she can when it comes to making sure that the books reach their readerships and begin living lives of their own.

When Eiti was published, she had planned many book launches all across France. I was even anxious about surviving it all, but the pandemic put a stop to it. I had been invited to participate in the famous literary festival for northern and Baltic states called the Les Boréales, but that got cancelled as well.

Le Soupirail is a small publishing house. They don’t publish many books over the year. They publish both French and foreign authors, and they pick their books very diligently, based on the quality of the manuscript. I like to think that my and Emmanuelle’s criteria for judging the quality of a work are the same, or at least very much alike, but it is not my place to discuss that. I am simply happy to be included in her catalogue of authors.

Eiti was published with a different title in French. The primary option was “Marcher,” even though an infinitive for a title is not typical in Lithuanian. One French writer suggested adding “Marcher encore et encore” –  To walk again and again. But then Emmanuele Macron established his political party “En marche” and the title “Marcher” had to be abandoned. Emmanuelle found the book’s title in the text: “Un morceau de ciel sur terre” – A morsel of sky on earth.

 Valdas Papievis interview 04Cour du Mûrier, école des Beaux-Arts, 6ème arrondissement, Paris. Atget, Eugène (Jean Eugène Auguste Atget, dit), Photographe. Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris, PH30545, CC0 Paris Musées / Musée Carnavalet

 

The novel was translated by Karolina Masiulytė-Paliulis. What did the translation process look like? What do you think of the French translation?

In my opinion, translation is about transferring feelings, emotions, vibrations, the musical quality of the work, and the entirety of its meaning into another language. Every language is a piano. Same model, but each a little unique in its own way. When translating, I think the most important thing is to make sure the second piano is playing the same tune as the first one, of course bearing in mind the nuances of a different set of notes. Translation, inevitably, is variation. So maybe translation is like jazz? Strange, but as I read Karolina’s variations in French, I come upon certain nuances – motifs, repetitions, metaphors – in my text that I hadn’t realized were there in the first place.

I would always tell Karolina that I didn’t care as much about accuracy as I did about the rhythm and general feeling of the book. When I am in the moment to write, and when seized by that impulse, I write down things as they come to me. Some of my sentences are very long and the imagery complex, and even I found it difficult to explain some of the images or metaphors to Karolina. But owing to her sensibility for words, people, and simply everything that surrounds us, Karolina managed to remain faithful to my text and retain both its rhythm and general feeling. When I read Eiti in French, I felt like I was home. Indeed, to translate is to move your text into a new home.

I know that Emmanuelle and Karolina spent many hours on the phone editing and polishing a translation that was already very well-polished, all in order for my work to be comfortable in its new home. Emmanuelle also told me that she read the translation at least ten times before putting it to print.

When it comes to publishing foreign literature, manuscript quality equals translation quality.

 

In one of your interviews, you stated, “when I don’t write, it feels like everything around passes me by, as if I were living and not living at the same time.”[1] Do you find writing to be more of a craft or a profession, or more a way of life?

I’m used to it now, but sometimes I still get confused when people call me a writer. Being a writer is having a profession, having a craft, while to me writing never seemed like work, more like a condition. I dare say, a somewhat existential condition. No matter how you put it, it is time spent in absolute solitude that brings you closer to all people, even those you’ve never met, and a time when you distance yourself from all possible worlds and yet submerge yourself within them, gaining access to their broadest landscapes and most subtle nuances.

For me to be struck by this mood of writing, I must do nothing for long periods of time, basking in the joy of idleness: lighting cigarette after cigarette on the banks of the Seine and watching water run beneath my feet, drinking wine on a café terrace, strolling aimlessly about the city. I had deliberated before whether the greatest things in our lives occur when we feel like nothing is happening to us. I can’t say what happens to me during those times, but for me really anything can be the force that pulls the trigger: words such as “like a day in a basket” spoken by my mother (Ruduo provincijoje), a soaking wet plan of the city of Paris that I picked up from the asphalt (Vienos vasaros emigrantai), music from the film In The Mood for Love blasting full volume while storm clouds gather beyond the window  (Eiti), or the sound of rolling luggage wheels (Odilė). I wait for the mood of writing to come upon me like a hunter awaits its prey.

