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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

by Elžbieta Banytė


Antanas Skema review 02The novel White Shroud will be published by Glasgow based independent publishing house Vagabond Voces.

Following the publication of Antanas Škėma’s Balta drobulė (The White Shroud) in Germany and high praise from publications like Spiegel magazine, an English translation of the novel, by Karla Gruodis, is soon to be published by Vagabond Voices (Glasgow). Born in 1910 in Łódź, Poland, Antanas Škėma is seen by Lithuanians as something between a teen idol (the decadently smoldering cigarette in his hand, ironically crooked smile, elegantly crumpled neckerchief) and a classic writer put on a pedestal by academics for expanding Lithuanian literature for its introduction of stream of consciousness and its blunt depiction of madness and sex, existentialism, and even nihilism. Controversy was guaranteed in the sixties, and now? What’s so interesting and attractive about this text, (written in the US and Canada in 1952–1954 and published in 1958) which will turn 70 in 2018? What does it offer and why is it still read and so well-liked, often cited by Lithuanians as their all-time favorite novel?

First we should establish the context. As the author confessed indirectly to his doctor and friend Julius Kaupas, Škėma’s creative work is autobiographical; it is deeply rooted in its era and depicts it without decoration, without sugarcoating, without the author polishing it to the extent of degrading it to the level of banner headlines about preserving national values. The author’s life was not an easy one. His family only returned to Lithuania in 1921, residing in Russia and Ukraine before that. Upon their return, he went to Lithuanian high schools to study medicine and law but he didn’t graduate. He entered a drama studio instead and became an actor. He performed and directed plays during the war. With the Nazi army retreating from Lithuania, he escaped to Germany in 1944, like many remaining Lithuanian intellectuals, alarmed by the menace of Soviet occupation. According to some sources, 70% of the members of the Writer’s Office, the equivalent of the present Lithuanian Writers Union, left Lithuania after World War II. Škėma kept writing, directing, and performing in Germany in a Displaced Persons camp. In 1949, he managed to emigrate to the US. Right up to the end of his life, he took unskilled jobs there, folding boxes and working in a factory and as an elevator-operator in a large hotel. In his own words, he learned how to do art while working, and his bosses thought him to be a decent but unambitious worker, a sort of “likable savage.” He was an active participant in the large community of Lithuanian expatriates and the conferences held by the liberal émigré society Santara-Šviesa. On his way back from one of these gatherings in 1961 (which included a performance of a Škėma play in which a character dies owing to a gem hidden in his pipe), the author was killed in a car crash. Interestingly, French existentialist Albert Camus, whose ideas and work had a great impact on Škėma, was killed in a car crash as well in 1960. A train ticket was later found in the pocket of the famous Frenchman: it was only at the last minute that he decided to go by car, instead of taking the train. Strange but striking coincidences: the absurd deaths of the people who tried to understand absurdity itself.

In his 1951 autobiography, written in a newspaper Draugas, Škėma alludes to the fact that he used to swing from the bodies of hanged White Guards during the Russian Civil War, then tosses out an ironic remark: perhaps that was where his love for corpses came from. The same style is also found in his fiction: tragedy is darkened by sarcasm, the grotesque, and a wide network of intertextual connections. The writer’s difficult personality is revealed too, further complicating the already complicated reception of his unorthodox texts, which annoyed post-war expatriates who were conservative and focused on the national questions and preservation of the national character and culture. Škėma was ironic, impulsive, and often acted without thinking. For example, he groundlessly accused a former lover of plagiarism. All his life, he dreaded succumbing into the mental illness that his mother had. He didn’t believe in the declarative patriotism of the expatriates:
he stated once that all of them, including himself, fled occupied Lithuania. He also stressed that there is no heroism in safe declarations of love to one’s homeland when “real heroes are dying in Lithuania.” This position seemed to prevent him from writing romanticized texts soaked in wistfulness for a lost homeland. Škėma openly mocked various stereotypes and clichés, and affected poses and ostensible decorum in his work. He didn’t attempt to conceal the tragedy of the individual and the individual underneath the sentimental nationalist rhetoric typical of small conquered nations.

The White Shroud is Škėma’s only novel, rightly considered by the critics to be his most significant text. He also wrote a number of plays, poems, essays, and short stories. The novel focuses on Antanas Garšva (the corresponding names are hardly accidental) who escaped from Lithuania at the end of World War II and is now working as an elevator-operator in a hotel. The novel’s working title was Keltuvas (The Lift), as this is where the most of the action takes place (not so much external action, to be sure, as that which occurs in the protagonist’s consciousness). Garšva is a creative person, a poet, hopelessly in love with a married woman. He is diagnosed with neurasthenia and has repeated attacks of amnesia, a consequence of being beaten and tortured by Soviet agents who tried to force him into writing propagandist poems glorifying Soviet leaders. The action takes place on a single day, starting with Garšva arriving at work in one of the biggest hotels in New York and ending in his apartment the next afternoon. We find out about Garšva’s past in several unusual ways: each chapter is composed of two parts. The first one consists of the happenings in New York, the second of Garšva’s memories, or certain “texts within texts,” titled “From the Notebooks of Antanas Garšva” (observant readers may notice that the protagonist gives these notebooks to Elena, his lover, to read). Reconstructing the connections between the seemingly fragmentary parts of the novel is a great pleasure to the reader, as the memories explain why he goes through his present life in New York the way he does.