There are instants in time when you overcome that fear of the void and write the first sentence without any real effort. Then the second and the third sentence. You pick up pace and you follow a trail. I don’t have an ear for music, and I don’t know whether I have an ear for language, but I submit myself fully to it; as I seek out words and syntactic derivations, I discover things about myself I was not aware of. Perhaps if we made more effort to listen to what we say, might we understand more about ourselves?

I trust language – it will take me where I must go. Yet trepidation follows too – will I hear the inaudible music of language?

I envy those who can create a narrative in advance, those who see how their characters will behave in certain circumstances from knowing their personalities, and those who know how their books will end before they begin writing them. And those who tell themselves: “I will write for this many hours now, later go for a walk, and maybe I will write some more, or I won’t.” Writing takes me by surprise. Usually it doesn’t. Once you pick up the pace, though, it becomes easier, as long as you don’t let the thread of intuition lead you out of sight. But even that is not always true.

Because to write is to walk the tightrope of uncertainty. It feels like you know everything and you know nothing at the same time. When you’re walking a tightrope, at the very least you are aware of falling, and you see yourself stumbling. However, when you write, you cannot say if you haven’t fallen yet – was this a step or a stumble? – and whether your further efforts will amount to anything.

 

What is your relationship to language? Have you ever tried writing in French?

What we call a “native language” the French describe as a “mother language.” I think both these terms are equal in their own ways. A “mother language” means that language develops with us in the womb, we are nursed with it, it is innate for us. I would associate the term “native language” more with a collective experience – a collective unconscious, according to Jung. Anyhow, the collective experience and the collective unconscious – if they exist at all – would converge in language.

Why won’t I write in French? I can’t and I won’t. Because my French is learned, not innate. No matter how good I get at it, I still won’t be able to use it to say the things and speak the volumes that I can in Lithuanian. French will always be a crutch that lets me navigate daily life, but with it, I do not have the capacity to express the essential matters of being. Because I will never understand the whole subtlety of the language as do those who were nursed by it, those whose collective experiences were informed by it. My French words do not stem from the roots of grass and certainly do not reach the treetops, so anything deeper or higher than that is a lost cause.

 Valdas Papievis interview 05Port de Solférino, vers le pont Royal, 7ème arrondissement, Paris. Atget, Eugène (Jean Eugène Auguste Atget, dit) , Photographe, En 1911. Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris, PH7906, CC0 Paris Musées / Musée Carnavalet.

 

How closely do you follow social phenomena in Lithuania? What do you make of the recent vaccination protests or the Family Defense March? In your opinion, what is behind the radicalization in our society and our inability to seek reason in dialogue?

A book by historian Norbertas Černiauskas titled Paskutinė Lietuvos vasara was published this year. It details the events of the year 1940 – Lithuania’s last summer before occupation by the Soviets, then the Nazis, and the Soviets again. I felt like some natural parallels could have been made with the tensions that arose this summer; some matters seemed similar only in outline, and yet some ran along the same bold strokes. I’ll paraphrase the title of John Steinbeck’s book and say that in Lithuania, last summer could be called The Summer of Our Discontent. The things we saw as durable and sustainable turned out to be the opposite, and the matters that seemed distant suddenly became our reality and made us look in a mirror larger than the size of Lithuania. The issues that, say, France struggled with one after another, in a consecutive way, befell Lithuania all at once and became tangled in a knot – a knot that will be difficult to untie.

Not just to Lithuania, but the world too.

Yet I am baffled: we fly to the Moon and we observe the most distant of galaxies, but we cannot deal with some small body invisible to the naked eye. And that this invisible body forces us to reload our whole civilization. “Reloading Civilization” is not a term I made up but the title of a Lithuanian radio show. These words tell me that we have begun to approach new avenues of thinking.

This virus that I called a body invisible to the naked eye – perhaps it can serve as an example of the age-old rule that the greatest calamities begin with the smallest of tides?

Whatever the case may be, our world and our lives are filled with beauty, which is there for us to experience lest we ruin it with our personal blunders or the inadequacy of our societal-political structures.

 

1.  https://www.15min.lt/kultura/naujiena/literatura/nacionalines-premijos-laureatas-v-papievis-visas-mano-gyvenimas-yra-atostogos-286-728704

 

 

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