As he was self-educated, Škėma’s knowledge remained unsystematic. He gained his knowledge from other Lithuanian expatriate writers, mostly from the poet Henrikas Radauskas, whose taste and erudition he trusted. Radauskas tried to deter Škėma from using excessive citations and references to various artists and works but didn’t succeed. The extensive intertextual network, as well as the fragmentary composition of the novel, described by literature expert Loreta Mačianskaitė as a literary collage, is one of the ways to show the complexity and fragmentary nature of modern individuals and the modern world. The novels’ fragmentary composition echoes the protagonist’s fragmentary mind. From his memories we discover that his mother had schizophrenia (later the protagonist decides to reject the women he loved because he doesn’t want to burden them), that he raped his first love, that he shot a young Russian soldier when serving as a partisan during the war, that there was a brothel providing “services” to soldiers in his house during the German occupation. In other words, the story of one man illustrates the tragedy of many, stating clearly: whoever the invader, whatever the purpose, war is a source of evil, as it turns everyone merely into
enemies and allies, diminishing the category of humanism. An individual can only survive by looking for the truth, by refusing to give in to slogans. “I followed the commandments for seekers,” he says when accused of breaking the law in an allegorical courtroom scene.

The White Shroud is thus more than a schizophrenic novel about a schizophrenic, or a person whose worldview is completely detached from reality and who can’t say anything about it. On the contrary: Garšva is intellectual, sensitive, and observant, but he’s damaged. The metaphor of “a replanted bush” is used to express the personal drama of emigration. Someone who was torn from his culture brutally and against his will can only vegetate and decline instead of growing and blossoming in the new foreign one. In Garšva’s case, the state of exile further deepens his schizophrenia – he’s forced to be “a Lithuanian kaukas in a Strauss operetta.” The already split personality is further split by the complicated unnatural identity of a noble-born European doing work that’s unsuitable for his nature and physical condition, in an American metropolis. This is also highlighted by the technique of stream of consciousness, the use of which here is probably the most impressive in Lithuanian literature. Consciousness seems to flow in three levels in Škėma’s novel. The first level is New York in the present: in the closing sections of the novel, as madness is nearing, that New York reality grows smaller. The second is Garšva’s memories provoked by accidental details spotted in New York (e.g. a carnelian ring reminds him of old family history). The third, which rapidly gains dominance over the others, is Garšva’s inner reality, where memories are transformed, strange visions and fantasies are created, and echoing snippets of forgotten poems and song are heard.

It’s the second time that the word kaukas has showed up in the text, which I haven’t yet explained. It can be employed to unfold the mythological code of the novel, which, as the matter of fact, is one of the most interesting ones. In pre-Christian Lithuanian mythology, a kaukas is the spirit of a dead unbaptized child. This creature, an intermediate between birth and death, reflects Garšva’s existence: an unfulfilled poet, a Lithuanian intellectual in a foreign space – in an American elevator, hanging between the poles of heaven and earth, without a stable foundation or a defined status: “Up and down, up and down in this strictly defined space. This is where the new gods have put Sisyphus. […] Sisyphus no longer needs sinewy muscles. A triumph of rhythm and counterpoint. Synthesis, harmony, up and down, Antanas Garšva works elegantly.” The Sisyphus myth is, naturally, a reference to the famous text by Camus. It is both interesting and remarkable that instead of taking the ideas of French existentialism and converting them into his own language Škėma,transforms them, supplements them and, I would say, even complicates them.

The White Shroud, undoubtedly, explores the meaning and purpose of literature and art. This is where art’s (and an individual’s) aspiration to achieve authenticity is best revealed. In one of the principal scenes of the novel, Garšva argues with Vaidilionis, his roommate in the DP camp and a famous poet put on a pedestal as a “hero of the nation.” Vaidilionis persists in following the Romantic tradition in an attempt to lift the “nation’s spirits.” To Garšva, this seems untruthful, indecent: “Your fate has been spun. You shout out big words about the past and bright words about the future. You’re virtuous, or pretend to be. So you’re lying,” he tells Vaidilionis. A writer must be honest and faithful to the idea of art (and, at the same time, to himself and his potential readers) instead of chasing after admiration, money, recognition or political goals.

Another side of this unique text is its historical theme. It is disclosed not only through the protagonist Antanas Garšva, but also through other characters: Stanley, Elena, and Joe. Stanley, a Polish musician, functions as a type of mirror image of Garšva in the novel: he’s an alcoholic, his wife has left him, and in the last chapter, he kills himself at the same time that Garšva loses his mind. They are the two versions of the same fate: a sensitive artist doing mechanical work in the depersonalizing environment of a big city can either go mad or take his own life. Despite that, The White Shroud is not all pessimistic or cruel: I fully agree with Loreta Mačianskaitė, who argues that the novel supports the imperative of being in the “here and now,” an ability to let go of traumas and resentment rather than hiding out with the ghosts of the past. Garšva, identifying himself as a hero of the absurd, is not that: he isn’t able to find happiness in his stone like Sisyphus or to live in peace with himself, concentrating too much on his attempts to reconstruct something that is no longer there and can’t be.

The translation of The White Shroud marks much more than the desire of a small nation speaking in a small and complicated language to spread its culture, making its mark on the literary map of Europe, where, according to Miłosz, one may put down the phrase ubi leones. No, the translation and publication of The White Shroud is a fusion of topics, motifs, and states that are at once specifically Lithuanian and generally universal, a drama of forced emigration, and, eventually, a story and interpretation of the disposition of the human being – not only individuals of the mid- twentieth century, but in some ways moderns ones too.
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